Young writers flourish at Studio 455
KERSTIN STEIGER, 14, reads a composition during Kate Williams' annual recital at Studio 455.
Someday a writer may receive a Nobel, a Pulitzer or a National Book Award and in their acceptance speech thank Kate Williams' Studio 455 for igniting the talent that took them to the top. It could happen. The students at Studio 455 writers workshop dazzle with potential.
As 30 young writers read their work outdoors and out loud for their families at Studio 455's season finale recital May 19, there wasn't an unimpressed person lazing on the lawn. They listened intently as these creative kids nervously read into the microphone the words they wrote themselves. It was their moment to share the piece they were most proud of, after working all year at making their words dance.
Kate started Studio 455 seven years ago to earn a little extra money while giving students a chance to become better writers. She was teaching gifted students in five Valley elementary schools at the time, and was looking for a new challenge. She started the classes in her living room and, two years ago, converted a freestanding garage into a dedicated teaching studio. She teaches two, two-hour classes a week for middle and high school students and her protégé, Sonoma Valley High School senior Hannah Horowitz, teaches a third class of fourth and fifth graders.
The name Studio 455 derives from her street address, but has a decidedly New York literary circle sound. The students refer to it as "the studio" and look forward to their time in the light-filled room, sitting on the comfy couches while they write and listen to each other's work. There are always fresh flowers, and Kate makes tea and cookies. It's their safe place to express themselves. "It's not school. It's a place to dream and to follow their hearts," Kate said.
At each session, Kate has three prepared writing prompts with examples copied from a novel or story in The New Yorker, which Kate reads avidly. They may be learning to use repetition for affect, or sensory image writing, and Kate will explain what that is and then give them a passage to read. They try it themselves and then read the work to their group. Next, they are critiqued by the other kids and finally, by Kate. They go through this exercise three, sometimes four times a session.
"I'll have them write a strong short sentence, followed by a very long sentence, or lead with a question and then answer that question," Kate said, "I break all the rules." Once the students are set free to write as they choose, they amaze her. "They move me. There are times I'm covered in chills by what they write. Their capacity for beauty is remarkable and I feel blessed to witness it."
Students have found their way to Studio 455 by word of mouth. "One satisfied Mommy tells another Mommy," she said. Kate, a wife and mother of two herself, is a credentialed teacher who has taught every grade level. But the reason the writing workshop is her passion is because she is a writer herself. "I have always been a prodigious reader and wished I could be a writer. Then one day I thought, 'What if I try this?'" She was a columnist for the Sonoma Sun and currently writes for and is the copy editor of SONOMA magazine.
She considers herself a "baby fiction writer," with 15 short stories finished or almost finished, and plans to write a longer work this summer. "Writing is both wonderful and humbling at the same time," she said. As so many writers would agree, she doesn't enjoy writing as much as "I enjoy having written."
Hannah shares Kate's passion, has attended the workshop since she was in sixth grade, and taught the younger students this year as her senior project. She will be heading off to Tulane University, the alma mater of both her parents, in the fall. "I've learned to be confident about my ideas and my writing and to believe my work has value," she said, and she plans to continue writing in college. "Ideally, I'd love to make money from my writing, but it really is for me. So I will always be so happy to be involved with it."
Kate has no doubt that Hannah's writing will sustain her. "I feel certain I will be reading her book someday," she said of her protégé. When she introduced Hannah at the recital she paid the compliment, "When I grow up I want to be Hannah Horowitz." A line from Hannah's piece reads, "There is wind in my bones." A brilliant line, that perhaps speaks of the force that carries her notable abilities forward.
Kate grilled chicken and sausages and made a big vat of lemonade for the recital, and parents brought side dishes and blankets to lounge on while they ate and listened. They heard Romain Clerou, an eighth grader at St. Francis Solano, read, "We walked on and came to a woman, her skin past its ripening and her hair like a bright green lime."
Sasha Honigman, a freshman at SVHS, lamented in her writing, "No one has the patience, the desire, the appreciation for things as small as a perfect sentence." And Malia Ching, a fourth grader at Flowery read, "She remembered times her mother would take her to the library and by the time she was six, she had read all of the books in the children's section."
They heard this riveting and completely fictitious paragraph written by Amy Stanfield, a St. Francis fifth grader: "I know where the garden hose is, and where my three-year-old sister's pet snail is buried. I know where my skinny cat escapes to in the morning and how the crack in the wall by my parents' room got there. I know what the stain on the living room rug is, and that my closet enemy has a sixth toe. I know my grandma has a passion for art and that my Dad often cheats on my Mom. I know that Uncle Jedadiah has abused my dog, Charlie, and that my family is as broke as grandpa's back door. I know these things and more, but I don't know if my parents were ever in love."
Amy said she's compared her writing from the beginning of the year to her recent work, "And it's improved so much. There's no comparison," crediting Studio 455 and her teacher Hannah, but only leaving one to wonder how astounding she will become if she is turning out this kind of work at age 11. "I look forward to going to the studio. You become a real writer," she said. She already is.
Jack London would be proud of these young writers, practicing his chosen craft in Kate's studio, tucked in a lush backyard on a quiet street in his Valley of the Moon.
Kate Williams and Studio 455 can be reached at 933-1351, or email@example.com.
Studio 455 Writing samples
By Amy Stanfield
Fifth grade, St. Francis Solano
I know where the old garden hose is, and where my three-year-old sister's pet snail is buried. I know where my skinny cat escapes to in the morning and how the crack in the wall by my parent's room got there. I know what the stain on the living room rug is, and that my closet enemy has a sixth toe. I know that my grandma has a passion for art, and that my dad often cheats on my mom. I know that Uncle Jedediah has abused my dog Charlie and that my family is broke as grandpa's back door. I know things and more, but I don't know if my parents were ever in love.
By Malia Ching
Fourth grade, Flowery Elementary School
Her old way of thinking was swept away by tears when she heard that her house had been destroyed by a fire: her sewing machine, her paints, the single belonging of her mother - the veil she had worn on her wedding day. It was as delicate as spider webs, and still smelled of her mother's shampoo. She would dress up her teddy bear and dance around with him like she was a little girl and the thought of tomorrow didn't seem so frightening. A week after the fire, the firemen brought her the only object they could find in the rubble. It was a picture of her father, her mother and herself sitting on a towel eating ice cream at the beach. She gazed at her mother's stormy blue eyes which reflected the crashing currents of the ocean. She wore a polka-dotted tankini and held a sun umbrella. She remembered the time when her mother would take her to the library and by the time she was six, she had read all the books in the children's section.
By Romain Clerou
Eighth grade, St. Francis Solano
The summer sun baked us to the bone. We stumbled on. I told her we'd make it even though I didn't have a clue. I took the canteen out of my backpack and tipped it upward, the last of its contents trickling into her mouth. We walked on and came to a woman, her skin past its ripening and her hair like a bright green lime. She emanated beauty, I was drawn to her. I smiled and reached out but what I felt was not a woman but the painful prickling of a cactus.
By Hannah Horowitz
Senior, Sonoma Valley High School
If you asked me to explain the rhythm my heart made as it beat against my chest while sneaking out the window at 3 a.m., I wouldn't know how to tell you. Rather, I could dance it. I would start at center stage, silent and still, glowing in a white spotlight. The music would be barely audible at first, my stocking feet gliding from bed to window. The beat would pick up then, the clicking of a window latch, me emerging statuesque into stage left, twirling. The music would gain intensity as I scaled the wall, and on stage I would leap and twist and turn. A climax in rhythm the exact moment before my feet touched the ground, and then a slow descent as my toes felt soft grass, as I faded into the shadows under the eaves. A complete blackout right before his car lights came into view. A sweet, quick kiss on the mouth. An excitement that bubbled in my chest and flustered my cheeks. No matter it made me nervous. No matter I have no idea how to dance. Tell me: how long can one keep up a performance without knowing any of the proper steps? How many twists and turns and twirls before a young girl loses her footing? Innocence leapt from a window one night, leaving only fluttering, lazy ivory curtains. There are no words, no movements.
There is wind in my bones. ... I have no course to be blown off of, no aspirations for crisp paper bills and spacious rooms. I want only the invisible which can be stored in my pockets, my shoes, beneath the folds of my clothing. I want laughter and discreet smiles and discreet love.
By Sasha Honigman
Ninth grade, Sonoma Valley High School
The streets are lined with a million little children, small and all lined up, like ants.
They file down the sidewalks, marching back to their homes, to where they will most likely spend the remainder of the night fixed in front of a television set. The children's parents are glued to their office chairs, eyes as glassy as the computer screens at which they sit, and once they are finished emailing and typing and clicking and faxing they head home to their little ant children. While the children focus on cartoon characters of rabbits and eat gummy worms with their mother sitting at the kitchen table scrolling through emails on her blackberry, Jane walks to the library. ... No one is ever here, no one has the time anymore, the time to sit, to think, to breathe, to stand still, to open a book, let alone read. No one has the patience, the desire, the appreciation of things as small as a perfect sentence.
By Ben Marcus Willers
Junior, Sonoma Valley High School
There is a place I used to go, a place in the mountains. The mountains are gray rock, granite. The granite is smooth in places, rough in others, and it flows as a glacier flowed over it so long ago. The glacier, like a quiet child sculpting a sandcastle, carves valleys and mountains and domes. I stand on one of these domes of granite, carved by glaciers, overlooking the range of mountain upon mountain.
There is a chip in the side of the dome, and a jagged crack meanders away from it, as a river flows from a lake, a creek from a spring. The crack cuts its way through the earth, under pebbles, across plains, diving below tree roots and wildflowers, and blades of emerald grass.
The grass ripples as waves of air wash over the meadow.
The crack surfaces from its subterranean world, and slices through mud, under boulders, over hills. The hills lead down to a highway, and the crack cuts across this as well. It emerges from the green hills, and makes its way through the town below, across cobblestone streets, through once-white adobe walls.
The walls form houses, and the houses make a town, and the town sprawls to the edge of a stream.