There’s a reason that Colby is a destination school for students across the world interested in studying the humanities, and the primary reason is our talented and passionate humanities faculty. The Center for the Arts and Humanities often takes time to highlight some of these exceptional faculty members. Today we are focusing on Assistant Professor of English and award-winning author Sarah Braunstein. Professor Braunstein is the author of the novel The Sweet Relief of Missing Children, published in 2011 and winner of the 2012 Maine Literary Award for Fiction. Her short stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Playboy, and The Harvard Review, among other places.
Professor Braunstein’s most recent achievement was the publication of her short story “Superstition” in The New Yorker this August. This story follows the life of a teenage boy growing up in Arizona, and can be read online here. Braunstein described the story as “following the shifting cognition and moods of this boy who’s in a moment of quiet crisis,” going on to cite “quiet crisis” as a theme in many of her stories.
When asked what her inspiration was for this story, she replied that she found adolescence a fascinating period to consider, stating that “adolescent people have so much more wisdom than they can put into action.” She added that many people feel very alone during adolescence, and when they read stories that capture that feeling they can be particularly moved. When asked if there was anything she’d like her readers to take away from the story, she responded that “a short story is an invitation to join another consciousness, to consider a person or situation or idea deeply and idiosyncratically. I love short stories because they are fundamentally a way to imagine another subjectivity: a brief narrative encounter with another mind.” The image accompanying the story in The New Yorker can be seen below.
The conversation then turned to Professor Braunstein’s writing process. She explained that she tends to create characters, put them in a situation, and then see what they will do. She doesn’t map out the plot beforehand, instead feeling her way through at first, and then solving the puzzle of how everything fits together and what it’s all about. She tries to make her stories partly clear and partly mysterious, and tends to write a first draft of a piece before coming back months and even years later and revising it. Her revision process consists primarily of throwing out any unnecessary elements, until “everything clicks into place.” She added that “It’s important for writers to know that we don’t have to have a sense of meaning or theme before we begin writing. It can emerge as we go.” Once that message has been found, though, the story can be used to “say something I can’t say in any other way.”
Professor Braunstein’s advice for young writers is “Come take creative writing classes while you’re at Colby! And take classes in the English department that teach you how to read deeply and think critically. Read a lot. Develop a writing practice. Writing is a tool, a skill, that can be done by anyone at any time. Talk to people who like to write, find people who share this passion to make something from nothing. For some people it’s solitary, for some people it’s crucial to have people to write with.” Braunstein’s recommendations for trying to publish work were to “think about where you’re reading what you read. Go to those places to submit your work. Learn where other people have published work like yours, what are the rules, the expectations, the submission guidelines.” If you’re trying to publish something as long as a novel, Braunstein stated novelists often rely on literary agents to sell work to publishers. “But first, find readers. Find people who do what you do and share work with each other. Create a writer’s group.”
This August, the Center for the Arts and Humanities had the opportunity to work closely with Professor Braunstein when she led a creative writing workshop for the participants in the 2021 Summer Institute in Environmental Humanities. Braunstein described her experience leading the workshop as:
“Amazing! Those are brilliant scholars, thinkers. It’s very humbling to offer a prompt and then see the kind of varied and imaginative ways that people who don’t identify as creative writers approach them. The inventive writing that followed was inspiring for me. I thought it was a lot of fun, and was really moved by the spirit of generosity in the sharing. I felt very impressed with how willing people were to share work in progress. The commitment these scholars have to being open and authentic. Assuming everyone’s there in good faith, it can really bring out a kind of bon-amie, a sense of community. It’s a nice antidote to a polarizing moment.”
Our final question for Sarah Braunstein was how her work at Colby had been influenced by the Center for the Arts and Humanities. Braunstein replied that she and Professor of English Adrian Blevins received a grant from the Center in 2019 to teach a new Humanities Lab, a Jan Plan course titled The Adventurous Writers of Maine: A Creative Writing Lab. She described the course as “an expeditionary learning opportunity” which involved taking a group of students to various interesting locations across Maine and asking them to write about them. These locations included a reputedly haunted mill which they visited with a psychic, a gun range where they shot rifles, and Peak’s Island, where they drank seaweed tea. The course culminated in a final reading of student work. “That reading was one of the most exciting educational experiences I’d ever been a part of,” said Braunstein. “I felt extremely grateful for the ability to do that, to bring students across Maine.”
If you’re interested in taking a course with the talented Professor Braunstein, she will be teaching the following courses this year:
EN 278: Fiction Writing I
EN 378: Fiction Writing II: Experiments in Perspective
EN 178: Language, Thought, and Writing: Introduction to Creative Writing
EN 278: Fiction Writing I
Professor Braunstein is currently working on a new novel, now in its final stages. The novel is set in southern Maine, and follows the story of a librarian who becomes entangled with a famous author, and the trouble that ensues from their encounter. Braunstein said that the novel is “about literary culture, and how we talk and write about other people.” We certainly look forward to reading it once it comes out, and hope that you do as well!
Article written by Ayla Fudala, Communications Coordinator, Center for the Arts and Humanities