In 1976, armed with little more than a lofty idea and enough charm to cajole local restaurant and lodge owners into donating food and housing, Kurt Brown, an ambitious young bartender and poet, launched the Aspen Writers’ Conference. What started as a two-week conference focused entirely on poetry soon blossomed into a month-long event encompassing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, playwriting, and screenwriting, and featuring appearances by such lauded guests as Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky. Early on, daytime classes were held out of doors in the shade of aspen trees; evening lectures and readings took place in crowded living rooms or in barrooms around town––the only meeting spaces the conference could afford. Afternoon rain showers did nothing to dampen the communal spirit of conferees nourished by a heady brew of elevated language and spectacular mountain setting (not to mention other kinds of brew). In time, Brown’s literary compatriots saw an opportunity to extend programming to Aspen area youth.
Writers in the Schools and young writers programs were introduced, along with Winter Words, designed to sustain resident writers and readers during the long off-seasons and non-conference months of the year. Aided by a legion of donors, patrons, board members, community partners, and writers Aspen Words (AW) saw its audience base increase substantially over the next several years.
As our reputation for attracting the brightest stars on the international literary stage grew, the wider world began to take notice. In 2005, USA Today named Aspen Summer Words “a top 10 literary gathering.” In 2009, recognizing an overlap in mission and vision, AW merged with the Aspen Institute, vaulting the organization to new heights. A few years later, AW introduced its new leadership team of director Mo LaMee, hailed as one of Colorado’s top nonprofit executives, and the organization’s first-ever creative director, Adrienne Brodeur, a New York-based, award-winning editor and author. Under their expert guidance, new programs have been developed and existing programs strengthened.
AW has established a robust Writer in Residence program, providing space and time in a beautiful retreat setting for numerous talented writers to make significant leaps forward on their various projects. The writers have included a remarkable array of National Book Award finalists, New York Times bestsellers, award winning novelists, and poets. The community has also been the beneficiaries of their time with free readings and school visits, often providing a first glimpse at work that may their defining work. Additionally, through our Catch and Release program, hundreds of books authored by our Writers in Residence have been distributed for free in the community.
Recently AW made a strategic decision to spend more time and energy working in the Roaring Fork Valley schools. Extraordinary teaching artists have inspired area students in the Writers in the Schools program to investigate their own ideas and articulate their thinking through both the written and spoken word.
In addition, AW recently established the Aspen Writers’ Network to support the work, continued learning and community-building opportunities for local writers. We host monthly meetings with a variety of prominent speakers reflecting on their challenges and inspiration as they work to find a place in the rapidly changing literary landscape.
Today, many of the world’s most celebrated authors grace AW stages each year. Hundreds of aspiring writers participate in our workshops, an impressive number of which go on to see their work published. Aspen Words programs that aim to encourage writers, inspire readers and connect people through the power of stories annually impact thousands of individuals, youth and adults alike.