Amidst Fiction, Worlds Collide

October 24, 2018

Erin Ulrich ’18

Thisbe Nissen and Abbey Mei Otis
Thisbe Nissen ’94 and Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing Abbey Mei Otis ’11
Photo credit: Jennifer Manna

Thisbe Nissen ’94 and Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing Abbey Mei Otis ’11 presented their fiction writing to a crowd of students this past week, reflecting on what their time as Oberlin students meant to them.

On Wednesday, October 17, the Creative Writing Program, with support from Alumni in Service to Oberlin College (ASOC), held an alumnae reading with Thisbe Nissen ’94 and Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing Abbey Mei Otis ’11. The event, one of the Creative Writing Program’s many programming initiatives, was an opportunity for students to directly interact with Oberlin authors whose work they are reading in class.

Otis, whose first collection of stories, Alien Virus Love Disaster, was published this past summer, says that the event was an opportunity for her to reflect on not only her time as a student, but her experiences since as a writer. “Since I’ve left [Oberlin],” she says, “I feel more and more like writing is part of my identity. It’s the thing that I know I would be doing whether or not I had studied it.”

Otis, who worked extensively with Professor of Creative Writing Sylvia Watanbe and Dan Chaon, says that the material she worked on at Oberlin has evolved into content for a novel she used in her graduate school thesis and that she continues to work on. “The worlds and characters I worked on at Oberlin continue to be important to my creative life,” she says. “I just published a collection of stories, and I would say that almost half of them were drafts that I started when I was a student here.”

Although two decades earlier, Nissen’s Oberlin experience remains just as formative as Otis’. “I was drawn to Oberlin because in 1989, when I was applying to college, it was one of the very few schools where one could actually major in creative writing,” Nissen says.

Nissen attended Oberlin with fellow writers Myla Goldberg, Lisa Jervis, and David Rees—just to name a few—and continues to cross paths with Obie writers who came before and after her time as a student. “I mean, that’s a lot of writers coming out of one little school, no?”

She remarks that the event mirrored the seamlessness of the encounters she’s had with Oberlin graduates, in which “the divide of years just kind of slips away.”

Events such as this, which was coordinated by Assistant Professor of Creative Writing Emily Barton, evince the depth and vitality of Oberlin’s writing and alumni communities. Barton, who is teaching both Nissen’s and Otis’s work to her students this semester, is enthusiastic about building community in all forms, as well as underscoring the importance of writing not only to students who aspire to be writers in their professional lives. “There’s this myth that writing is a solitary act,” she says. “How can you find your voice without a community of writers?”

When reflecting on her Oberlin experience, Nissen’s remarks resonate with Barton’s conviction that community is key to fostering individual creative expression. “To me, Oberlin was a place where people went to give themselves over fully to whatever weird, bizarre, brilliant thing it was they wanted to do with their lives,” says Nissen. “And that was seriously beautiful to me. I feel a great honor in belonging to that community of Obies in the world.”

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