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October 2006
Volume 1, Number 10

Montgomery County Community College: Cultural Center for Writers

Melissa Caviston, Raina Davison, Lee Doty, and Traci Ginnona

Joyce carol oatesThis November, hundreds of students, faculty, staff, and community members, as well as budding writers from nearby cities and states, will once again journey to Montgomery County Community College (MCCC) in the Philadelphia suburb of Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, for the Eleventh Writers’ Club Conference. Begun in 1988, the conference lasts from one to three days and includes a keynote presentation, workshops, panels, agent appointments, and other features for writers in many disciplines.

This year’s conference features as the keynote speaker renowned author Norman Mailer, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and numerous other awards. Other events include an opening session with Pulitzer Prize nominee Adam Haslett, a series of seven workshops, a coffeehouse and open microphone, and an agents and editors panel, plus individual appointments with professionals from top New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania agencies and publications.

The conference exposes creative writing students and the community to some of the greatest writers of our time while also helping writers improve their work and become published. Conferees hear directly from their heroes how they have met writing challenges, where they get their inspiration, and how they wrestle with rejection. Quality of programming and a reasonably low pricing structure help make the conference popular and beneficial to budding writers. The success of this increasingly well-known and well-regarded event is shown not only in the ever-growing attendance by community members, but also in industry recognition such as the April 2005 Writers’ Digest article that featured the conference.

John updikePrevious conferences have featured such internationally acclaimed novelists as John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates, Alex Haley, and Tim O’Brien. Distinguished guest speakers have included authors George Plimpton, Andrei Codrescu, Jennifer Weiner, Chris Bohjalian, and Lisa Scottoline, as well as poet Sonya Sanchez and broadcast journalists Larry Kane and Don Polec. The Writers’ Club has also hosted presentations by playwright Edward Albee in spring 1991, and humorist Jean Shepherd in spring 1992. 

From its origins 25 years ago, the Writers’ Club has enabled the college to evolve into a cultural center for writers, with numerous writing-related events and opportunities for students, faculty, staff, and the community, including, at the core of the mission, the popular Writers’ Club Conference

Journey to a Dream

In the words of Carl Sandburg, “Nothing happens unless first a dream.” This mantra has been the driving force behind the quest of the college’s Writers’ Club to turn MCCC into a cultural center for writers. A forum for students to meet and for guest writers to lecture on writing, the Writers’ Club originated in 1978. Two students who dreamed of a support group for writers helped form the college’s Poetry Workshop, which evolved into the present-day Writers’ Club.

Since 1982, it has been under the guidance of its faculty advisor, Patricia Nestler. The club offers biweekly critique meetings allowing participants to hone the critiquing skills they’d learned in the creative writing classroom. The meetings are open to current writing students, alumni, and interested members of the community, including published authors. These critique meetings permit members to continue to get much-needed feedback on their works before submitting them for publication. They also provide new and published writers with a peer group for sharing the joys and sorrows of writing.

Chris bohjalianBesides the conference and these biweekly critique meetings, the club sponsors workshops, coffeehouses, and script presentations. Club members have created several anthologies as well as the first spoken-word CD on campus. Other benefits include an annual writing contest, an annual creative writing award for students, scholarships to the MCCC Writers’ Club Conference and other local writers’ conferences, a bimonthly newsletter with email updates to more than 500 subscribers, and club and conference websites.

Stepping Into the Classroom

The benefits to writers at MCCC don’t end with the conference and club; they also spill over into the classroom. After attending the conference or other club events, conferees and community members often express interest in becoming part of the excitement at MCCC, either through taking writing courses or by joining in Writers’ Club activities or any of the other cultural and academic activities offered at the college.

In the creative writing course at MCCC, students become better writers by first discussing pieces published in the previous year’s student literary magazine. This approach encourages interaction and participation early in the semester and allows students to learn the practices of constructive critiquing that are crucial to providing a supportive atmosphere for presenting their own work to their peers.

During the semester, through specific assignments, students create pieces and express themselves in the three major writing genres of fiction, poetry, and drama. Additionally, students have the opportunity to shape the course toward their own interests. Besides the five required assignments, students who submit papers on time can replace up to three pieces with optional submissions in any creative writing genre to earn higher grades. Students who complete the introductory creative writing course and want to continue their writing while exploring favorite genres can take an advanced creative writing class as well as an independent study option.

The Road to Victory: Where Community and Classroom Meet

The thriving creative and supportive learning community at MCCC has helped many students and alumni find professional success as published writers. One woman, at age 81, accomplished her lifelong goal of publishing a book; two years later, she published a second book and continued to work as a successful freelance writer. Proof that anyone at anytime can realize their writing dreams, she became a popular guest speaker in MCCC’s creative writing classes. The excitement she immediately generated in novice writers led to the establishment of an organized mentoring program through which successful creative-writing alumni returned to speak and run workshops about how they achieved their writing or publishing goals.

One of these successful alumni, who has published more than 20 short stories and memoirs, has conducted writing workshops and is scheduled to be a workshop speaker at the conference this November. Fellow students who later became published writers have assured new students that a rejection letter does not mean the person should give up, but rather that he or she has reached a milestone, has taken the first risk, and thus is on the road to publication.

Tim o'brienThe mentoring program showed that a key to nourishing writers and providing them with tools to share their artistic gifts with the larger community starts with the peer relationship. Finding friendship and shared passion and exchanging ideas and resources with fellow writers proved essential to challenging and overcoming the self-doubt and other internal roadblocks experienced by so many creative souls. 

One way students and community members at MCCC meet this need for camaraderie is by performing their work at coffeehouses and other events. Although performances do not always take place in an actual coffee shop, creative individuals often gather in these venues or in other places to share their work with each other while sipping on espresso and nibbling on biscotti.

Many beginning writers first experience reading their poetry or prose aloud to a group in the relatively safe confines of their creative writing class. The MCCC Writers’ Club also coordinates regular readings off campus at a variety of bookstores and local coffee shops. For many writers, participating in these coffeehouses is the first step out into the community. Even the most reluctant writers find themselves approaching the microphone simply because everyone looks to be having so much fun.

Another eagerly anticipated event at MCCC is the semiannual scripts party. Students in the college’s creative writing class write a short script for their final assignment. Other students may submit scripts as well, as do many members of the advanced creative writing class. At the end of each term, students, alumni, and community members perform the scripts at the scripts presentation party. At the popular event, which is open to students, alumni, and the community, everyone can join in and act in one or several skits – experience not necessary – while sharing lots of food and laughter. The skits, which are recorded, provide writers with yet another experience to inspire and motivate them to delve further into the community.

Emerging From the Journey

John Updike, keynote speaker at the 2004 Writers’ Club Conference, once said, “Dreams come true; without that possibility, nature would not incite us to have them.” Over two decades ago, the MCCC Writers’ Club began the journey to fulfill the vision of some enthusiastic students and faculty and make the college a cultural center for writers. Since then, the opportunities for students and community members to learn and grow as writers have provided the foundation for achieving this goal.
The MCCC Writers’ Club has grown into a productive organization for hundreds of Pennsylvania writers. It provides an ongoing opportunity for students and community members alike to read and critique each other’s works as well as perform them at coffeehouses both on and off campus. Club activities have assisted members in achieving publication, increased awareness of competitions, enhanced their literary skills, and provided fellowship. MCCC now stands out among its neighboring colleges because of its consistent and visible dedication to the support of both student and community writers.

Melissa Caviston, Raina Davison, Lee Doty, and Traci Ginnona are students or alumni of Montgomery County Community College and members of the MCCC Writers’ Club.

Cynthia Wilson, Editor