In the company of writers

American River College’s SummerWords Creative Writing Festival connects local scribes to create a community

Erika mailman, who writes under a pen name, says she finds literary kinship at Summerwords.

Erika mailman, who writes under a pen name, says she finds literary kinship at Summerwords.

Photo by Lisa Baetz

The SummerWords Creative Writing Festival takes place from Thursday, May 28, to Sunday, May 31, at American River College, 4700 College Oak Drive. Tickets are $95. For registration as well as a complete list of events and speakers, visit

Writer’s block.

Endless hours spent agonizing over every word in a sentence. Toiling away on a particularly and maddeningly elusive passage. The writing process can be\ an exercise in humility and agony when the words don't pour easily from the wellspring of imagination.

Fortunately, area writers don't have to suffer through the process alone. Thanks to the creative writing faculty at American River College, scribes at every level are afforded the opportunity to work through their literary challenges among peers and mentors at the fourth annual SummerWords Creative Writing Festival, which takes place on campus from May 28 to May 31.

The event includes numerous panels, workshops and readings with featured guests such as Jodi Angel, Michael Spurgeon, Christian Kiefer and Jason Sinclair Long. Renowned poet Carolyn Forché will give the festival's keynote reading.

For author Erika Mailman, one of the festival's presenters, the event is not about giving writers an opportunity to sit on panels and talk at an audience; it's a chance for everyone to engage in a dialogue about the creative-writing process.

“This is a great thing for all Sacramentans—it's something for everybody in the community, whether they're a writer or a reader or someone who's just curious to come out,” Mailman explains. “It's extraordinary because if you look at the schedule in every one-hour time slot, there's like three or four things going on, so you have to pick and choose your experience.”

For Mailman, Sacramento's writing community comprises a robust sphere of local creative culture and has afforded her the opportunity to connect with those who can help strengthen and enrich her own work.

“I feel like writing is a lonely pursuit—it's us and our words for a long time,” Mailman says. “And it's so fruitful and exhilarating to meet with others who like to [write], and to share what your struggle has been, and talk shop. That is really what community is; it's coming together when we finally leave the solitary stuff aside.”

In short, Mailman says, the festival embraces this idea of escaping the solitude of the creative process; better yet, guests such as Forché, the 1976 winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, help give the festival literary legitimacy.

“SummerWords is … the kind of literary festival you would expect on a much bigger campus,” Mailman says. “This is really the kind of festival of caliber and quality that a larger university would be putting on.”

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Photo by jessica eger

Mailman, an adjunct in the ARC English department who writes under the pen name Lynn Carthage, came to the college three years ago after a teaching stint in Oakland at the behest of a member of the ARC faculty.

“I connected with somebody … on Facebook who I went to college with in Maine and then graduate school in Arizona … but we had never met,” Mailman reflects. “But we had these three very specific idiosyncratic connections, and so I was like, 'Maybe we should have coffee,' and that was Michael Spurgeon, who teaches full-time in the English department.”

Certainly those on the ARC hiring committee took note of the Vermont native's notable accomplishments when deciding to welcome her to its ranks: Her novel The Witch's Trinity was named as a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book in 2007 and was also a Bram Stoker Award finalist; her 2007 book Woman of Ill Fame was a Pushcart Press Editors' Book Award nominee. Mailman is also a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards and a freelance magazine writer.

The festival also includes local writer and ARC instructor Christian Kiefer, author of The Animals, released earlier this year to critical acclaim, who will be discussing novel-writing. He, along with Edan Lepucki and Michael Spurgeon, will walk writers through the process, from the birth of an idea to the final draft.

“[The festival] really fires on most, if not all, possible cylinders for creative writers who are interested in getting inspiration and talking through some of the issue that maybe they've had in their own writing and listening to some real subject-matter experts who are everyday working the in the field,” Kiefer says. “[It's] the field that all writers are working in, which is to say they're alone in a room somewhere clacking away at their keyboard.”

Mailman, who released Haunted in February, the first book in her young adult trilogy, The Arnaud Legacy, and is currently working on the second, looks at the SummerWords festival as a means to nurture the talent of local writers.

“It's a way to build community to meet other writers in the area and support each other,” Mailman explains. “We can come together for our shared love of language and writing, whatever genre it is.”

Like Mailman, Kiefer agrees that the SummerWords program rivals any of those found on larger, more elite campuses—he should know, he taught at Stanford University after receiving his doctorate—much to the credit of the festival's dedicated and passionate organizers.

“A lot of it has to do with vision,” Kiefer says. “We have some people at the college who have a clear vision to do some really big, really public things and having that mixture of vision and budget and the wherewithal to actually follow through and do these things that leads to pushing the boundaries of what public community colleges are generally thought of to be.”

For those struggling with their attempt at writing the next great American novel or working through that pesky passage that incites head-banging against the computer monitor, Kiefer reminds offers this consolation.

“I think people also need to redefine what it means by, 'I'm writing,'” he explains. “Because sometimes 'I'm writing' means I'm researching or … reading or … just lying there thinking about what you're doing, and I think that's all valid.”

Certainly, festivals such as SummerWords are part of every writer's crucial away-from-the-keyboard process.

“You can spend your hour writing [by] not writing,” he says. “Because you're still writing. You're doing the work that will lead to the words on the page.”