Neighborhood Studios Q&A: Mark Twain House & Museum – Write to the Point


Samuel Langhorne Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) is best known for his humorous novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but what you probably didn’t know is that he would write from breakfast through dinnertime with no interruptions (talk about dedication!). Great writing requires practice and, most importantly, no distractions. It makes sense then that the Mark Twain House & Museum would be part of Neighborhood Studios, a summer apprenticeship program for teens in Greater Hartford.

Now in its second year, the Mark Twain House & Museum apprenticeship class is dedicated to developing the skills of aspiring creative writers. It’s class where students can focus their creative energy solely towards writing and self-expression. This year’s theme is “The Other Side of the Story,” examining the multiple dimensions of a story or event. We’d be lying if we said we didn’t wish we could be part of the program, too! Read on to get the scoop on the innovative program from Julia Pistell, Director of Writing Programs at the Mark Twain House & Museum and Master Teaching Artist for Neighborhood Studios, and mark your calendar for the students’ showcase event.

What are the goals for your studio this summer?

First and foremost, we want to create as much writing as we can. Creating the space, time, and support system for writing is the biggest and hardest part of being a professional. But we’re also hoping to publish a book of essays at the end of the summer, and put together a few dozen short radio pieces with the help of WNPR. Last year, we focused on strictly reported journalism. This year, we have taken a new perspective as writers of Creative Nonfiction. We’re writing essays, opinion pieces, reports on crime and community, and so much more. It’s already going by so fast!


What’s an average day like at your studio?

We always write for at least an hour a day, and then we mix it up. Sometimes we do peer editing, sometimes we do writing “sprints” on different topics. Sometimes we interview each other, and sometimes we go see what strangers on the street have to say—we have learned a lot about the inner lives of the crossing guards in our area! We spend a lot of time discussing and debating the issues in our pieces. We’ve also had a guest poet, and we’ll be bringing in a guest playwright as well, to talk about the different ways we can use the material of our lives in different forms of writing. Now that we’re in our third week, we’re about to switch to much more editing and polishing.


What about working with students in the Greater Hartford region inspires you?

The students are hands-down the best students I have ever worked with. They are both inspiring and inspired. They care very deeply about global and national issues like feminism, minimum wage, and war; and at the same time they write eloquently about personal issues. The things they have gone through and the stories they have to tell are truly stunning and I am inspired and impressed by their bravery and resilience every day. They are awesome. They also happen to be very talented writers.


How do you see the exploration of an artistic discipline as well as career skills impacting the way these students might look towards the future?

My students will walk out the door at the end of the summer knowing they are capable of writing tremendous amounts of high-quality writing, for long periods of time. It’s the best college prep I can give them—now, none of them will be intimidated by a ten or twenty-page paper. I hope they will respect themselves as writers and thinkers, and know how to give and take fair and kind criticism. Writing is such a universal discipline that it’s harder for me to name a way in which this wouldn’t impact their lives. Now that they think of themselves as professional writers, they can go on to work in careers in journalism, marketing, teaching, creative writing, blogging, or anything else they can think of. Really, the sky is the limit!


What did past students take away from the program and how does that experience differ from a traditional art class?

Past students have gone on to swiftly become the presidents of their college newspapers, and dig deep into investigating the subjects they were passionate about. I can only hope that our current students will be inspired to do the same. I think what makes Neighborhood Studios different is its emphasis on art as work—my students feel that their work should have a big impact on their lives and the world. I hope it does. They have so much to say, and so much to give.

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