Young authors find inspiration from the pros

June 25

It’s near the end of the day on one of the last days of the school year as author Roy Kesey addresses Josie Malone’s 11th-grade English class at Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School in Northeast. But the students, undeterred by the warm classroom and the late hour, listen intently as Kesey answers their questions about his book of short stories, “Any Deadly Thing,” and discusses how he constructs his stories.

“You write long, then cut, then sand, and you’re taking stuff away. Sometimes, you take away something really big. And it feels like you just cut off a tumor and the story just feels healthy, all of a sudden, because it had all this weight on it. So it feels cleaner,” Kesey said. “It feels healthier. And the fewer elements you can use and still have this little construction you made work, the better off you are.”

Student Tyner Jackson, 17, later said she enjoyed meeting Kesey and discussing his book. Jackson said she had researched Kesey after reading his book but learned more through meeting him. “I learned a lot about the author and the book — about things like his motives, why he wrote” the book, Jackson said. “It was interesting.”

Kesey’s visit was sponsored by Writers in Schools, a program that has brought authors and their books to D.C. public schools for nearly 25 years. It is run by the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, best known for its eponymous annual fiction award. Past authors have included Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates and PEN/Faulkner board member Richard Ford.

This school year, Writers in Schools distributed more than 5,000 books to more than 2,000 students in 40 schools, with 42 authors participating. And the program doesn’t end when school lets out: Every Tuesday evening at the Old Naval Hospital’s Hill Center, D.C. public school students are welcome to a book-club-style meeting over dinner to read and discuss literature. The author joins the last session for a discussion.


Roy Kesey, author of "Any Deadly Thing," speaks with students in Josie Malone's 11th grade English class about his book of short stories and the writing process. (Bettina Lanyi/The Washington Post)

Although Writers in Schools has been in existence for a quarter century, it has expanded since 2010 with an emphasis on local authors, such as Kesey. PEN/Faulkner hopes to broaden its reach in the coming years to include Prince George’s County schools.

Malone said the program allows her to expand her students’ exposure to literature outside the standard curriculum, especially because the works are more contemporary than those her students typically read. The visits have also helped to demystify the writing process. “One of the writers said that editing felt like drawing barbed wire across his eyeballs,” Malone recalled. “And it was such a grotesque image, but the kids totally agreed. They all said, ‘Yes, it’s the worst!’ To hear from someone who’s a successful writer and to hear about his writing process made them realize, ‘Okay, if it’s hard for me, too, that’s okay.’ ”

Ann Brown, former chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, is a fundraiser for the Writers in Schools program, hosting luncheons and literary discussions through Founding Friends, an adjunct group to PEN/Faulkner that provides financial support for its programs. Brown’s advocacy for Writers in Schools stems from her belief that her exposure to literature as a D.C. public school student led to her success in public life.

“Every day after school I went to the Petworth public library, and the librarians guided me,” Brown said. “What really got me through in public life . . . was using good words. Not the fancy, six-syllable words; the right word to bring a picture to peoples’ minds. You get that through reading. And the writers are opening up worlds to children who have never known of these worlds. They read about the milieu that the writer is writing about: It becomes a geography lesson, a social studies lesson, an English lesson. There’s a whole world out there, and it’s open to you.”

Kesey participates in the program in part to give students what he experienced the first time he met a writer whose work he enjoyed. “To meet someone who wrote this work that was important to me, to be able to express gratitude for this machine of words that had mattered to me, that had taken me from one place to another, it was wonderful,” Kesey said. “If that’s the same thing that happens to them, then that’s great. That’s the best you could hope for.

After an author’s classroom visit, students often take their own writing more seriously. “I’ve definitely had kids speak up to me about their writing closely following the visits,” Malone said. “Where they want to go with it, maybe thinking about getting things published, just sharing their work with me.” Malone said the conversations with authors bring the craft of writing into the realm of possibility.

“It just makes it that much more accessible — both the reading and the writing,” Malone said. “Just having the conversations about reading and writing makes it more like an everyday sort of thing, instead of something that’s out of their grasp.”

Lanyi is a freelance writer.

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