Inspiring Words: 20 Years of the Writers’ Workshop

For 20 years, the Writers’ Workshop series has brought inspiration and amazing writers to campus

Twenty years ago, author Madeleine Blais (P’00, ’04) was looking for a way to use her skills to help her sons’ school. “As a bookworm, I only have one strength, and that is anything that promotes reading and writing,” Blais says. “So in a conversation with another Williston parent, Elinor Lipman P’00, I proposed that we combine forces to start a writers’ series on campus.”

“It was her brainchild,” agrees Lipman. “Our sons were close friends, and we were friends and were both writers, so it made very good sense.”

“In a truly brash act, we asked the head of school to ‘curricularize’ our efforts,” says Blais. Those efforts became the Writers’ Workshop, which brings visiting authors to make presentations and then meet with students enrolled in an advanced-level class.

After getting the go-ahead, the two “bent some elbows,” as Lipman says, to coax friends to participate. “We’d offer to return the favor, if they ever needed us to go talk—so we bartered,” she says. “But 90 percent of it was based on friendship.”

The program was an immediate success with both the students and community. The first two visitors, novelist Jill McCorkle and poet Mary Jo Salter, “were so lively and entertaining,” says Lipman. “We said, ‘Wow, we have a good thing going here!’”

Over the past 20 years, the roster of visiting writers—which includes novelists, poets, journalists, biographers, and more—has grown into a must-read list of the best and the brightest. (For a list of past presenters, click here.) Besides speaking and answering questions in a public session, the guests spend time with the Writers’ Workshop class. Those students prepare by studying the author’s work—making the master class like an exceptionally well-sourced book club. It’s also a chance for the kids to ask a working writer just how it’s done. As Lisa Levchuk, the first teacher of the program, remembers, “It was always great to see the look on their faces when they realized that writing is a job like so many other jobs, one that requires the commitment to show up at a desk every day.”

Sometimes the writers will take over teaching duties for the hour, as happened this past year with Nic Stone, author of the young adult book Dear Martin. “She came and did a bunch of on-the-spot exercises with my class,” says Matt Liebowitz, the current teacher. “It dovetailed with something I’ve been stressing with the class for weeks already, which was ideal!”

The program’s longevity has, almost inevitably, resulted in a Williston alumna returning as a guest speaker: Jennifer duBois ’02, the author of the acclaimed novels A Partial History of Lost Causes and Cartwheel. During her two visits (2012 and 2014), she spoke highly of her experiences as a student in the Workshop. “The author Frederick Reiken talked to us about writing beyond your own experience, and how maybe you do have to ‘write what you know,’ but that ‘you know more than you think you do’—which opened up the entire concept of fiction for me,” duBois says.

The Workshop has cemented itself as one of the things that make Williston such a extraordinary place. “I cannot say enough about the rare opportunity this class gives high school students to meet and discuss the craft with writers of every stripe,” says Levchuk. “This program is very special,” Liebowitz says simply. “It’s important that we have it.”