Why do we need stories?
This is the question at the core of the New Literary Project, the Oakland nonprofit that supports storytelling across generations through free creative writing workshops for high-school-age writers, writing fellowships and the annual Joyce Carol Oates Prize, a $50,000 national prize for mid-career authors of fiction.
“A lot of people think literature is about lessons,” he says Joe DiPrisco, the project’s founder and board chair. “But the point of books is not to explain everything away. It’s to get us closer to the mysterious, the ineffable.”
In other words, to dig into the human condition, even if that’s uncomfortable or painful. Perhaps the reason Di Prisco understands stories so well is that he is a storyteller himself — an author of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and memoir.
The idea for the New Literary Project, also known as NewLit, began in 2016 with the notion of a significant mid-career prize — an unusual focus in the world of literary prizes, which tends to honor individual books or first-time writers. Soon it grew to include the idea of creative writing workshops for underserved young writers, led by graduate students from UC Berkeley’s Department of English. estos simpson fellows — named after the philanthropists Sharon Simpson and the late Barclay Simpson, in honor of their lifelong support of the arts (NewLit was formerly known as the Simpson Literary Project) — teach free eight-week workshops at places like juvenile hall in Contra Costa County and Girls Inc. of Alameda County.
“Going into these workshops in the beginning, the space is very interesting,” says Julayne Virgil, CEO of Girls Inc. of Alameda Countya nonprofit whose mission is to inspire girls in K-12 to be “strong, smart and bold,” and provides academic support, leadership training and a focus on mental health and well-being. “These girls are very vulnerable. There’s a question of: Who is allowed to tell stories? Whose stories matter? Am I really supposed to share this?”
Giving girls the confidence that their voice, their story, their art matters — and that “how they view the world is meaningful” — can be transformative, says Virgil. She remembers one New Literary Project showcase where a father wept listening to his daughter de ella read her work de ella. “This is so important for her,” Virgil told. “She’ll never be the same.”
After teaching these children, the Simpson fellows are not the same either.
“It’s very different from the teaching our graduate students do here,” says Ian Duncan, a professor of English and the chair of the English Department at Berkeley, who also serves on the NewLit Board. Not only are the fellows teaching writing rather than literature, he explains, but they are working with teens in great need. “It’s moving and humbling to be sharing work with these students.”
“If I take a big step back, in all these things we do we’re trying to uplift a literate, democratic society,” adds Di Prisco. “That’s a fancy-pants way to put what I really believe we need, which is to encourage people across generations to write their hearts out and tell their stories.”
Every year NewLit publishes these young writers in an anthology alongside other Project-related authors. Past editions have included Oates, T. Geronimo Johnson and Daniel Mason. A new edition, “Simpsonists: Tales From the New Literary Project, Vol. 4,” is set to come out in October.
“These kids are on the page,” says Di Prisco. “They are really excited by the idea of being published.”
NewLit also makes an important statement about storytelling by supporting writers in mid-career.
“There are many prizes out there for debut or early-career books, and understandably so,” he says Lauren Groffwinner of the 2022 Joyce Carol Oates Prize and the author of six novels, including her most recent, “Matrix.”
Groff notes that at this point in her career, “I don’t think I can be considered shiny and new anymore. The fear is that I will find myself foundering a bit in the doldrums.” Which makes the prize not just a meaningful statement to Groff about her past work, but “a word of faith about the work I hope to do. I’m returning to my desk with renewed energy and joy.”
This kind of support matters because stories matter. The research is wide and vast on how little we tend to change people’s minds by throwing lots of data and opinions at them. But good novels have a way of getting us to see another point of view by placing us in the mind of a character, instead of telling us what to think. And we need that right now.
“Culture, particularly popular culture produced during times of great anxiety and strain, like now, has a propensity to flatten stories, to make it seem as if there are only a few ways to live a good life or to be a human being in the world,” Groff says.
But exposure to varied, strange and thoughtful stories that question instead of answer, that are ambiguous rather than polemical, would make for a more open-minded, thoughtful society, she adds.
Duncan also notes that in the past few years, he has seen a renewed commitment to the humanities and literary studies.
“There are so many strident voices right now telling us what to think and how to think, it’s brought back a sense of why fiction, why literature, why reading is important,” he says. “It’s all about questioning — it’s not a discipline that provides answers, like engineering.”
NewLit’s latest initiative to support storytellers is the Jack Hazard Fellowships for creative writers who teach high school. These $5,000 fellowships help recipients focus on creative writing — “one winner told me she was going to use the money for child care so she could write over the summer,” says Di Prisco — with the understanding that they will return to their high schools to teach. While this year’s inaugural eight fellows are all in California, there are plans to go national next year.
Through all of this, NewLit says it is committed to lifting up diverse voices. The vast majority of those served by the Simpson Writing Workshops are young writers of color (100% of participants in the Girls Inc. and juvenile hall workshops are Black, Indigenous or people of color). This speaks to the project’s core mission, its understanding that it takes all kinds of people to tell stories—whether that’s youth in juvenile hall; girls who might be the first person in their family to be published; high school teachers with children and no free time; and astonishingly gifted writers who still need inspiration for their next books.