Friday, September 12, 2008
I'd never taken a writing course during my undergraduate days at Penn, and when I wrote I was forever writing alone, reading alone, gauging all the gaps alone. It wasn't until I was in my thirties, then, that I inserted myself into the writing world, taking "family vacations" at workshops in Spoleto, in Prague, and finally at Bread Loaf in Vermont. (My husband being a good sport to go along, my toddler son not having much say in the matter.)
It was at Bread Loaf that I met the poet and memoirist Jane Satterfield. She was ethereal and talented, but also groundedly kind. She was working through transitions, speaking of England, where she'd been born, musing over photographs. The conference was soon over, but we remained friends, and I have watched her come into her own ever since, publishing poetry collections (Shepherdess with an Automatic, Assignation at Vanishing Point), winning poetry grants (including a National Endowment for the Arts award), gaining recognition for her nonfiction as well. Raising a daughter through it all, marrying fellow poet Ned Balbo, and teaching at Loyola, where one day not so long ago she invited me in for a day of teaching as well, and where I saw first hand just how carefully and lovingly she prepares for every day.
It's one thing to be a student of writing. It's another to try to light the way. Today I post excerpts from a recent conversation that I had with Jane—the first of what will be two Jane postings—to help remind us all (as this school year begins) just what teaching writers do, how much of themselves they give.
How did Loyola find you, and when? What made that university and your interests a fit?
That’s an interesting question, Beth, because my story’s a little unusual. After I finished my M.F.A at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop I was doing some composition teaching at a local community college when Phil McCaffrey, the English and Writing Chair at Loyola, called to see if I could cover two classes at the last minute. There were other young writers like me teaching in the program and there was a great deal of literary energy and a sense of community: we had—and still have—a vital reading series, for instance, and many of us shared work-in-progress that would later appear in our first books. Loyola’s commitment to the liberal arts is strong and I felt very comfortable teaching at an institution where interdisciplinary study is encouraged.
Your students are some of the luckiest souls around. Talk a little bit about the classes you teach, the students you meet, and the one or two lessons you hope your students will remember.
Thanks, Beth, that’s so generous. I enjoy seeing my students discover new ways of thinking and writing. There’s so much growth that happens for students over the course of a single semester and I’ve been lucky in recent years to have “repeaters” so I can really watch young writers develop into formidable stylists. I teach workshop courses in the essay and in poetry and all my classes are very interactive—lots of group work and presentations along with daily writing and discussion centering on what we can learn, as writers, from each work we read.
I’ve met so many wonderful students over the years. There’s always some excitement in the classroom—moments of thoughtful discussion or good workshop sessions where students’ generous response to each others’ work sparks real growth. I remember one group of first-students who were especially kind and honest. “Tom, we love you,” one student said to another, “and this is why I can say this: verbosity is pomposity. Tell it to us true.” I held my breath. Wondered what would happen next. “You’re right,” Tom said, “point well taken.” And the class burst into laughter.
Is there a book or a poem that you always teach, always reference in some way?
If I’m relentless on one thing, it’s reading. Sometimes I maybe assign (is it truly possible?) too much. Jamaica Kincaid’s essays “Columbus in Chains,” “On Seeing England for the First Time,” “Girl” and “Biography of a Dress” are standards for me. They’re so visually sharp and deal with uncomfortable truths. Although many of my students aren’t likely to have experienced the tragedies of colonialism and oppression first-hand, Kincaid reveals just how deeply our language and education shape us.
One of my favorite books to teach is Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family. It’s simply gorgeous prose, a narrative mosaic that’s fugue-like and dense but also poignant and funny. The historical backdrop is powerfully woven throughout the book; his portraits are sharply honest and empathetic. What’s not to love? Plus his acknowledgements are long and detailed—his material comes out of book research, interviews, and travel and he makes it clear that writing’s a collaborative act born out of connection to a community. I like students to learn those lessons.
How does one begin a conversation about books? How much can you really frame up in advance? How much of teaching requires being able to think and assimilate right there, in that room?
How right you are! There’s a certain degree of preparation: you decide you’re going to highlight voice or use of controlling metaphor or character or whatever; maybe you give discussion questions ahead of time or at the start of class. But sometimes the class swings to something else entirely, issues that concern your young writers at that very moment in that very room. For instance, "What makes Don DeLillo think he can or should write about 9/11 in a novel?" That came up in a class of seniors recently. The teacher’s choice is: we can stop and think about that or we can move on. I like to stop and linger when questions come up spontaneously. Even if that question sounded slightly critical and was voiced a little sarcastically, I like to think the student was really asking something quite different: how do we—and should we—decide what’s a “fit” topic for literature?
Learning’s not always linear. The same senior class reacted very negatively to an innovative book of poems. I was so disappointed. I had to find a way to turn discussion around without sounding like a scolding parent. But when the students attended the writer’s reading, they gained additional insights and became rather fond of the book. Reading’s an intellectual act but it’s also very emotional. Guiding discussion is a tough balance.
(to be continued)