Laura Tillman was a recent college graduate when she took a reporting job at a newspaper in Brownsville, Texas, five years after a shocking triple murder there received international media attention. In a talk during the second installation of the Writers’ Workshop Series, Tillman spoke to the Williston community and members of the public about the book, The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts, that emerged from her spending six years reporting on the tragedy.
Tillman said Brownsville is known for its poverty—it’s one of the poorest cities in the country—and for its proximity to Mexico. However its residents feel there is more to the place than these statistics would lead you to believe. As she investigated the crime, and the circumstances that led to it, she talked to numerous people in the neighborhood. She corresponded with one of the perpetrators of the crime. She also poured over court documents and crime scene photos. She would visit the building where the murders happened and let the details steep into her consciousness. The more she investigated the crime, she told the audience, the more nuanced her views became.
Students in the audience asked her a variety of questions—Did she think the murderers were a product of their environment or somehow innately evil? Did her own religious beliefs factor into her thoughts about the question of morality? And what did she learn from writing this book?
To that last question, she paused and then answered, “To trust my instincts. Sometimes you just have to follow an idea you find interesting, even if it’s not clear where it’s headed. You have to be patient and let it unfold.”
Williston’s first student life speaker to discuss this year’s theme of Emotional Fitness, Garret Kramer, addressed an assembly in the Phillips Stevens Chapel on September 30. Kramer, founder of Inner Sports, has coached athletes and corporate clients, and is the author of two books, Stillpower: Excellence with Ease in Sports and Life, and The Path of No Resistance: Why Overcoming is Simpler than You Think.
His basic thesis is that our minds are sometimes cluttered with thoughts. That’s when we feel insecure and disconnected. At other times, our minds are clear. That’s when we feel confident and can connect with our passions. Both these states are normal, and we move back and forth from what he called state A (the cluttered mind) to state B (the clear mind). Difficulty arises, he posited, when we resist the up and down nature of this cycle, and when we don’t realize that external circumstances don’t cause the back-and-forth. “We work in-to-out, not out-to-in, even though it’s quite normal to think the opposite is true,” he said.
Kramer called this natural ability to self-correct our “psychological immune system.” To illustrate, he described a toddler having a tantrum. This toddler will eventually calm down and move into a clear state of mind. The toddler didn’t “think” his way to this new state of mind. It just happened, and he or she let it happen. “A toddler doesn’t obstruct the psychological immune system.”
Kramer’s talk spurred many questions, and some push-back, from students. One questioned how external circumstances, such as a death in the family, could not affect one’s state of mind. Kramer said there is a correlation between the sadness we feel at someone’s death or any tragedy, but the circumstance doesn’t cause the feeling. Another student asked what Kramer his source for his information. “Truth,” he answered, citing leaders such as Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela who have spoken about this phenomenon.
Student Harrison Winrow ’18 appreciated both the talk, and the robust give-and-take between Kramer and the audience. “I was inspired to see how passionate members of the student body and faculty were today, inciting lengthy dialogue and insightful debate all around campus for the hours following assembly,” he said.
Students and faculty will have more opportunities to discuss and think about the theme of Emotional Fitness at upcoming advisory meetings and class assemblies this term.
Laura Tillman joins us on Oct. 10 in the Dodge Room of Reed Campus Center. Tillman is an award-winning journalist and author whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, and Pacific Standard, among other publications. Originally from Maplewood, N.J., she began her career at The Brownsville Herald in South Texas.
The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts, an investigation into the murders of three children by their parents in Brownsville—and a meditation on the human forces that drove them—is her first book.
Tillman holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College and a BA in international studies from Vassar College.
Keri Smith has made a career out of her untamed imagination. Her bestselling books—Wreck this Journal, Everything Is Connected, and The Guerilla Art Kit—inspire readers to draw, to write, to share, to explore, to explode, to tear down and shake up and start over and, in the end, ultimately, to explore and create.
But as she told the Williston Writer’s Workshop on Monday, October 3, Smith’s life, and her life’s mission, got off to a rocky start.
As a student growing up near Toronto, Smith said the system “failed her.” She missed school—72 absences one year, she said. When she wasn’t dreaming up creative ways to stay home, she went to class and recognized was that school wasn’t for her. It tamped her down, made her feel small and insignificant.
“I had an unlimited potential for creation at home,” Smith said, but school, she said, was repetitive. “I did what teachers expected.”
Doing the same thing every day, Smith said, “my imagination was crushed.” As she moved into high school, Smith became removed from her peers, and eventually tried suicide.
“I believed my failure in high school was due to a deficiency of some kind,” Smith said. “It was devastating. There was no one there to listen.”
Those whose role it was to help her along failed her as well. Her high school guidance counselor, Smith said, told her “there’d be a lot of openings for dental hygienists.” The audience laughed. “Can you imagine me? A dental hygienist?”
Smith’s life, and her path towards inspiring others as not only an author but an illustrator, guerilla artist, lecturer, and self-proclaimed “inventor,” took a positive turn when she began devouring the books on a friend’s college course list.
“I was a quest to find meaning, [to find] and explanation of what it means to be human.” To that end, she “became insatiable,” and read Tolstoy, Vonnegut, Dostoyevsky, L’Engle, Salinger, the Brontes, and a host of others. “Nothing was out of my reach.”
Her own exploration was set in motion by reading. She moved to the U.S. She got married. She ended up in Troy, New York, where she began carrying a journal. Following the thought experiments posed by Albert Einstein and experimental modernist composer John Cage, Smith’s journal projects began to take evolve.
“I thought, ‘What if the journal itself became the experiment,’” she said. “What if we moved into a place of not knowing?”
“That,” Smith added, “is the goal.”
In her series of journals, which also include This is Not a Book, Finish this Book, Tear up this Book, and Pocket Scavenger, Smith provides place for what she called “happy accidents, mistakes, chance, surprise, or trying something you’ve never done before.”
The final slide in Smith’s wonderfully-illustrated presentation displayed her list of rules for a creative and inventive life. (The subtitle read: “AKA My Secret Powers.”)
The inspirational list read like an encapsulation of not just what Smith does, but who she is: Use your curiosity as a guide; Use the senses in every endeavor; Feature your weirdness; Question reality; Question everything; and the final one: Remember that you are at the helm of your own education. You can create it and tailor it to your needs.
As expected, Smith’s presentation ended with a simple, outrageous call to action. She instructed everyone in the audience to wear the stacks of tissue paper that had been hidden under their chairs. Some made tall, cylindrical chefs hats; others tied bandanas; other made capes. Smith, taking pictures of the crowd, looked delighted.
She recently was featured in a TIME magazine article titled, “Meet the Woman Trying to Save Your Kids from Their Screens.”
Smith conducts workshops based on her books and recently taught a class in conceptual illustration at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, in Vancouver, Canada. According to her website, the main focus of her work/research is on creating what the writer Umberto Eco called “Open works,” pieces that are completed by the reader/user. In 2012 she created a public art installation for the exhibition Urban Play, in Copenhagen Denmark entitled The Society for Exploratory Research. In 2013 Keri was invited to be a “Resident Thinker” for the art piece “Nowhere Island” by artist Alex Hartley for the Cultural Olympiad, along with Yoko Ono and several other interesting thinkers.
English Teacher Lori Pelliccia coordinates the series and leads the Writers’ Workshop honors-level English class that examines the work of the visiting presenters.
“Last year, the students in Writers’ Workshop referred back to the advice they received from the visiting authors time and time again,” she said. “I know this year will be no different. Each speaker’s unique experiences and talents will surely inspire our student writers as they explore and develop their craft.”
This is the 19th year Williston Northampton School has hosted the Writers’ Workshop Series—conceived by authors Madeleine Blais P’00, ’04 and Elinor Lipman P’00—in which writers and creative professionals give a talk during a public forum, then teach a master class to students who have prepared for the visit by studying the presenter’s work. The forum begins at 7 p.m. in Williston’s Whitaker-Bement Center Assembly Room. It is free and open to the public.