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Celebrated author shares talents with creative writing workshop

| Judy Berthiaume

A history buff with a passion for storytelling, Aaron Hallingstad has loved writing since he was a young boy attending a Rice Lake elementary school.

While his love for words comes naturally, believing in his talents always has been a struggle for the UW-Eau Claire senior, who is pursuing a major in history and minor in creative writing.

But it’s a little tougher for him to doubt himself now that Nickolas Butler — an internationally celebrated author — is telling him that he’s got what it takes to make it as a writer.

“I’ve finally decided to seriously pursue my dream of becoming a writer, and the support, kind words and insight into the world of professional writing that he’s given me has been invaluable,” Hallingstad says of his newest mentor.

How does a Blugold get his writing in front of a best-selling author whose books have been nominated for some of the most prestigious literary honors in the world?

He enrolls in a UW-Eau Claire creative writing workshop taught by Butler, a visiting professor who happens to be the author of the best-selling novel "Shotgun Lovesongs" and an acclaimed collection of short stories titled "Beneath the Bonfire.”

Butler’s much-anticipated novel “The Hearts of Men” will be released early in 2017.

“My goal is to help my students become better writers, but also to show them that you really can build an exciting, beautiful life by doing this for a living,” Butler, an Eau Claire native who moved back to his hometown several years ago, says of teaching at UW-Eau Claire.

Mission accomplished, his students say.

“This class has given me an opportunity to put my work out there, and I am usually quite self-conscious of my work,” Hallingstad says. “It has built up my confidence and my determination to produce more works and improve on existing ones, and it has helped me find my style and personal voice.”

Not surprisingly, Blugolds are making the most of the opportunity to learn from someone with Butler’s impressive credentials and passion for writing, says B.J. Hollars, associate professor of creative writing.

Each Monday night as he walks into his own classroom to teach, he can hear the buzz and feel the energy coming from Butler’s room, Hollars says.

“It’s pretty clear they understand just what an opportunity it is to work with him,” Hollars says of the students in the writing workshop. “They arrive early, they stay late, they soak in every moment they can."

Absolutely true, say his students, noting that having a best-selling author in the classroom — regardless of how humble he is about his success — is motivating them to think differently and bigger about what might be possible for their own futures.

“It’s amazing to have an instructor who has had such success as a writer,” says Elizabeth Fuhrman, a senior English-creative writing major from Superior. “Having Professor Butler this semester has made me realize that though it is difficult to become a successful writer, it is possible.

“His background inspires me to put more effort, thought and emotion into my work than I ever have before. Having a published author look at my pieces makes me want to produce the best work I possibly can. I value his opinions and suggestions, not just because of his success, but because he is a fantastic instructor who cares about his students and is passionate about their writing.”

Hallingstad agrees, saying the class already has changed the way he thinks about and approaches his writing.

He, too, is motivated to work even harder knowing that his stories will be critiqued by someone whose writing he admires, he says.

“I'm not just putting up snippets of short stories on an obscure blog of mine,” Hallingstad says of the stories he submits for his class. “I’m sharing them with my peers and someone who has success and talent in a field that I’ve had a passion for since I was in elementary school. This class has given us an outlet to measure our writing and style to see if this is something we can and should be serious about.”

Given Butler’s success, having him as a teacher could have been intimidating, the students say.

Instead, he’s created a classroom environment that makes them comfortable sharing their work, as well as their opinions and reactions to what others write and share, Fuhrman says.

The give-and-take makes the Monday night workshops feel more like informal gatherings of writers who want to chat about their writing than actual class sessions, she says.

“I feel like I’m having a casual and constructive conversation with other writers every class period,” Fuhrman says. “I’m comfortable expressing my emotions about a story — if I loved it, if something didn’t sit well with me or if a scene was incredibly great — because I feel encouraged to share if I’m emotionally invested somehow in a story.”

Like many other faculty at UW-Eau Claire, Butler’s success in the classroom reflects how deeply he cares for his students, Hollars says.

"When I walk by Nick's classroom, I can't help but glimpse the white boards overflowing with charts and arrows and words,” Hollars says. “For me, those scrawls are proof of a passion shared between students and their professor. I often wish I could be a fly on the wall, to learn a little alongside them."

Their instructor puts significant effort into critiquing every student’s stories, and then follows up with a one-to-one discussion with the writers, Fuhrman says.

During those individual meetings, he addresses any questions or issues from a student, but he seeks feedback about how he might improve the workshop experience, she says.

“He recognizes the talents in all his students, and wants to help us grow and develop as writers so that we have the potential to be successful and share our stories with the world,” says Fuhrman, who is considering a career in the publishing industry.

Butler appreciates the kind words, but says it’s the students who deserve most of the credit.

Their enthusiasm, energy and kindness have made it surprisingly easy for him to teach, something he hasn’t done since he was a graduate student.

The students also have surprised him in another way — they have far more talent than he would have imagined, he says.

“Not only are they incredibly kind, but their writing is so good that there are times I wonder if I can offer them anything,” Butler says. “I read something written by a student that could be published right now. She was surprised when I asked if she had submitted it anyplace. She didn’t recognize that she’s that good. There are days I feel like the students have so much talent that there isn’t a lot for me to do.”

When he was an undergraduate, he didn’t know there was such a thing as a creative writing program, and it never occurred to him then that he could make a living as a writer, Butler says.

His students, he says, are way ahead of where he was at this point in his education.

“I have tremendous respect for those students who are considering writing as a career because I know from my own experiences just how difficult it is,” Butler says.

While the focus of his workshop is on the students’ writing, he also meets with students who want to know more about how to go about launching a career as a writer.

“We talk about the amount of work it takes to be successful, but I’m also happy to talk about things like getting an agent, how to get published and selling rights to your work,” Butler says. “I want them to understand that the business end is very important if you want this to be your life. You have to embrace this side of it. It’s practical but important.”

Hallingstad says that Butler’s encouragement and advice come at the perfect time since he’s trying to decide what he wants to do after he graduates in December.

“I can honestly say that if I find any success, I can attribute some of it to what I’ve learned and experienced in this class and from Nickolas Butler,” Hallingstad says. “I have been lucky enough to learn from him, and I’ve been even luckier to have gotten to know him as a person.”

As rewarding as this semester has been, the demands of his writing career make it impossible for Butler to teach again in the spring.

With his new book slated to be released this spring, he’ll be traveling extensively in the coming months for book signings, interviews and other promotional events.

“That’s part of the business end of being a writer,” Butler says. “I need to be out there promoting it so we can get bookstores and libraries to be excited about it for as long as possible.”

One of those events will be a March 6 reading at Volume One in downtown Eau Claire.

He’s glad to have an event in Eau Claire, a place that has a small but impressive community of writers.

“The literary community is growing in Eau Claire,” Butler says, noting that the world-class writers and poets with ties to UW-Eau Claire are a big reason for that growth. “There is a lot of talent here for a city of just 65,000 people. This is a place that keeps moving forward.”