By Jonah Grinkewitz

In the writing community, there is an adage that “everyone has a novel in them.” 

And while the medium may not always be a novel, ODU’s Writers in Community (WinC) program aims to help people from all backgrounds tell their story through fiction, poetry, essays and more. 

WinC, a branch of ODU’s Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program, is a nonprofit group dedicated to helping the diverse community of Hampton Roads cultivate literacy and creativity. 

It was founded by Paul Sznewajs, a graduate student who initiated a volunteer artist-in-residence writing program for the patients at Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters. 

Today, the program is led by a student coordinator in ODU’s MFA program who serves in a funded, assistantship role. Right now, that student is Kate Lewis, who studies nonfiction and previously was a freelance journalist with bylines in the New York Times, Washington Post and more. 

“Kate Lewis has taken the program in an exciting and innovative direction, both because of her experience as a professional writer and journalist and her commitment to the Hampton Roads community,” said Kent Wascom, program director for ODU’s MFA in creative writing. 

Since she started leading WinC in fall 2022, Lewis has reinvigorated partnerships post-pandemic with organizations like the Norfolk SPCA, the Southside Boys & Girls Club, the Norfolk Botanical Garden and various public schools in the region to conduct workshops, readings and more led by ODU graduate students. 

“It's also a great way for our MFA students to not only gain a variety of experiences that they can be proud to add to their professional resumes, but also experience the different ways community is important to the writing life,” said Luisa Igloria, Louis I. Jaffe Professor of Creative Writing and English at ODU and former Virginia poet laureate. 

Serenity Marshall, a student in the MFA program studying fiction, teamed up with Lewis to teach a March workshop on creative writing at the Slover Library in Norfolk. 

“Whether it’s out in the wild or through WinC, I’ve found that so many people just want to express themselves,” Marshall said. “And I think that whether you want to be a professional writer or you just want to write pretty poems to your girlfriend, reading and writing are something that people really want to do.” 

This month, WinC partnered with the SPCA to write bios for adoptable animals, hoping the power of words can help them find their forever homes. They also partnered with the Southside Boys & Girls Club to offer suggestions about writing essays for scholarships.

Marshall said one of the challenges for young people as they express themselves through writing is the fear of being rejected. 

“I think it’s a very vulnerable practice,” she said. “So when we do some of these events, and we meet kids like the ones in the Boys & Girls Club who are so terrified to share themselves and we work with them and help them see the power of their words, it’s a really special, fun moment.” 

WinC is also active on ODU’s campus, collaborating with other departments and doing readings at events like Mars Fest. Most recently, they teamed up with ODU Associate Professor Kevin Moberly to start a video game design and writing collaboration group, and third-year MFA fiction candidate Caitie Van Dore taught a class at the Slover Library on writing for video games.

“I want to shout out Kate Lewis, because I think that her creative vision has driven the program even further than what I imagined it could be,” Marshall said. 

When Lewis graduates in Spring 2024, a new student from the MFA program will take over as coordinator. Wascom hopes the program will continue to have a diverse engagement with the community. 

“We’re giving people tools that are otherwise difficult to access based on money, geography and time,” Wascom said. “People who have the tools to express themselves are then able to advocate for themselves. You’re giving them ownership of the arts — it is theirs and something they can do.”