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It was seventeen years ago this month that Michael Henry and I packed up what we had (not much) and moved our fledgling writing workshop from Boston to Denver. Anyone who’s part of Lighthouse now knows that the transformation in the intervening years, the growth from a small operation to Denver’s thriving literary center, is attributable to two things: (1) the talented, well-read, fun (seriously fun!) bookish types who have congregated here over the years and (2) the dedicated (and seriously fun!) writers who teach here. It was and is my belief that our core faculty ranks among the best of any program—academic or not—in the country.
About ten years ago we began entertaining the idea that Lighthouse could reward the instructors who give so much of their heart and time and wisdom to the community. In my dreams, this faculty reward would be a huge prize—like $35,000—so that the writers could take a year off and just write, fed by the very community they feed. As with everything, I had to make adjustments to this dream. When a group of students in William Haywood Henderson’s workshop approached us about starting a $1,000 teaching award in his honor, funded completely by students in the workshops and other members, we thought it was a lovely idea. They would nominate, deliberate, and select a recipient each year. We would stand by and applaud, gratefully. While the award is short by $34K of the original dream, there’s a handsome obelisk for the recipient’s bookshelf or mantel. And yes, we still have dreams of bolstering that fund.
A few weeks ago, a Beacon conclave—made up of students, volunteers, and board members—gathered at Lighthouse, read through some truly impassioned nominations from students, and muscled through the deliberations to find this year’s awardee. That person, I’m delighted to announce, is Erika Krouse. It was almost seven years ago that I received an e-mail from her out of the blue, a message saying that she’d heard it was fun to teach at Lighthouse and if we ever needed another fiction writer… I’d admired her fiction in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and in her award-winning collection, Come Up and See Me Sometime. If she was alarmed by my alacrity (I think I responded in 4.5 seconds), she didn’t let it show. We hired her, of course. Since that time, students have approached me and told me what a genius she is, how incredibly brilliant, how generous. As a mentor in The Book Project, she takes her mentees on field trips, to dinners out with her agent, and gives them open access to her various eccentric systems for writing and life. One of her nominators, Meghan Barker, offered to write up a piece on her, which we include below. Although it’s tradition to bestow this award at the Back to School Party each year, Erika’s going to be out of state during that party so we’re delaying the official ceremony until December. In the meantime, please join us in congratulating her and join us for the August 16 celebration of all our amazing faculty.
The Great Treasure Trove of Erika Krouse
by Meghan Barker
I first met Erika at a one-day workshop with Lighthouse some years ago. This was back when one-days were still held in Panera Bread, and we did our best to pretend not to hear the intermittent “Laura, your order is ready” and “Tomato soup for Julio” announcements over the loudspeaker. The workshop was called “When You Are Stuck,” and it’s one well worth taking if you ever get the chance. To that workshop Erika brought an accordion file stuffed full of magazine clippings, photographs, notecards with quotes on them, you name it, and she passed it around the class, allowing us to browse through her folder full of inspiration. I felt like she cracked open her brain and let us all peek inside, bearing witness to the genius and madness therein. She used the file as just a small example of some of the tools she implements when she herself hits a wall in her writing, and it is an image that has stuck with me since then: her happy grin as we ogled her creativity treasure trove.
If you’ve taken a writing workshop or two, you probably know that a writer’s talent doesn’t necessarily correlate to his teaching abilities. Maybe you’ve had the unfortunate experience—though not at Lighthouse, of course—of signing up for a class offered by one of your favorite authors, only to find out that he “gives bad workshop.” He may be able to craft beautiful, poignant sentences, but he doesn’t have a lick of useful or relevant guidance to offer. Or worse: what few glimmers he does offer are housed in so much pretension and ego, they’re almost impossible to swallow. Take a single workshop from Erika, and she’ll wash that bad workshop taste right out of your mouth.
Erika is a student’s instructor, putting herself on par with her participants. She’ll be the first to admit that she faces the same challenges we do. But instead of commiserating and groaning about how awful it is to be writer that’s blocked, or that hates revising, or is stuck in any other room of his own devising, she’ll shine a light on the exit. Her writing tool box is chock-full, and she’s more than willing to share. In class, she’ll take what she calls her “teaching moments” to sketch out her “martini glass” model, or a quick description of the inverted check mark of rising action and resolution. She’ll do so apologetically, asking permission of the group to be a professor for a moment before diving right back in to whoever’s story is being workshopped at the time. Her participants’ work is that important to her.
When Lighthouse put out a call for nominations for their annual Beacon Award, I almost didn’t nominate Erika. She was such an obvious choice to me, that I thought surely she had already received one. But she hadn’t yet, so I nominated her, and it didn’t come as much of a surprise when I was told that she won. Of course she won. She’s the best.
Erika is smart and bubbly and engaging and talented. And she’ll read your writing and she’ll cheer it along in all the best, most genuine ways, and she’ll tell you exactly what it’s missing, or what there is too much of, and she’ll say it all so humbly, like she hasn’t had a story published in the New Yorker, or released a collection that got blurbed by Jennifer Egan, like she’s just a friend offering you her suggestions.
I’ve written some of my best fiction in Erika’s workshops over the years. She is a staple at Lit Fest, and we Boulderites are lucky to have her teaching fiction workshops up in these parts. Lighthouse has come a long way since its Panera days. We can now sit through workshops peacefully, sans loudspeaker interruptions. But one thing that I’m grateful has remained the same is Erika’s generous smile, and her seemingly unending supply of precious writing wisdom.
Meghan Barker is a fiction writer who pays the bills by making people sweat. A certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor, she wishes there were a certification for marathon short story reading. She lives with her husband in Lafayette, Colorado.