Our stories matter. Oakland’s New Literary Project Understands Why

Author Joyce Carol Oates, signing one of her books in 2019, is the New Literary Project’s namesake $50,000 National Award for Mid-Career Fiction Writers. Photo: James Franco/Albany Times Union Special

Why do we need stories?

This is the question at the heart of the New literary project, the Oakland nonprofit that supports storytelling across generations through free creative writing workshops for high school writers, writing scholarships, and the annual Joyce Carol Oates Award, a national award from $50,000 for mid-career fiction writers.

“A lot of people think literature is about lessons,” says Joe DiPrisco, founder of the project and chairman of the board of directors. “But the purpose of books is not to explain everything. It is to bring us closer to the mysterious, the ineffable.

In other words, digging into the human condition, even if it’s uncomfortable or painful. Perhaps the reason Di Prisco understands stories so well is that he himself is a storyteller – a writer of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and memoir.

Joe Di Prisco, author and founder of the New Literary Project of Oakland. Photo: New Literary Project

The idea for the New Literary Project, also known as NewLit, began in 2016 with the notion of a major mid-career prize – an unusual goal in the world of literary prizes, which tends to honor individual books or beginning writers. Soon it grew to include the idea of ​​creative writing workshops for underserved young writers, led by graduate students from UC Berkeley’s English department. These The Simpson Fellows – named after philanthropists Sharon Simpson and the late Barclay Simpson, in honor of their lifelong support of the arts (NewLit was formerly known as the Simpson Literary Project) – teach free eight-week workshops at places like Juvenile Hall in Contra Costa County and Girls Inc. of Alameda County.

“Walking into these workshops at first, the space is very interesting,” says Julayne Virgil, CEO of Girls Inc. of Alameda Countya non-profit organization whose mission is to inspire girls in K-12 to be “strong, smart, and bold,” and provides academic support, leadership training, and a focus on mental health and The well-being. “These girls are very vulnerable. There is a question of: Who has the right to tell stories? What stories matter? Am I really supposed to share this?

Giving girls the confidence that their voice, their story, their art matters — and that “the way they see the world is meaningful” — can be transformative, Virgil says. She remembers a New Literary Project showcase where a father was crying as he listened to his daughter read her work. “It’s so important to her,” he told Virgil. “She will never be the same again.”

After teaching these kids, the Simpson Scholars aren’t the same either.

“It’s very different from the teaching our graduate students do here,” says Ian Duncan, an English professor and chair of the English department at Berkeley, who also sits on NewLit’s board of directors. Not only do the fellows teach writing rather than literature, he explains, but they work with teenagers in need. “It is moving and humbling to share work with these students. »

“If I take a big step back, in all these things we do, we try to raise a literate and democratic society,” adds Di Prisco. “It’s a whimsical way of saying what I really believe we need, which is to encourage people across generations to write their hearts and tell their stories.”

Each year, NewLit publishes these young writers in an anthology alongside other authors linked to the project. Previous editions have included Oates, T. Geronimo Johnson and Daniel Mason. A new edition, “Simpsonistas: Tales From the New Literary Project, Vol. 4,” should be released in October.

“These kids are on the page,” says Di Prisco. “They’re really excited to be released.”

NewLit also makes an important statement about storytelling by supporting mid-career writers.

Lauren Groff is the author of Matrix. Photo: Eli Sinkus

“There are a lot of awards for debut or early career books, and that’s understandable,” says Lauren Groffwinner of the 2022 Joyce Carol Oates Prize and author of six novels, including her most recent, “Matrix”.

Groff notes that at this point in his career, “I don’t think I can be considered bright and new anymore. The fear is that I find myself sinking a bit into the doldrums. Which makes the award not just a meaningful statement to Groff about his past work, but “a word of faith about the work I hope to do. I return to my office with renewed energy and joy.

This kind of support is important because stories matter. The research is wide and broad on the little things we tend to change people’s minds by throwing lots of data and opinions at them. But good novels have a way of showing us another point of view by putting us inside the mind of a character, instead of telling us what to think. And we need it right now.

“Culture, especially popular culture produced during times of great anxiety and tension like now, has a propensity to flatten stories, to make it seem like there are only a few ways to live a good life or being a human being in the world,” says Groff.

But exposure to varied, strange and thoughtful stories that question rather than answer, that are ambiguous rather than polemical, would create a more open-minded and thoughtful society, she adds.

Duncan also notes that in recent years he has seen a renewed commitment to the humanities and literary studies.

“There are so many shrill voices right now telling us what to think and how to think, it reminded us why fiction, why literature, why reading matters,” he says. “It’s all about questioning – it’s not a discipline that provides answers, like engineering.”

NewLit’s latest initiative to support storytellers is the Jack Hazard Scholarships for creative writers teaching high school. These $5,000 scholarships help recipients focus on creative writing – “one winner told me she was going to use the money for childcare so she could write over the summer” , says Di Prisco – with the understanding that they will return to their secondary schools to learn. While this year’s eight inaugural fellows are all in California, there are plans to go national next year.

Through it all, NewLit says it’s committed to raising diverse voices. The vast majority of people served by Simpson’s Writing Workshops are young writers of color (100% of Girls Inc. Workshop and Youth Room participants are Black, Indigenous or of color). It speaks to the core mission of the project, its understanding that it takes all kinds of people to tell stories – be it young people in a juvenile hall; girls who might be the first person in their family to be published; secondary school teachers with children and no free time; and surprisingly gifted writers who still need inspiration for their next books.

  • Anna Nordberg

    Anna Nordberg is a freelance journalist in San Francisco who writes about parenting, culture, books, and television.

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