When a high school English teacher who also happens to be an alumna of a university nationally recognized for creative writing realizes that one of her students has a passion and talent for the craft, the mission she undertakes isn’t surprising.
“She was always asking me, ‘Have you checked out Hollins?’,” Carly Lewis ’21 recalled, laughing. “She got me the Hollins Creative Writing Scholarship as sort of a final ‘Please look at Hollins’ creative writing program, it’s really good.’”
So, the native of Richmond, Virginia, did just that. “Since I liked going to an all-women’s high school, attending a historically women’s college sounded right up my alley. But I mostly wanted to come here because I found that the writing program was indeed very good. I’m a big storyteller, a storyteller in all regards, and I wanted to become a better writer and learn with other like-minded writers.”
From the beginning, Lewis thrived. The first class she took “was with a phenomenal graduate assistant who tossed a lot of rules out of the window. In high school, I was already breaking the rules of writing a little bit. But then I got to Hollins and that graduate student told me, ‘Just write what you want and do what you want. It’ll all come together in the end and we’ll help you.’ Having that freedom right off the bat was such a gift. It opened my eyes to the possibilities of what I could write and how to hone my craft before I even knew what honing my craft meant.”
Three members of Hollins’ English and creative writing faculty subsequently had a profound impact on Lewis. Professor of English and Creative Writing T.J. Anderson III showed her she could blend music with writing and it could be “heartbreaking and lovely and moving,” she said.
Lewis remembers feeling both excitement and trepidation when she enrolled in her first advanced creative writing workshop, which was taught by her advisor, Professor of English and Creative Writing Cathryn Hankla. “I was scared to read something from one of our random writing exercises during class because I thought it wasn’t going to be good. She told me, ‘No first draft is good. Just read it and you can fix it later. It’s not meant to be good at first.’ That’s always stuck with me. Even if you think it’s good, there’s always work to do. She’s always encouraged me to have confidence and trust in my writing.”
This semester, Lewis is taking her fourth and final advanced writing workshop, and her second with Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing Jessie van Eerden, who is “always cheering me on. She’s a comforting good source of critique and support.”
While Lewis came to Hollins to study creative writing, she also considered herself a visual person (one of her hobbies is photography) and enjoyed an interest in film. “I don’t know why, but it wasn’t something I’d entertained in studying until I had the opportunity to take an Introduction to Film class. I realized it’s not unlike analyzing or critiquing a book. So I thought, ‘A writer who can talk about movies, too. It’s a good pairing,’ and I ended up adding a film major.”
Lewis said the film classes that she has particularly loved are the ones she’s taken with Professor of English and Creative Writing R.H.W. Dillard. “He’s a great film critic. I’m in my third of his Film as a Narrative Art classes. He does a great job of connecting the filmmakers to their work and getting to know them, their techniques, and the history of the time when the film was made that might have impacted it.”
Another of Lewis’ aspirations when she came to Hollins was international study. Trips to Italy and Spain during high school sparked her interest in spending a semester abroad, so during one of her visits to Hollins as a prospective student, she attended a meeting about the Hollins Abroad – London program.
“I was immediately hooked. Going to London became a big part of why I wanted to come here. You take classes, but the most important thing is that you actually get to immerse yourself in life in another country.”
As Lewis prepared to travel to London to spend the 2019 fall term, she decided that completing an internship there would enrich her experience. Hollins’ Office of International Programs works through CAPA to provide international internship opportunities for students based on their areas of interest, and Lewis was placed with Weller Media Agency (WMA), a global digital creative and marketing company specializing in promoting talent in the music and entertainment industries, especially up-and-coming artists.
“It was a dream come true, it was like they read my mind almost about what I wanted to do,” Lewis said. “I’ve always been a big music person but I’d never done anything before in the music industry. I loved my internship and being around a bunch of crazy creatives all day, every day. They were just so nice and encouraging.”
Lewis did everything from graphic design and social media content to writing for Spindle (a magazine affiliated with WMA), engaging in public relations activities, and assisting with film and photography production. “It was fun because everyone is working in the same room and all I had to do was walk from one table to the next to see if there was anything they needed. They were very gracious and excited to have me help out on a bunch of projects such as shooting music videos and meeting and interviewing talent. Interacting with the artists I listened to or wrote about was really cool.”
The Hollins senior believes her WMA internship has opened a door for her. “I never really entertained the thought of working in the music industry in terms of film and photography or even as a writer, but this showed me I could do it and how it could happen. And Weller was such a great place for networking.”
The WMA experience mirrored what Lewis encountered throughout her semester in London. “The people are so kind and giving, and so imaginative,” she said. One of her favorite parts of the city is Brick Lane, located in the East End. “There are loads of little thrift shops and it’s really artistic. They do graffiti tours down there so there’s always artists spray painting the walls with these giant murals. I really liked their music scene, too. I went to a lot of concerts there.”
Lewis praises the host family with whom she lived. “I loved them so much. My host mom was interested in what was doing, very supportive, and recommended what to see and where to eat. She made sure I knew how to get to those places, too, whether it was on the Tube or taking a bus. She was always looking out for me, and it was nice to have someone who was already living there be a guide. I can’t recommend enough living with a host family.”
Lewis’ final semester is a busy one. She’s wrapping up her third year as a CA (Community Assistant), a position that has offered her the chance to draw upon her experience as the oldest sister in her own family to mentor first-year students. “I get to watch them when they first come to college and see how they change. It’s crazy how much they grow into themselves, even in the first semester. It’s just great to be a part of that.”
But perhaps the most ambitious project on Lewis’ plate at the moment is her first novel, which she began a couple of years ago and draws upon her study abroad experience. “It’s realistic fiction and it involves music, it’s about a band, and it’s set in London,” she explained. “It’s combining all of my favorite things and in the genre that I think is the most ‘me.’ It’s very hard but it is fun.” She noted that Hankla and van Eerden have both been very supportive, reading parts of the novel and offering suggestions as the work progresses.
Following graduation this spring, Lewis hopes to secure a music editorial internship with NPR. She’s also been in touch with Hollins alumnae in Richmond about possible opportunities within the area’s robust film production industry. “I also want to look at music studios to intern or just come in and see what they are all about, partly because I’m interested in getting to know the music industry better, but also to gather research for my novel.”
Even though her future plans are still coming together, Lewis has little doubt a particular city will figure prominently whatever she pursues. “After I returned here following my London experience, it seemed like I should be back there. Eventually I think I will go back, possibly for grad school in a couple of years. I felt like I was leaving behind a home,
and one day it will be time to go back home.”