Write to the Point!

A Neighborhood Studios Program at the Mark Twain House

Archive for the tag “Writing”

Twain Studios 2013 Anthology

Anthology cover

This is the cover of the 48-page anthology of work by the Writing Apprentices of Twain Studios. You can see the whole thing by following the link below.

For six weeks in July and August, 2013, a dozen teenagers from diverse backgrounds, different schools and towns, came together as a group at The Mark Twain House & Museum.

This group, the newest of the Neighborhood Studios of the Greater Hartford Arts Council, originated with a great conversation between the arts council and Julia Pistell, who is part of the Mark Twain House communications team.

Led by Master Teaching Artist Jackie Majerus, the teens practiced reporting, interviewing and writing creative non-fiction. They learned about Mark Twain, his Nook Farm neighborhood and neighbors past and present and about each other. Lasting friendships formed. They explored Nook Farm and the state Capitol and learned from an array of guest speakers.

The program was called Write to the Point! and the students, who were writing apprentices, called themselves The Jakes, their shorthand for “Journalism Kids.”

The teens, who ranged from age 14 to 18, worked individually and cooperatively on all sorts of non-fiction writing. They wrote a lot. Most of it is on this blog. Much of their best work was printed in a 48-page anthology – their crowning achievement distributed at their showcase last month, where the youth read their work aloud to an audience of family, friends and others interested in the arts.

Besides the written work, and some artwork of the youth in the studio, the anthology also includes many photographs of these wonderful young people throughout their summer adventure. It is impossible to fully capture a lively group of creative young people on a blog or on a printed page, but this blog, and the anthology, should offer a glimpse into an amazing summer experience.

Thank you for taking time to explore this blog and the anthology.  Comments are welcome, too!

To see the anthology in PDF form, follow this link:

 Twain Studios 2013 Anthology

Visiting the State Capitol and Connecticut’s Heroes

Jakes in Capitol press room.2

The Jakes, short for “Journalism Kids” – the name the Twain Studios Writing Apprentices chose for themselves – thought the Press Room of the Connecticut State Capitol was pretty cool. From left, are Meaghan Szilagyi, Ashaya Nelson, Rae Martin, Molly Miller, Alan Burkholder, Cecilia Gigliotti, Ambriel Johnson, June Tran, Grant Henry and Jahyra White. The apprentices visited the Capitol in their final days at Twain Studios. Many had never been there before, and none had seen the Press Room. They loved it.

Jakes in Capitol press room.1

Writing Apprentices fit right in at the Press Room of the state Capitol. From left, Jahyra White, Rae Martin, Ashaya Nelson, Ambriel Johnson, Meaghan Szilagyi, June Tran, Cecilia Gigliotti, Molly Miller, Grant Henry and Alan Burkholder

Mark Pazniokas talks to Jakes at Capitol

Veteran news reporter Mark Pazniokas of the CT Mirror spoke with the Writing Apprentices of Twain Studios when they visited the state Capitol’s Press Room.

Jakes with state heroine statute

Writing Apprentices of Twain Studios with a statue of Connecticut’s State Heroine, Prudence Crandall and her student. From left, Ambriel Johnson, June Tran, Rae Martin, Meaghan Szilagyi, Alan Burkholder, Molly Miller, Ashaya Nelson, Grant Henry, Cecilia Gigliotti, Jahyra White

Jakes with Nathan Hale

Writing Apprentices of Twain Studios with State Hero Nathan Hale, in the Capitol. From left: Grant Henry, Alan Burkholder, Ambriel Johnson, Molly Miller, Meaghan Szilagyi, Jahyra White, Rae Martin, June Tran, Ashaya Nelson. In front, Cecilia Gigliotti.

Thanks For A Great Experience!

Banner, snippedWrite to the Point! at The Mark Twain House & Museum, the newest member of the wonderful Neighborhood Studios program of the Greater Hartford Arts Council. The terrific work these teen writers did at Twain Studios this summer wouldn’t have been possible without the help of a lot of people who truly care.

The Arts Council is filled with talented people who are committed to the idea that music, photography, dance, theater, film and writing are crucial to a vibrant community. I’d like to especially thank Ashley Sklar for skillfully helping Twain Studios navigate through its inaugural year.

Supporters of the arts are true heroes. Without them, programs like this wouldn’t exist. That means these apprentices wouldn’t have had the tremendous opportunities they had all summer at The Mark Twain House & Museum. They wouldn’t have been writing, meeting fascinating visitors like Stephen King or, equally important, acquiring new friends throughout the Greater Hartford area. So I offer my deep gratitude for the generosity of Travelers, the Bank of America and all of the sponsors, but especially to our studio sponsor, The Hartford. We couldn’t have done it without you.

Finally, a huge debt is owed to The Mark Twain House & Museum for opening its doors to young people this summer. The entire staff put up with an energetic group of teenagers moving in and being mildly disruptive for six weeks and went out of their way to make us all feel welcome and at home.

As experts on all things Twain, Publications Editor Steve Courtney and Chief Curator Patti Philippon cheerfully answered an endless stream of questions. And Patti provided us with precious photos of our brief encounter with Stephen King. Manager of Communications and Special Projects Jacques Lamarre, who is wonderfully inclusive of young writers, arranged for apprentices to interview the governor of Bermuda and the world’s strongest librarian. Julia Pistell, a public relations pro at the Twain House, made sure the apprentices got to see Stephen King and took them to WNPR to record some of their writing with Senior Producer Catie Talarski, who kindly took the time to work with each of them. I am grateful to each of them for all they did to help me and support these young writers.

Such a warm and writer-friendly atmosphere wouldn’t exist without stellar leadership setting the tone, and at the Twain House, that’s the enthusiastic Executive Director Cindy Lovell.

Because all these people cared, a diverse group of terrific young people filled their summer with learning, adventure, fun and friendship. I’m honored to have served these amazing teens.

— Jackie Majerus, Master Teaching Artist


Twain Studios Writing Apprentices had a great summer. Back row, from left: Meaghan Szilagyi, Ambriel Johnson, Master Teaching Artist Jackie Majerus, Alan Burkholder, Rae Martin. Center row, from left: Molly Miller, Cecilia Gigliotti, Lina Allam, Indira Senderovic, Jahyra White, Nick Sherman. Front row, from left, Grant Henry, June Tran, Ashaya Nelson.

Neighborhood Studios logo

Writing Apprentices of Twain Studios Showcase Their Work

Mini showcase

At the Hartford Public Library, the Writing Apprentices of Twain Studios gave a mini-showcase of their work for the other Neighborhood Studio apprentices. From left are Molly Miller, Ambriel Johnson, Cecilia Gigliotti, Meaghan Szilagyi, Ashaya Nelson, Grant Henry, Lina Allam, Alan Burkholder, Rae Martin, Jahyra White, Indira Senderovic and June Tran


At their own Studio Showcase at The Mark Twain House & Museum, the Twain Studios Writing Apprentices read their work. Shown here are Lina Allam, Ambriel Johnson, Molly Miller, June Tran, Meaghan Szilagyi, Cecilia Gigliotti.


Writing Apprentices listen as a fellow student reads. From left, June Tran, Meaghan Szilagyi, Cecilia Gigliotti, Grant Henry, Rae Martin

Alan Burkholder at showcase

Writing Apprentice Alan Burkholder reads his work at the August showcase.

Writing Apprentices Working Hard at Twain Studios


Writing Apprentices Cecilia Gigliotti, Rae Martin and June Tran worked hard and produced excellent stories in Twain Studios.

Concentration at 66 Forest

Concentration prevailed when the Jakes were working.


Writing Apprentices playing a game where they discovered the many things they have in common.


Writing Apprentice Jahyra White, with Writing Apprentice Grant Henry in the background.

Lina Alaam

Writing Apprentice Lina Allam

Jakes work in cafe.2

Writing Apprentices of Twain Studios working on their stories.




Meaghan and Ambriel.2

Writing Apprentices worked on their own, in pairs and as a group. Here, Meaghan Szilagyi and Ambriel Johnson collaborate.





We didn’t work all the time, of course. The Writing Apprentices insist that no one is ever too old for the Balloon Game…

Mark Twain House Staff Shared Stories With Apprentices

Harry, MTH security talks to Jakes

Harry Cassidy, Assistant Chief of Security at The Mark Twain House & Museum, regaled the Writing Apprentices with spooky stories of things he’d seen and heard in the historic home.

Mallory Howard talks to Jakes

Mallory Howard, museum assistant at The Mark Twain House & Museum, talked with the Writing Apprentices about marginalia — Twain’s scribbles in the margins of his books — and the importance of proper sourcing. She also talked with them about her own career path and some of the adventures she’d had working at the historic home.

Lady Gaga: A Forgotten Genius

By June Tran

Writing apprentice

Mark Twain Studios

The bubble dress-wearing mega pop star Lady Gaga, topped the Forbes list of “Top Earning Celebrities under 30” over the summer.

This might come of a surprise since her latest release before the single “Applause” last month was the 2011 release Born This Way.

It seemed as if Lady Gaga had dropped off the face of the earth, as if America and the world had grown tired of her crazy shenanigans.

Although as a singer Lady Gaga does not have a wide vocal range or capability, as an artist she is unique in crafting her work.

Craftsmanship does not necessarily relate only to her musical work. Though her lyrics are often sparse of meaning or symbolism, it is her music videos and celebrity personality that really captures the audience.

Portrayed as a freak by the media, Lady Gaga would often be caught donned in a strange or unusual outfit.

Most notable of these ensembles were the meat dress worn during the 2010 MTV Music Award and the 2011 Grammys egg.

It is important to realize that there are two elements to Lady Gaga’s celebrity personality. The first is the symbolic significance of her creations and gestures.

Her outfits and music videos spark conversation about abstract topics such as acceptance, the entertainment industry and political movements.

In her “Born this Way” video, Lady Gaga featured an upside down pink triangle, a symbol for gay rights originally used by the Nazis in concentration camps to identify homosexual men.

There is also a symbolic gesture towards the end of her performance at the 2011 Grammys.

It’s a magnificent and powerful scene where Lady Gaga and her dancers gathered around a warm light and slowly each of them reached and stretched their whole body towards the light.

Aside from these various moments within her music videos and performances, some of Lady Gaga’s actions are just random and made for the shock factor.

It is hard to reason that Lady Gaga truly believes in the conventionality of her outrageous creations.

Rather, she is poking fun of what society views as typical standards of a celebrity. She has innate understanding of fame and its marked consequences.

Through her antics, Lady Gaga makes fun of the entertainment industry for its hypocrisy and treatment of celebrities.

Her genius does not lie in the fact that she was the first person to act out of standards, but she is the first person to make a point of it.

She is not trying to make the viewer take more notice of her, but rather for them to not pay attention at all.

The central focus should not be on the author but rather the work itself. This translates to all types of art, whether literary or musical.

In a way, Lady Gaga is doing her audience a favor. The viewer or reader should have the ultimate power in the interpretation of the work.

Lady Gaga’s fame points out the damage of this shift of focus away from the art and onto its creator.

We, as consumers, are so fixated on the commercial aspect of music that we drive out diversity within the industry.

Such an inbred industry is prone to volatile changes and leaves us vulnerable to record companies eager to make money off of the consumer.

‘Hello, Dolly!’ at Goodspeed Opera House a Total Delight

By Cecilia Gigliotti

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

I love theater. Especially musical theater. Few of God’s creations can top the surreal world that allows people to sing and dance their way through their troubles and triumphs. And few establishments celebrate this creation better than the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam. It’s been around since 1876, and, after numerous lifetimes, has been home to the Goodspeed Musicals company for fifty years this year.

This commemorative season included a special summer treat – Jerry Herman’s 1964 classic Hello, Dolly!

I was fortunate enough to snag a student-rush ticket to the show. I’ve always enjoyed this one, but my school’s band director, who played trombone in the pit, really sparked my interest to come by saying it was one of the best shows he had ever played at the Goodspeed, and he has played many.

Overall, I rank it among the top 10 Goodspeed productions I’ve seen, and that’s saying a lot.

One of the Goodspeed’s features is an amazing ability to fit so many people and so much activity onto a relatively small stage. There’s a ton of action, especially in a high-spirited show like this one.

The two major dance numbers in the second act blew my mind, partly because of the complexity of the dancing, and partly because of the spatial confines in which it was happening. It was a wonder to behold.

I have also always known the Goodspeed for its seamless scene transitions. The set transforms effortlessly from piece to piece, and many set pieces serve as creative doubles for other backdrops. It looks like a snake shedding its skin.

Given that so many productions are slowed down by hauling bulky sets on and off, the Goodspeed’s changes are always refreshing.

And the performances were truly standout this time. All the actors had excellent comic timing.

I can hardly remember a moment throughout the whole two and a half hours when I wasn’t smiling. The ensemble was energetic and synchronized, which is tougher to achieve than one might think. And the woman singing the role of Mrs. Molloy had a voice to die for. I hope my music studies in college will bring my singing ability nearer to hers. The whole cast had the audience hanging on every note.

Hello, Dolly! was one of the highlights of my summer. Catch a show at the Goodspeed and you might grab some of the magic, too.

The Dawn of the Funny Critics

By Alan Burkholder

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

Criticism isn’t hard to do, but good criticism is. When you write a review of something, you need to look at it fairly, but still present your own opinion on it. There is a lot of thinking involved.

There’s an old saying that everyone is a critic. Everyone has something to say about something, whether it be music, movies, art, or even food. And in this modern age, that seems to be the case.

There was never really a critic who was internationally famous for being a critic before the days of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. However, when the two started reviewing movies on television, using their “thumbs up”/”thumbs down” system, criticism became accessible to a wider audience, because Siskel and Ebert kept their criticisms simple, logical, and entertaining.

Even if you didn’t agree with their opinions, and even if their opinions conflicted with each other, the two were always insightful and funny to watch.

However, the first world-famous critics on TV soon became the only world-famous critics on TV. After Siskel died in 1999, Ebert did the show solo for a short period before getting a new partner, Richard Roeper, in 2000. Ebert, however, developed cancer in 2006 and had to stop doing the show in order to get treated. In 2008, Roeper left the show and from there, the show declined in quality. There hasn’t been another show quite like it ever since.

There was another place, however, where people could get a good dose of criticism: the internet.

Recent years have seen something of a renaissance in criticism, and the art of reviews has turned into a popular movement. Some of the more prevalent examples of this include That Guy with the Glasses, a site dedicated to reviewers of all mediums, and The Escapist, an online magazine dedicated to news and reviews of video games.

The mastermind behind That Guy is Douglas Walker, a Chicago-based comedian who runs several web series, including The Nostalgia Critic, which started in 2007.

The Nostalgia Critic is about a foulmouthed, emotionally troubled critic who spends a lot of his free time complaining about bad movies, most of them from the 80’s and 90’s. The character of the Critic takes cues from a mix of comic influences, including Robin Williams and Mystery Science Theater 3000, and also from Siskel and Ebert.

Walker, when reviewing, keeps his criticisms sharp, but still funny to watch.

Thanks to help from his brother Rob Walker, and business partners Mike Michaud, Mike Ellis and Bhargav Dronamraju (the respective CEO, former COO and former CEP of independent production company Channel Awesome), Doug started the website in April 2008 after his videos had been faced with several YouTube takedowns. Doug and Rob have taken a lot of reviewers onto the site, a lot of whom have become famous in their own right. Due to the site’s success, Doug was named “Entrepreneur of the Year” at the fourthannual Mashable Awards in January 2011.

Some of the most popular shows on the site are Lewis “Linkara” Lovhaug’s Atop the Fourth Wall, which is a review show about bad comic books and graphic novels, and Joe Vargas’ Angry Joe Show, a video game review show which led to the formation of a sister site called Blistered Thumbs, which hosts a lot of game reviewers.

That Guy with the Glasses has also collaborated with Cinemassacre, a site which plays host to James Rolfe of Philadelphia, who in 2006 started what was arguably the first major online criticism show: The Angry Video Game Nerd.

One of the most well-known critics on the Escapist is Australian-based Ben Croshaw, who goes by the alias “Yahtzee.” Being a former game designer himself, Croshaw brings his insight and experience into his criticism in the weekly review series Zero Punctuation, which, after going for two episodes on YouTube, has been running on the Escapist website since 2007. The series got its name due to Yahtzee’s style of reviewing: very fast-paced and very straightforward.

Croshaw’s rambling is always accompanied by a series of cartoons made in Photoshop that emphasize what Croshaw is talking about, or occasionally throwing in an extra joke (such as the infamous running gag of “Press X to Not Die.”)

“…I’ve always been a vitriolic writer,” said Croshaw, in a 2008 interview with Destructoid. “My chief influences are humorous British critics like Victor Lewis-Smith and Charlie Brooker… There’s something about the sardonic British man with exacting standards that gels well with people…”

In a 2011 interview with Josh Harris, Doug Walker said that some people have noticed similarities between him and Ben Croshaw. “I think we’re both part of that fast talking entertainment that keeps the low attention spans of our audiences entertained…”

A lot of these reviewers have something going for them that most critics don’t: the ability to be funny. Plenty of professional critics bring experience to the table, but these online personalities have made big names for themselves by keeping the viewer entertained. This method of review goes back to Ebert and Siskel: the two were talking about movies, just like any other film critic, but they did it in a way that was entertaining to watch.

It takes almost no effort to ramble about something, but the best critics know how to keep the audience engaged and entertained.

Even if the raucous language and lowbrow humor that a lot of these online critics use would turn off some viewers, and other critics would argue that their style is unprofessional, these online personalities have what most critics lack: a personality.

The first step to captivating an audience is getting them interested. The second step is making them care. Never mind what your opinion is, if you’re writing a review or ranting about something, you have to have certain flair or sense of humor in order for people to listen to you. And in the online era, we’re certainly seeing a rise in personality.

Information Age Cheapens American Language

By June Tran

Writing apprentice

Twain Studios

     Americans are idiots. The land of America is home to the popular term “YOLO – you only live once” and the constant usage of hashtags and abbreviations.

     We Americans are at the pinnacle of bad grammar and spelling. As demonstrated by the daily tweets spewed out by our regular Twitter addicts, the American language has taken a turn for the worse.

Going back more than a century to the time of literary giants Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe, we see a different type and view of the American language.

Twain, a celebrated American author, completely changed the way the rest of the world viewed the American language.

Joe Nunes talking

Joe Nunes

Patti Philippon, chief curator of The Mark Twain House & Museum, said what really elevated and characterized Twain’s and the American language was his use of “slangs and colloquialisms.”

Twain had the ability to put into words the way that people sounded, presenting the American language as something that is syntactically beautiful and admirable.

The act of crafting a piece of writing was not only practiced by Twain or by the esteemed classes – craftsmanship can be seen even in letters written by everyday civilians or even soldiers.

“People took time with their language and speech,” said Steve Courtney, publications editor at The Mark Twain House & Museum. Back then, he said, people would write 15 pages and take their time crafting it.

With the introduction of mass media technology during the 21st century, letters were replaced by a faster and more efficient medium of communication.

News surrounding a recent event can be received and understood by people in seconds.

Twitter, with its 140-character limit, emphasizes the need to be succinct and to the point.

Information utilized and passed by these sources, however, isn’t always informed and correct.

What is more striking than the degradation of the American language is the abuse of information by the media.

Twain praised the American press in a letter to British poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold penned in the late 1880s, writing, “Its frank and cheerful irreverence is by all odds the most valuable quality it possesses.”

Christine Stuart

Christine Stuart

But there is a fine line between worthy and unworthy news.

As described by Donald Bliss in his book Mark Twain’s Tale of Today: Haley’s Comet Returns — Celebrated Author Critiques American Politics,  “like the newspaper of Twain’s time … there are lots of opinions and little fact-investigations. The more negative and sensational the opinion, the higher the ratings and advertising revenues.”

For serious journalists such as Christine Stuart, the editor of CTNewsJunkie, “being credible is more important than being timely.”

The language itself does not merely have to confine to a specific style or structure, but must exude the truth to its readers.

All writing, especially in journalism, will eventually shape the public opinion.

Writing something with a “purpose [is what] makes it all worthwhile,” said Joseph Nunes, a former editor at The Hartford Courant who is writing a book about the history of the newspaper.

Language would have no purpose as a method of communication if its receiver does not learn anything from it.

Learning is useless, Mark Twain wrote in his 1900 essay, “English as She Is Taught,” if the students’ memories “had been stocked but not their understanding.”

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