This Thing Called Writing

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Glen Retief, assistant professor of English and creative writing.TO VARYING DEGREES, but almost without exception, writers enjoy talking about their work, and just as often about themselves. Salinger and Pynchon notwithstanding (one might have put Cormac McCarthy in that category until he turned up on Oprah, and later the Academy Awards), your average writer will eagerly hold forth on the topic of craft and other matters. No doubt it’s the solitary nature of the work. In the writer’s study, there is no Dilbert in an adjoining cubicle ready to listen.

A handful of writers, in cranky moods, have said this is not necessarily a good thing. Lillian Hellman once said, “If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don’t listen to writers talk about writing or themselves.” Hemingway shunned any discourse regarding his work: “If you talk about it, you lose it.” Norman Mailer agreed, stating that a “discharge of the tension” could result from blabbing about a work in progress.

So much for the workshop, in which students and their professors do close readings of fledgling manuscripts. In the estimation of some writers, it can be a hindrance to both student and teacher. Gore Vidal, who was less concerned about the effect of creative writing programs on the students than on the writers, said, “Teaching has ruined more American novelists than drink.”

But most of the naysayers established their careers before creative writing programs became prevalent and widely respected. They worked alone, depending on the advice of editors or carefully chosen colleagues. Today, however, the consensus among professional writers is that creative writing programs are indispensable to the development of aspiring poets, novelists and creative nonfiction writers, giving them encouragement, familiarizing them with the nuts and bolts of effective manuscript preparation, and teaching them to avoid rookie mistakes. For every autodidact like Vidal, there are a multitude of writers like the late Raymond Carver, who said he felt his first writing teacher, the novelist John Gardner, looking over his shoulder whenever he worked on a story.

Susquehanna’s Tom Bailey, now in his 10th year teaching in Susquehanna’s creative writing program, fully appreciates the value of a mentor. Had it not been for Jane Wells, his English professor at Marshall University, he might not be where he is today. Bailey’s father, a career military man, felt that the scribbling of novels was not the sort of manly pursuit he wanted for his son. Professor Wells made a call, and Bailey’s father was convinced by the argument that a young person should be encouraged to develop his primary talent.

If Bailey’s main talent is writing, the gift of conveying enthusiasm to others is a close second. He emits an aura of almost palpable delight in the life he has fashioned for himself—a life of writing and teaching. Usually he is up and working by 4 a.m., unless he has “slept in” until 5. By the time he comes to class, he has been writing for five hours, and he is not hesitant to talk about the process. This kind of personal sharing, “showing them why one sentence works better than another,” gains the trust of his students, whom, by the way, he calls not “student writers,” but “writers,” conferring legitimacy to their efforts.

A rugged type, Bailey recently explored the Grand Canyon for his novel-in-progress about two brothers, one of whom goes missing in that vast wilderness. He loves it when a project takes him on an adventure. He considers it unlikely that he’ll ever begin a novel with the line “Last week when I was in Starbuck’s…”

 

THE WORK HABITS OF AUTHORS have always been as much a topic of interest as the craft itself. Hemingway, Victor Hugo and even Ben Franklin were known to favor writing in the nude, ostensibly to make the process Spartan and unpleasant, lest comfort and lassitude settle in. Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley asked friends to hide his clothes while he wrote so he wouldn’t be tempted to go out for a drink.

When Bailey, Fincke or their Susquehanna colleagues Karla Kelsey and Glen Retief are at work, none of that funny stuff is going on. But they do share one characteristic: each spends several hours a day demonstrating the same commitment to writing that they encourage in their students. Like Bailey, Kelsey is usually up and working by 5 a.m. Fincke is writing in longhand by 6 a.m. Retief, the slugabed of the group, sometimes waits until 7 a.m. to start his day. But they have all been at the writing pad or computer for hours before their class work begins. Discuss writing and teaching with them and you will come away with an overwhelming sense that they are dedicated and passionate, utterly committed to Bernard Malamud’s dictum that the idea is to get the pencil (or, in this modern age, one’s fingers on the keys) moving quickly.

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