|Terese Svoboda Teaches Students the Value of Every Word They Write
January 28, 2008
Contact: Bill Giduz
(Terese Svoboda will read from her recently published memoir, "Dark Glasses Like Clark Kent," and her latest novel, "Tin God," on Wednesday, Jan. 30. The free public event will begin at 7:30 p.m. in the Alvarez College Union 900 Room. For more information, call 704-894-2441.)
Highly acclaimed author Terese Svoboda is teaching two courses in creative writing this semester as Davidson's McGee Visiting Professor of Writing. She arrived on campus freshly adorned with another honor. Her 10th book, a memoir entitled Black Glasses Like Clark Kent, won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize for 2007 and has recently been published by Graywolf.
|Svoboda is teaching two classes at Davidson in creative writing.|
It recalls her uncle and his military police assignment following World War II to guard American soldiers imprisoned in Japan because of their crimes as GIs. He revealed a terrible story to Svoboda in 2004, hinting at executions of those prisoners. With the news of American abuse of prisoners in Iraq at Abu Ghraib, he fell into a terrible depression, and ended his life through suicide.
Svoboda launched her own investigation, studying the tapes he left for her, traveling to Japan, digging through files at the National Archives, and contacting vets who served with her uncle. Her resulting book reveals how the vagaries of military justice can allow the worst to happen.
She has pursued literary ideas arising from personal experience and from her dreams for about 30 years, publishing prolifically and winning many literary prizes. As a young M.F.A. candidate at Columbia University, Svoboda traveled to the Sudan and lived with the Nuer people, making a documentary film and translating their songs into a book. En route, she lived in the Cook Islands for six months and also translated several Pukapukan songs.
"I love writing more than anything else," she said. "Everything else gets in the way. My teacher and literary lion Gordon Lish often asked, 'Do you want to eat a potato [the usual artists' fare] or do you want to keep writing?' Writing was always more important."
Her books include volumes of poetry, fiction, translation and nonfiction. She has won the O. Henry Award for her short stories, a nonfiction Pushcart Prize, a translation NEH grant, three New York Foundation for the Arts grants in poetry and fiction, a New York State Council for the Arts and a Jerome Foundation grant in video, the John Golden Award in playwriting, the Bobst Prize in fiction and the Iowa Prize in poetry. Her work has appeared in the Paris Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Yale Review, the New Yorker, the New Republic, Tin House, Slate, The New York Times Magazine, Yale Review, and Ploughshares.
Svoboda's writing is unbounded by style or genre. "Trailer Girl" began as a poem. She then wrote it up as a short story, and then a screenplay. She developed the plot, and turned it into a novel. She submitted it, along with a collection of short stories, to her publisher, asking him to choose between them. He published the two together, turning "Trailer Girl" into a novella. After its publication as Trailer Girl and Other Stories, Montreal Danse conceived a dance performance around the book.
Her husband's business is cell telephone applications, and Svoboda collaborates with him to write proposals to sell his ideas, both commercial and artistic. They're traveling to Naples this summer to present Cellphonia: Tempo Variable, a karaoke cellphone opera that has already been performed three times in the U.S.
His practice has also stirred her interest in "locative narrative," a new genre in which the story is revealed through interaction with the environment. "Most simply, if you turned your car left with a GPS-controlled narrative, you would hear something different than if you turned right."
She's teaching her Davidson students the seemingly simplest element of writing: the value of individual words. "Stories are created word by word," she said. "That's what leads the reader on, rather than plot or character. I don't say do without plot and character, but pay attention to the basic muscle, the profound effect of one word against another." Svoboda wants her students to avoid front-loading their work with information that bog down the reader, and not to fear mystery.
|One of Svoboda's first literary works was translation and commentary on the music of people in the Sudan.|
"Students need to gain the confidence to follow their instincts," she said. "I try to teach them to lay out a plank and step out on it, then lay out another at the end of the first. You should never have an entire story constructed before you begin. The most exciting stories to me are those where I can feel the author thinking."
She values learning through imitation, and assigns students to write in the style of various authors they read. This allows them to practice the craft in a holistic manner, rather than do an exercise concentrating on plot and another on character. One assignment involved the imitation of surrealist Donald Barthelme's The Glass Mountain which featured numbered sentences, and in another they imitate the staccato, ADD style of Mary Robison's novel, Why Did I Ever?
They read their stories out loud, and Svoboda then leads a discussion about what they've adopted from the original and how they've managed to meld those new techniques within a story of their own. It's a tried and true technique of workshopping that Svoboda has used with her own writing for 25 years. She and friends in Manhattan get together regularly to share their stories in process. "You could really do it yourself, but you'd need to wait six months to create some distance from the piece," she said. "Having other people read your work -- even just the act of reading it aloud before someone else -- is a tremendous help in the writing process."
Svoboda finds visiting appointments at educational institutions a good way to make progress on her own projects, providing quiet time away from home and the bustle of New York. She has previously taught at The College of William & Mary, Sarah Lawrence College, Fordham, the University of Hawaii, Williams College and San Francisco State University. She applied to teach at Davidson after seeing the opening advertised on the Associated Writing Programs Website.
She's delighted with lifestyle here so far-living on Concord Road a stone's throw from work, meeting students at Summit to talk about their work, and working in Chambers Building's third-floor penthouse office with a glass wall overlooking Richardson Plaza. In addition to teaching, she will conduct an active schedule of readings far and near -- Tempe, Ariz., Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Charlotte, New York City, and an appearance on NPR's "Live from Prairie Lights" in Iowa City.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,700 students. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country.
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Posted By: Bill Giduz