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TL v59n1:The University of Tennessee's Writer in Residence and Writers in the Library Programs
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Tennessee Libraries 

Volume 59 Number 1
 

 2009

 

 The University of Tennesee's Writer in Residence And Writers in the Library Programs

by

Joann Deeken
Head, Techincal Services and Digital Access
University of Tennessee Libraries

 

In 2008, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville is celebrating ten years of its very successful Jack E. Reese Writer in Residence Program (WIR).  “In 1998…the library appointed Brian Griffin to the post of Writer in Residence" (Harris, 2002, p.423).  Mr. Griffin was the first of five people to hold that title.  The program provides a chosen writer with a small stipend, an office with computer and printer, office supplies, a university parking permit, a university ID (with all attendant privileges including faculty-level library access). But what the award gives our WIR recipients most of all is time and space in which to write and acknowledgement of their status as professional writers. The position was endowed in 2005 with the generous support of the family of Jack E. Reese, a former Chancellor of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Selection of the chosen WIR has varied over the years.  At first, the WIR was selected by the Dean of the Libraries based on suggestions from the Creative Writing Program in the English Department.  On occasion, the Libraries made the selection through an announced competition with a review board consisting of the current WIR, the Library Coordinator of the program, the Dean, and representatives from the Creative Writing Program.  In the future, the Libraries will use the competitive method except in unusual situations.

The five different Writers in Residence over the ten year period included Brian Griffin, a local fiction (short story) writer and writing activist, who served from 1998 to 2001.  Pamela Schoenwalt, another fiction writer, served from 2001 to 2003.  Pamela returned from ten years in Italy and was reinserting herself in the American literary world when she was appointed WIR.  Patricia Waters served as WIR from 2003-2004.   She had received her PhD in English from UT in 1998 and is a poet.  The longest serving WIR was R. B. Morris, who served from 2004-2008.  He is a well-known songwriter, recording artist, poet, fiction, and non-fiction writer based in Knoxville.  Kali Meister, a playwright and actor was appointed the WIR in June 2008.

The position has no requirements to publish during the residency.  Anyone who writes professionally knows that sometimes being published is a long term process and not something that can be decided by the writer.  All of our Writers in Residence have published during their tenure, but that is not required.  We do, however, ask for one commitment from the WIR: that they organize and host a “Writers in the Library” (WIL) series.

Steven Harris (2002), then English subject librarian, and Brian Griffin, the first WIR, created the Writers in the Library program to “promote the literary arts in the library, at the university, and within the community." They saw this series as a venue for graduate students in the Creative Writing Program to read their work to the public.  Over the ten years, the mission has expanded slightly.  While we remain committed to providing a forum for young writers, we are also committed to exposing these young writers to other writers.  The series provides one of the few spots that local authors can read their works or come to hear the works of other writers.

The WIL program has been extremely successful. Several measures demonstrate this effectiveness:

  1. For the first years, the audience sometimes overflowed a room capable of holding 50 people.  Attendance dipped slightly in the next couple of years, but for the last four, the event has been held in the Lindsay Young Auditorium in the Libraries.  This venue holds 150 people.  While there have been a few occasions with small audiences, there have been others where not only did the room fill, but the overflow rooms fed by a webcast also overflowed.
  2. While our events are always attended by University students and faculty, we have also attracted a loyal following of community members.  For example, attendees include representatives from Iris Press, which is based in Knoxville.  They actually used a WIL event for the debut of their headline book in 2006.  Other community members come when there is a reader of specific interest to them.  I get calls all summer from the community asking what the schedule will be for the Fall. 
  3. Being co-sponsored by the Writer in the Library program has had cachet on campus.  This year we are co-sponsoring a reading from a holocaust poet with the Judaic Studies Program and another reading with the LGBTQ student group.  They both contacted us as they were scheduling their event.  All they wanted from us was our name and the appearance of the WIR at the event.
  4. Almost all visiting authors from the English Department appear in a WIL event.
  5. Writers passing through town often contact me asking if they can appear.  Unfortunately, we have to turn down many opportunities due to lack of space on the calendar and the fact the Auditorium is booked almost a semester in advance.

We have been able to attract a wide variety of authors to read.  Some remain local, such as John Manchip White, Linda Parsons and Jeff Daniel Marion as well as readers from the Knoxville Writers Guild.  We also reserve at least one reading a year for the winners of the Graduate Student Award winners from the Creative Writing Program.  Our outside readers have included Steve Earle (country rock star, songwriter, playwright and political activist); Ted Kooser (Poet Laureate of the United States at the time he read for us); Yusef Komunyakaa (Pulitzer Prize winning poet); Kevin Bradley (poet and printmaker); and Charles Wright (Pulitzer Prize winning poet).   We even hosted a reading by Elizabeth Gilbert before she became an Oprah’s Book Club author!

A portion of every WIL event is the question and answer period where young authors can ask any question to the presenters.  Often, the questions are about the writing or publishing process.  And the answers can resonate forever.  One of my favorite memories is a response by an author.  He was telling of the many jobs he had taken in his life in order to support his “writing habit.”  Someone in the audience asked him why he kept writing if he couldn’t support himself and his family with writing.  He answered, “I can’t NOT write.”  The look in his eye and the sincerity in his voice defined the essence of the creative spirit for everyone in the room. 

Another recent speaker alternated reading from his young adult novel with a description of how it was written.  He showed us his research notes, his outline, some of the draft work and then how he dealt with the major rewrite requested by his publisher.  The process was visible to us all from his slides.  To some in the audience who may have thought writing was easy, the painstaking work necessary to write an accurate depiction of a time and place was unforgettable.

Since 2003 we have been videotaping all WIR events.  The events beginning in 2008 are streaming on the WIL web site (http://www.lib.utk.edu/wil/schedule/).  The prior events are currently being digitized and will be posted shortly.  We get permission statements signed by each reader/performer.  A copy of the permission slip we have developed is included as Appendix A.  Only one reader, citing a fear of cameras, has declined to sign this slip and was not recorded.  We are thus preserving the events and allowing them to be viewed by people.  It is our belief that many of the readers will become more well-known in the future and that having a video of an early reading is an important preservation activity. The cost of the videotaping is currently paid for by the Libraries, since the files are part of our Institutional Repository.  However, before that decision was made, we paid a college student a minimal hourly amount to film the program.  Anyone with a tripod and a video camera can do the filming.  Further processing is necessary to stream the videos, but many people enjoy doing this work.  And for years, we just had the videotapes themselves.  Anyone who wanted to view them could ask to see them in the Libraries.  We consider preserving the events for posterity as one of the Library’s responsibilities.

The expense of the Writers in the Library program is very small. Our yearly budget is only $3000 for paying artists and for occasional receptions.  This money comes from an undesignated library endowment fund. Using this budget as a seed, we “grow” more funds when they are needed to bring in a higher-priced speaker. Some of the places we contact include The Friends of the Library, the Department of English and its Creative Writing Program, and/or a local publisher, especially if the reader is one they publish.  We also approach other campus entities, such as student clubs, student teacher groups, the University “Ready for the World” program or any other program that fits the theme and may be willing to fund a particular reading

However, we have found that, as the series grows, many prominent authors will reduce their honorarium requests significantly.  For example, one very prominent reader appeared solely for expenses.  We’ve also found that it is easier to get money because the program has been in existence for ten years and people understand its appeal and success. Finally, we have found that having a writer make the contacts is quite effective.  Often they contact readers they know.  And even if they do not know the person they ask to read, the request comes from a professional speaking to a professional, not an “outsider.”  We always offer some funding for readers.  It may be only $50, but for students in the Creative Writing program, that money is often their first payment for reading their work. It is also a symbol of their role as a professional author.  They are thrilled, and like most students, often broke!

In addition to longevity and having great readers, several other things contribute to the program’s success.  First, the Libraries has a very creative and dedicated Communications Department.  They create posters and put them up all over campus; they write press releases for the local media; they write up postcards or bookmarks with the schedule; they feature the events on our web page; and they advertise the series in other manners they think of.  We have “branded” the time and place for our events:  usually once a month on a Monday evening in the Auditorium.  Once people come, they start marking their calendars for the next reading.  It becomes almost a habit for them.  We also allow readers to sell their books at the event, and the money from the book selling often meets or exceeds our honorarium.  The Writer in Residence is sometimes able to use local information to book more than one event in Knoxville for our readers, perhaps a book signing in an independent bookstore in town.  An opportunity unique to Knoxville is the “Blue Plate Special.”  There is a local radio station which broadcasts from downtown, and on Fridays at noon, they have a live show.  Sometimes they feature local musicians, and other times they feature our Writer in the Library.  The exposure is great for everyone.

Sponsoring the Jack E. Reese Writer in Residence does cost additional money.  The Writers in Residence are paid $6000 per year.  In addition, there are the costs for the parking pass, the computer workstation, and office supplies.  Thanks to a generous donation from the family of Jack E. Reese, the Libraries do not have to pay this money from its budget.

Other libraries considering such a program could set up a Writer in the Libraries Program could be set up without a Writer in Residence, if necessary.  The librarian or a volunteer (especially one who might also be a published author) could handle the recruitment of readers and the honorariums paid.  The key is to have a creative and energetic writer who can spearhead the program and contact the authors.

There is also a Library Coordinator of the Program (with an able and willing backup person).  The coordinator is part of the selection team for the WIR and does the more mundane things such as booking the room for the readings.  While the WIR decides how much each presenter is paid, the Library Coordinator is responsible for getting the check cut in advance and giving it to the reader.  She also contacts the videographers, arranges payment for them, plans for food for receptions and does anything else that needs to be done. Both the Jack E. Reese Writer in the Library and the Writers in the Library are very successful programs.  Our audiences are made up of community members, students, and university faculty and staff.  As with any initiative, the program had to grow into this success.  It takes time, effort and a little money, but the return on those investments is huge.
 

References

Harris, S. R. (2002). Writers in the library: Literary programming on a shoestring. College & Research Libraries News 63(6), 423-425.

 


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