Article and photo by Jefferson Beavers, communication specialist, Department of English
Photo: Department of English lecturer Tanya Nichols welcomes area high school students and teachers to campus in 2017.
March 25, 2020, was supposed to be a monumental day for Fresno State’s Department of English, as it was set to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its annual Young Writers’ Conference. But due to public health precautions for COVID-19, long-time conference coordinator Tanya Nichols had to do what so many artists have done during the pandemic — improvise.
Nichols, who has taught writing and literature courses as an English Department lecturer since 2005, has served as the face of the conference since 2007, welcoming 400-plus area high school students and their teachers to campus each spring for a day of creative writing.
Participants typically get to hear from an established creative writer about their art and professional life and then go on to small-group writing workshops taught by graduate students. There’s also an annual conference journal, Spectrum, that publishes the best works from these Central Valley youth.
Renowned Palestinian-American author Naomi Shihab Nye, the current U.S. Young People’s Poet Laureate, was the anniversary year’s invited keynote speaker. But due to the cancelation of the on-ground conference, Nichols arranged for Shihab Nye to pre-record her address and still deliver it to participants remotely, preserving an important piece of the conference’s impact on area youth.
Also, the awarding of the conference’s writing prizes was produced as a virtual ceremony. And the publication of Spectrum went on as well, to be distributed later to the schools.
The college asked Nichols — a two-time alumna of Fresno State (BA in English, 2001; and Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, 2004) — about the conference and her own creative work.
You have coordinated the Young Writers’ Conference for more than a decade now. What keeps you energized to produce the event?
I’ve been coordinator since 2007. Prior to that, as a graduate student, I served on the editorial committee for the Spectrum journal and taught fiction workshops. It was my good fortune to be offered the role of coordinator early in my time as a lecturer. It’s a role I still enjoy no matter how hectic it can get in the days leading up to the conference.
What impacts have you seen on young creative writers who have attended the conference?
I see them leave the Fresno State campus excited about writing and what writing can do in their lives. One year, I was assigned to teach English 43, beginning fiction writing. On the first day of class, a young man walked in, carrying his YWC tote bag and asked if I remembered him. He had been in a workshop with me earlier that year. He was now in college and taking his writing to the next level. I have no doubt his experience at the conference fueled his decision to take a creative writing class during his first semester at Fresno State.
What impacts have you seen on high school teachers who have attended?
Teachers are always excited to have a workshop of their own with the keynote speaker. They have a chance to talk with each other and a professional writer about ways to infuse creative writing into their curriculum. They learn new ideas and writing exercises that they take with them into their own classrooms.
Why is it important for the English Department and the Creative Writing Program to collaborate with area high schools in this way?
Sadly, creative writing is often not included in the classroom curriculum. Often, it’s a matter of timing, with so much material to cover in so little time. Many schools have creative writing options and clubs, but not all. This conference exposes students and teachers to the possibilities, importance, and joy of writing and creativity.
Teachers inspire each other to find time for creative writing at their school. High school students not only get to experience a day on a university campus, but they get to work with graduate students who are real writers. They can see their own potential and possibilities at work in the faces of the writers they meet. They can see the value and power of their words, imagination, stories, and poems. For graduate students, high school students, and teachers, the Young Writers’ Conference opens a door for building a stronger community of writers, thinkers, and problem solvers.
What has been your fondest memory of the conference, from any time?
In 2018, it was possible for a class of detained youth to attend the conference for the first time. I have always believed creative writing is an outlet that should be a part of any detained-youth curriculum. For a time, I taught creative writing at a juvenile justice facility and tried to find a way for those students to attend, but I couldn’t make it happen.
Teacher Betty Klein, however, did. She worked for nearly two years and found a way to bring her students to Fresno State for YWC, through the Madera County Office of Education. Those students arrived in their uniform sweats with armed guards and joined the crowd in the Satellite Student Union. During the lunch break, they asked if they could take a group picture with me to remember the day. I hope they are still writing their stories. I will never forget them.
It must have been heartbreaking to cancel this year’s 40th-anniversary event, due to public health precautions for COVID-19. How have you improvised to still support the area’s young writers?
To say it was heartbreaking to cancel this year’s YWC is an understatement. Our community, like others, is struggling through strange and frightening days, and we need voices like Naomi Shihab Nye. There is a need to be reminded of the power of words, creativity, and imagination. Student writers deserve to have a measure of the conference experience, even if it is not what we all originally planned. We know life does not go according to script, and this is a time to be flexible and expand our thinking to make that happen.
By the time campus events were canceled, the YWC editorial board had already met and selected award winners to be published in our conference journal, Spectrum. There will be a delay, but those writers will soon still see their stories, poems, and essays published. Copies of the journal and writing awards will be distributed to all students from participating schools as soon as that becomes possible.
English Department staff Jefferson Beavers and I met with Naomi virtually via Zoom, to pre-record her keynote address. Hearing her words in the quiet of my own home, during a time when so many are fearful and stressed, was an incredible experience. As she spoke, I felt so privileged and honored to be present in that virtual reality. She shared poems of her own as well as other poets. She shared ideas to stay creative and engaged with the world as we know it at this moment. Her words and presence moved me in a way I could not foresee. I left that virtual realm changed and hopeful.
The recording of Naomi was made available to the schools. I promise you, the virtual address is a momentous and dynamic experience, one that will touch every viewer. The power of her words is still resonating in me.
What would you wish for the next 40 years of the conference?
I hope this writing conference returns to campus in 2021 and continues to thrive and grow. I’d like to see every high school in the Central Valley bring their students. That would mean more workshops, more grad students working with more high school students, and more imaginations sparking new ideas for more stories and poems to be shared. Ultimately, all that means we will be making the world a better place.
We know you have published three novels: “The Barber’s Wife” (Alternative Book Press, 2014); “The Circle Game” (Alternative Book Press, 2018); and “Stinger” (West of West Books, 2019), which was co-written with journalist Bill McEwen. Tell us about your creative work and what you’re working on next.
I love to write, I love to read, and I’ve played mandolin and sang in the band Old Blue.
Each of my three novels took me four to five years to write, from idea to publication, so writing is a journey you have to love. I’m now working on a new novel featuring a librarian as the primary character. The story is primarily set in a library and strives to bring the magic of books to life on the page in a strange and personal way. We’ll see how that goes. But for now, it’s always fun to have an alternate world to inhabit as a story finds its wings.
You can visit Tanya’s author website to read more about her novels.