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New York State Writers Institute: Tales of the Creative Life

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April 13, 2009

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Garrison Keillor at NYS Writers Institute event

Author and "A Prarie Home Companion" host Garrison Keillor. (Photo Mark Schmidt)

In the late 70s, struggling writer and future Pulitzer prize-winner William Kennedy was inspired by a piece of bad luck. As an adjunct faculty member in the University at Albany's English and journalism programs, he'd been eager to invite a well-known author to his fiction class to deliver a guest lecture. When he went to his department chairman to request the author's modest fee and travel expenses, he was told there was no money.

The incident stuck with him, and he had it in mind when he received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship award in 1983, following the publication of his award-winning novel Ironweed.

He immediately knew what he'd do with the monetary part of the prize dedicated to a cause of the recipient's choice.

"I though it was a negative situation for a major university to be in that kind of position," he said. "I decided I was going to give it to the English Department, to bring in writers."

The writers Kennedy envisioned included everyone from unknown poets and first-time novelists to Nobel Laureates. The idea caught on, percolating up to the University's President Vincent O'Leary, who was so inspired he tapped university funds to match the MacArthur award. With that, the Writers Institute, with now celebrated author William Kennedy as its inspirational head, was born. In 1984, the Institute took one more step into the iconosphere by becoming the New York State Writers Institute. The Institute was signed into law by Governor Mario Cuomo with a mandate to produce "a milieu for established and aspiring writers to work together to increase the freedom of the artistic imagination," and further to support the development of writing skills in schools throughout the state. 

To date, more than 850 writers and filmmakers have regaled the University community and the public with readings, lectures, seminars, workshops, and tales of the creative life. The exhaustive list features literary lights from Norman Mailer to Joyce Carol Oates, Susan Sontag to Wole Soyinka, and includes winners of the Nobel, Pulitzer, National Book Award, and Academy Award prizes. First guest: Saul Bellow, the celebrated author of The Adventures of Augie March and Humboldt's Gift, and the 1976 Nobel prize winner in Literature. Upon being invited to speak, Bellow, a friend and mentor, said to Kennedy, "What's this, you get a little money and you become a patron of the arts?"

Saul Bellow and William Kennedy

Writer Saul Bellow was invited by William Kennedy to be the first guest of the New York State Writers Institute.

Like Joyce's Dublin and Steinbeck in Salinas, the city of Albany has become a Kennedy muse. He was born and educated in the area, and took his first journalism job in nearby Glens Falls. After a stint in the Army and work as a journalist and editor in Puerto Rico, he returned to Albany to attend to his ailing father. And, as it turned out, to find inspiration. As the author of the celebrated "Albany Cycle," Kennedy's Ironweed, Legs, Quinn's Book, The Ink Truck, Very Old Bones, The Flaming Corsage, and Roscoe use city as both backdrop and active character. He's the author of the nonfiction O Albany!, a collection of stories that celebrate the city's history and Kennedy's Irish-American childhood.

In late 1995, Don Faulkner came to Albany to run the Institute, leaving behind the ivy enclaves of Yale where he taught creative writing and directed a writing program. His mission was to take the Institute to another level of creativity and purpose.

"It was well-fostered by Bill Kennedy," Faulkner said. "He essentially said, 'Here's the kite string, run, do something good with it.'"

Today the Institute complements existing UAlbany programs in imaginative writing and the arts, helping to provide an educational base for students and the literary community statewide.

"There's this real resource here," Faulkner said. "We're trying to bring these people not just to the stage for the broader community, but to the classrooms as well."

Under Faulkner’s tenure, the Institute has increased its programming to include a partnership with the local PBS affiliate WMHT, and the New York State Summer Young Writers Institute, a week-long writing workshop for New York State high school students. The Institute also offers UAlbany students courses based on the work of Institute visiting writers. 

It's been a long chapter for these two writers and creative minds behind NYSWI, and they show no signs of slowing down.

"I see no point in not doing this, because I love it," Kennedy said. "I think it's a great thing, I love the fact that it exists, and it's a source of great entertainment among other things. This is what I didn't have when I was a young writer, conversation about the world of fiction and literature and films. The companionship of other writers is very valuable to some."

"I remember when I first came," Faulkner said. "He looked at me and said, 'Just remember, it ain't good if it ain't fun.'"

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