Students, Professors Value Visiting Writers

by Steve Charles

July 26, 2012

Award-winning writers Karen Russell, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Jess Walter, and Brian Doyle will be among distinguished authors visiting campus during the 2012-2013 school year. The visiting writers are an essential part of the College's creative writing track.

“’Terror - that’s the word I’d used to describe how it feels to hand my work over to an accomplished professional writer for critique,” said Ian Grant ’13.

And last semester Dan Simmons ’70, bestselling author of The Terror, among 29 other novels and story collections, was the writer critiquing him. Simmons had taken a break from his latest project, The Abominable, to return to the Wabash campus for a reading and to work with students. First up in Professor Eric Freeze’s class on writing the novel was Grant’s manuscript.

“My panic comes from knowing that a person I’ve never met, whose work I’ve admired, is going to mercilessly eviscerate my creation,” said Grant, this year’s Robert Edwards Writing Award winner. “My biggest fear was that Simmons would have nothing good to say about the piece.”

Grant was pleasantly surprised. An award-winning teacher before becoming an award-winning writer, Simmons offered many suggestions to the piece, but as he told Grant during class, “The more marks I make on a manuscript, the more I mean for it to succeed.”

“That he took the time to workshop my piece straight and honest was enough for me,” Grant recalled. “And at the end of the manuscript, he left a single note: ‘Ian — You write well for your age. I wish I could continue to work with you as your work grows stronger and more original. Which it will.’ This is the greatest encouragement I have received as a writer.”

“One of the things I'm most conscious of as one of the only professors teaching creative writing on campus is that I'm teaching students, whether I'm trying to or not, to write like me,” Freeze said. “Having other authors — sometimes extremely well-known authors — commenting on students’ work can help them see different approaches that will help them in generation and revision.

Freeze, whose short story collection Dominant Traits was published in March and who teaches courses in advanced fiction and travel writing and other creative non-fiction courses in addition to the novel, recalled another such moment.

“During lunch with Dan Chaon, one student asked about the opening scene of his bestselling novel, Await Your Reply,” Freeze recalled.  “The student wanted to know when in the creative process the writer had come up with this memorable scene.

“Chaon’s answer provided the kind of direction and insight that I couldn't have provided on my own. He helped students see the novel didn't have to be something that was entirely outlined and organized, an inert plot with just words to fill in. Instead, it was a process like holding a hammer in your hand and taking aim at a stake, trusting that the blow would drive it true.”

Recent visiting writers in addition to Simmons and Chaon who have worked with Wabash students include poet, editor, and Emmy-Award-winner Kwame Dawes, essayist Patrick Madden, rock drummer-turned-writer Nic Brown, Washington State Poet Laureate Samuel Greene, and bestselling writer and MacArthur Fellowship winner Jonathan Lethem.


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