For the past 13 years, accomplished author and Adelphi alumna Alice Hoffman '73 has led a retreat to help young writers find their potential.
by Kurt Gottschalk
From all appearances, it may not have been too different from the typical high school English class: three dozen students seated in a circle, discussing such literary devices as assonance and internal rhyme. Except for this session—held in a meeting room at Adelphi’s Ruth S. Harley University Center—students were analyzing lyrics to the Broadway smash Hamilton a day after a session spent workshopping with best-selling novelist Alice Hoffman ’73 at the writers retreat that bears her name.
Hoffman had students suggest opening lines for stories and then choose one to write as a group. The students also got advance copies of Faithful, Hoffman’s novel slated for release in November, and at least a few of them—according to Professor Robert Linne, Ph.D., who co-leads the intensive—finished it overnight.
“Alice Hoffman is amazing,” said Adjunct Professor Ellen Hagan, who has been leading the Alice Hoffman Young Writers Retreat with Dr. Linne since the retreat’s inception 13 years ago. “She gave sort of an artist’s talk—how she started writing. A lot of kids had questions about how she got started, what her life is like.”
It’s a rare occasion for young writers who sometimes have more interest than they do opportunity, according to Dr. Linne.
“Often there’s a lot of testing going on in the schools, so a lot of arts and creative writing gets pushed to the side,” Dr. Linne said. “This is a chance for students to work on their writing and get together with other young people and talk about writing and books.”
The predominantly female group of aspiring scribes also got to work with Brett Clark ’10, M.A. ’11, an English education alum and teacher at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School in Queens, who led them in a literary analysis of the Hamilton lyrics. With such lines as “You and your words flooded my senses/Your sentences left me defenseless/You built my palaces out of paragraphs” projected onto a screen, Clark led them through the use and impact of the words.
“You have four sentences and he’s packed so much into those sentences,” she said. “You can see how the language is really important, because he thinks about the words he uses, not just what they mean but the sound.”
Dr. Linne carried the topic further, discussing some of the subtler points of using rhyme and pointing out that it’s fallen from favor in the poetry world but has found a resurgence in rap music—not just in paired couplets, he pointed out, but in such devices as internal rhyme.
“That’s been a big part of hip-hop,” he said. “Rakim and Eminem are famous for doing it a lot.”
Students were then assigned to write a short scene with one of the historical figures they were asked to research, including Susan B. Anthony, Rachel Carson and Harriet Tubman. Dr. Linne suggested they try to tie their dialogue in with current events—like Tubman being slated to appear on the new $20 bill. Students were quick to react, noting that U.S. president and slave owner Andrew Jackson would still be on the other side.
“Which is basically like putting Anne Frank on one side of a coin and Hitler on the other,” pronounced Molly Donelan, who will start her junior year at Mineola High School in the fall.
Donelan—whose long red hair complements a fiery spirit—was among the students who read “rant poems.” Hers was about the political differences she feels with her family and people at school.
Isaac Rivera, who is about to start his senior year at Coney Island Prep High School in Brooklyn, traveled two hours twice a day to get to the five-day institute. Decked out in baggy jeans, his long black curls falling out from under a stylish bucket hat, he looked the part of the inspirations he claimed: rappers MF Doom, Aesop Rock and Kendrick Lamar.
“I first started independently writing when I was 11,” he said. “I started listening to more hip-hop music and listening to what they were saying. But this is my first real experience in actually having to get up and say something. This retreat has exploded my entire brain with concepts and ideas.”