The Story Summit Writer’s School

Interview with Directors, Amy Ferris and Debra Engle

On October 26, Story Summit Writer’s School Directors, Amy Ferris and Debra Engle, announced their new live, online school with a compelling curriculum for the 4th quarter of 2020. Both Amy and Debra are celebrated authors in their own right and have a passion, as teachers and coaches, to unlock the writing gifts in their mentees while creating a plan of action designed to help them finish their projects.

The first three classes announced are a powerful and unique mix of craft, genre, and joy, including a weekend intensive What a Character with faculty member, Richard C. Morais, author of the international bestseller, The Hundred-Foot Journey; A Very Hallmark Holiday featuring legendary Hallmark producer, Anne Carlucci: and Telling the Truth, spearheaded by Amy and Debra, themselves, designed to aid women, especially, in their pursuit of authentic writing voices that connect with the reader and/or viewer.

How do stories matter in 2021?

Amy Ferris: Stories matter in 2021 because we’ve all experienced this pandemic, being quarantined, a lot of aloneness, and a great deal of digging deep into our souls. I imagine 2021 will be filled with love stories and coming out stories and survival stories and stories that we were afraid to tell and share but now are necessary. I also believe that stories are what keep us inspired and encouraged; they make us feel less alone and less afraid and more folks feel obligated to share their stories.

I also am hopeful that 2021 will be filled with stories that are about tenacity and being fearless and standing up and speaking up. Stories will always, always matter — always — because after all, it begins with the word.

What is the role for celebrated writers and artists in the development of the storytellers of tomorrow?

Debra Engle: Every generation of artists will find their own way, but we all learn from those who have come before. Who better to teach aspiring writers than those who have found success and know what it takes? Celebrated writers and artists pass down techniques and insider tips that they’ve honed over time. But just as valuable is their encouragement, along with their personal stories of persistence and “overnight” success that took years or decades. We’re excited to have some of the best of the best on our faculty because they’re not only successful in their field, but they’re effective teachers and care about giving back.

Why the Story Summit Writer’s school?

Amy Ferris: It’s always been my dream to help other folks fulfill their dreams, creating some magic for folks. I don’t think of it so much as a writing school in the traditional sense because what we’re offering is so different and so vast and so very extraordinary; an opportunity to work with some of the very finest writers, authors, journalists, filmmakers — creatives — in all areas — all genres.

I’m excited that we have both traditional classes — writing memoir, craft, creating characters and also offering up a week of Photojournalism (A Thousand Words) and a Down Home Comfort Week, and also a Holiday/Hallmark/Romance week; the ‘how to’ of writing a cookbook and a gardening book. I’m excited to learn how to write a cookbook. It’s a huge dream to co-parent — and give birth — to this amazing creative project — yes, a writer’s school.

Explain the unusual connection between women and stories.

Deb Engle: Women have a unique relationship with story because, for so long, their stories were seen as unimportant, if they were told at all. And yet women are the ones who have always been the keepers of emotion, secrets, losses, celebration, and relationship — the building blocks of story.

Women know the small everyday details that bring a story to life and make it universal. We know what it means to give birth to something new, and to experience pain and joy side by side. Women understand the power of story in their bones.

If you look at the number of women writing memoir today, you see an explosion of story — generational stories that have been stifled and suppressed. It’s as though the dam has burst, and all that untold history is spilling forth. It’s exciting to see women stepping up to make their voice heard, realizing their power to heal and inspire, to set the record straight, and to let readers know they’re not alone.

When did you understand that writing was your thing?

Amy Ferris: I understood when I was a little girl and I didn’t feel good enough. I was skinny and wore braces and had no self-confidence, none, and so… I wrote in my Diary — Dear Diary and I wrote short stories and I wrote poems and truthfully that Diary and a blank piece of paper became my confidant, my best friend, the very place I could share my deepest feelings: my pain, my fears… my hopes… my wishes… a blank piece of paper is so extraordinarily priceless and invaluable. It’s very much like a blank canvas, and the minute you toss or throw — or paint — some color onto it it’s no longer bare and the potential for creating something beautiful is possible, and possibility is filled with hope.

What have you found to be the sacred connection between the human adventure and story?

Debra Engle: Writers work out the mysteries of life through story. They shine a light on injustices and call for change. They work out the complexities of history and imagine a better future. I think story is best not when it drags us down into the darkness of the human experience and leaves us there, but when it
acknowledges the pain and lifts us up to something greater. We don’t just write
stories, we live them. Story is how we evolve.

What does the ‘aha’ moment look like when someone realizes they are a writer?

Amy Ferris: An interesting question. I’m not sure when I realized I was a writer because I always knew I was a writer, a story teller — it was when I knew — absolutely knew — I had written something wonderful. Something that connected to my entire being. I felt it in my bones. I felt it in my heart. I felt exhilarated because what I had written felt “right” and that also is about trusting your own words, your own creativity.

That to me was the aha moment — when I knew I could trust my own instincts and intuition. We know when we’ve written something wonderful and we also know when we’ve written something crappy.

What benefit have you found for writers in community?

Deb Engle: There’s the value of honest and constructive feedback, which is priceless because we all get so close to our work that we can’t see what’s missing or where it needs to be untangled or unpacked. And community can provide deadlines and external expectations that keep the process moving. But even more than that, community gives writers courage.

The blank page can be terrifying, and a community gives writers the support to face it time after time. Plus it takes courage to look inside yourself, to believe you have something of value to say, to keep sitting down at the computer when you feel like you’re parched or stuck. Community lifts you up and reminds you that you’re more than the number of words you wrote yesterday. And what’s better than having a community to celebrate with you when you succeed?

Like a musician who practices, how does a writer get better with putting words on a page?

Debra Engle: I think there’s a myth among many beginning writers that goes like this: If you’re a “real” writer, you sit down in front of the computer, and perfectly polished prose flows through you onto the page. The truth is that, for most writers, that finished prose started as a pile of sticky notes and scrawling on the back of grocery lists, and it took dozens of revisions to shape and refine it. Writers get better by looking for a stronger verb, a more interesting character flaw, a smoother sentence structure, a more memorable detail. That’s where the artistry comes in — doing as many revisions as it takes to make the story sing.

Tell us about your co-director

Debra Engle: Amy Ferris is a force of nature. I’ve never seen anyone make such instant and lasting connections with strangers. When she walks in the room, you feel her presence immediately because she radiates nurturing and compassion. She takes the time to be present with everyone, seeing something inside of them that they’ve never seen for themselves. People stand taller and smile more when Amy’s around because she brings out the best in them. She’s a truth teller, which magnetizes people instantly. And she is completely committed to helping writers — especially women — tell the truth, too. I feel immensely blessed to know Amy, and working with her is a dream.

Tell us about your co-director

Amy Ferris: Debra Engle is pure amazing, no additives. Pure 100%. She is everything you would want a collaborator to be: thoughtful, kind… truthful — doesn’t back down in her truth. She is not timid or intimidated. She is courageous and fills everyone with courage. She listens, which is a gift in and of itself. And she has my back. If I can’t do something, or am loaded down, she’s right there to lift and carry me. How great is that? We’re very different in some ways and that’s something that is invaluable to me, when you partner with someone — you want to learn from them. I’m a big believer that ‘same’ isn’t always the best because there’s so very much to learn. Learning keeps us curious and curiosity keeps us hopeful. Deb is a woman of amazing grace. How desperately we need grace in the world now. She has an abundance of grace. I adore her.

For more information about what Amy Ferris and Debra Engle are up to, please visit the Story Summit Writer’s School website. If you would like to be updated monthly on the new programs for 2021 and the Writer’s School, please sign up here.

Co-founder of MIT Center for Future Storytelling, President of Paramount Pictures, Production Chief of Walt Disney Studios, optimist, author and teacher.

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