Reluctant writer reads works in St. Louis

SOUTHINGTON — Mathew Mitchell didn’t want to write.

When he was 17, “My mom kind of forced to me to attend the Emerging Writing Camp at Hiram,” the 19-year-old Southington man said. “I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to do studio art.”

The college offered an art camp at the same time as the writing camp. “And I really wanted to go to the art camp. So my mom says why don’t you do both? And, I said fine.”

He attended the writing camp reluctantly. “I don’t know, I kind of fell in love with writing.”

In October, Mitchell stood before the Midwest Popular Culture Association 2017 Conference in St. Louis and presented the essay he wrote on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir “Fun Home.”

Approximately 80 speakers presented at the conference, and Mitchell, now a Hiram sophomore majoring in creative writing with a minor in history, was one of the few college-aged presenters. Most were older.

It was the first time Mitchell presented — or attended — an academic conference.

“Getting into the conference helped me see there’s so much more I can do with my writing,” he said. “My expectations for myself are higher now. The compliments I got at the conference started to make me realize, ‘This might be a career for you, and what you are doing, you are on the right path.'”

The type of writing he wants to do seemingly changes every day, he said.

“My ultimate goal would be to write for ‘Saturday Night Live.’ That would be awesome. Right now, today, I want to be a fiction writer. I do a little bit of journalism.”

He ended up playing catch-up after the conference. “That’s the thing about leaving Hiram. When you go away for four or five days, and you come back, you feel like you have missed an entire semester of coursework.”

Mitchell just completed a fiction writing class. Next semester he is moving onto a screenwriting course and a nonfiction course.

It was for an introduction to literature class last spring that Mitchell wrote the paper about Bechdel’s “Fun Home.” There are many literary references throughout the memoir. Mitchell said his professor encouraged him to write about not all the references, but to choose one that most people do not write about.

Mitchell chose the “Happy Death” reference by Albert Camus. His paper compares the life and writing of Camus, a French philosopher, with the final, tragic moments of the “Fun Home” character Bruce Bechdel.

“Camus is an absurdist writer and Bruce Bechdel is an absurd person,” Mitchell said.

While writing and rewriting the paper, he said he learned the basic structures of how to craft a college essay. “It is miles away from a high school essay. The version of an essay I learned in high school would never get a good grade in college.”

“One thing that is very cool here is that every student has to take a colloquium. It is a required class that teaches basic reading comprehension and how to write a college essay. And in the spring, we have to take a seminar class where you write more essays,” Mathews said.

“You develop a more cohesive way. You should know how to write an essay.”

With encouragement and advice from his instructor, Kirsten Parkinson, Ph.D., a John S. Kenyon professor of English, Mitchell continued to refine his paper, titled “Bruce Bechdel’s ‘Happy Death’ in ‘Fun Home'” well after the literature course ended.

“Matt is a dedicated student who goes the extra mile,” Parkinson said. “In Introduction to Literary Studies, he regularly came to talk to me about his essays outside of class. He also read an extra novel in order to write the essay that he will be presenting at the conference. Those are marks of someone who is really interested in learning and growing as a thinker and writer.”

Parkinson said she is a big believer in getting students work outside of the classroom. She regularly encourages students in 200-300 level classes to submit their essays to conferences and journals. In her 400-level class, students are required to submit an essay to a conference.

“That moment of getting an acceptance can be a great confidence boost; it tells students that their ideas matter to the larger world,” Parkinson said.

Mitchell had read his writings in front of others before. He placed in The Barbara Thompson Short Fiction competition and the Vachel Lindsay Poetry Contest, both sponsored by Hiram. Both entries were based on his grandmother.

“My family has been in Southington since the ’40s,” said Mitchell, the son of fellow Chalker High School graduates Jennifer and David Mitchell.

Mathew’s mother went to Hiram. “My Dad always teased her because of the mascot, the Terriers. They were not very intimidating. I was like, I don’t want to go there. My mom went there.”

She convinced him to go on a campus tour. “I fell in love with Hiram,” he said.

While at Hiram, He also won the Richard C. and Jo Ann Murphy Underwood Memorial Scholarship award for Journalism. He served as a Teaching Assistant at the very same writing conference he did not want to attend.

“It was interesting winning stuff as a freshman.”

And being a presenter at an academic conference in St. Louis.

“My hotel had an incredible view of the arch,” he said.