Eau Claire’s New Writer-in-Residence Chooses His Own Adventure
Ken Szymanski’s writing journey began with a spiral notebook. The then-eighth grader flipped to its opening page, held his pencil at the ready, and waited for inspiration to strike. It did, eventually, in the form of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Rather than tell readers what would happen next, Szymanski asked them to choose.
“I wrote this story about a guy named Jeff Remington who was wrongly accused of a crime and put in prison,” Szymanski says with a chuckle. “The whole book is him trying to escape.”
Today, Szymanski is no longer the eighth-grade writer, but the eighth-grade writing teacher at DeLong Middle School. Which gives him the opportunity to regularly return to that notebook. At the start of each school year, Szymanski reads Escape from Cell 7346 to his class, urging students to work together to make the right decisions to set Remington free. Yet even after well over 100 readings, Remington’s freedom remains elusive.
“I want to collaborate more with musicians. I think writing and music go together really well. Good writing should have the rhythm of music. And the best music tells a story.” –Ken Szymanski, City of Eau Claire Writer-in-Residence
“The book’s still undefeated,” Szymanski laughs.
For decades, Szymanski has continued to live his own writing adventure – a journey that’s taken him from the spiral notebooks of his youth to the pages of the Leader -Telegram and Volume One. Along the way, he’s also earned a pair of Grand Slam titles in the Eau Claire Running Water Poetry Slam and has had his work featured on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Wisconsin Life and Converge Radio’s Bend in the River and Oddly Enough radio dramas. Most recently, his journey has led him to the pinnacle of local writing, earning him the title of Eau Claire’s 2020-22 Writer-in-Residence, which was officially bestowed upon him by the Eau Claire City Council on April 28.
Szymanski is thrilled to serve in the position most recently held by outgoing Writer-in-Residence Karen Loeb. His mission: to bring writing to the masses.
“I really want to get writers into the community in different ways,” Szymanski said. While this work begins by hosting the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library’s popular Writers Read series, Szymanski also hopes to extend his reach beyond the library’s doors by providing writing-related opportunities in places like classrooms and nursing homes, too.
Additionally, Szymanski hopes to widen the region’s literary audience by including artists from different genres. “I want to collaborate more with musicians,” Szymanski says. “I think writing and music go together really well. Good writing should have the rhythm of music,” he explains, “and the best music tells a story.”
Szymanski has welcomed local photographers into this collaborative mix by way of a forthcoming project titled “Snapshots,” which will encourage writers to take inspiration from the photographs and put it into words. Writers will then record their work with the photograph serving as an accompanying image.
Finally, Szymanski looks forward to partnering with existing programs such as the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild, the Chippewa Valley Book Fest, and Writers Anonymous. He hopes to support current writers, while also bringing new and diverse voices into the fold.
Though the title of writer-in-residence comes with much acclaim, Szymanski confirms that his role doesn’t make the writing itself any easier. He still approaches the blank page with the same humility he always has.
“My first drafts are so rough and unpolished,” Szymanski says, “and sometimes I’m not even writing about the things I’m supposed to be writing about. I have to sand it down, smooth out the rough edges, and try to figure out what I’m trying to say. It’s a long process,” he continues. “But it’s probably like that for a lot of writers.”
One key to staying motivated, Szymanski says, is remembering that every polished piece of writing started out as something quite different. When readers only see the final draft, it’s easy to forget the effort that went on behind the scenes. Yet it’s the unobservable hard work that makes all the difference, he explains. A good piece of writing has the potential to become a great piece, but the writer must put in the time.
And for Szymanski, time comes at a premium. As a dedicated husband, father, and teacher, it would be easy for writing to fall to the wayside. Yet Szymanski continues to make it a priority.
“Whenever I have the time to write, I’ve got to use it,” Szymanski says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s early in the morning, or late at night, or the afternoon. I don’t have an ideal time. And the same is true of place,” he adds. “I don’t have a set-up with lots of souvenirs and knickknacks to inspire me. It doesn’t really matter if I’m sitting at the library, or a coffee shop, or a desk in my basement. The writing transports me to a different place anyway.”
Though on occasion, Szymanski has been known indulge in his very own makeshift writers’ retreat in a camper parked in his driveway. He’ll invite a few friends, they’ll cook some hot dogs, and then they’ll get down to work. “It’s may not be as polished as a writers’ retreat,” Ken says, “but the spirit’s the same and the outcome’s the same.”
Writing, Szymanski says, is for everyone: “You don’t need to wait for permission. You just need to sit down and write.”
B.J. Hollars, an author and professor of English at UW-Eau Claire, is founder of the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild.