Symposium Debrief

by Cate Mahoney

On Thursday, May 2, and Friday, May 3, Princeton Writes saw the exciting culmination of many months of planning: its first annual symposium on the written and spoken word. Connect: Harnessing the Power of Words drew a rousing number of participants from across the University, and we thank you so much for making this event such a success. We enjoyed every step of this process, and we’re already thinking ahead to the next one! (Princeton Writes 2020!)

As Princeton Writes‘ UAF (University Administrative Fellow), I’ll play crack reporter and give everyone a debrief on our two days of connection.

Thursday, May 2

Our opening conversation (“A World of Words: Communicating Outside Our Comfort Zones”) started off with an introduction by our own intrepid Stephanie Whetstone, who gave the floor to Pico Iyer and Aly Kassam-Remtulla.

“The world is larger than our notion of it,” said Iyer, a renowned travel writer who recommends learning about the world by traveling rather than by understanding “at a distance” (i.e., through the media).

The relaxed but thought-provoking conversation included discussion of media silos, the expansion of the imagination through books, and the need for empathy in understanding the “other,” who, noted Iyer, quoting writer George Saunders, is “us on another day.”

Kassam-Remtulla asked, “How can we start understanding where others are coming from?”

Iyer’s answer: “It’s a choice we make . . . Am I in the market for an argument or a closer relationship?”

Let’s be in the market for connection.

Friday, May 3

The afternoon began with a master class on style with Professor Jeff Dolven of the English department. Professor Dolven, who has a background as a Renaissance scholar and poet, helped us think about what it was like to learn communication skills centuries ago, namely, how masters of style honed their skills through the art of imitation.

Dolven described the mindset then this way: “To write something great, begin with something before me that I know to be great.”

Nowadays, Dolven mused, we think the most wonderful thing a piece of writing can be is original. Indeed, pedagogical practice is oriented, he said, towards rules, not models. But what if we understood how looking to the past can help us become better writers of the future?

“Form is vertical,” said Dolven, in that you envision every writer looking up in the same direction to one singular model — a structure, a technique. But “style is horizontal” because it allows us to look around us, at our peers, at others.

The class focused on a simple form, with many styles: the sentence. The sentence is a “matrix of predictions,” according to Dolven, because the sentence can have a narrative of its own, instead of only being one small part of a larger narrative. We delightedly read a number of wonderful examples by some famous writers, each so different it was amazing to reckon with how the English language can have so many tones. We then tried to write one sentence in another’s style — and let me tell you, it was a tough exercise! Funnily enough, when the group shared their creations, we realized we had more in common — and gravitated towards similar styles — than we might have thought.

Dolven left us with these words: “Style is history. Style tells time for us.”

And, reader, we time traveled!


We were brought back to the present with the clarifying words of our own fearless leader, John Weeren, who welcomed everyone to the symposium.

Weeren’s introductory remarks focused on why communication matters to us as members of this University and members of the human race, making our way through today’s world in service to others and to our best selves.

“The more we conceive of communication as relational rather than transactional and the more we subordinate the pronoun I and elevate the pronoun we, the more fruitful our exchanges will be,” he said. He continued:

“We live in polarized times, when words are used as weapons to wound, belittle, and even deny the full humanity of others.  Civil discourse, respectful disagreement, substantive debate feel like endangered species in a world awash in texts and Tweets that are thoughtless at best and destructive at worst. Colleges and universities are not impervious to debased communication, but they remain, overall, oases of tolerance and truthfulness. Our overarching challenge as University staff is not to restrain ourselves from maligning others but to take into account, insofar as it is possible, their capacities and needs, their experiences and expectations, their convictions and sensibilities. This charge has never been more important or more daunting — important because the cohesion of society increasingly depends on embracing differences; daunting because these differences can call into question our notion of what is normative and, thus, our place in the world.”

Weeren encouraged his listeners to build bridges whenever they communicate. His last note resonated with everyone: “Above all, we must be open to the possibility that our way is not the best way to move through life, that our values are not the only values worthy of respect, and that disagreement does not preclude mutual understanding.”


Our first panel featured Michael Rosenberg, Sara Judge, and Howard Stone, with moderator Cornelia Huellstrunk leading the discussion. Here are some of their words of wisdom:

Rosenberg said that verbal communication is about making relationships and future building and that active listening is as important as speaking. He reminded us not to separate the idea of listening from the concept of the spoken word.

Judge said that relationships begin with a conversation and with curiosity and that body language is extremely helpful when engaging in communication.

Stone noted that it helps to introduce the topic at hand without jargon or code words; that a simple contextual description will set the stage for understanding. He also added a trick: get an overview of a concept through the verbal, but then turn to the written word to get a fuller sense of the subject.

The panelists all spoke to the critical concept of “active listening,” offering these tips:

  • Remind yourself to listen, even if that means writing the word “LISTEN!” on a piece of paper while you’re in a meeting (Judge).
  • Try yoga breathing (Judge).
  • Turn your palms up when speaking, as it makes you feel more open and empathetic (Judge).
  • Ask yourself when you’re listening to someone speak or give a talk: what is the question they are asking? (Stone).
  • Use some form of note-taking to keep yourself attentive (Stone).
  • Let the other person in the conversation have a moment to make their own argument and come to their own understanding (Rosenberg).

As Rosenberg said, “You can’t get to relational understanding if you think you know where the other person is going to end.”


Our second panel was moderated by Marianna Bogucki and featured John McPhee, Nick Chiles, and Daphne Kalotay. Here are some of their comments on the written word:

Chiles reminded us that “every sentence you write is a decision” and that writing is about making decisions. He said he asks his students to think about how to counter narratives that are already out there and find a way to shed light on stories the media may miss or turn away from.

Kalotay recommended writing in the third person to give oneself more narrative distance. She said you can create a more holistic world by writing in the third person.

All three panelists had great tips for facing writer’s block:

  • Do research to help get your creative juices flowing; follow your curiosity (Kalotay).
  • Stop writing in the middle of a juicy scene so that it’s easy to pick up and continue when you come back to your work the next day (Chiles).

McPhee put it best and most bluntly: “Writers face writer’s block every day,” so you’re normal if you’re experiencing it. You’ll probably panic, but then you’ll get going. You can do it! You’re a writer.


Finally, in a glorious ending to a full day, we listened to (and watched!) our keynote speaker, Joe Richman of Radio Diaries.

Richman explained how he follows a story to discover real moments of connection, which he defines as moments in stories when you really “feel” and don’t just “know” — when there’s a connection so strong it might make the hairs on your skin rise. He did just this not only by relating his experiences but also by letting us experience auditory and visual examples of his art and journalism (for the two really seem blended in his work).

“Everyone has their own heartbeat and their own story,” Richman told us, and though the media often tries to fit people into boxes, it’s important to be open to times when a person is not what you expect them to be.

He gave us some tips on how we might make this connection ourselves.

  1. Harness luck! Be open to following a story to see where it will go.
  2. Inhabit the process of the documentary by being patient and listening.
  3. Don’t be boring — to yourself or to your audience.

Richman then broke down these three steps even further to really let us know how to do it. (We like steps here at Princeton Writes.)

  1. Find the beginner’s mind. Remember you’re always learning.
  2. Give people immersive “question baths”
  3. Get excited.

Finally, Joe left us with four wishes. That:

  • We give someone a question bath.
  • We make something just to make something.
  • We focus on the human side of the story, not the executive/planning side.
  • We each say to ourselves: “I am excited.” These three words can help us turn our anxiety into excitement. And it’s a lot easier, Richman said, to go from anxious to excited than anxious to calm.

THANK YOU to all who participated! We are excited to keep making connections with you.