the moving spectacle of nonfiction, in Phillip Lopate's words, as the semester nears its end

Sunday, April 17, 2016

This past Wednesday afternoon and evening I had the distinct pleasure of spending time in the company of the great essayist and Columbia University professor (and head of the graduate nonfiction program), Phillip Lopate, his wife, his daughter, and members of the Bryn Mawr University creative writing program.

(Thank you, Cyndi Reeves and Daniel Torday, for allowing me to crash the party.)

Between the cracks of many deadlines here, I've been reading from the books I bought that evening. I have, of course, read Lopate through the years; who can teach nonfiction without owning Lopate volumes? But I did not own, until this Wednesday night, To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, which is, in a word, a glory. Perhaps it is because I agree so steadily with Lopate's many helpful assertions, perhaps it is because I, in my own way, attempt to teach and, in books like Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, carry forward these ideals about the rounded I, the obligation to the universal, the curious mind, the trace-able pursuit of questions, that I sometimes read with tears in my eyes passages like this one, from "Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story:"

In attempting any autobiographical prose, the writer knows what has happened—that is the great relief, one is given the story to begin with—but not necessarily what to make of it. It is like being handed a text in cuneiform: you have to translate, at first awkwardly, inexpertly, slowly, and uncertainly. To think on the page, retrospectively or otherwise, is, in the last analysis, difficult. But the writer's struggle to master that which initially may appear too hard to do, that which only the dead and the great seem to have pulled off with ease, is a moving spectacle in itself, and well worth the undertaking. 
There are just two more weeks left in this semester at Penn. My beautiful honors thesis students are finalizing their work and, soon, will not just hold their glorious books in their hands, but have the time to reflect back on all the lessons learned. My Creative Nonfiction students are writing letters, Coates and Parker and Rilke style, to those they feel must hear them, while also working on 600-word portraits of one another. Joan Wickersham, the extraordinary writer of both nonfiction and fiction is headed to our campus, Tuesday evening, 6 PM, Kelly Writers House—and if you are anywhere near, I strongly suggest you make the time. She is a national treasure.

Teaching is exhausting, exhilarating, necessary, confounding, essential. I learn that again, year upon year. I stagger away—made smarter, in so many ways, by the students I teach.


Victoria Marie Lees said...

Cynthia is correct. Lopate's words are inspiring. They are helpful in setting the mindset of the memoirist. And so are your, Beth. Thanks for sharing with your students and your followers.

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