William & Mary

Reading, Writing and Rapt Audiences

William and Mary may not offer a master of fine arts in creative writing, but it attracts big literary talent and provides a rich cultural experience through its Patrick Hayes Writers Festival. For almost two decades, the Festival (which has evolved into a year-long series) has brought prominent and emerging poets, novelists and nonfiction writers to campus to share their work and meet with students, faculty and members of the community.

“It’s kind of the flagship program of the English Department and one of my favorite campus events,” says Philip Zapfel ’09, a dual major in English and environmental science with a penchant for creative writing. “Everyone knows the Patrick Hayes Writers Festival.”

Such was not always the case. Once threatened with cancellation due to lack of funding, the festival came roaring back to life in 1991 when the late Patrick Hayes, a longtime benefactor of the College, created an endowment that would bring major writers to campus in perpetuity.

“Patrick Hayes literally rescued the festival from the brink,” says Professor of English Nancy Schoenberger, who currently organizes the festival’s events. “Since then, it’s become a terrific opportunity for our students and the community.”

Formerly held once a year in April, visiting writers now come to campus throughout the academic year to give public readings and lectures and occasionally visit classes. The College’s writer-in-residence also participates, as do faculty members who publish poetry and fiction. The series gives students the opportunity to meet authors up close and even discuss works with writers they’re studying in class. They also receive tips on how to become writers themselves.

“You get to meet real people, not just names in a book,” says David Edmondson ’10, a psychology and literary and cultural studies double major. “Talking with writers about their experiences, you can see yourself doing the same and getting published.”

The Williamsburg community likewise reaps the benefits of the series. Such authors as A.S. Byatt (Possession: A Romance), Christopher Bram ’74 (Father of Frankenstein), and crime novelist James Ellroy have filled Colonial Williamsburg’s Kimball Theatre to bursting. And a partial list of past participants reveals such literary giants as Allen Ginsberg, Seamus Heaney, Charles Simic, Billy Collins, Michael Ondaatje and Ntozake Shange.

“In a way, the series is a public face of what the William and Mary English Department does — and both have lasting value,” says Schoenberger. “Thanks to the generosity of Patrick Hayes, the Writers Festival is the gift that keeps on giving.”