On Visiting Colleges

Since I don't have a new book out, I won't have the whirlwind travel over the coming school year. And that's fine by me. Just as this summer has been about my third poetry collection, the fall will be about planting seeds for the next nonfiction book. And in the spring of 2013 I'll be the Writer-in-Residence at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina. It's a small town outside Asheville, but the program has a big reach--just check out their Visiting Writer Series line-up.

That said, I've been booking things here and there, and I've finalized a trio of visits to colleges over a week in October: dropping in on a creative nonfiction workshop at Ole Miss, a reading and workshop at Belhaven University outside Jackson, and a craft talk and poetry reading at MSU in Starkville. I'm thrilled to return to Mississippi, but in particular I look forward to the variety of these events, and the students I'll meet.  

These visits matter. I take them seriously. We talk about the benefits they have for the students--the advice about publishing, the chance to network--but the impression is significant for the author as well. I was just reading the Washington Post and I came across a book review by a woman whose name, to this day, makes me shudder. Why? Because she was a nightmare when she came to visit my MFA program. She critiqued the manuscript of a fiction student, which was identified as a chapter of a novel-in-progress, and in her opening salvo announced that she didn't find the protagonist likeable, thought the work setting was boring, and that the section (and by association the book) used the wrong choice of POV. This was a semester before theses were due.

There's nothing wrong with drastic suggestions, except subsequent remarks--which confused the names of characters and obscured plot points--made it clear that she hadn't read the manuscript that closely. The writer, a kind and thoughtful student who had based his character's job on months of research, left on the verge of tears. He'd come in so excited to be the one workshopped by the Very Important Writer. (We knew she was Very Important because The New Yorker had reviewed her book which, when I tried to read it after her visit, proved witty but emotionally arid.)

When you show up disinterested in student work other than as a chance to show off how smart you are or how merciless editors can be, they notice. When you check your watch, counting down the minutes until you're off duty, and you skip the round of beers back at the favorite grad student bar, they notice. When you're rude to a beloved program mentor because he or she has "settled" into the teaching life while you've gone on to publish another three books, they notice. And they have a right to notice! They've spent their money on your books, they've spent hours studying your craft, they got up at 6 AM to pick you up from the airport and ferry you back to campus. 

So show up, damn it. I don't mean that you can't demand coffee as a premise to cogency, and I don't mean that you have to magically recall everyone's name when signing books. You can be human. But please, be present. 

We had some wonderful visiting writers as well. One was, at the time, just a poet on tour to support his second collection--a philosophical, slightly difficult book with an indie publisher. Since then he has become a superstar; his life was made a movie. It would be easy to resent someone who has come so far, so fast, but I will always remember how attentive he was students in workshop, how engaged and kind at the reception afterwards. For years after he would say hello at AWP, remembering our meeting at American University even if he couldn't quite remember my name.  

He showed up.