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Life in Writing -- A Conversation with Carol Samson

Note: This interview is one of a series with faculty at the University of Denver about writing and the teaching of writing. Interviewer Joanna Ruocco earned her PhD in fiction from DU. She's the author of four books, including the award-winning Another Governess/The Least Blacksmith: A Diptych, although she's published other novels under a pseudonym. Her work has been reviewed widely, including in Triquarterly and The Nation.

Carol Samson has a PhD in Fiction from the University of Denver. She teaches in The Writing Program. She's also taught English in Ecuador and Japan; French, Literature, and Theater in community colleges in Steamboat Springs, Colorado; and AP English at Columbine High School. She spoke with me about the relationship between writing, teaching, and learning to respect the world you live in.

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Joanna Ruocco: You're a fiction writer, and you've also spent over 20 years teaching. What connects your writing and your teaching?

Carol Samson: I think writing and teaching are both way of engaging empathetically with the world. To me, fiction writing involves being mindful of what what's around you. You have so much respect for a detail or a thing or an image that it starts living inside of you, and you remember it. The whole world becomes more interesting if you pay it that sort of mindful attention. Then, too, I believe that imagination is what leads us to compassion. We can't get to compassion any other way–hence, a focus on arts and humanities and music. I think a humanities education is the means to expanding feeling and compassion.

JR: So being a writer and being a teacher contribute to the same goal? Do you think they're similar occupations?

CS: I think labels can stop the flow of possibilities, limit our capacity to discover. I don't think of myself as a "writer" or a "professor." Sometimes I'm writing and sometimes I'm teaching, but mostly, if I had to select a metaphor, I'd say that in both modes, we become a sort of vessel, a conduit that fills up with images and ideas. I think, as teachers or artists or students, we all need to try embrace what comes through us and to make it into a something we can use to express what we know.

JR: How do you bring these ideas into the classroom?

CS: When I think of teaching writing, I don't see craft as merely knowing where the semicolons go or how to edit or how to use gerunds. I would define craft as a sort of rapport, and I think teachers take students into situations where they have to learn to establish a rapport with the topic. So the best thing you can do with young students is to present them with challenging texts that stretch them, texts that engage them. That way they will want to establish a relationship with a subject, a connection that will be their own. I have a friend who told me that, when he was young, he was in a drawing class, and the teacher asked him had to draw a teacup. When the class was working, he said he looked around the room, and there were forty-three students, each drawing a teacup. I remember that he said that it suddenly occurred to him that the teacher didn't want forty-three drawings of teacups. That wasn't what was important. The instructor wanted forty-three people to establish an individual rapport with the teacup. The drawings didn't have to be like one another, or even like the teacup. The drawings were a measure of each person's relationship to the cup.

JR: I love the idea of establishing rapport. It's a very deep and very philosophical mode of engagement. What about basic skills necessary to compose college-level essays?

CS: I teach those, too. I show students the patterns they need to marshal and to organize their ideas. That's got to be part of it, the pragmatic side. I talk about unity in writing and ideational control and cohesive argument. When I was a freshman in college, I had a professor once who said to me, "Well, this essay you wrote, Carol, it's like a jackrabbit. It just jumps all over." So even now, when I teach, I draw boxes and show students how to keep their papers from veering wildly into jack-rabbity digressions. I give them patterns they can use to think about what kinds of shapes essays have, what kinds of rhythms. I also know that before you can use any cookie-cutter to shape what your are writing, you have to have the ideas and inspiration, the "dough." It comes first, and it is made of curiosity and wonder and engagement with language and ideas and seeing. Making it, this "matter," requires the rapport we spoke of earlier. Then, of course, you make adjustments, address the pragmatic part, find the proper arrangement; and, well, I believe that is all a matter of design, of music.

JR: Curiosity and wonder are so important, but so ineffable. Is it your own engagement in the classroom that enables you to help students engage?

CS: When you teach, you share hours and hours with students. You're sharing your life. You live in writing and in ideas and with human being who are also trying to communicate their ideas. There's a depth to that, a depth that's abstract but also embodied. I work with students in the classroom to find routes to larger thinking, to complexity, to intellectual and imaginative participation. Much of this comes through books and through experiences.

JR: And through the experiences of books?

CS: Of course. I think, the older I get, the more I understand that what Faulkner said about books is true. They create pillars inside us that prop us up and help us survive. I don't know what civilization will do if people stop reading books. We'll have less compassionate people, less imaginative people. In the end, what we've been saying about teaching and writing, well, I believe, at base, it's all about making better human beings.