Alumnus James Rahn Publishes Rittenhouse Writers: Reflections on a Fiction Workshop

January 23, 2017

For almost 30 years, writing program alumnus James Rahn ’88 has led the Rittenhouse Writers’ Group, a Philadelphia-based writing class that, in the words of the Paul Dry Books, the publisher of Rahn’s new memoir, is one of the “longest-running independent fiction workshops” in the country. Now, in Rittenhouse Writers, Rahn, who founded the workshop, looks back on his decades of leading the class and hundreds of students he’s worked with.

As you might expect from a book about a writing workshop, there’s some juicy stuff here. According to Paul Dry, the book recounts “every imaginable writing-group scenario, from awkward flirtations to suicide scares, catty critiques, near fistfights, and of course the satisfaction of watching someone's writing soar.” It also touches on Rahn’s “struggle to perfect his role as instructor” and “his effort to balance that role with the friendships he forms in the group, and to keep up with his own writing while still giving the group the attention it needs.”

In the book, Rahn, who also taught fiction at the University of Pennsylvania for 15 years, includes 10 stories by current and former students of the Rittenhouse workshop.

Included, too, are moments from Rahn’s personal life: “His days as a high school dropout in Atlantic City, dead-end jobs and hopeless moves, the difficulty of his mother's decline and death, and his own unexpected plunge into parenthood—when, at age 51, he and his wife took on the responsibility of raising her two young nieces.”

Central to the book, though, are the joys and challenges of writing—a skill notoriously difficult to teach. In the words of Sam Lipsyte, a Columbia Writing Program faculty member, the book is “about what happens when you create something vibrant and necessary and stick around for the long haul, whether it's teaching, writing, friendships, or love.” He adds, “This book is a powerful reminder of the importance of community and mentorship in the making of literature.”