Sam Mitchell, ’11, this year’s recipient of the David C. Evans Outstanding Achievement award in both research and the creative arts, knew that he wanted to be a writer since he knew books were written.
“So, essentially ever since I was two years old,” Mitchell said. “I’ve written since I was three or four--ever since I was first able to physically write. Little stories and stupid things, all illustrated by the author of course.”
Mitchell, an English major minoring in creative writing and history, transferred to Richmond his freshman year after New York University didn’t quite meet his expectations. Originally from Virginia and very familiar with Richmond, he felt UR was a better fit. During his time here, he served as a tutor and Writing Center consultant, helping other students find success in an area he excels in.
His favorite writers, Mitchell said, really depend on the moment. Right now, it’s John Updike—but he also named Bill Bryson, Roddy Doyle and “all the great people like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen.”
For Mitchell, inspiration comes from the daily minutia.
“I’ll see two random disconnected things and they’ll come together in an interesting way and I’ll think, ‘that could be a story,’” he said. “I’ll see a certain person in a store that looks interesting that becomes a character in some way.”
Mitchell recently wrote a piece of creative non-fiction, “Machias,” which was published in the current issue of the prestigious national undergraduate literary magazine, The Susquehanna Review. The editor of the journal gave it high praise, calling it “enriching” and complimenting the “lush description and sense of humor.” Mitchell went to Susquehanna University in December to give a special reading of the work.
Mitchell said that at Richmond, he’s been writing a lot of short stories for fiction workshops and on his own. He is working on a novel, which will be his main project when he goes into the Hollins University MFA program in the fall.
He has only presented one chapter of his novel during a workshop, so a majority of it remains a mystery.
“I chose Hollins because it’s going to be a lot smaller and more personal, a lot like what I found at Richmond,” Mitchell said. “They only admit five people for a year and it’s a more well-known and prestigious program. I also figured that going into something as nebulous and economically unsound as being a writer, I should start to save money, and the funding Hollins is giving me will allow me to do that.”
Mitchell said that for him, the hardest part about writing is the daily regimentation of it – just making yourself write. Coincidentally, Mitchell said that the thing most people don’t know about him is that he’s not very organized.
“I don’t like order,” Mitchell said. “A lot of people think I’m very organized and that I have to be in order to do well in school, but I’m really not very organized at all. If people saw my desk at home and in what a state of disarray—well, they’d be surprised.”
But organization and hard work don’t necessarily correlate. English professor Elizabeth Outka, Mitchell's thesis advisor, praised his work ethic in a letter nominating him for the Evans award.
“Mitchell is the kind of undergraduate who takes himself on research trips to England for fun, tracking down sources and searching out the houses (and the objects) of his favorite writers,” Outka said. “This past summer, he was awarded a summer fellowship to study the works of Virginia Woolf, a project that would in turn support work on his honors thesis.
“He read most of Virginia Woolf’s novels and a vast amount of secondary material over the summer, always going well beyond the requirements of such a project simply because he was interested in the work.”
With the summer research grant Mitchell got last summer from the School of Arts and Sciences, he was able to go to England on what he called “a kind of ‘Virginia Woolf’ trip.” He visited a lot of her homes in the Bloomsbury area of London and in the Richmond neighborhood just outside London, as well as a lot of the locations germane to Woolf's novels. Mitchell also researched at the British Library and saw some of Woolf’s original handwritten manuscripts.
“The trip lent an enriching depth to my research project, a sense of the reality of Woolf's world,” Mitchell said. “And as both a Woolf fan and a complete Anglophile, I enjoyed it on a purely personal level as well.”
Mitchell used his research to write his senior thesis, “The Stuff of Thought: Virginia Woolf’s Object Lessons.” Outka complimented the depth of Mitchell’s essay.
“His thesis examines how Virginia Woolf uses objects within her fiction, both as structuring devices for the narrative and as ways to portray the subjectivity of consciousness among her characters,” Outka said. “He has explored the theoretical work being done on Woolf and on things, incorporating critical material usually only read by graduate students or established scholars.”