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Anne Colwell


Anne Colwell

Milton

Photo: Angie Moon

Established
Literature: Creative Nonfiction

By: Gail Obenreder

“I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember … I published a poem in the grade school newspaper in first grade, and I’ve been hooked ever since.”

In 2013, Anne Colwell won a Division Arts Fellowship for her work in fiction. Now, in the midst of a prolific and distinguished career as a professor, poet, literary critic and short story writer, she has ventured into a new arena – creative nonfiction. “Until recently, I had yet to (as Scott Russell Sanders put it) ‘commit memoir.’”

Still Life with Bottle
For James (2019)

In graduate school, we’d drink the Spanish Rioja, then put a red candle in the empty bottle as we drank the next. Hunched over the kitchen table in the basement apartment, we watched the red
wax slide down the green curves, pool on the cloth and cool. We talked and talked, about Hemingway in Paris and Absurdist painters and ethnomusicology, what we’d read or wanted to read. I’d never had such conversations, never felt the world so full of meaning and possibility.

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Poetry and fiction allow artists to speak in a voice that may – or may not – be their own. But “once I started writing personal essays, I realized that creative nonfiction gives the writer a chance to truly ‘essay’ a topic . . . to grapple with it.” Her earliest influences included parents who were “voracious readers and who encouraged me to believe that words mattered.” The first writers she read were poets – Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost. But as she matured, she realized that “good writing was good writing,” regardless of the genre.

Colwell’s inspiration to write personal creative nonfiction may seem surprising: her students. She always assigns memoir essays to her classes, and “the courage with which they wrote about their own experience . . . inspired me deeply.” She acknowledges support of family and her husband (James Keegan), and Colwell meets weekly with fellow writer Maribeth Fischer (recipient of a 2018 Established Professional award). Without her collegial guidance as they write together “I would never have written these essays.”

The oldest of four children who grew up in Berwyn, Pennsylvania, Colwell moved to Newark in 1986 to teach at the University of Delaware and has lived there since. As well as a deep commitment to writing and her love of teaching English, she regularly teaches something else – group fitness classes at the YMCA. “Maybe because writing and reading are such still and isolated activities, I also love to run, bike, lift weights – just to move.”

The Division’s Fellowship “means so much to me,” affording time and confidence to pursue her new direction. Colwell appreciates not only winning but also being able to apply. Last year, when she was not selected, “the judge’s comments helped me to rethink and re-see the direction of the essay that I submitted this year”.

Colwell expresses her gratitude at being “a writer, teacher and Delawarean.” When she moved to Newark, she had no sense that she’d stay in Delaware. “I never imagined how much I would come to love, to value, and to write about, this landscape, community, and people.”

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