Meet the Fellow: Jean Synodinos

“We’re in the cool kids club.”

— Jean Synodinos

The 2021 WLT Fellowship Program marks the first year of the program and includes five emerging writers who will spend twelve months enjoying classes, connecting with instructors, attending the annual Agents & Editors Conference, and building their writing community. We’re happy to introduce them to you over the next few weeks.

Our 2021 WLT Fellowship Program also marks the launch of the Bess Whitehead Scott Creative Writing Fellowship in honor of the late Texas journalist who was a special friend of the WLT. Each year, we’ll bestow this special distinction on one of our WLT Fellows, a writer over the age of 40 who shares the qualities and characteristics that Bess represented. In the words of the Bess W. Scott Scholarship Committee:

“(We are) delighted with the creation of this fellowship because it fits so well with our namesake’s advice to up-and-coming writers. Bess always said: “Write! No matter whether you do it well, just write. Give some time every day and always be working on something.” This fellowship also embodies Bess’s favorite saying: “You cannot make it alone. I’ll go a little ways with you.”

This year, we’re thrilled to name 2021 WLT Fellow Jean Synodinos as our inaugural Bess Whitehead Scott Creative Writing Fellow. 

Jean Synodinos (sin-uh-DEE-nus) is an emerging writer whose short stories have appeared in The Normal School and Orca: A Literary Journal. A graduate of Duke University, she’s worked as an actor in New York City, a performing songwriter in Austin, and a painter. When she’s not typing out her first novel, Jean enjoys streaming every episode of The West Wing for the twenty-ninth time and dreaming of saner days. She lives with her partner and their peckish but beautiful “schnusky.” Find her at jeansynodinos.com or on Twitter/Instagram @jeansynodinos.

Scribe: What inspires you to write (even on the days when you’re not writing)?

Jean Synodinos: The ticking clock. I’m 60, and the side of my family I most closely resemble has a habit of dying before the actuarial charts say we should. As a reminder that every day is a precious gift, I look to this stanza from Henry Rollins: “No such thing as spare time, no such thing as free time, no such thing as down time. All you got is life time. Go.”

Scribe: If you could ask one author (living or dead) one question about their writing process, who would you ask, what question would you ask, and why?

JS: The novel I’ve read more than any other over the years is Thornton Wilder’s The Eighth Day. It’s epic, but humble. Heartbreaking, but jubilant. It’s a miracle of a story, even if the prose sometimes feels dated (it won the National Book Award in 1968). To write it, Wilder moved to the small border town of Douglas, AZ for almost two years, and that’s always struck me as an astonishing commitment. Douglas and nearby Bisbee were known for copper mining and smelting, and that clearly informed one section of the novel. But otherwise, I would like nothing more than to hear Mr. Wilder talk at length about his immersive time in Douglas. How did that place inform his characters and their stories? What did he love—or loathe—about the town? What was a typical day like? What was his favorite restaurant? Did he often walk across the border into Mexico? Did he intend to stay as long as he did? Did residents know (or care) that a Pulitizer Prize-winning novelist and playwright was living there?

Scribe: What’s one challenge you’ve faced in your own work that you hope to focus on during the year ahead?

JS: This year’s mission is as clear as a bell: Build a writing practice. Solidify good habits. I’m as inclined as any person to collapse into entropy, and it’s one of the reasons I love to be in a structured class. But it’s time to put on my big girl writing pants and establish a rhythm and flow to the work without the external deadlines imposed by others. And it’s how I’ll be able to honor the gift of this Fellowship.

That’s why, for 2021, I’ve come up with—drum roll, please—my own “rewards points system” to stay motivated. Writing, revising, researching, studying, reading, workshopping, meeting with fellow writers, attending a literary event—every one of these actions earns some number of points. Every 100 points gets me $10 worth of fresh flowers or goes towards something on my Amazon wish list. It’s wonky, but each month, my goal is to increase the points I earn by 10% over the previous month. And I’ll get a big reward, still TBD, when I finish that solid draft of my novel before year’s end. Honestly, if this system doesn’t build a writing practice that lasts the rest of my life, I don’t know what will.

Scribe: What drew you to the WLT Fellowship Program – why did you apply?

JS: This is an easy one. To me, the WLT Fellowship is like a one-year “Alt M.F.A.” program. It’s the sweet spot between a traditional M.F.A. and the DIY M.F.A. model. And it’s exactly what I’d been looking for as a chance for my writing to mature.

While I know I’d thrive in an immersive M.F.A. program, it’s just not viable, and that’s okay. In the past few years, I’ve made progress cobbling together classes, building my reading list, and workshopping pages with fellow writers, but it’s a piecemeal approach that’s felt insufficient. And a bit lonely.

When WLT announced the Fellowship, I honestly bounced in my chair like a delighted toddler who’s tasted frosting for the first time. I’m so grateful, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. I have the privilege of taking excellent curated classes; connecting with my generous and superb WLT buddy/mentor; attending a conference that would otherwise have been hard to afford; and, most importantly, walking the walk with a cohort of equally committed writers—all of whom, no surprise, are wonderful people.

Scribe: In addition to being a WLT Fellow, you are the inaugural Bess Whitehead Scott Creative Writing Fellow recipient. What does that mean to you?

JS: I’m so glad you asked this question! Let me start with a confession: I knew almost nothing about Bess Whitehead Scott when I learned of the Fellowship. But I was immediately floored and humbled when I dove into her biography and discovered a woman of enormous courage, depth, and breadth. Over 100 years ago, she marched into the offices of the Houston Post and became the first female reporter to cover hard news—starting with the Galveston floods in 1915. She was more than a lifelong journalist, though. She scripted silent movies in Hollywood, taught creative writing and journalism to high schoolers, ran an ad agency during World War II. And she published her autobiography at the spry age of 99.

Aside from cozy mysteries, the literary world doesn’t make much room for new older writers. I wrote in my Fellowship application that, “In a culture that prizes youth over age, we can mark the seasons with every new ’30 Authors Under 30’ but will starve in the wilderness looking for a list of ’50 Over 50.’” Through the Bess Whitehead Scott Fellowship for Creative Writing, WLT’s commitment to older writers means so much to me. And Bess’s life story is an incredible motivator; I can feel her cheering me on to get to work, with no excuses, age be damned. This spring, when the wildflowers peak, I’ll take a drive to her hometown of Blanket, TX to visit her grave and say thanks.

Scribe: Finish this sentence: As a writer, having a community is/means _____________________________.

JS: … we’re in the cool kids club.

Thank you, Jean!

About the WLT Fellowship Program:

The WLT Fellowship Program offers emerging writers the opportunity to spend a full year honing their craft and learning about the business of writing.

Each WLT Fellow receives tuition-free access to a curated slate of classes, no fewer than two per month, plus special post-class sessions with the instructors. In addition, each WLT Fellow is invited to attend the annual Agents & Editors Conference in Austin, TX, with the registration fee waived and hotel accommodations provided, plus the opportunity to meet one-on-one with a literary agent during the weekend-long event.

The application process for the 2022 WLT Fellowship Program will open in November 2021.

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