Kilian McDonnell Fellowship Supports Work On A New Writing Book
In addition to my two weeks as a writing coach at the Collegeville Institute this summer, I’ll be there for another six weeks in the fall as a short-term resident scholar, recipient of a Kilian McDonnell Fellowship. The fellowship will support my work on a book about writing for a broader audience, intended primarily for those who write from a spiritual perspective but with plenty for anyone who wants to write well for the general public.
The genesis for this book is my summer writing coach work, particularly my presentations to those attending my Writing Beyond the Academy week the past two years. Of course, my 22 years of teaching creative writing to both graduate and undergraduate writing students have given me plenty of material too.
If you’re interested in attending either of my summer weeks this year, go to the Collegeville Institute Summer Writing Workshops home page. There’s still time to apply for these all-expenses-paid weeks but the deadlines are in February!
A Professor No More
On Monday of this week, I cleaned out my office in Portland State University’s Neuberger Hall. On Tuesday, I filed my last set of grades. On December 31, 2017, my retirement will be official. After 22 years of university teaching and 17 years at PSU (during which I was fortunate to receive five student-selected teaching awards, one in almost every year I was eligible), I’ll soon be a writer only. That should mean more time to post on this somewhat-neglected site.
I will continue to lead summer workshops at the Collegeville Institute and the Manhattanville College MFA’s Summer Writers’ Week–for information on either of these, including how to apply, go to my Talks page.
A big thank you to all of the students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching as a college professor. I figure that over my 22 years at universities, I’ve critiqued more than 4,000 papers. I’m happy to say that a fair number made it into print here or there. I hope my comments on the others were at least somewhat edifying.
Look for more thoughts on teaching on this site in the weeks ahead, including some of the things I’ve taught and learned.
On to new pastures…
Apply for FREE Summer Writing Weeks at the Collegeville Institute–with Me as Your Writing Coach
In the summer of 2018, I’ll be the writing coach again for two different weeks at the Collegeville Institute at St. John’s University in Minnesota. These weeks are all-expenses-paid, even your airfare. The one requirement is that your writing should have a spiritual component. Details are below:
Wednesday, July 25 to Tuesday, July 31, 2018—Writing Beyond the Academy–for academics who want to reach a broader audience–application deadline is: Monday, February 5, 2018. To apply, click here.
Thursday, August 2-Wednesday, August 8–Apart and Yet a Part–for established writers–application deadline is Monday, February 12, 2018. To apply, click here.
For more about the Collegeville Institute’s Summer Writing Program, click here.
An Author at Last, I Guess
I just received news that my bio is in the 2017 edition of Contemporary Authors (volume 400). That makes me one of approximately 120,000 American authors they’ve featured. Not quite an exclusive club but I’m glad to be part of it. Here’s the link if you have an extra $380 and nothing to spend it on.
I haven’t posted anything for a while but hope to get back into it now that summer is over. Stay tuned.
Working on a Brian Doyle Profile for Notre Dame Magazine
My dear friend and fellow writer Brian Doyle died at 60 on May 27. Like many people who knew him or had simply read his marvelous books, I felt the loss deeply and wanted to remember him in some way, so I contacted Notre Dame Magazine, the alumni magazine for his alma mater, about writing a piece on him, focusing on his place in the Oregon literary community and at the University of Portland, where, over 25 years, he turned the alumni magazine, Portland, into one of the best magazines of any kind in America.
I’m collecting stories and thought about Brian for my piece now and will be writing it over the next couple of weeks, for publication in the magazine’s fall issue. If you knew Brian or have had a profound experience with his writing, please send your stories or thoughts to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s a link to one of Brian’s many astonishing essays, Joyas Voladoras, about the hummingbird and the heart. It was selected for Best American Essays 2005.
To see Brian talking about his writing and his life, view Oregon Public Broadcasting’s 2015 eight-minute ArtBeat feature on him here.
A Note from A Canadian Reader
I recently received the note below from a Canadian reader. It expresses so well the kind of response I would hope for–to my book and to Lax–that I had to share it.
“Thank you so very much for writing Pure Act! Like Robert Lax’s poetry it’s a welcoming place to go to as the competition, chaos and anxiety of the 21st century become ever-more overwhelming. At 66, I don’t think I’ve ever read a biography or memoir that is both so enlightening and comforting—one of which I can say, ‘This is thoroughly necessary.'”
Talks, Readings, Workshops and Seminars
I’ve added quite a few events to my appearance schedule in recent weeks. Check the Talks page for a full list. If you’d like to discuss a possible talk or reading in your area, please contact me using the Contact form on the About page.
I’ll Be a Visiting Professor at St. Bonaventure University in March
I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been selected to be the Spring 2017 Lenna Endowed Visiting Professor at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, New York. I’ll be on campus for the last two weeks of March, giving talks, visiting classrooms, meeting with students, and chatting with the Franciscan friars.
I’m especially honored to receive the Lenna Professorship because the first recipient of it, when it was established in 1990, was Robert Lax. St. Bonaventure is in his home town and, as those who’ve read my biography of him know, he and his mother went there often. The friars were an important early spiritual influence on him.
The dates for the public talks haven’t been set yet but they should be soon. I’ll post them in the Talks section of my website. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll come!
I’m off hunting new prey this summer (actually, working on a new book) but I’ll be back in October with more news and stories. I hope you’ll check back then.
Using the “I” in Biography and Other Writing About Others
Two days ago I wrote about the use of biography in memoir. Today I want to address the use of memoir in biography—or, to be more exact, writing about others that includes the author as a character. This is done quite often in profile writing. Susan Orlean, for example, begins one of her best-known profiles, “The American Male at Age 10,” with a whimsical imagining of how things would be if she and her 10-year-old subject were to marry. (Spoiler alert: It ends with the boy slingshoting dog food at her butt). In many profiles, the author isn’t just an interviewer or chronicler; she’s part of the story.
The presence of the writer/interviewer is an expected feature of Q & A’s, of course. In the best of them, what we witness—what we enter into—is less an interview than a conversation, a give-and-take discussion between two intelligent people. Yes, the discussion leans toward the ideas and work of one of the two participants, but the interviewer plays a significant role, bringing not only her knowledge but also her thoughts and personality to the interaction.
Even so, there is a curious reluctance among biographers and critics to allow a biographer to appear in his narrative. One reviewer of my biography of Robert Lax took me to task for doing so, saying dismissively that I should have written a second book, a memoir, if I wanted to write about our relationship. A more respectful reviewer for a different publication suggested more delicately that “readers will differ as to whether the author’s injection of his own voice in the text adds to or distracts from his subject’s life story.”
Yet it seemed false to leave myself out of a book about a man I’d known well for 15 years, and I took pains to do all of the research any biographer would do to write the full story of Lax’s life. In fact, those same reviewers who questioned my presence in the text praised the extensiveness of my research. I felt—and many readers (and reviewers) have agreed—that my intimate knowledge of my subject allowed me to bring him more fully to life. The New York Times’ reviewer, in fact, called my “memoir” sections “vivid and engaging.” Which shouldn’t be surprising, of course, since they came from direct observation and experience rather than a piecing together of quotes from letters and interviews.
It strikes me as strange that an author’s personal account would be denigrated when biographers regularly use any and all writings in which other people describe encounters with their subjects. I can understand the suspicion that writing about someone you knew well and even admired might prejudice your account. And there are any number of questionable biographies written by members of a subject’s inner circle—biographies that betray an agenda. But why would use of the “I” or first-person observation indicate an agenda or hidden bias any more than any other way of writing about a person? Hackwork is hackwork, whatever its point of view.
And there is a point of view in biography, whether acknowledged or not. In recent decades, nonfiction writers, in general, have abandoned the so-called “objective” approach to writing about their subjects, recognizing that all writing is subjective, influenced not only by one’s particular experiences and education but also gender, class, race, sexual orientation, national origin, philosophy, creed, etc.
Despite this more general awareness in nonfiction writing, biographers continue to write in—and in many cases, insist on—a mostly Victorian style, composing their cradle-to-grave narratives as if taking dictation from God—as if the story they’re telling about their subject is simply fact-based truth. In his book How to Write Biography: A Primer, for example, Nigel Hamilton, who fills his pages with all kinds of good advice for first-time biographers, never discusses the possibility of using the “I,” except when castigating Edmund Morris for injecting a fake “I” into his biography of Ronald Reagan.
What is most curious of all, perhaps, is that virtually all biographers praise a book in which the “I”—and, to some extent, memoir—figures prominently: James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson. One of the main things they praise, in fact, is how fully Boswell brings his friend to life by describing Johnson as he knew him, relating words Johnson said in his presence, and showing Johnson in scenes he witnessed. In my copy of Boswell’s book, 242 pages cover Johnson’s 54 years of life before Boswell met him (when Johnson was 54) and 1,001 pages are about the 21 years Boswell knew him. In other words, 4/5 of the book is drawn, to a large extent, from Boswell’s personal relationship with his subject, rendered in text peppered with Boswell’s “I.”
There are biographers who use the “I,” of course—even extreme prejudice among peers against a particular technique can’t keep some brave souls from employing it. When J.D. Salinger kept would-be biographer Ian Hamilton from using quotes from his letters and interviewing people close to him, Hamilton turned his book into a search for knowledge about his subject, “incorporating within it,” as the book’s jacket copy says, “his own sometimes poignant, sometimes comic, sometimes exasperating quest for Salinger.”
The researching and writing of any biography is a quest. A personal endeavor. Not every biography has to include the details of that quest, but there’s no good reason why a biography shouldn’t either. A biography is a story, an encounter, a vision and version of a person’s life. I, for one, enjoy when a biographer like A.J.A. Symons, in his book The Quest for Corvo, takes me along on the researching adventure, using whatever material will best engage me and bring his story most vividly to life.