A cemetery is a good place for young writers to visit because it is about dying, and anything about dying is about living as well. It is useful to wander among the graves of those whose lives are over. To feel grateful that you are still here, living the story of your life and turning it into words. So over the twenty years I taught creative writing at the Broad Ripple High School Center for the Humanities and the Performing Arts in Indianapolis for twenty years, we took an annual field trip to Crown Hill Cemetery. This was when you could still take kids in your car and kids with cars of their own could drive themselves, so we’d caravan across town, wind our way up to the James Whitcomb Riley grave, the highest point in Indianapolis. I’d spread a red-checked tablecloth on the big marble slab, start up the mix tape on my boom box: “The Not Necessarily Grateful Dead,” songs by performers no longer with us, and we’d eat our picnic lunches. From where we sat, the city we lived in looked like Oz.
To be honest, though, I did not choose JWR’s grave as the site for our excursion to celebrate his (in my opinion, dreadful) poetry. I chose it for irony’s sake. (Really? He’s the Indiana writer with the gargantuan monument?) I’m embarrassed (and annoyed) that all too often his name is the first one mentioned when the subject of Indiana writers comes up. Okay. He’s part of our history. I get that.
So are a lot of (wonderful) dead Indiana writers.
But in my writing classroom, we studied Indiana writers who were alive. So many talented young people flee the state as soon as they can. I wanted my students to know that literature made of the stuff of their own Indiana lives could be as rich and mysterious as lives led in more exotic places.
Now, as the Executive Director of the Indiana Writers Center, I try to spread that message around the state—and beyond. We all need to do a better job of celebrating Indiana writers, promoting their work so that theirs are the names that come up when conversation turns to Indiana literature.
Thanks to an Indiana Masterpiece Grant from the Indiana Arts Commission, the Writers Center has the opportunity to do just that with an anthology of contemporary Indiana writers to be published early next fall. Many accomplished Indiana writers have already agreed to be part of the project, including, Scott Russell Sanders, Susan Neville, Patricia Henley, Helen Frost, Karen Kovacik, and Michael Martone.
The book will be a “snapshot” of Indiana writers at the time of its 2016 Bicentennial. It will be launched with a series of readings, classroom visits, and writing workshops around the state.
But here’s the best part: the anthology will be appropriate for use in the high school classroom. It will be available online to English and writing teachers, along with curriculum materials designed to meet state standards.
While you’re waiting to read it, check out some of the writers mentioned above, if you aren’t
already familiar with them. And here are some more I’m thrilled will be included: Shari Wagner,
George Kalamaras, Greg Schwipps, Sarah Layden, Bryan Furuness, and Jim McGarrah.
Oh, and we don’t have a title yet. Any ideas?