Author Jay Varner presents workshop, public reading; offers advice on writing

Corey Aspril February 13, 2013 0

Last week, Elizabethtown College students, faculty and staff were fortunate enough to be able to spend time with and learn from author Jay Varner as he presented a workshop and public reading at the Bowers Writers House. Jay Varner is a local author, from the central Pennsylvania area. Varner attended UNC Wilmington and received his master’s degree in creative nonfiction. When Varner was looking into undergraduate schools, he actually took a tour at Etown and considered attending the institution. After college, Varner decided to become a reporter for a local newspaper in his area. One of the articles he wrote was about a man collecting one million pennies. This article was eventually referenced in a joke on the well-known comedy show “Saturday Night Live.”
Best known for his memoir “Nothing Left to Burn,” Varner had much to share about his experience as a writer. The book was originally intended to be a fictional tale, but it eventually became a nonfiction memoir. This work took him approximately six years to write before it was published and released.
Varner’s memoir was not well received by many of the people in his hometown. Due to the residents’ negative perception of the book, they (ironically) had thoughts of having a collective book-burning of this piece. Even his mother and grandmother did not encourage him to release it, and they wrote a review of the book on Amazon when it was released. After finishing his memoir, Varner decided to begin writing a historical novel, which he is still in the process of creating.
Varner was very interested in what Etown students had to say. He asked students what they were interested in writing and what kind of work they are currently undertaking. Each student made conversation with him, and he was able to give both constructive and helpful advice to assist the audience in gaining more knowledge and improving their writing.
One student explained that she was in the process of writing a book but was having difficulty with character development. Varner’s answer was helpful and insightful: “When making a character in a book, you have to know exactly what kind of character you’re making,” he said. “Ask yourself what the background of the character [is] and how [they] act.”
Varner also explained that a person needs to know how a character would feel if they were to pick up a certain object, like a water bottle, and what the character’s thoughts would be while handling the object. If a writer is developing a character that is nonfictional and is a legend from somewhere, he or she would have to look at other writings to find out why this person was a legend and how he or she became one.
When asked about the overall experience of the workshop, sophomore Kaitlyn Pellegrino said, “I really enjoyed it. Being able to hear him really helped me understand where I need to start. How he said to think like the character helps me to build my character.”
Writers at the workshop were also given advice on editing what they write. When he first began writing, Varner wrote and then looked back after every chapter, but he soon found that it was a waste of time. He lost thoughts and ideas on what he was going to write next. He explained, “It’s okay to make a first draft that isn’t good. A writer just needs to get down their ideas and then edit later to make it look nicer.” Being lucky enough to have such a helpful, generous author come to Etown to offer his advice to help aspiring writers succeed is what makes the College so unique. Being able to learn from some of the best and most talented writers helps students to be one step closer to their own personal writing goals. “It’s just the kind of thing we offer at the Writers House,” Bowers Writers House Director and English Professor Jesse Waters explained. “It’s casual, intimate and personal.”
For more information on upcoming events at the Bowers Writers House, visit

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