~ Photo above (taken by Jefferson Beavers): Department of English lecturer Tanya Nichols, who has coordinated the Young Writers’ Conference for more than a decade, welcomes area high school students and teachers to campus.

~ Video by Jenny Toste, University Communications

~ Article by Jefferson Beavers, communications specialist for the Department of English

Two alumni from the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing were honored for their professional work in writing and teaching at the 2017 Young Writers’ Conference, hosted by the Department of English on March 29.

Author Kristin FitzPatrick served as keynote speaker for the 37th annual conference, and English teacher Erin DeGough was recognized for excellence in teaching creative writing at Los Banos High School.

This year’s conference, which has been coordinated for more than a decade by English lecturer Tanya Nichols, drew almost 250 students and 37 teachers from 22 different high schools throughout the region to the Satellite Student Union for a day immersed in creative writing.

The morning session featured keynote address and a Q&A with students from FitzPatrick, author of the story collection “My Pulse is an Earthquake,” published in 2015 by West Virginia University Press. It also included an awards ceremony for student writers published in Spectrum, the annual conference journal that often marks the very first publication for the young writers whose work is selected. The afternoon session featured writing workshops on poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, facilitated by MFA graduate students, and a workshop for teachers facilitated by FitzPatrick.

In his remarks welcoming the high school students and teachers to campus, Fresno State President Joseph I. Castro said the conference was a “wonderful tradition” of the English Department and the College of Arts and Humanities.

Pointing from stage to a Creative Writing Program banner in the back of the hall, Castro said: “I love that banner back there. It says, ‘We Grow Writers.’ We grow writers right here in the Central Valley of California, in all your schools and here at Fresno State. I know that’s what binds all of us here today, our love and passion for writing.”

FitzPatrick and DeGough are successful examples of that love and passion for writing.

Kristin FitzPatrick speaking at 2017 Young Writers' Conference

~ Photo above (taken by Jefferson Beavers): Author alumna Kristin FitzPatrick, the College of Arts and Humanities dean’s medalist in 2009, returned to Fresno State to deliver the keynote address and facilitate the teacher workshop at the 2017 Young Writers’ Conference.

Fuel for the Solitary Writer

FitzPatrick was a semifinalist for the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, and her work has been adapted for stage and performed live at the New Short Fiction Series in Los Angeles and at Stories on Stage in Sacramento. While at Fresno State, she was named the Dean’s Medalist for the College of Arts and Humanities in 2009, and she taught youth workshops at the Young Writers’ Conference as an MFA Creative Writing grad student.

Jefferson Beavers: What does it mean to you – personally, professionally, and as an alumna – to return to Fresno State as the keynote speaker and teacher workshop leader for the conference?

Kristin FitzPatrick: It’s an honor to have the chance to return to campus for the Young Writers’ Conference. Personally, I was happy to attend the event again because I got to see how it has changed, and I got to experience that great energy everyone brought to it. Professionally, it’s rewarding to be invited to speak with teachers and students who bring so many good ideas and questions to share. Writing is such a solitary activity, so when we can gather and talk about ways to improve and to enjoy it to the fullest, then we can all go back to our desks with more fuel.

As an alumna, I know how seriously Fresno State takes creative writing and how important it is to welcome high school students into this tradition. I’m proud to have spent the day with so many dedicated writers and teachers. The Creative Writing Program gave so much to me—so many opportunities and reasons to work harder—so to return for a celebration of all that is another gift.

JB: How was your experience different now, coming back to facilitate the conference’s teacher workshop, in comparison to when you facilitated youth workshops when you were a grad student?

KF: In the youth workshops, I was impressed by the enthusiasm and talent of the students. In the teacher workshops, I met the people responsible for raising that talent and enthusiasm. In all the workshops, I learned a lot and I think everyone learned from each other. We had fun talking about writing, too.

JB: What would be your biggest wish for Central Valley high school teachers, to help inspire their creative writing students?

KF: In the workshop, the teachers shared their goals, which included some difficult tasks like increasing interest in reading, building confidence, and challenging students to reach their full potential. They offered each other many suggestions, so my wish for them is to use the ideas from that exchange to achieve their goals.

I also hope they can all continue bringing students to the Young Writers’ Conference. One day can make such a difference.

degough (1)

~ Photo above (taken by Jefferson Beavers): Alumna and Los Banos High School creative writing teacher Erin DeGough, right, received an excellence in teaching award from Fresno State assistant professor Juliet Wahleithner and the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project.

Putting the Creative in Writing

DeGough was one of two high school teachers recognized with this year’s San Joaquin Valley Writing Project awards for excellence in teaching creative writing. (The second outstanding teacher recognized was Miranda Kuykendall of Fowler High School.)

DeGough just graduated from Fresno State in 2016 with her MFA in Creative Writing. This is her second year of teaching at Los Banos High School – she was a first-time high school teacher while completing the final year of her MFA degree – where she currently teaches AP literature and composition, AP language and composition, and college prep 11th grade English.

Jefferson Beavers: How do you work with creative writing in your high school classroom?

Erin DeGough: I try to see ALL my students as creative writers. By the time they’re in 11th grade, many students express a feeling of discontentment and discouragement at the type of writing they do in academic courses. They look longingly back to elementary and middle school days where they often did “freewriting” and had creative writing prompts each morning or afternoon. I try to balance creative writing and academic writing in my classroom.

So many students feel compelled to write, to create. I want them to know there’s a place for that in school and that, in fact, school is where they can gain the necessary technical skills and background knowledge to truly become the best “creators” possible. Due to the constraints K-12 educators face from standardized testing and Common Core, it’s difficult to know where the balance lies between rigorous academic composition and more formulaic writing and truly creative expression, but I certainly will never ignore the needs of the students to share their own stories and learn how to use language in the ways they find most meaningful.

JB: In what other ways do you work with creative writers at your school?

ED: Beyond the classroom, I’m the adviser of the Creative Writing Club on our campus, which I started last year during my first year of teaching. We meet weekly in my classroom during our lunch period. During club meetings, we research contests and work on submissions, do fun creative writing exercises, and plan events on our campus. One of my, and probably several club members’ favorite memories from this year was the open mic event we held in the library during lunch before Halloween. Our librarian graciously hosted and went all out with spooky and cool decorations. So many students, even some that aren’t in the club, read and performed and it was amazing to see our school community come out to support these talented young writers.

Since I’m so new to teaching, advising my students about their creative writing feels tricky. I try to think about the feedback that was most meaningful and purposeful to me during my time in the MFA program at Fresno State and let that direct my interactions with the club members. I see myself as a mentor but also just a motivator and a person who’s always there to help them send the submissions to the right people or let them borrow a book of poetry when they’re feeling pangs of writer’s block.

JB: What does it mean to you – personally, professionally, and as an alumna – to receive one of the Young Writers’ Conference teacher awards?

ED: Receiving the teacher award was incredibly fulfilling to me. To be recognized for something I’m passionate about so early in my teaching career is so encouraging and motivating. I can’t describe, even with an MFA in creative writing, how good it felt to receive the award in a room full of my mentors and professors from the English Department. It was validating for me and I hope it felt good for them too, as I wouldn’t be the writer or teacher I am today without their presence in my academic journey.

While I was working on my MFA thesis manuscript, Professor John Hales and I met weekly at a coffee shop in the Tower District not far from where we both live. These meetings happened to coincide with my first semester of teaching in Los Banos, which I was doing on an emergency teaching credential at first. He has so much experience teaching all different types of students that the time he spent helping me with my writing but also helping me to see myself as an educator is something I will never forget and will be forever grateful for. He helped me to have a sense of humor about some things that at the time seemed decidedly unfunny, but looking back are just part of teaching kids.

Receiving the award with John in the audience was very special to me, and I hope to him. I’m so thankful for the conference for providing my students, many of whom come from low-income households on the rural west side of the Central Valley, with a glimpse into what it means to be a professional writer – that it’s possible – and that their goals and their writing matters. To be a part of that on any small level is something I will never take for granted.