This Thing Called Writing

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Illustration by Chuck HoganTales of the way writers work are full of contrasts and contradictions. Hemingway wrote standing at a lectern (and sometimes fully clothed, one hopes). Truman Capote said, “I am a completely horizontal author…I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch….” Vladimir Nabokov often wrote in the bathtub, a method also employed by Agatha Christie.

To counterbalance early-bird writers, there are mavericks like Jack Kerouac, who liked to write “from midnight to dawn.” Norman Mailer liked to work in a room with a view: “I prefer looking at the sea, or ships or anything with a vista to it.” Compare that with the advice of Blaise Cendrars: “A writer should never install himself before a panorama, however grandiose it may be. Like St. Jerome, a writer should work in his cell… Turn the back. Writing is a view of the spirit.”

Some writers work slowly. Oscar Wilde famously remarked that he spent a morning putting in a comma and the afternoon taking it out. On the other hand, John D. MacDonald, author of the Travis McGee mystery series and many other books, began his career with a bang, writing 800,000 words—the equivalent of 10 full-length books—in four months.

It may seem confusing, this business of writing and teaching writing. Somerset Maugham said there are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, he added, no one knows what they are. Regardless, good novels, stories and poems continue to be written, and often with the guidance of creative writing professors.

THE FOUR WRITERS at Susquehanna are a well integrated team, bringing a variety of strengths to the table. Bailey seems the type who might leap upon a seminar table and howl his praise for a student manuscript. Kelsey is more sedate, coolly intellectual, a poet who has studied philosophy. But she radiates gentleness and compassion when she talks of her role as a student mentor. “Our young writers have great potential and ability,” she says. Willa Cather was of the same opinion: “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of 15.”

Fincke came relatively late to creative writing, having spent his graduate education studying American literature. When he realized that he wanted to create primary sources rather than study them, he turned to writing poems and short stories. Fincke became inspired by the works of blue-collar poets such as Philip Levine and James Wright. “It was exciting to find out that the things I knew could be translated onto the page.” His quiet manner is an indication of admitted shyness when it comes to analyzing his own writing, and he appreciates the difficulties facing young writers who may be unsure of their talent. “I believe it’s important to pay attention to students as individuals,” he says, and as director of the program, he has made sure that all students get close readings of their work and one-on-one conferences with their professors.

Retief, a native of South Africa, brings a cosmopolitan flavor to the program, having lived in Capetown, London, New York, Miami and Madrid. Before becoming a professor, he was an instructor of homeless HIV-positive substance abusers, a needle-exchange advocate and a teacher of high school students with learning disabilities. In his work he has followed the dictates of his heart, and he continues to do so in the classroom, helping his students to find the “emotional subtext beneath every story.”

Not all writers are such pleasant people. William H. Gass freely acknowledged his dubious motivation for writing: “I write because I hate. A lot. Hard.” Sniping may be the most popular sport among writers. “Henry James,” said Faulkner, “was one of the nicest old ladies I ever met.” George Jean Nathan observed that George Bernard Shaw wrote for the ages—the ages between 5 and 12.

What else might one expect in a profession often dominated by enormous egos? Presuming other people will avidly follow your words, ideas and visions—and pay good money for that privilege—is indeed an act of heroic presumption. In a workshop, one can almost hear the egos quietly humming. Walter Tevis, author of The Hustler, once told students on the first day of his workshop, “There will be no barracudas in here.” But, of course, there were.

Not so in the workshops at Susquehanna. To a visitor, the writers here seem sincerely, genuinely nice. Certainly, they will be critical when it is required. The standards for the program are rigorous, and 2008 graduates have received scholarships to Iowa’s Writing Workshop and Columbia University’s Publishing Program. Recent graduates are also enjoying the sweet success of publishing. Two are Catherine Pierce ’00 and Jay Varner ’03. Pierce’s book of poetry, Famous Last Words, was the winner of the 2007 Saturnalia Book Prize, and Varner will see his memoir, Burn, published by Algonquin Press early next year.

Alumni success is a testament to the program’s teaching approach, which encourages students to compete with each other but also offers them close professional guidance. Students are coached and encouraged at every turn, given the opportunity to show their stuff at the approximately 20 readings per year, and in three student-run literary magazines. Competition to publish is fierce, success never assured. “I know what it’s like to have that burning desire for publication,” says Bailey. “Before I got my first novel accepted, I couldn’t go into a Barnes & Noble without feeling physically sick.” So he exhorts his students to write every day, to follow a schedule, to keep a word and page count. “If I didn’t write every day,” he says, “I wouldn’t know who I am.”

It’s a safe bet that the creative writing students at Susquehanna are getting a good sense not only of who they are, but of what they can achieve.

Larry Gaffney is a local writer of fiction and contributor to Susquehanna Currents.

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