writing off the hill
I make my way into the classroom but I’m quickly pushed to the side as another large swarm attempts to force its way through the small space. Those who have already snagged a spot through Banner sit at the central table, attempting not to appear too smug amongst the struggling, sweaty mass. But even so, their lack of struggle anoints them as the golden, chosen few. There’s a rush of ripping paper as we all tear out sheets and scribble our names on them, before dropping them into a plastic bag. And then all is quiet as we wait, praying to hear our names read.
The stress of attempting to gain a spot in Fiction I is one many Brown students can relate to. And I’ve had similar stressful experiences attempting to gain a place in non-fiction writing courses. Sometimes it’s luck, sometimes it’s crafting the perfect writing sample while dealing with the craziness of the first week of class, but the difficulty in gaining a spot in many writing classes at Brown is what initially sparked my interest in Frequency, a community arts organization in Providence that provides a variety of creative writing workshops, studios and events where participants can work on and learn about writing.
After three years of attempting to gain a spot in Fiction I, I finally had my name picked out of a bag this year. But even with some creative writing experience under my belt, I still found myself intrigued by Frequency. I set out to find if Frequency could provide an appropriate supplement to my writing education, or even serve as a replacement for those who are still struggling to get into the writing classes at Brown.
Created in May 2011 by Darcie Dennigan and Liz Howort, Frequency offers courses of varying length in fiction, non-fiction, poetry and hybrid forms of writing. All members of the community are welcome to participate.
Frequency came into being very organically. Dennigan taught poetry classes for the now-defunct Continuing Studies program at Brown, and a few of her students asked if she was going to be teaching over the summer. She decided to have a poetry workshop in an art space with some of the writers from the Brown class and some other local writers. Her friend Liz then taught a class about the Writer’s Notebook and, as Dennigan relates, they realized, “there are no classes like this in Providence, and so maybe [we] can keep doing this. And we still are. We try to have more funky offerings than professional places.”
In a certain way, Frequency can be seen as an extension of Brown. Dennigan explains that a lot of the teachers are “writers coming out of the [Brown] writing programs” and “they have a certain aesthetic they like to share with their students.” But what makes Frequency different is the way it incorporates all of Providence. As Dennigan puts it, “we make use of the many different writers in our community and the different literary influences in our community.”
Kate Schapira, a professor in the English Department at Brown doesn’t think there should be too strong a link between Brown and Frequency. Schapira, a close friend of Dennigan’s, teaches workshops for Frequency from time to time and is the teacher of “Writing Where You Are.” She points out that what makes Frequency valuable “is that it is relatively institutionally independent, its relationships tend to be smaller community organizations like the storefront at Carpenter Street which is a community arts space…and I think that is one of the things that is lovely about it, because it makes it feel accessible to people in Providence.”
But Schapira thinks it’s great when Brown students take Frequency classes too. In fact, Schapira is even developing a course for Brown for next spring, which will pair students with writing-related organizations throughout Providence. She thinks Frequency will be one of them.
In some ways, Frequency seems to be a great alternative to Brown. Creative writing and non-fiction writing classes at Brown are mandatory pass-fail but, as Schapira explains, they are still “happening in a graded world” and for many people it’s hard to shake off the feeling of needing to meet “an external standard.” In that way, she sees Frequency as superior to Brown in helping writers “develop an internal standard.” Also, the classes at Frequency tend to be smaller than Brown writing classes and, as Schapira points out, “that means we get to spend a little bit more time on everyone’s work, talking about it and making suggestions…that can be very nourishing in a way that Brown classes can be, but are not always.”
On the other hand, Frequency cannot replace the valuable academic structure of Brown courses. Dennigan maintains that Frequency “definitely would never take the place of the more serious classes you get at Brown or an MFA program, but it’s definitely a place to experiment, find people in our community, and help you broaden… your frame of reference for writing.” Similarly, Schapira points out that Frequency classes might not provide enough structure for some people. They usually only meet once a week and their goals can be much more open-ended. However, she thinks that for someone trying to go outside his or her comfort zone of the academic space, and “shake that habit of mind, Frequency would be a good option.”
Yet the greatest benefit of taking a class at Frequency seems to be the opportunity to learn amongst a diverse group. Schapira explains that Frequency “will bring you into contact with people of all ages. The age thing is the main thing. My students in the class I taught last summer [ranged in age] from about 23-73. And that’s a treat. There’s a lot to mutually learn.” She also finds the groups to be “racially diverse and gender diverse.” She taught a class called “What Presses Most,” about taking your writing to the next level and found that because it was not a genre-based class. “People were there for very different reasons. Some people were there writing fiction, some people were there writing poetry, some people were there trying to write formally, and some people were writing non-fiction, so there was a really wide range of people doing different kinds of work.”
While I didn’t have the time to enroll in a Frequency class this semester, I decided to attend “The Infinite Possibilities: A Craft Talk with Carole Maso.” Maso is an accomplished novelist and essayist and a professor in the Literary Arts Department at Brown. The talk took place at 186 Carpenter Street, the aforementioned community arts space. There were about 25-30 people there, assorted on a variety of stools and chairs, with some spilling over on to the ground. Surrounded by art that adorns the walls and hangs from the ceiling, I settled myself in the corner to listen. In her talk, Maso spoke about her thoughts on writing, reading selections from four of her works. She mused that many people believe they have to “conform in order to play the game, but there is no true formula for writing.” She advised us that before you write, “you need to ask what you want from your work and who is the person I’m prepared to be in order to write it.”
While I can’t speak with the authority of having taken a Frequency class, I can speak of the pleasure I felt listening to an accomplished writer engage with the community for two hours on a Saturday afternoon. Hearing a writer different from my Brown professors expound upon the craft of writing did not degrade my Brown experience, because I have loved the writing classes that I’ve managed to snag a spot in. Rather, it served as an enhancement, a simple bonus to my literary education.
Whether you enroll out of a frustration with Brown or to complement the wonderful experience you’ve already had, Frequency will provide a space for you to engage with your writing. It may be just the right experience for you, or it might not be. But at the very least, you will find yourself in a unique environment in which people of all ages, backgrounds and interests have congregated over a shared love of the written word.