“You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.” This F. Scott Fitzgerald quote rings true for Colorado Academy alumna Shea Sweeney ’11. A young writer and aspiring filmmaker with something to say, Sweeney has earned one of the most prestigious honors available to young fiction writers—the 2019 Henfield Prize for Fiction, recognizing the best work by a second-year graduate student in the Columbia University Writing Program.
Intellectually curious, Sweeney describes herself as a “lover of landscapes, strangers, histories, evocative stories, sharp humor, and poignant questions.” Her words about all of those things fuel her writing. She writes both about things that have happened to her and things that she has made happen, including walking “roughly seventeen hundred miles across America pushing a three-wheeled jogging stroller.”
First stop: Hampshire College
Sweeney’s interest in writing, creativity, and storytelling has roots from her time at CA and from her parents, Nick Sweeney and Celia Sheneman. She credits them for encouraging her to find a passion and pursue it. She says that journey of discovery was incubated by experiences, faculty, and classmates during her years at CA, and among the most important lessons were the ability to accept criticism and to do the hard work required of writers.
She started her post-CA education at the highly personalized Hampshire College in idyllic central Massachusetts. At Hampshire, she learned about the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab [SEL], an experimental laboratory that combines ethnography with analog and digital media to produce films. Through SEL, Sweeney found synergy between an academic pursuit that blended how she looked at the world with what she wanted to get out of higher education.
Second stop: the New School
As a self-proclaimed struggling reader who craves creativity and loves to collect stories, Sweeney was inspired by SEL to hear the stories of people and cultures that interested her. On a program with the School for International Training (SIT) that took her to Nepal, Jordan, and Chile, she discovered the art and beauty of listening to people and writing their stories.
Hampshire College’s innovative approach to learning drew Sweeney to SIT, but while traveling, she realized that she wanted access to more people and stories. So she transferred to the highly collaborative New School in New York City where she graduated with a BA in History, Ethnography, and Journalism. This is the core of her creative process, she says, to seek out people and organizations that are exploring better ways to live, learn, and engage in today’s world.
Third stop: America!
After graduating from the New School, Sweeney was ready to do something bold, creative, and in her words, “kind of weird.” In a wide-brimmed hat and good, sturdy boots, she spent four months walking 1,700 miles (90 percent walking and about 10 percent in buses, cars, etc.) from Jacksonville, Fla., to the Colorado/Utah Border. It was during this phase of her journey to become a writer that she shifted from wanting to be a journalist or documentarian to taking more of a “fieldwork approach to creating fiction.”
Sweeney pushed the stroller filled with her gear along highways and through small towns. The material that she collected has been the main source of her writing, including the work that helped her win the Henfield Prize. Ironically, the journey was never intended to be something she would write about, and, in fact, it took her a long time to figure out how to approach what she experienced. The walk was about being out there on her own, going slowly, experiencing the depth and vastness of a place.
“The biggest thing I learned is that you can’t generalize or make assumptions about anything,” she says. Since completing her journey, Sweeney has written fictional stories about the people and places she experienced. “My fiction is my exercise in trying to better understand this place called America, beyond what I am told about it.
Fourth stop: graduate school
Looking for her next adventure, Sweeney recalls being skeptical about applying for an MFA because, “How can a person be taught creative writing?”
Ultimately, she committed to the challenge of improving her craft, so she put her hat in the ring and applied to a number of programs, uncertain about whether a master’s degree was necessary to pursue something highly creative.
With her MFA completed in 2019, she now is certain she made the right decision. “If it really speaks to your heart, then it’s worthwhile.” With respect and intimacy, Sweeney’s fiction delivers a sense of comfort about places and people no matter how “weird” (a word she often uses to describe the characters in her fiction) or challenging they might be to read about.
Final stop? Los Angeles
No matter where adventure takes her, Sweeney thinks back to CA. Here, she learned how to find those bastions of creativity that fed her desire to think in new and different ways, like the Curious Voices Playwriting program in the Upper School. “It was wild, fun, and a great outlet,” she said. “This opened my eyes to people who live creative lives and who are different.” And now, she is one of them.