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Community and Stories: My Week at the Juniper Summer Writing Institute

Posted by Ethan Keeley, Fiction Editor for issue 3.2, contributor for issues 2.1 and 3.1

Four days into the week I spent at the Juniper Summer Writing Institute, novelist, essayist, and journalist, Okey Ndibe gave a reading—but it wasn’t the kind of reading I’d come to expect. Before he dove into an excerpt from his latest novel Foreign Gods, Inc., he just spoke. He wasn’t merely prefacing the work he was about to read; he was simply telling a story, talking to us, a crowd of adult writers and young writers gathered for a week of intensive reading, writing, and listening. His tone was conversational as he talked about the power of storytelling and community in his own life. It was as if he knew us, and we knew him on a personal level. He spoke of the conflict he faced, and which all writers eventually face, of wishing to experience the world while also needing the solitude to write about and make sense of it.

Ndibe’s conversation really summed up the essence of my seven days in Amherst, Massachusetts. Writers are constantly hammered with the mantra, “Write what you know,” yet seem doomed to live and work in isolation. And what can one really know locked in a room for hours a day? Juniper unlocked that room and challenged the notion of what it means to be a writer, stressing the importance of community that Ndibe addressed. Here were a few hundred individuals of all ages and backgrounds assembled at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst to improve their own writing and also experience the work of others. We had different goals, styles, and opinions, yet we shared the common bond of language.

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