Thornton Reader: Sonja Livingsto

Sonja Livingston.

Evy Brunelle ~ News Editor

     Author Sonja Livingston conducted a live virtual reading of her book The Virgin of Prince Street for the University of Lynchburg on Mar. 4 as part of the university’s Thornton Endowment program. 

     Professor Jer Bryant had the pleasure of meeting Livingston.  “I met her about five years ago at West Virginia Wesleyan College. I was studying for my Master of Fine Arts degree, and she was leading a workshop on creative nonfiction.” 

     The Virgin of Prince Street is Livingston’s latest book. Bryant said, “This memoir is beautifully written, and it effectively balances modes of writing while keeping the reader close to the narrator’s open heart. I am amazed by how Livingston invites the reader into her spiritual journey, never once hiding its difficulties or glory.” 

    In addition to the live reading, Livingston visited Bryant’s virtual Introduction to Creative Writing Class. “My students enjoyed Livingston’s writing prompts and her discussions related to creative nonfiction,” said Bryant. “Livingston, who is a college professor, is so generous; she compassionately shares her knowledge while creating a safe environment for students to freely ask questions.” 

     Bryant is happy with how Livingston’s virtual visit turned out. “The livestream was [still] extremely successful,” he explained. “We had almost 80 viewers. This is a wonderful turnout, even for in-person readings! Another benefit of livestream is that the recording will be posted to the University’s Thornton website so that many more people can enjoy Livingston’s reading.” 

     Margaret Bryant, Alana Compton, and Jesse Wood are all sophomores in J. Bryant’s Introduction to Creative Writing class. They were able to attend the livestream and Livingston’s visit to the class. 

     “Livingston does a great job of writing about personal issues and topics in an emotional and poetic way. I loved reading her book The Virgin of Prince Street,” said M. Bryant.

     Compton added, “I love how she details everything and makes all her scenes come to life. Her final sentences after every essay hit the reader hard every time, and the questions she asks throughout really make the reader think about what she is writing about. Her writing has inspired me to become a better writer.”

     M. Bryant, Compton, and Wood all enjoyed the livestream.

     “I have never attended a reading before, so it was a great first experience,” said Compton. “I liked being able to listen to Sonja read an essay from the memoir we had just finished, but I felt extremely grateful that she also read an essay that she had not published yet. The main reason I enjoyed listening to Sonja read her work is because it allowed me to understand her tone and the way she wanted her story to be read. I was able to look back at that essay and notice little differences in how I read it versus how Sonja read it, and that to me was an eye-opening and memorable experience.”

     Wood said the livestream went smoothly. “I thought it was great! Jer did a fantastic job keeping things rolling with questions and prompts! Sonja was very willing to talk about her writing, her career, and herself! And the format was nice, as livestreaming it allowed for less interruptions than there would be with other methods and it was easy to attend!”

     M. Bryant’s favorite part of the livestream was hearing Livingston read from her piece. “Hearing her voice and inflection gave more life to the work, in my opinion,” she explained.

     Although the three students liked the livestream, they all agreed that Livingston’s appearance in their creative writing class was the best part of the author’s visit. 

     “I really appreciated getting to ask her questions during our class meeting time and hearing her writing process and advice for young writers,” said M. Bryant.

     Compton added, “I felt like I was in one of her classes at VCU, getting taught by this amazing writer. The exercises she had us do were extremely helpful in terms of realizing the things I like to write about. I think the best part overall was the question and answer portion, because I did not feel like I was talking to someone more important than me.”

     She continued, “Talking to Sonja was like talking with your favorite professor or teacher in school. I could tell that she really cared about the questions we were asking and answered them carefully and thoroughly, but she also made small talk with us and asked us questions too. It was just an amazing experience, and I hope she felt as welcomed in our class as she made us feel with her.” 

     Wood said, “Listening to Sonja talk about her writing methods and career [was my favorite]. As an aspiring writer, I found it very informative and inspiring to hear the way she goes about doing things, from the actual writing, to finding topics to write about, to researching those. Plus, she is just a very pleasant woman in general, and she was very willing to speak to us about those things. One thing that she said that really stood out is that creative nonfiction writing does not have to be about something big, but rather something that matters to the writer.” 

     About Livingston’s writing, Wood said that, “She does a fantastic job at making her readers feel connected to the story. Every page makes the reader care more about what the narrator is going through, even if it is something that they normally would not care about. And I do not think I have enough room to talk about how lovely her descriptions and scenes are.” 

     The Thornton Endowment program is valuable for all students because it is a way for writers to share their wisdom and experiences. 

     Compton explained, “It allows the students to connect with people who were once in our shoes; they were once students too, trying to become better writers. Having writers come and speak with classes allows the students to get advice from someone who knows what it is like to go through the process and write something they are passionate about. It is an inspiring experience, because it makes us want to improve, so we can one day be like them.” 

     Wood agreed, saying, “Visiting authors can provide a very crucial resource and inspiration to students.” 

     He explained, “It is a great creative experience and can deepen the student-campus experience. Additionally, students that have an interest in literature get a chance to ask a writer about elements of their writing. For students that want to be writers it allows an opportunity to ask questions to someone who has made it as a writer, in order to better their writing skills or learn about publishing. Overall, events like these are incredibly enriching, especially the one-on-ones in individual classes.” 

     M. Bryant said, “I think it is very beneficial to have authors visit classes, especially when the class has read their work. It helps the students connect more with the author and possibly understand the work more and allows them to ask questions and get more clarification about the pieces.” 

     J. Bryant concluded, “It is important for writers and artists to visit university campuses and classrooms to both encourage discussion of art and to enable students to ask writers and artists questions about their creations.  What a wonderful way to learn about an artist’s craft! Artists, and I include writers in this word, provide records of our history and culture. What an amazing gift that students, faculty, and staff can experience those who contribute to the remembering.”  

     The Thornton website can be found here: 

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