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Writer Sarah Shotland sharing her words, gifts with the masses

| Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Sarah Shotland
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Sarah Shotland
Sarah Shotland, the author of the novel “Junkette” (White Gorilla Press)
Teake Zuidema
Sarah Shotland, the author of the novel “Junkette” (White Gorilla Press)

What does it mean to be a writer? Sarah Shotland, a novelist, playwright and adjunct professor of writing at Chatham University, says there's a misconception about what the profession entails among students.

Some think “you sit in your studio and write for four or five hours a day, send it off to an editor who cleans and polishes it, they send it to an agent, and then you end up on a book tour,” Shotland says. “Which is not the case at all. Because of pop culture, the myth of the writer's life is there.”

Shotland will speak Feb. 15 at the Pitt-Greensburg Written/Spoken Word Series. Also appearing is Gretchen Uhrinek, a senior writing major at Pitt-Greensburg and the winner of the 2016 Scott Turow Prize in Fiction, which included a full scholarship to Chautauqua Institution's Summer Writers Festival.

Shotland is the author of the novel “Junkette.” Her plays, including “Cereus Moonlight,” have been performed in New Orleans, Dallas, Chicago, Madrid, Spain, and Chongqing, China.

As a teacher, Shotland finds that students are still interested in writing despite the constant presence of social media. Often cast as a villain in the diminution of literacy, there is a silver lining to Twitter and other outlets: providing a platform “to give people a voice.”

“It does, I think, keep writing central in kids' lives,” Shotland says.

The good news is there are still aspiring writers. Each semester Shotland encounters students who produce good fiction, nonfiction and poetry.

But reading is not always a priority.

“There are some kids who are incredibly well read and some kids who have never read a full book,” Shotland says. “I find that I don't meet a lot of young kids who fall somewhere in the middle. … It's either you're all in, or you have no exposure.”

Shotland is also the co-founder of Words Without Walls, a creative partnership between Chatham and the Allegheny County Jail, the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh (which is scheduled to close this year), and Sojourner House in East Liberty, a residential drug and alcohol treatment program for mothers and their children.

The program attracts participants who are avid readers and writers, “secret writers” who keep their work locked in a drawer, and those who “never liked English class” but are seeking a diversion from the “monotony of life in prison or jail,” Shotland says.

“All of those people end up having a positive experience, I think, in the class,” she says. “Having that mixture of people in the class is really beneficial for everybody.”

What Shotland didn't expect from Words Without Walls was the diversity of the classes. Students range from those with advanced degrees to aspiring writers with no formal education, and include all racial and economic backgrounds.

“Those people can all get in a class together and start to have intellectual discussions,” she says.

Those discussions also happen in academic settings, and buoy Shotland's sense of purpose. There's nothing better for her than introducing a student to a writer who becomes a favorite.

“I think people still really respond to exceptional writing,” she says, “maybe because there's so much mediocre writing that people are bombarded with. You can really tell the difference.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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