By Linda Schmidt • Photos by Dana Davis
As a child, Micheline Aharonian Marcom was a voracious reader. “I mean, voracious. I read all the time,” she says. The experience was full and satisfying: “When you’re reading, you’re inside the book, you’re in the consciousness of the book. Through reading I discovered what felt like someone’s expression of their soul, their deepest thoughts, and sometimes they were the same as my own, my own thoughts mirrored. I felt, in those moments, like the book was talking directly to me, like it was written only for me. That’s the deep communication that a book can provide. That’s probably why writing makes sense for someone like me, because I love books: they make me feel alive.”
“I didn’t know I was going to be a writer,” says Patricia Powell. It’s an unexpected statement from a woman who has four published novels to her name. Powell was an economics major at Wellesley when she took a creative writing class and discovered a story within herself that just kept “coming and coming.” “I had just moved to this country from Jamaica, where I was born, and I was writing about my family and all the people in the little village I had come from,” she says. “I didn’t realize how much I had missed them and the great loss I was feeling. The writing allowed me to bring them with me. It was a way of making that all come alive again.”
For Elmaz Abinader, literary expression is part of her cultural heritage. “In the Arab culture we write,” says Abinader, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Lebanon. “We write to mark a birthday or a death, we never have an occasion where somebody doesn’t get up and recite a poem. My Dad wrote poems on napkins and envelopes, my mother kept a journal every day of her life, and everybody in my family wrote poetry.” Growing up in a little town in Appalachia, she was keenly aware of the disconnect between her family traditions and those of the culture around her. “There was no place for me there,” she says. But she found writing to be a natural tool to examine that difference: “I grew up learning to handle my life by filtering it into this art.”
“Writing is an invitation;–Patricia Powell
I don’t know where it’s going to take me. As I work on a story, I sometimes feel as if some of the questions bubbling up might not be the questions I was looking to answer—but the places the work takes me are so curious.”
These three authors are now among the dozen creative writing faculty members at Mills who are pursuing their own active writing careers while also fostering the skills and artistry of their student. Each of them was spurred to write by the need to address a personal, irresistible question. “I write to know better than I do. Not to conclude anything, necessarily, but to inquire,” says Marcom, who earned her MFA at Mills in 1999.
Powell agrees: “Writing is an invitation; I don’t know where it’s going to take me,” she says. “As I work on a story, I sometimes feel as if some of the questions bubbling up might not be the questions I was looking to answer—but the places the work takes me are so curious.”
Following the adage “write what you know,” each author’s debut work began by examining topics close to home. The process, however, inevitably showed that there was much more to know about every story that they had initially anticipated. The inquiries and insights of their own creative journeys inform their classroom teaching today.
With her family memoir, Children of the Roojme, Abinader set out to learn more about why her family had left Lebanon—a country that, from their telling, was just about ideal. The effort opened her eyes to a wider personal and political history than those family tales had ever suggested.
“The stories my family told about how perfect Lebanon was were based on myth,” she says. Extensive interviews and research, utilizing everything from personal diaries to newspapers to train schedules, revealed a more difficult and challenging truth. “When you go into the history and you find out about famine, and war, and betrayal in the family, the myth comes crashing down,” she says. The process, she says, required a deep emotional and intellectual recalibration as she learned to place her family into a wider context of Lebanese and immigrant history It’s a process that continues today, as she is working on a personal memoir that looks at her own childhood in Appalachia.
Similarly, Marcom’s first book, Three Apples Fell from Heaven, was driven by her grandmother’s experience surviving the Armenian genocide—and the recognition that there were very few fictional works that contend with that episode of history. Written when she herself was a student in the Mills MFA program, Marcom explains that the book was born of her obsession with social justice and stories that don’t get told. “Those things created a real tension and a real urgency in me to write that story,” Marcom says. “But it ended up becoming much more than just about my grandmother”—the novel expanded to tell the story of two villages in Eastern Turkey. “I wasn’t sure if I was good enough to do it, but it was bigger than me; I just felt it mattered.”
By the time Patricia Powell was writing her third novel, The Pagoda, her storytelling began to produce truly unexpected insights. After writing two books with male leads, Powell was determined that the The Pagoda’s protagonist be female—specifically, a Chinese woman who immigrated to Jamaica in the 19th century. But her historical investigations turned up a difficult fact: Chinese laws at that time did not permit women to leave China. “So I decided that she would cross-dress”—a not uncommon practice for Victorian-era women traveling alone—“and it was a perfect metaphor,” Powell says. “When we leave one place for another we’re no longer the self that we once were; we take on a new identity. Once I stepped into that character’s shoes, I learned a lot about my own experience. Writing the novel helped me articulate so much about being an immigrant that I hadn’t thought about before. In fact, that is how I have found my books to be; they are able to articulate for me a fuller, richer experience of anything than I could ever articulate on my own.”
Those rich experiences are at the heart of great writing, and great writing is both a practice and an art. These teachers all agree that exposure to a wide range of literary masters—in a variety of genres and traditions—is the most basic foundation for all would-be authors. A rigorous reading schedule is a first step.
“I usually teach books that are kind of strange and outside of what my students might be familiar with,” says Marcom, who readily cites a syllabus of writers from well outside the usual British and American canon, from Brazilian author Clarice Lispector to the Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata. “If you were a painter, it would never occur to you to only study American painting from 1950 on,” she says. “Painters study the masters; in the literary arts, too, you need to look at history and understand movements, to learn the traditions and how they’ve been broken.”
A mastery of language and technique is the next step on the path. Matching form and content and developing a critical eye are some of the practical skills that must be honed, along with unending effort, revision, and more revision. “Revising is the most essential part of writing,” says Powell. “With each rewrite you’re re-envisioning, you’re getting closer to the truth.”
“Poetry and stories and plays are a dialogue that takes place across centuries. The questions that they’re concerned with are what is love and what is society? What is justice, and how do we treat each other? Each writer contributes to the dialogue on questions that are larger than any of us can answer.”—Elmaz Abinader
But beyond these proficiencies, the ultimate measure of success is an author’s ability to touch the reader’s heart with integrity, transcending time, place, gender, and race. The challenge of creating a character who is different from one’s self demands that the writer enter thoroughly into a mindset where the integrity of a particular character, within a specific situation, is utterly robust and completely convincing. A woman writing as a man, an American writing as a Central American, a modern professor writing as a 19th century traveler—all require the writer to penetrate the external trappings and expose inner truths.
“Poetry and stories and plays are a dialogue that takes place across centuries,” says Abinader. “The questions that they’re concerned with are what is love and what is society? What is justice, and how do we treat each other?” As we explore those questions, we create new perspectives and new ways of addressing them, she says. “Each writer contributes to the dialogue on questions that are larger than any of us can answer.”
“We are made up of all the stories that existed before us, all the stories that are to come,” says Powell. “We come out of cultural stories, family stories, ancestral stories. When we write we are tapping into all of those. The process of listening and curiosity and investigation invites this interior universe to unfold and come alive.”
These abilities are beneficial even for those who will not become esteemed journalists or published authors. For students—for thinkers—the study of creative writing expands understanding in multiple directions. For many, an immediate effect of learning to develop character and plotlines outside one’s own experience is a more finely attuned sense of empathy. More than just a slight stretch of the imagination, these teachers coach their students in some real heavy lifting.
“One of the things that is most important is to know your character inside and out, and she will lead the rest of the story,” says Abinader. “You have to know her moral life, you have to know her interior life, you have to know if she farts, I mean you have to know everything.”
As an exercise, Abinader writes full letters and diaries in order to flesh out a character’s point of view, and encourages her students to do the same. Other teachers employ improvisational role-playing, meditations, or more apprentice-like relationships to help their students become fully engaged with their writing and explore the most compelling truths within their narratives.
Powell notes that there were many premed students in her classes when she was teaching creative writing at Harvard. “It turns out that a lot of medical schools want their students to become more empathic. They want them to be great doctors but they also want them to learn how to listen,” she says. “In creative writing, students often have to write outside of themselves. They have to fit into other people’s points of view and take on their challenges and move through the world as that person,” she says. “And you can’t help but be emboldened by that experience.”
Abinader believes the skill of adopting unfamiliar perspectives and learning rhetorical techniques attunes one to the subtleties of truth and not truth—increasingly necessary in our media-saturated world, where ratings and spin influence the presentation of information as much as objective facts.
“It helps people not completely accept what they’re being fed, so that they have this notion that there’s another way to look and see and think,” she says. “Not everybody who comes in here is going to end up being a writer. But we can hope that the perspective stays alive and that they can look at the world through a lens that says this part is rhetoric and this part is not. I want people to be able to identify rhetoric when they see it.”
“The student who has taken creative writing reads differently,” agrees Powell. “That person is more aware, more conscious of the mechanics at work—they won’t just allow themselves to be taken.”
Most importantly, creative writing enlightens analytical thought with a human dimension. “Critical thinking that does not engage the heart can potentially be cruel,” says Powell. “If your thinking isn’t also engaging the experiences of others then it becomes solitary and one-sided.”
Marcom expands on that thought: “The critical mind is actually sort of narrow. Criticism breaks things down into pieces. But that’s not what life is, there’s this other way of thinking. Humans think symbolically, and symbols are not reducible to one or two meanings. Creative writing—symbolic texts—give us a very expansive way of thinking.
“I don’t know who the readers of my books are, or will be— they may not even be born yet,” she says. “When I read a book I can be somebody, some character, who’s completely different from me. If I read The Iliad, I become a man in Greece 3,000 years ago,” Marcom says. “It’s an ancient poem, but it’s so beautiful and it has lasted. Art has that transcendent quality.”
“When I read a book I can be somebody, some character, who’s completely different from me. If I read The Iliad, I become a man in Greece 3,000 years ago. It’s an ancient poem, but it’s so beautiful and it has lasted. Art has that transcendent quality.”—Micheline Marcom