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Greyfriar Visitor: Dr. Dionne Irving

Siena College’s Greyfriar Living Literature Series is known for bringing some of the best literary writers to campus! When these esteemed individuals visit Siena, they read excerpts from their recent work, teach workshops on writing skills, and/or lead conversations about their writing techniques. On Nov. 2, Dr. Dionne Irving held a Craft Talk called “How to Clap Back and Flex in Fiction: Considering Contemporary Culture in Literary Fiction” and a reading/book signing later that afternoon. Irving is the author of the novel “Quint” and her fiction and nonfiction works have been published in places like “The Crab Orchard Review,” “The Missouri Review” and “Boulevard Magazine.” Her short story collection, “Islands,” is set to be published by Catapult next year.

Irving’s Craft Talk centered around how contemporary culture functions in a fiction landscape. In considering popular culture’s place in literary fiction, she concluded that works that effectively use these elements can establish characters amidst an important cultural moment or historic event. Her presentation applied a variety of quotes from several novels to showcase examples of writing that master this technique. In doing so, she asked the young authors in the room to consider how they may employ some of the techniques to build upon their own writing. In particular, Eileen Musico found the presentation very beneficial: “I enjoyed Dr. Irving’s Craft Talk so much! It was nice to get a lot of new tricks and tips to help improve my writing skills.”

When it comes to the writing process, Dr. Irving admits that her writing schedule is fairly complicated. With a job as a professor, a husband and a 6-year-old at home, Dr. Irving explains that it can be difficult to find time to brainstorm new ideas. She remarks, “I write whenever I can… I try to make sure I write a couple of times a week. But when, where, and how that comes is not conclusive.” So, she writes in the morning, at night, or even when she is eating because these free moments are rare and original thoughts are often fleeting. She admits that if she actively tried to set aside time to write, it likely wouldn’t get done since most writers make excuses as to why they can’t focus on their creative work.

Image courtesy of The Missouri Review

When asked where she gets her story ideas from, Dr. Irving reveals that these concepts come from everywhere: her place in the world and the people she meets along the way. She suggests, “Have new experiences, go out in the world and try things. Experiment with things. Do things that make you nervous or make you scared. Those are always the experiences where you’re going to learn something.” She said that she is endlessly fascinated by people and enjoys learning new things about the world and those who occupy it! Stories are everywhere, it’s just a matter of opening your eyes and actually seeing them.

Irving’s novel, “Quint,” follows a set of quintuplets born in Canada during the 1940s. The story is based on the historical real-life Dionne quints, who rose to fame for being the first quintuplets known to have survived their infancy. Particularly, her book centers on the many ways in which innocent people, like the quints, can often be subject to exploitation. In terms of crafting plot and characters, Irving says that she starts with the characters. Given her interest in people, she likes to think about the types of things these characters may have to encounter during their lives. She references “Quint” to further this point: “It’s about characters who could not be more different from me. They are quintuplets, they are white, and they are much older than me… But what really drew me to that story was thinking about the idea of a spectacle and being watched. As somebody who spends her life in a lot of predominantly white spaces, I am often looked at.”

Image courtesy of Amazon

For those who are just beginning to explore their interest in writing, Irving states that time and patience are the two big factors. She argues that the process involves more than just having good ideas; being a writer actually requires you to set aside the time to sit down and focus on your work. She urges students to read all different types of genres because there is always something new to learn: “These authors understand something about stories. And that’s what separates any kind of writer from somebody who just has a good idea… If you think about the role of writing and what it should do, it’s really to help us build empathy as human beings. It’s to help us understand this messiness of human existence and human experience.” Irving believes that writing provides us with access to far greater interiority than any other medium because we are invited, as readers, to explore characters’ lives on a much more intimate scale. In this way, Dr. Dionne Irving’s Craft Talk encouraged students who are passionate about writing and honing their skills to rethink the way that we tell our stories and, ultimately, reflect the contemporary moment as it is.