Faces of SAL: Kip Greenthal, Co-Founder of WITS
March 11, 2021
By Gabriela Denise Frank
Talking with the writer Kip Greenthal who, with SAL Founder Sherry Prowda, launched the Writers in the Schools (WITS) program, brought to mind a quote by Grace Paley: “Every story is two stories. The one on the surface and the one bubbling beneath. The climax is when they collide.” In pop culture parlance, this phenomenon is called crossing the streams.
The meme comes from the movie Ghostbusters where we’re first told that the explosive release of proton energy caused by crossing power streams will likely result in death via disintegration. However, at the movie’s climax, we learn that combining the streams actually focuses the proton energy. Crossing the streams of their weapons allows the Ghostbusters to reverse the swing of a spiritual doorway and vanquish Zuul, the baddie ghost terrorizing New York City.
Which is to say, the outcome of crossing streams is unpredictable; there’s potent energy to be found by combining forces. Anyone who has read a braided story, poem, or essay has felt this POW! where the threads come together. A burst of insight ignites at the meeting point.
Stories of energetic pairs coming together were threaded throughout Kip’s and my conversation: how she came to meet Sherry; the two public schools where the WITS pilot program began; the first writers in residence and classroom teachers; the maritime landscapes of Puget Sound and Nova Scotia where Kip’s novel Shoal Water was born; the professional friendships Kip made—her right arm and her left, as she called two teachers in particular; and, certainly, the many writers Kip brought into Seattle classrooms and the young poets they mentored there. If climax is where stories come together, mentorship is the crossroads where WITS writers and students meet.
If we’re lucky, we’ve had at least one true mentor in our lives—a classroom teacher, perhaps, who recognized potential in us. Or maybe it was a less formal apprenticeship with a friend, a neighbor, or an elder relative whose counsel helped us find ourselves. That is the role—one of opening and igniting—played by visiting WITS writers who, in collaboration with classroom teachers, inspire and encourage students to explore who they are through writing. While the “hard” skills of improved communication are an important outcome of WITS, they are only half the story.
“It starts with trust,” Kip said when describing the residencies. “A lot of students have a fear of writing. The writers I worked with, their emphasis was on trying to take away the students’ self-consciousness, to help them understand that writing is a practice and a way of communicating with the world.”
For some of us, hurdles related to writing arise long before our pencil meets paper. It’s less about mastering techniques of craft and more about working through self-doubt. Students may hesitate to write because they fear the world isn’t interested in their story; they may question whether they have a right to speak or write at all.
“We started with ten-day residences and two- and three-week residences where the writer would go in every day. It was intensive,” Kip said. “Students had the chance to bond with the writer, and I think it really made the difference. After two or three days of forming that bond and trust, then the practice and act of teaching could begin.”
Mentorship comes down to the crossroads where we meet each other as humans. In a literature class, it’s not only about learning to think critically about a poem or write persuasively, it’s learning how to be vulnerable, how to combine communication skills with personal stories—it’s learning how to share life wisdom with others, how to make sense of the overlap between the known, the imagined, and the lived.
As a social species, we are all teachers for each other. We transmit knowledge through communal interaction, but mentorship goes beyond this. Mentorship is creating space for possibility and the unexpected to play, for experimentation and risk-taking, for curiosity and creativity.
A mentor helps us find our way past rules and conformity to the open range of the mind. A mentor encourages us not to be inhibited by stumbling, imperfection, or failure. A mentor urges us not to repeat what’s been done; our work is not to take a safe road or arrive at the “right” answer. The role of the mentor is to wake us up in the heart and the mind where daily life has dulled us. A mentor encourages us to speak in our unique voice and say what only we can.
Where a mentor’s story meets our central plot our habits are interrupted. The work of mentorship is disruptive, like proton streams when they meet. It sparks a dissolution of self—the self that came before—and blasts open a door. In setting loose the thing we fear might be our undoing—who we really are—we tap into the power that was inside us all along.
“What’s so magical about Writers in the Schools is a sense of opportunity, awakening, and freedom,” Kip said. “Not feeling like you have to hold yourself in. Whether it’s science fiction or fantasy or poetry, it’s all about sparking the imagination. That’s the origin, you know—the spark between the writer and the student getting excited.”
Another way to say it is, crossing the streams.
This interview has been edited for clarity and flow.
Gabriela Frank: How did Writers in the Schools (WITS) start?
Kip Greenthal: It’s a wonderful story about how Sherry [Prowda, the founder of Seattle Arts & Lectures] hired me. It’s not typical of today’s world. I had been taking a class from Brenda Peterson, and Sherry knew Brenda; in the meantime, Sherry was getting calls from Elaine Wetterauer, who worked in the language arts department at Nathan Hale High School. Elaine kept asking for tickets for her students to come to readings—she was particularly excited about Louise Erdrich—and Elaine called Sherry probably six times during the year and made it clear that Seattle Arts & Lectures needed to reach students.
Sherry called Brenda and said she needed somebody to start an education program because Elaine kept calling. She told Brenda that she needed somebody who was a mother, a teacher, and a writer—and there I was in Brenda Peterson’s class. Brenda said, “Call Kip Greenthal.” One night, I got call from Sherry, who I’d never met, but I had gone to Seattle Arts & Lectures. She said, “I don’t know if you know who I am,” and I said, “I certainly do—I’m a subscriber and I love your series.” She said, “Brenda gave me your name. Would you be interested in coming in and having a conversation with me about starting an education program?” and I said, “Sure, I’d love it.” I mean, it was like a dream come true.
Gabriela: Those moments when paths converge have a quality of fate to them.
Kip: A call of clouds. We met at a coffee shop in Madison Valley and talked for a couple of hours. We hit it off; it was just wonderful. At this time, Seattle Arts & Lectures had space at NBBJ, the architectural firm. I thought to myself, Gosh, Sherry must need, you know, an application or my resume or something. I called the office and Judy at SAL told me, “Go ahead and send it in.” So I sent it in.
Then Sherry called me and said, “I’d love to work with you. Come in, and let’s start to work.” So I came in. The first three months we spent talking and thinking about how we could bring writers into the schools and how to work with teachers so they would be prepared to have writers come into their classrooms. It was one of my favorite times. We did research for six to twelve months—we basically started it on our own. What I really appreciated was, Sherry gave me a lot of freedom.
I discovered that the University of Washington had the Puget Sound Writing Program for teachers in the summer. I thought, Ah, that would be perfect. We had enough in our budget to send two teachers to the program, and that was how we began. Terri Stone from Eckstein Middle School took the program and she loved it. She was becoming imbued with the idea of being a writer and teaching writing to students. That was the pivotal point for me. It’s not easy for a teacher who isn’t ready for writers to come in; it isn’t easy to know how to integrate a writer into their curriculum. We really worked hard on that. And Elaine Wetterauer, she was my tried and true. I can honestly say she was my right arm. I just loved her. Part of the reason there’s a scholarship in her honor [with Seattle Schools, supporting a female scholar from Nathan Hale High School each year] is because Elaine was right there at the beginning with me.
Gabriela: This all happened in the early 1990s?
Kip: This would have been about 1992. We worked a long time before we actually launched the three-year pilot project. Elaine Wetterauer was my lead teacher at Nathan Hale and Terri Stone was at Eckstein Middle School. I worked hand in hand with them. It was also important to have the principals on board. Eric Benson at Nathan Hale was very supportive and offered any support we needed. It was very exciting. Our first writer at Nathan Hale was Tamra Madison Shaw, a beautiful poet.
I should also comment on Mary Jane Knecht; Sherry brought her on board at this time. Mary Jane had been working at Copper Canyon Press, and she came to us very experienced in grant writing. The Lannan Foundation gave us the resources for the first grant to bring in writers who were actually paid. That was a big deal, to professionally pay writers to come in and work with teachers. So, Tamra Madison Shaw was the first writer going into Nathan Hale in Elaine Wetterauer’s class, and Nancy Rawles was the first writer who went into Eckstein Middle School. Elaine was my right arm, and Nancy was my left arm in starting this program. Nancy was just wonderful, and she’s still teaching today. It’s all about relationships and working with wonderful people to make something like this happen.
Gabriela: Was WITS open to any and all schools?
Kip: Not at that point. We decided to have it be a pilot program because we wanted to evaluate its success. It was all about launching. Nathan Hale and Eckstein were our two major schools at the beginning. After the three-year pilot project, we opened it up to other schools in the Seattle School District. After the pilot project revealed the success of the program, we were able to go to the principals of each school and request that schools buy into the program. That was a huge piece of work, a huge first step. That was the fifth year we were in existence, but year three of pilot project; I wrote a book about it and all residencies. It was very important to have that as a model. Other schools heard through word of mouth and became excited; they called and wanted to be a part of it. Initially, schools paid $3,000. It was important to get that investment.
One of the challenges in being funded by the Lannan Foundation was finding published authors. You don’t always find writers who like to teach—Nancy Rawles was an exception. She had published four books. Jack Nisbet was published by Sasquatch press. Brenda Peterson was published by many different presses. I found people, but it wasn’t easy. Tamra Madison Shaw was well-published poet. And Laney Brown—she’s no longer living in the area—was published by University Press and taught at Chief Sealth High School. She had a wonderful exercise where she brought in poems written in other languages, and she would have the kids imagine what the translation would be.
Gabriela: What were those first residencies like?
Kip: We would have three or four meetings before a writer would come into the classroom to teach. Those were essential. I would ask the teachers when they needed a writer, and I had one say, “During our punctuation period.” Jan Wallace, who was a wonderful poet, was challenged by that. She said, “I’d love to work with punctuation. That’s what poetry is all about.” That was fun, and it worked out well.
Our initial residencies were intensive. We had ten-day residences, and then two- and three-week residences where the writer would go in every day. It wasn’t like once a day over weeks—it was intensive. That way, students had the chance to bond with the writer. I think it really made the difference in launching the program because of the stories that came out of it, the students being inspired. They needed the repetition of time to develop trust. So many students hated writing, so it was a barricade that the teaching writer would have to get through. After two or three days of forming that bond and trust, then the practice and act of teaching could begin. So that was the initial look of a residency, a writer coming in every day for either ten days or three weeks. Then it did change.
Years later, when Matt Brogan came on board as the executive director of Seattle Arts & Lectures, he liked the model. That’s when I went to WITS Houston, where they had a huge program and sent writers into many different schools. WITS was there because there was a creative writing program at the University of Houston. Writers could only go into the classroom one day a week because they were also students. At that point, we decided to change the residences so that writers could go in one day a week. It made it easier for writers to be able to come on board and teach, but some still request the intensive residency, I’ve heard. The WITS program respects different writers and how they’d like to work in terms of time. I value that.
Gabriela: In what ways did you see WITS students change?
Kip: Oh, I have so many memories. I’ll tell you a couple of my favorite stories. From Curbstone Press, we brought in Wayne Karlin, who put together an anthology [The Other Side of Heaven: Post-War Fiction by Vietnamese and American Writers] written by American writers who had served in Vietnam, North Vietnamese writers who served in what they called the American war, and South Vietnamese writers. He set up a tour around the country. I brought in Wayne and his co-editors, Lê Minh Khuê and Truong Vu.
But what was so powerful was that there were a lot of Vietnamese students in the classroom. A lot of the students didn’t know if they were from the north or the south; most of them had been born in the United States or came in as babies. After the class, they all got together and couldn’t stop talking. They wanted to share their own stories.
Another writer I brought in—this was at Nathan Hale—was Daran Kravanh, a Cambodian writer and an accordion player. He said his life was saved by playing the accordion during the Khmer Rouge. His book [Music Through the Dark: A Tale of Survival in Cambodia] was published by the University of Hawaii. He came into a class that had a number of Asian students. He talked about his experience and played the accordion, then afterwards several students came up to him. They had disguised themselves in school as being Vietnamese, when indeed they were actually Cambodian. For the first time, they spoke in Cambodian. They were too ashamed of their history to acknowledge being Cambodian, so they disguised themselves as Vietnamese.
Another story, which is a little different, is about Jack Nisbet, a natural history writer who writes from different places in Washington State. I think of him as sort of an archaeologist. He’s published by Sasquatch. Jack would go into some of the really tough classes where kids would come into class and just put their heads on their arms. They had no interest. They were on the verge of being suspended. Jack would bring in plants and rocks and all kinds of different tactile things. He would put them in front of the kids and say, “What does this make you think? What kind of plant do you think this is?” and they would look up. It was so powerful to watch the spark that someone like Jack could bring to these kids.
Gabriela: It’s hard to imagine being paired with a WITS writer and not coming out changed.
Kip: That’s it exactly. One of the things I used to do for Seattle Arts Commission was show the change. I would show the first piece of work, because we always had to show them something at the very beginning, then show them a piece of work after the writer had been in the classroom. It was really powerful.
Gabriela: What is it that lights kids up? Is it the focus of time and attention?
Kip: I think it starts with trust. I learned over the years that a teacher has to establish trust to open a student up. There is sort of a defense mechanism for a lot of kids. First, develop that trust, then excitement. Find some way to get them excited rather than come in and say, “You should do X, Y, or Z.” Come in and ask questions like, “What are you interested in?” Or, the way I described with Jack Nisbet with his plants and rocks—or music, sound, or using the senses.
Laura Gamache brought in fruit. She’d put fruit on all the kids’ desks and have them touch, feel, and smell it, then get them to write about fruit. I think a lot of students have a fear of writing, that you have to be really smart. The writers that I worked with, all their emphasis was on trying to loosen the students up, take away their self-consciousness—help them understand that writing is a practice and a way of communicating with the world. We also worked with students on their college applications—we weren’t just trying to create great writers—an important part of the program was about writing as communication.
Gabriela: What is your impression of the WITS program today?
Kip: What I see as the main change is that it’s gotten so big. I think that’s wonderful. At the time I left, we were very small—eight schools with four residences in each school. But it had a strong foundation, so it was able to expand. The year after I left, it expanded into 10 schools. It went in stages. The other break that WITS has gotten is that teachers don’t necessarily have to be published. I was under that [constraint] because of grants, and I think it’s a little freer now. Writers don’t necessarily have to have a MFA or a PhD, just maybe a history of teaching writing, which I think is good. I’m envious because that was sometimes difficult.
Gabriela: After you left SAL in the early 2000s, did you move into writing full-time? How did your writing life evolve?
Kip: I’ve been a writer since I was six years old. I was an only child for eleven years, then I got a sister at age eleven. It was the happiest thing that ever happened to me, but I was a private writer. I wrote letters and diaries—I always wrote—writing was my best friend.
So, yeah, I wanted to keep working in the arts, and I’d say my career revolved around the book. I worked in public libraries, then eventually in school libraries. All that time, it was about loving writing and loving reading; I was working full-time, so it wasn’t easy to write a book, but I did get the idea for my novel while I lived in Nova Scotia for twelve years from 1971 to 1983. I got the idea in the last year of my living there.
When I returned to the Pacific Northwest, I worked again in libraries. I started writing scenes for the book—that’s when I started taking Brenda Peterson’s class in Seattle—I would call it the sloppy first draft, you know, when you’re just getting everything out. I was a weekend writer because I was working full-time and raising two girls with my husband Stanley, but I didn’t have the time to write full-time. When I left Writers in the Schools, Matt Brogan, who was then the director, said, “What are you going to do now?” and I said, “I finally get to write my novel.”
I jumped into being a full-time writer and, of course, life always gets in the way. So many things happened. I got involved with boards, and my mother died, but I never gave up on Shoal Water. I had an agent who sent it out. She didn’t have any luck, but she would always get nice rejects. I learned so much from writing Shoal Water. Number one, I learned that I love the characters, and I was willing to work a long time to develop them better and develop the story better. I can’t even tell you how many drafts I went through—I mean, probably 20 easily. Out of the blue, a friend encouraged me to apply for the Landmark Prize to Homebound Publications. I didn’t think they’d be interested in a story that takes place in a fishing community in Nova Scotia, but it turns out Homebound is right next door to Mystic, Connecticut, which is a fishing town. Much to my amazement, I got the opportunity to have a contract and publisher. If I can do anything, I want to inspire and encourage people to never give up.
Gabriela: How did living in Nova Scotia shape you as a writer or influence your work with WITS?
Kip: That’s a good question. I worked at the library in Lunenburg, a small town of about 3,000 people, and I had a kind of genetic bond with Nova Scotia. I have cousins who came from Scotland to Cape Breton to Nova Scotia. You know when you go somewhere, and you recognize a sort of deep sense of recognition? I definitely had that with Nova Scotia, working at the library. Lunenberg is a fishing town, and many people from that way of life came in to use the library and they also volunteered. I met many fishermen. I also met school teachers, retired principals, and I met people who descended from rum runners. I got imbued with the place and the characters of the people. Even though I was a private writer, I knew I wanted to write a novel.
While I was there, a sad accident occurred. That accident—a light went on in my head and triggered the whole book. But the interesting thing is, the accident is towards the end of the book. My work was to learn about the characters, their backgrounds, and the relationships that led to this particular accident. That’s the formation of the book. I didn’t write anything while I was living in Nova Scotia; it was actually coming back here that I started to write the book. In a way, I’ve been living in Nova Scotia ever since I left.
Gabriela: What are you writing now?
Kip: Right now I’m in the thick of marketing Shoal Water. I’m actually going through the typeset pages, and so I’m not in the creative place right now. I’m in the working-and-getting-everything-ready place. But I have a second book that I’m working on. I’m not sure what the title is going to be, but it’s centered around an old family home in Seattle called East Lee. It’s a series of stories and points that address issues of family violence. It’s not an easy subject, but it’s something I’m devoted to writing about in a way that could be helpful to others.
Gabriela: What is bringing you delight these days?
Kip: I feel very lucky to be close to friends on Lopez Island. Friendship means a lot to me, and I delight in the writing experience and being able to write. I love to write poetry. I don’t think of myself as a marketing person, but getting Shoal Water out there in the world—it comes out in October of 2021—I have a lot of launching work to do. And then there are my two children and my four grandchildren. I have a daughter in Brooklyn with two kids and we’ve Zoomed every Sunday. That’s just a treasure. A sacred time to spend time together. Eventually, I’ll be able to see them. And right now I’m reading Deep River by Karl Marlantes. It’s about Vietnam. He’s a wonderful writer, and I’m loving this book. I also would love to bring to your attention to Sweetland by Michael Crummey. He is a fascinating writer and I highly recommend him.
Gabriela: Before we go, can you share a reflection on WITS, lo these many years later?
Kip: I would say that children are magical. I mean, they’re born with their own spirits and curiosity. They grow older, of course, and the world starts coming in at them and they form themselves in a variety of ways. I think what’s so magical about Writers in the Schools is a sense of opportunity, awakening, and freedom. Not feeling like you have to hold yourself in. When a writer comes in with the idea of encouraging kids to use their imagination, that’s what it’s all about: using the imagination and feeling free to go anywhere, whether it’s science fiction or fantasy or poetry. We did a lot of cross-curriculum where an author would go from history to math to science to language arts. To see that writing can carry suit with those subjects—a cross-humanities curriculum—it’s all about sparking the imagination. That’s the origin, you know, the spark between the writer and the student getting excited.
Gabriela Denise Frank is a literary artist whose work has appeared in galleries, storefronts, libraries, anthologies, magazines, podcasts, and online. Her essays and fiction have been published in True Story, Hunger Mountain, Bayou, Baltimore Review, Crab Creek Review, Pembroke, The Normal School, and The Rumpus. A Jack Straw Writer and Artist Trust EDGE alumna, Gabriela’s work is supported by 4Culture, Mineral School, Vermont Studio Center, Jack Straw, Invoking the Pause, and the Civita Institute. www.gabrieladenisefrank.com.