Tristan Niskanen: Aspen Summer Words, from a young writer’s perspective
June 25, 2017
If Aspen Summer Words taught me one thing, it's that becoming a writer is possible. Fortunately, it taught me much more than that. I learned about myself as a writer, I learned from the wisdom of many brilliant writers, and I learned to seriously follow my passion. Summer Words introduced me to an invaluable literary community. Every day there were workshops, panels and discussions. I felt at home being surrounded by a room full of authors.
I enrolled in the Beginning Fiction Workshop with Chinelo Okparanta because fiction is my favorite genre to write. Okparanta is an inspiring young female author from Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Her novel, "Under the Udala Trees," and her short story collection, "Happiness Like Water," are critically acclaimed pieces of fiction that I look forward to reading this summer. I was excited to find out that Okparanta taught at Colgate University, where I will be attending school this fall. Throughout the week, we talked about everything from writing to the mountains. Chinelo is one of the many friends I met during this literary-infused week. She helped me sharpen my prose and approach a story from a different angle. I felt like I internalized a semester worth of knowledge in just one week.
The focus of Okparanta's class was the art of the short story. She introduced an insightful method to writing a story by using a metaphor of a house. She told us how stories could be mapped out much in the way that floorplans map out houses. For example, the front door is the exposition of the story and the living room is where the characterization and action take place. Using her approach, I was able to write one of my favorite short stories. On Monday I started it and by Wednesday, I was reading it at Victoria's at an open mic. The open mic was another great event last week. The cafe was filled with writers eager to share and hear new pieces of writing. Seeing the smiles on everybody's face filled my heart with joy, knowing that there are many people out there with the same love for writing.
The reason I chose to do Summer Words is because I felt I couldn't pass up the opportunity to participate in one of the world's best literary festivals. The guidance and advice I received last week have been instrumental in my confidence and development. I now trust myself to follow my passion. It's comforting to know that others share the same dream.
The mornings were workshop time and the afternoons were devoted to panels and discussions. Each panel focused on a different aspect of the writer's life. The panels answered many of my professional writing questions. The author's advice was honest and exactly what I needed to hear at this time in my writing career.
My favorite panel was Living the Creative Life which was with the authors: Jess Walter, Dani Shapiro and Jericho Brown. Each author told of their successes and failures, their joys and frustrations, their rejections and acceptances, as well as their creative career. Each of their backgrounds showed that there is no clear way to becoming a writer. After their backgrounds, they moved into writing samples. Jericho Brown's emotional poetry left the room speechless, and Walter's "Cheston," about a nihilistic 4-year-old, was one of the funniest short stories I have ever heard. His shared love for Kurt Vonnegut strengthened our connection. After the panel, we talked about Vonnegut and journalism. I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to become friends with so many writers this week.
Thursday was my favorite day. After the morning workshop, there was a panel, The Take Away with Jess Walter, Hannah Tinti, Jericho Brown, George Hodgman and Jane Hamilton. The authors described the books that saved their lives, the tactics they used to stay writing, and how to write the book that you want to read. I enjoyed hearing about the writing process from some of the best contemporary writers.
I'm happy that I did Summer Words because I challenged myself and learned valuable information about the literary world. I now have a network of writers who all share the common goal to write things that inspire, to write about life, and to share human connection. We write to understand more about ourselves and others. Seeing the world through the eyes of someone else connects us. I want that connection — to be heard and to hear what you have to say.
Tristan Niskanen is an Aspen resident and is a member of Aspen High School's class of 2016. He is a contributor to The Aspen Times this summer and will attend Colgate University this fall.