English at Friends' Central: Profiles of Several FCS “Literary” Alumni/ae

Emily Harnett ’09 – Writer and teacher Emily Harnett has a piece entitled “Smoke from Underground” in the current issue of The Baffler. This May, she wrote an article for The New Yorker about Doris Lessing’s 1988 novel The Fifth Child. Emily’s work has also appeared Lapham’s QuarterlyThe AtlanticBroadly, and Lit Hub.

Maya Francis ’03 – Now a brand strategist and public relations professional who also uses social media to express her views, Maya Francis graduated from Friends’ Central thinking she would go into journalism and aspired to become a magazine editor. 

Maya Francis

Reflecting on her professional trajectory, Maya pointed to circumstances such as the national recession, the evolution of the magazine industry, and the explosion of the internet as forces that created obstacles and served as catalysts for her own growth. 

While at the University of Maryland, Maya had internships at Philly Weekly and Philadelphia Magazine, but when she graduated, the landscape had changed. She was offered what was then a typical step to a full-time job: an unpaid internship in New York. Her parents resisted this option and, with the recession looming, Maya accepted a job in the insurance industry, a decision that she says “was humbling.” It was a sound choice in many ways, but she says, “it felt crushing” not to use her degree. Undaunted, she pursued a Masters in Liberal Arts at Penn in the evenings and, upon earning her degree, she headed to Washington, D.C., for a paid internship in public relations.

Maya describes the career she shaped in the subsequent years as “an organic progression.” She got good at Twitter in “the moment everyone became a brand.” She used Twitter to reach out to editors and other writers. Her live tweeting was spotted by CNN, who then invited her to provide commentary. She describes the world of internet opinion as a phenomenon that builds upon itself. Her goal in that world – to do good that is recognized. 

Although she claims the universe “conspired in her favor,” clearly, the quality of her work is driving her success. Throughout her working life, as a teacher at Mighty Writers in West Philadelphia, an intern at Philadelphia Magazine, a consultant at Johnson and Johnson, and now, as a branding and marketing professional, Maya is leading by writing. And, she believes, knowing how to write well has been the key to her opportunities. 

Maya says she has come to understand and appreciate FCS as a unique place. She came to FCS from Catholic school, knowing that she needed more freedom. “When you are educated in a space like FCS that asks you what you want to do, you get more comfortable asking yourself questions.” – a skill Maya thinks was important and formative. 

Though Maya believes that good fortune and being in the right place at the right time have helped her along, it is clear that her adaptability, skill, and willingness to seize opportunities are the source of her success. 

You can follow Maya at mayafrancis.com  

Dan Segall

Dan Segall ’11 has made some changes in his life. Nashville has become his new home, and Harrison (his middle name) is sometimes used as his last. I am happy to report, however, that the humor, passion, and determination that we remember from his student days remains. Dan is writing. Writing doesn’t mean only words, of course, and Dan is an example of putting two talents together. His writing finds expression in the combination of text and music. Through song, he creates images, stories, and emotional states of mind. This path comes as no surprise to those of us who remember his dedication to music while at FCS. He was a member of the jazz band and a student of music theory. One of the assignments in that class was to write a song, and it was apparent from that exercise that the talent was clearly there. But, as he admits today, which I like to think he heard Carl Bradley and me say, talent is only a fractional element, a starting point in the creation of art. What comes next is the work. The work to perfect one’s craft is the necessary key in the ongoing endeavor to produce meaningful art. From a recent conversation with Dan, this is clearly what is happening in his new life in Nashville. He has changed his city – after college at Wake Forest, he decided he wanted to be in the south – and he has added his middle name Harrison to the final position.  

Dan is taking full advantage of the rich musical life in his new town and striving to make his new name known. Eager to express some of the genuine emotions of country music (“a lot of nostalgia and loss,” Dan says), he performs, writes music, and is committed to contributing to the musical life of Nashville. He credits his education here at FCS, and notes that the climate to be intellectually curious fired his desire to pursue his musical and literary aims.  

Find out more at danharrisonmusic.com

The goal is to establish himself as a singer/songwriter by finding his own voice and expressing what he wants to say. While Nashville is a fertile environment for music, the crowded scene there makes it difficult to stand apart. Dan seems poised to do just that. 

Interviewed by Jim Davis, Archivist & Former Teacher

Gwen Lewis

Gwen Lewis ’10 – From the time she was five years old, Gwen Lewis knew she wanted to be a writer. Writing was, “just something I did.” Her career path has been a thoughtful and intentional quest to marry her innate creativity and writing skills with the technical and managerial expertise she has gained over the last several years. 

Gwen says her love for writing was fostered at Friends’ Central. She describes her classes, especially Writers’ Workshop with Laurie Novo, as environments where students were challenged and also taken seriously, affirming her identity as a writer. She remembers powerful moments in a classroom environment that was difficult, safe, and entertaining. “Ms. Novo set the tone and the expectation that what we had to say was valuable, unique, and important. From the assignments to the way we workshopped them, the class made each of us feel like a writer.” She went on to say, “Being treated as if our opinions mattered had an incredible impact – our ideas were validated. FCS students get used to being treated that way; it builds their confidence.” 

Gwen believes her experience at FCS more than prepared her for Penn, where she majored in English. There, she found herself “alongside so many super smart kids,” but she was ready “for the volume and the type of work.” And she was also ready to speak up. Having been trained by her teachers at FCS to think, share, and interact with respect, she was “used to operating with confidence.” 

Gwen chose to major in English because that is what she cared about, but she was also mindful of the need to support herself. During her time at Penn, she looked for ways to translate her skills into a job that would value her creativity and also allow her to support herself. Real Arts, a Penn program that connects students to companies needing their creativity, afforded Gwen an important opportunity in “the kinds of companies where you might normally find Wharton students.” She used her summers to build marketable experiences. During the school year, she reveled in her focus on creative nonfiction, taking courses on arts, popular culture, and long-form journalism. Her work in the Kelly Writers House exposed her to amazing authors like John Barth and Buzz Bissinger. 

Through a series of internships with employers like the Philadelphia Inquirer, Google, and Shore Fire Media, and in her first “real” job at Comcast, Gwen discovered that is vital to her that an employer is interested in its employees’ unique gifts and work style preferences (cubicle or bench? Collaboration or solo work?) as opposed to expecting employees to conform to their culture. 

When she graduated, Gwen took a position as a product manager at Comcast in technology and product development. She explained that, as a product manager, she built relationships with designers and tech people to personalize the user or TV viewer’s experience. At every stage of a user’s experience, product managers are making decisions based on research and testing. 

While she valued production and tech as interesting, meaningful work, something was missing – finding time to be creative, cerebral, and reflective was difficult due to the full-time demands of her job. She knew she didn’t want to be a journalist, but what did she want? She had turned down an offer from Google to stay on the East Coast but decided that a corporation that would be attentive to individual employees, encourage collaboration, and perhaps give more space for her creative and cerebral style was worth the move. She accepted a position at YouTube, a division of Google, where she was asked to think strategically and solve problems. At YouTube, Gwen also appreciated an environment, not unlike FCS, that paid attention to the “uniqueness” of individuals and intentionally sought the most inspiring workplace for each person. Ultimately, though, it  was not the kind of creative expression she was looking for.

Gwen went on to reflect on her Friends’ Central experience. She said, “FCS encourages students to think about themselves and what they want to do. There were so many opportunities to discover and do the things I think of as my ‘super powers.’ Teachers go so far beyond what they have to do to forge connections and champion students. I think this was true for all students, including those interested in math or science. They had their chances to find their super powers too.”

Last spring, Gwen made a bold and intentional move toward her ultimate goal: a career that blends creative expression and technical skills. She gave herself a sabbatical to write and reconnect to her own creativity. She has found these months of exploration and focus on her next choices intense. Her search for the right next step has been well supported by the Penn career counseling department. She has been working on a collection of personal essays and a book proposal, something she would have found very difficult while working full-time. She also took a three-month course, The Artist’s Way, designed to help artists reconnect to their creativity, and she has networked actively with Penn alumni. 

Gwen’s investigation into a career that will blend her technical and business skills with the creativity that fuels her has resulted in a new position with the Walt Disney Company, where, as a Product Marketing Manager in NYC, she will work on defining the voice of Disney’s new streaming product, Disney+, and creating creative messaging and campaigns to communicate its value to users.   

Brothers Tim Chawaga ’06 and Peter Chawaga ’09 are both writers. Their approaches, interests, and chosen genres are different, but their outlook is united by a shared appreciation for stories and the incredible challenge of crafting good writing.  

Tim and Peter Chawaga

Tim and Peter describe their childhood as immersed in stories and surrounded by books. Steve and Laurie, their parents, read a lot, and Tim and Peter remember them talking about books all the time. Their mom, FCS English teacher Laurie Novo, read aloud to them and carefully selected books to give them. Tim remembers being introduced to the world of sci fi and fantasy with works by Diana Wynne Jones, Philip Pullman, and Brian Jacques. In fact, Tim says the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, with pages dedicated to lavish feasts and shocking situations in which beloved characters actually die, was something of a revelation to him. Peter laughed and said the Redwall series was comprised of intimidatingly fat books, and they, by contrast, have always been attracted to a sparse writing style. He recalls The Giver being the book that turned him into a reader himself. “It was the first book I read that didn’t feel like homework.”

While the brothers always liked English, Tim was also drawn to drama, playwriting, and acting and went on to study acting at Tisch, whereas Peter enjoyed working on Focus, the FCS student newspaper, and gravitated to journalism. Peter describes a summer internship at the Philadelphia City Paper the summer after his first year at Wake Forest University as a revelation. He remembers thinking, “Wow, if this is something people can do for a living, it’s for me.” On the way to this career, Peter tried his hand at fiction, publishing some short stories in what he modestly describes as “lesser publications.” He describes the challenge of writing fiction: “When you create from nothing, you could go in 10 million directions!” He prefers the structure provided by journalism and editing; additionally, he appreciates the collaborative aspects of journalism. As an example, he described the satisfaction of nurturing a story idea through writing and editing to publication and working with designers to create the accompanying artwork. You can read Peter’s work at Bitcoin Magazine, where he is currently a writer and editor. 

Tim says he always knew that he wanted to be a writer. Since his time in Upper School, where he felt his creativity was encouraged and nurtured by Terry Guerin, he has been writing and acting. After graduating from Tisch, he and a group of friends formed a small theater company, AGGROCRAG. More recently, he has begun writing short stories. Tim has had a number of tech jobs, each in the service of being able to write during his free time. This summer he was awarded the George R.R. Martin Scholarship to attend Clarion West, a prestigious six-week speculative writing workshop in Seattle. Now back home in Brooklyn, he is thinking about next steps, putting finishing touches on a short story, a work of speculative fiction recently published on Escape Pod, a science fiction podcast magazine. 

When asked if they give each other feedback on their writing, they laughed and said they are excited to see one another published and have no desire to critique. Tim said to his brother, “You are a real life editor; I would be nervous if you were critical.“ Peter replied, “I know how hard it is to publish, so I am so psyched to read Tim’s work and just admire the execution.” 

Catherine Weingarten ’09 – For Catherine Weingarten, there is no such thing as a typical week. Catherine is a published playwright who is now extending her creative reach to short form comedy. Though she tries to spend some part of every day writing, she says that days are more different than the same. 

Catherine Weingarten

When Catherine graduated from FCS, she thought she wanted to pursue acting. At Bennington College, she found a mentor – noted playwright Sherry Kramer. With her guidance, Catherine widened her thinking and became interested in creating and exploring beyond acting. When she graduated, she spent a year practicing her craft and then went on to pursue an MFA from Ohio University, where she focused on dramatic structure. She completed her MFA in 2017 and moved back to New York, where she has been busy. Her plays are comedies that make a statement about the world in a fun way which, she says, “can be challenging in the New York Theater world.” And yet they have been embraced and performed in many venues and have been award winning.

Her short play, Pineapple Upside Down Cake was a KCACTF National Semi Finalist, and her work has been developed with The Last Frontier Theatre Conference, Abingdon Theatre, and others.

Catherine says, “Part of being an artist is expanding yourself so the work you do frees you up and makes you better.” In that spirit, she has tried her hand at stand-up comedy and short form comedy. Most recently, her work was published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

As she thinks back to her time at FCS, Catherine says that her experience in literature and the arts “was just amazing. We were exposed to interesting literature from around the world, encouraged to speak our mind and to be curious.” 

She was particularly a fan of Terry Guerin’s amazing drama program and how Terry would bring in actual theater troupes like Pig Iron Theatre Company to work with students. “Terry was always so encouraging of my need to express myself and my passion for theater. I really think all the amazing English teachers at FCS helped foster my appreciation for the written word and a greater understanding of classic literature and plays.”

You can find Catherine’s short form humor writing on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and you can learn more about her work at catherineplaywright.ninja.

Have a literary/writing career or FCS English memory you’d like to share? Contact the editor! 

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