Summer readings
For Writers Institute, Saratoga's the creative place to be

First published: Sunday, June 27, 2004

The thoroughbreds are coming to Saratoga. The horses come later.

The writers attending this year's New York State Summer Writers Institute have won virtually every literary prize imaginable: the Pulitzer, the Man/Booker, Pen/Faulkner, U.S. Poet Laureate and the National Book Award.

Not bad for a place that's not even close to Iowa.

William Kennedy, the founder of the New York State Writers Institute, Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur Fellow, once told a legislative committee during Arts Day in Albany that writers don't have to travel to hone their trade at the famous Iowa Writers' Workshop. Now, Saratoga has earned a reputation that draws aspiring writers from across the country to work with such luminaries as Robert Pinsky, Francine Prose, Rick Moody, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Cunningham, Jamaica Kincaid and Mary Gordon.

In 1986, Skidmore College approached the New York State Writers Institute to form a summer program. That summer, Kennedy, playwright John Guare and author E.L. Doctorow gave one-day readings at the college; the next year, classes were added. Now there are so many writers participating in the conference that they're doubled up for public readings, which will continue through much of July.

"Every night, there's this parade of stellar literary figures," Kennedy said.

Many of the writers return each year to teach and give readings during the program, which begins Monday. This year, there are 81 returning students.

"People come back again and again," Kennedy said, "they love the communal quality of it."

"I hear very flattering things," said Don McCormack, the dean of special programs at Skidmore, when asked about student satisfaction. "Very prominent writers are giving them attention. I think we're one of the best."

And the writers seem to have fun, too: "When somebody like Mary Gordon wants to come back, that's very special," McCormack said. During a reading, "we've had four or five Pulitzer Prize winners sitting in the front row. It's pretty astonishing."

It doesn't hurt that Saratoga's just a pleasant place to be in the summer. "Saratoga Springs is an artistic Mecca during the summertime--that's critical," McCormack said.

Don Faulkner, the director of the New York State Writers Institute, said the program's intensity sometimes leaves students and reading attendees exhausted.

"I jokingly call it the Tanglewood for writers," he said. "I've had people some up to me at readings and say, 'I can't go on like this.'" Still, he said, "Students who are adept at their craft are looking to ratchet up to the next level."

Despite the concentration of literary egos, the mood is jovial. Robert Boyers, the director of the summer program, said the administration hasn't had to deal with any egos run amok. "they may be very large, but we haven't seen any display."

Boyers said there were so many applications for fiction this year that they've added classes. The program features workshops for the students, where their work is scrutinized by their peers and the writer leading the class. Aspiring writers in fiction, nonfiction or poetry submit an application that includes examples of their work. They can receive graduate credit for participating in the program. Undergraduate students may also apply, but must have workshop experience.

While the workshop are available only to participants who have applied and paid their way, there's a nearly month long series of public readings by poets and writers. All readings take place at 8 p.m. in the Davis Auditorium, unless otherwise indicated.

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