By Patrick O'Dowd
Katie Cross and Kendra Sanders are both English majors, Gaines Fellows, soon-to-be juniors, and creative writers. Yet they didn’t really know each other. Sure, they were aware the other existed, but they weren’t aware of their intersecting interests both academically and creatively.
Today, Cross and Sanders are student co-presidents of the Graphite Creative Writing Association brought together by the group’s faculty advisor, English associate professor Julia Johnson. The young student organization will work to do for the other creative writers on the University of Kentucky’s campus what the club has already done for them—create a stronger sense of fellowship and community.
Those creative writers around UK’s campus—of which there are many—are in good hands with professor Johnson who has already brought her strong background in creative writing to bear in short order at the university.
When Johnson arrived at UK two years ago, she was surprised to find that there wasn’t a formal creative writing organization already established. It seemed like an obvious extension to an institution with a legacy of creative writing and writers as storied as UK’s.
Johnson, however, has a theory explaining why it might have been missing: the University of Kentucky’s home, Lexington, has its own strong and lively literary community. In recent years, Lexington has even been called the “Literary Capital of Mid-America.” It was Lexington’s organizations, clubs, and cafés where creative writers from UK and the broader community found their shelter.
Yet groups like these tend to be small or silo-ed off from one another and aren’t necessarily built to cater to the needs of creative writing students. Navigating these cliques is a challenge and the friction in the process is enough to deter some who might otherwise seek participation in the UK and Lexington literary scene.
It’s Johnson’s goal then to nurture UK’s existing writing community—students and faculty alike—while also strengthening the university’s role as the keystone of Lexington’s literati scene.
This challenge isn’t just professional but personal for Johnson who knows all too well the struggles of an aspiring creative writer. “I think I’m particularly passionate about it because I was involved in the student literary club as an undergraduate student and also as graduate student,” Johnson explained.
Belonging to a community of writers was also important in her development. “My peers in creative writing (in addition to my teachers) encouraged me and kept me going as a writer—particularly as an undergraduate. Then, in graduate school, it was so important to hear other people read—and to read my own work to an audience. It was confidence building and it made me more interested in pursuing writing and promoting my work. Anytime you get feedback on your work it’s usually very helpful.”
With that in mind, Johnson approached Cross and Sanders with the idea of founding Graphite, the creative writing association at UK.
Sanders came to UK with a plan to major in engineering but quickly switched to English—something more in line with her passions. Cross, meanwhile, knew all along she was going to pursue a degree in English. Both, however, have a penchant for creative writing and like Johnson, thought the university could benefit from an organization that brought student writers together.
Johnson noted that one of the great things about UK is that when a gap like this exists, students have the power to fill it. “You can just dream up any sort of club that you want to design or build. If there isn’t one, you can create one. “
With Professor Johnson as faculty advisor, that’s what Cross and Sanders have done. While Johnson may carry the authority of a faculty position, she intends to give its student co-presidents plenty of room to make the organization theirs. “I’m going to be a very hands-off faculty advisor. Once the group gets going—I want this to be completely student-run. I want them coming up with all of the crazy ideas. I just want to be there to support them as much as I can.”
Providing that institutional support is where Johnson will play the most crucial role. While the student leaders will shape the Creative Writing Association semester-to-semester, Johnson will insure the steady continuity of the organization as students graduate and move on to the next stages of their lives.
Johnson’s role as the director of the graduate program in creative writing will also shape her leadership of the organization. The Department of English’s MFA program will be launching in 2014 with Johnson leading the way. One of her goals prior to the program’s launch is to have Graphite in full swing.
“I really want to get the undergraduates involved so that when we start the MFA program there isn’t a division between the students,” Johnson said. “I want this organization to be in place for graduate students.”
There will also be a chance for increased collaboration between undergraduate and graduate students as the English Department’s literary journals are brought under the association’s wings. Johnson is a faculty advisor to "Limestone"—the department’s graduate student-run journal—and undergraduates have "Shale" as a creative publishing outlet.
With the incorporation of the journals, the Graphite also expands its reach by providing space for students with other interests. As Johnson noted, “It’s not just going to be a group of people interested in writing fiction or poetry or non-fiction it’s also going to be students who are interested in publishing.”
Sanders and Cross have their own goals for the association as well but at the heart of each is a desire to increase the sense of fellowship between writers at the university. While the group will most obviously benefit students within the English department, that is hardly the sole focus. Just as important will be the inclusion of writers from other majors who perhaps don’t have an outlet.
“We want to be a very supportive community for people who are maybe talking about their work for the first time. If you aren’t in a creative writing class but you write—you’re an engineering or chemistry major—you’re not going to have any idea where to start, right? You’re just going to be out there wandering in the wilderness,” Cross explained. “We’re going to be about growing together as writers.”
Shepherding those lost writers is a goal for Johnson as well, “We don’t want this to be limited to students of creative writing at UK. I would love to see anthropology students who happen to write poetry on the side but don’t have time to take a creative writing class. It’s a great interdisciplinary club where you can meet people from other departments.”
So far, bootstrapping has been the name of the game. Graphite only got off the ground this past spring but they’re planning to use this fall semester as the group’s grand opening.
They’ll being kicking things off properly during K Week at Campus Ruckus. At the event, the group will be getting their name out with a game described as a sort of Scrable-like word puzzle in ice water. At the end of the day they’ll pick a victor who’ll win a prize but, as Sanders joked ominously, “Bring warm socks.”
That’s just the start though. Sanders and Cross see a busy semester ahead for the association. For one, they hope to capitalize on the success of the public poetry reading organized by Johnson earlier in the year by finding new ways to inject literature and poetry into the daily life of students like peppering campus with quotes or lines of poetry.
Also in the works is a reading of “O the Clear Moment” by Kentucky author Ed McClanahan—a member of author Ken Kesey’s notorious “Merry Pranksters.”
Events like the one with McClanahan will be common and there are plans for a regular reading night that will be held on or near campus. Johnson sees occasions like these as crucial to the mission of the association. “Being a writer can be a really lonely life because we write on our own. We don’t typically collaborate the way people in the sciences or other disciplines do.” Yet Johnson says, “It’s really important to get to know other writers and to share your work.”
Graphite is all about reinforcing the notion that fellowship and community matter. Johnson’s goal with Cross and Sanders is to build a platform that ultimately leads to an even more community minded English department. Fortunately, they’ll already be building on the work of others in the department.
Or, as is the case for Cross, she’ll be building on her own work with the newly re-energized honors society for English students Sigma Tau Delta along with it’s faculty sponsor, English faculty member Pearl James.
“Pearl James has done a tremendous job with Sigma Tau Delta,” said Johnson. “Our president Katie Cross is a president of both organizations. And that’s a strong example of how we can work together. You can be a member of both. You don’t have to choose between them. You can be a strong student of literature and also be a creative writer. And that relationship is only going to get stronger as the organizations grow.”
Those relationships and the new ones that the Graphite Creative Writing Association hopes to foster are keeping its co-presidents motivated and excited about what the coming semester holds. “At first, it’ll be us reaching out,” Cross said but as Sanders noted confidently, “If you build it they will come.”
Photos by Dana Rogers: Kendra Sanders (left) and Katie Cross.
Photos by Dana Rogers: Kendra Sanders (left) and Katie Cross.