Aspen Writers’ Foundation opens new chapter for Summer Words
June 13, 2014
The Aspen Writers' Foundation's annual summer festival and writing retreat is entering a new chapter, with organizational shifts aimed at making it a more substantive and student-focused event.
Now in its 38th year, Summer Words has dropped the geographic theme that drove its public events over the pas decade while adding a fellowship program that is drawing some of the brightest emerging writers to its workshops and has made admission more competitive.
"The goal is to make this one of the pre-eminent literary institutions in the country," said Writers' Foundation Creative Director Adrienne Brodeur.
Brodeur and director Maurice LaMee took over the nonprofit last spring. By that time, the programming for 2013's Summer Words had already been largely set. So this is the first year that their vision for Summer Words is fully in action.
The festival and retreat run from Friday through Wednesday at the Hotel Jerome. This year's faculty includes former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, National Book Award winner Julia Glass and acclaimed best-selling novelists like Andre Dubus III and Meg Wolitzer. They'll teach workshops in the mornings and hold public talks in the afternoons and evenings.
The public portion of Summer Words, since 2005, had included a geographic theme focusing on writers from a specific country or region. In addition to faculty, the nonprofit would bring non-teaching writers to Aspen for the themed festival events. For this summer, the nonprofit dropped the theme and only brought in writers who would be teaching. They've also suspended their annual Aspen Award for Literature.
"A lot of people felt confused about the geographic theme," Brodeur said. "We were essentially doing two separate conferences in one. A lot of what Mo and I were trying to do was to think about what was working and what wasn't and looked at our mission statement."
Their mission statement says the nonprofit "encourages writers, inspires readers, and connects people through the power of stories."
"Summer Words is about writers," Brodeur said. "It's really about writing, so it might not be the time to do two massive things at the same time."
They sought out the best writers and most committed teachers, she said, by soliciting recommendations from literary workshops around the world and the publishing industry in New York, where Brodeur is based. They also aimed to bring in faculty with new books.
"We thought, 'Let's instead try to bring the best writers with the best work of that given year,'" Brodeur said.
Books published in the past year by faculty members include Collins' poetry collection "Aimless Love" and new fiction by Dubus ("Dirty Love"), Glass ("And the Dark Sacred Night"), Mary Beth Keane ("Fever") and Wolitzer ("The Interestings").
Long known as one of the most inexpensive workshops in the country, Summer Words tuition went up this year, from $740 to $1,375, in an effort by the Writers' Foundation to sustainably fund itself. In past years, however, workshop students had to pay additional fees to attend panels and meet with literary agents. Now, tuition is all-inclusive. For returning students, the organization capped it at $975 and gave partial, need-based scholarships to 20 additional students.
But as tuition went up, so did applications for the 65 spots in nine Summer Words workshops.
Total applications jumped from about 100 in 2012 and 200 last year to 350 this summer.
Applications for its eight Emerging Writer fellowships, part of a program launched in 2013, went from 100 to 150. To apply for a fellowship, writers must come recommended by an industry professional or university professor, creating a competitive pool of MFA students and serious writers.
One of last year's fellows, Allison Alsup, won a 2014 O. Henry Award for "Old Houses," a story she workshopped at Summer Words last year. Brodeur is hopeful the program will foster many such success stories and establish a relationship between the next generation of leading writers and Aspen. A new public event, The Lit Crawl, highlights the work of the selected Emerging Writer fellows. The crawl leaves the Hotel Jerome at 5:15 p.m. on Saturday and stops for readings by fellows and wine at Maison Ullens and Galerie Maximillian.
"I believe as these people funnel through the Writers' Foundation, in five years, they will be winning Pulitzer Prizes and coming back to headline Winter Words (the Writers' Foundation's winter author series)," Brodeur said.