Creator-in-Chief: Colleen Kinder charts her own course

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// Jason Liu

Colleen Kinder ’03 spent the summer of 2007 in Liberia. She was on assignment covering women leaders in the aftermath of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s recent election as the first female head-of-state in African history. The story appeared later that year on a single page in Ms. magazine.

But Kinder, now a professor of creative writing at Yale, also wrote another piece while in Liberia — one she actually considers to be her “more substantial” work. This one was about fireworks.

“I was there in the months leading up to independence day,” she said, “and I kept hearing these advertisements on the radio in which the government was warning people that fireworks are not the sounds of war coming back.”

No one had heard fireworks in 14 or so years, she explained. For younger children, this would be their first time experiencing these explosive festivities.

Fireworks, rather than the country’s politics, allowed her to understand what exactly the term “postwar” meant. So she wrote about them. The final product, opening with a “posse of amputees” and ending in a “renaissance, the cautious kind,” was published in Witness magazine a year after the first article. The piece is titled “Modern Pomp.”

What’s ironic about this name is that pomp is just the opposite of what Kinder’s going for in her new reading series and soon-to-be-online publication, Off Assignment. The story itself, however, later nominated for a Pushcart Prize, would fit squarely within Off Assignment’s mission: to celebrate the stories-behind-the-stories — the unpitchable, unpublishable, unpompous outcasts from glossy travel magazines. And Kinder, according to Off Assignment’s website, is the founder and “creator-in-chief.”

Any reader, colleague or student knowledgeable of Kinder’s penchant for travel might guess that the idea came to Kinder in a faraway country. (And, as Kinder’s tale of two stories in Liberia demonstrates, this speculation could be partially correct.) But there’s a simpler explanation. Off Assignment began not in the shell-shocked landscapes of Liberia, the crowded and predatory markets of Egypt nor the sun-stroked streets of Havana, but within the walls of Linsly-Chittenden Hall, where the seeds of many a Yale story, including Kinder’s own, have been planted.

* * *

During the spring 2013 semester, Kinder debuted her “Travel Writing” section of ENGL 121 — “Styles of Academic and Professional Prose.” The course syllabus included guest speakers, and the students were joined one day by one of Kinder’s literary heroes: Pico Iyer. They had read three of his pieces in preparation for the class, but Iyer’s commentary on one of his travel stories from Iceland caught them all off guard.

There was a woman that he’d met in Iceland. No, he didn’t fall in love with her — she was engaged — but that didn’t stop him from becoming “enraptured with her,” according to Kinder. At the time, Kinder was so astonished that she interrupted the story to ask if he’d written it down anywhere. When the answer was “no,” she felt she knew why.

“My experience with writing for mainstream travel publications is that there is very little room for personal narrative and style and voice,” Kinder explained, adding that magazines want stories that cater to audiences of upper-middle class or wealthier tourists. “The New York Times travel section has a Caribbean issue and a cruise issue, but not an Africa issue.”

Kinder had known the realities of the industry for a while — and she even embraced them in instances like her trip to Liberia, during which her paid, news reporting assignment facilitated her to discover and write a stronger, more personal piece. But even a week after Iyer’s guest appearance, her students were still talking about his story and how much they wished to see it on paper.

Then, Kinder had an epiphany.

“I’m not the only one who wants this genre,” she thought, and decided to do something about it.

At an April 2013 event for “Restless Legs,” a New York City-based travel writers’ reading series, Kinder asked her colleagues if they ever felt that the story they were assigned to write was just the start, or that there was a tangential story that was simply more compelling.

Everyone she asked said “yes.” In fact, many went so far as to say that the story they turned in was actually the “inferior story” of the two. Kinder now had enthusiastic support for her project from both her peers and her students.

She recruited two friends, writer Kristina Ensminger and business-savvy Vince Errico, and a few others to plan and host events, build the site and help spread the word. In organizing events, Kinder said the approach was to invite well-respected writers in order to both shape a strong program with interesting content and promote the brand of the project. A recent Off Assignment event — an intimate reading in Brooklyn attended by a small group of bookish types — attracted renowned journalist Gay Talese, who sat for an interview. Talese said he had a “fine time” at the event, and is looking to have a part in Off Assignment in the future.

The event was a hit, meriting coverage by The New York Observer and attracting a sizeable audience. And yet, the future is unclear. Off Assignment will continue to hold readings, with the next big event tentatively scheduled for the fall, said Ensminger, who serves as the project’s event planner. As for online content, Ensminger said they might slowly publish the pieces that they already have from prior readings, but the site won’t officially launch until she secures funds to pay an editorial staff and writers. Another setback, albeit self-imposed, is the group’s recent decision to remain nonprofit.

Unsurprisingly, Kinder is determined to see it through, out of a personal passion for the genre if nothing else.

“I don’t want to keep catering to … vacation tourism,” Kinder confessed, Iyer’s story clearly still on her mind. ”I want to write stories that matter to me.”

And nothing matters more to Kinder than a journey.

* * *

In tracing Kinder’s career — either through the countries she’s traveled, the accolades she’s collected or most importantly, her writings — it’s difficult to believe that Kinder could have once felt insecure about her talents as a writer at Yale. But she claims she can sympathize with Yale’s wannabe writers.

“I’m able to relate to the sensitivity of writers here,” she said. Kinder remembers sitting in writing courses and being devastated after the exhausting rounds of workshops and roundtable criticism.

Still, she stuck through the hard times. As an undergraduate, Kinder took courses with Margaret Spillane, David Brooks, Robert Stone and Steven Brill, and graduated as a writing concentrator in the English department in 2003. For one semester, she wrote a biweekly opinion column for the Yale Herald. Even this early, she said there were tells of a career in narrative nonfiction.

For Spillane’s class, Kinder watched “Long Night’s Journey into Day” — the first documentary film that she’d ever seen. She left the screening with a new realization that nonfiction storytelling could be artful.

“I’m most titillated by art that has a basis in reality,” Kinder explained. “I don’t find it lacking at all.”

This gets complicated when it comes to the naturally opposing form: fiction. Although Kinder once took Robert Stone’s fiction course and even taught “Introduction to Writing Fiction” after Leslie Woodard’s passing in the middle of the semester, it’s been a while since she herself attempted to write a short story. She feels a little false writing them, she said, though that doesn’t mean she believes that fiction can’t arise from real emotions and thoughts. According to Kinder, she’s just “hardwired to want to describe the experiences [she has].”

Kinder isn’t exaggerating — her students and mentors have picked up on this seemingly biological trait. Nicole Clark ’16, who Kinder tutors as part of the classic creative writing lecture course “Daily Themes,” said Kinder has often told her that writers need to “find a reason to write.” Like her professor, Clark has found most success in turning happenings from her personal life into essays, though Clark has written short fiction and poetry as well. But Kinder’s reason for writing is even more specific.

Kinder’s hardwiring for nonfiction makes Clark wonder: “Did she choose travel writing, or did travel writing choose her?”

According to Clark, Kinder’s dedication to telling the truest stories extends to her teaching. Every morning, Kinder has her tutees text her a single sentence that reflects something that has transpired over their first few hours awake. She calls this exercise “One True Sentence.”

Clark conceded that her successes and improvements in “Daily Themes” have made her feel secure in her abilities for the first time at Yale. She owes much of that newfound confidence to Kinder, who encouraged her to experiment and not to feel ashamed that most of her writing emerges from personal experience.

“She’s helped me embrace that we are the centers of our own worlds, and everything is from our perspective,” Clark said.

But then, returning to Kinder’s perspective — likely made up of one giant global map, covered with dashed lines representing her travel trajectories, a small white plane symbol on her current location — one crucial question remains: How has she been able to stay still and teach in one location for three whole years?

The way Kinder puts it, she never wanted to be exclusively a freelancer, and to her, teaching students not-much-younger than herself is a perfect complement to a career in professional writing.

“I don’t want to be constantly in word documents,” she admitted. Instead, she enjoys spending time each week interacting with current Yalies as a mentor and professor. She also sits in on Professor Richard Deming’s “Daily Themes” lectures, from which she said she has learned a lot about writing for herself.

But of course, Kinder cannot remain in one place for long. Over the summer, she will take her “Travel Writing” course to France. After a quick respite at Yale in the fall, she’ll spend the spring 2015 term teaching a global study abroad program “Semester at Sea” through the University of Virginia.

After weaving Off Assignment back into these threads, it becomes clear that, for Kinder, idleness won’t be the case for long.

* * *

The sun sets outside the window of Kinder’s fourth-floor office, a cramped and sparsely decorated room. Kinder explains that the office wasn’t hers originally, and she was only able to move in after its occupant went on sabbatical. The only things that she added herself are books for the shelf, of course. Titles include various volumes of the “Best American Magazine Writing,” “Autobiography of a Face” by Lucy Grealy and “The God of Small Things” by Arundathi Roy.

It’s funny to think that, within feet of this very space in which she now works, Kinder penned her first book. Titled “Delaying the Real World,” the book was written when Kinder was just 20 years old and observing the phenomenon of friends choosing to take on weird projects, jobs or challenges before committing to the professional world. Now, reflecting on the work, Kinder finds shame in its quality, though she believes its themes still hold true.

“I’ve been delaying the real world since college!” she exclaimed, perhaps herself unaware of whether this was a joke or a matter-of-fact statement.

Regardless, it may be better to think of Kinder’s lifetime trajectory a little differently. Maybe she was attempting to delay the disappointments and failures of reality upon graduation, but by now, her hard-hitting stories, mentorship to her students and commitment to creativity through Off Assignment indicate a different end goal.

Kinder isn’t delaying the real world. She’s reshaping how we see it.

It’s a lofty M.O. and, with the future of Off Assignment still hazy, maybe a lost cause. Perhaps the travel writing industry is meant to be glossy and one-minded, without possibility for flexibility or change. Perhaps some stories are just meant to be untold. Yet it’s likely that, through a keen eye, sprawling notes and an impulse to innovate, Colleen Kinder won’t ever stop trying to tell them.

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