About the series: On Main Hall Green With … is an opportunity to connect with faculty on things in and out of the classroom. We’re featuring a different Lawrence faculty member every two weeks — same questions, different answers.
Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications
Professor of English David McGlynn teaches creative writing in the classroom. He lives it outside the classroom.
A member of the English faculty since 2006, McGlynn is the author of a number of well-received books — 2018’s One Day You’ll Thank Me: Lessons from an Unexpected Fatherhood, 2012’s A Door in the Ocean, and 2008’sThe End of the Straight and Narrow. His books have earned honors from the Wisconsin Library Association and the Council for Wisconsin Writers. His writing has appeared in such publications as The New York Times, Real Simple, Yale Review, and Best American Sports Writing. In 2009, he was awarded Lawrence’s Award for Excellence in Creative Activity.
As chair of the English department, McGlynn played a key role in developing the new major within the English department, one that, beginning in the fall, will allow students to major in either Creative Writing: English or Literature: English.
He holds a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy from the University of California, Irvine, and a master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Utah.
We caught up with McGlynn to talk about his interests and passions in and out of the classroom:
IN THE CLASSROOM
Inside info: What’s one thing you want every student coming into your classes to know about you?
That I was once – and am, in many ways – just like them. I arrived at my own undergraduate university with dreams of becoming a writer. Plenty of people in my life, including members of my own family, thought that reading and writing were spurious, at best recreational, activities – not something on which to make a life. Intent on proving them wrong, I declared myself an English major and enrolled in creative writing classes certain that becoming a published writer ultimately came down to, well, wanting it enough. It took me a few years to understand that wanting to write – no matter how much wanting I did – wasn’t the key to success. The only way to become a better writer, it turns out, is to write. A lot. I had to write every day, regardless of whether I felt inspired, and I had to keep at it, especially when every word that landed on the page felt absolutely terrible. I failed and floundered for nearly 10 years before my work began to appear in print. The process is slow.
I spend a lot of time talking to students about the importance of persistence and patience and why those two qualities matter so much more than talent. I ask every student, in every creative writing class, to write every day, even if for only a few minutes, and I try to free them from the burden of judging whether their work is good or bad. Rather, I try to get them to pay attention to the world – to the sky and the weather and the way the evening light falls across the Main Hall Green. Zadie Smith writes, “You spend the morning reading Chekhov, and in the afternoon, walking through your neighborhood, the world has turned Chekhovian; the waitress in the cafe offers a non-sequitur, a dog dances in the street.” I can’t imagine a better training for a writer.
Getting energized: What work have you done or will you be doing at Lawrence that gets you the most excited?
Beginning in the fall of 2020, Lawrence will offer two tracks within the English major – one in creative writing and the other in literature. Students on the Creative Writing track will take classes in poetry and/or prose at every stage of the major, from their first year to their senior capstone. Our brand-new Senior Seminar in Creative Writing will bring together students from across the major; they’ll spend a term reading one another’s work and revising and assembling their own work into chapbook-length thesis projects.
A number of supremely talented young writers have come through Lawrence in recent years – including several who have recently published books – and students have long augmented the English major with additional coursework in creative writing. I’m thrilled that future students will have the opportunity to major in a program specifically tailored to these interests.
Going places: Is there an example of somewhere your career has taken you (either a physical space or something more intellectual, emotional, or spiritual) that took you by surprise?
Several years ago, more or less on a whim, I began writing short pieces about fatherhood. I’d spent my first six years at Lawrence working on two books, both of which grappled with pretty heavy themes, and I needed a break. My two sons were 8 and 5 at the time, both with more energy than bugs in a jar, and I figured I’d just tell a few stories about teaching them to ride bikes and the time they figured out how much fun it is to cuss. I mean, what’s funnier than a toddler swearing? But the stories contained more depth than I expected, and they led me to insights and observations I didn’t know I thought until I literally wrote them down. Thanks to a few tremendous strokes of luck, several essays appeared in such periodicals as The New York Times, Men’s Health, O., The Oprah Magazine, Parents, and Real Simple, all of which led to a book, One Day You’ll Thank Me: Lessons from an Unexpected Fatherhood, published in 2018. It’s a book I never expected to write, but I’m so glad I did.
OUT OF THE CLASSROOM
This or that: If you weren’t teaching for a living, what would you be doing?
I had an image of myself, back when I was in graduate school, teaching at a college exactly like Lawrence – small, serene, with close interactions with students. During my interview for the job, I looked out the window of Tim Spurgin’s office and watched the students strolling along the sidewalks, some with bassoon reeds in their mouths or violin cases beneath their arms. The sky was a shade of blue only visible north of the 44th parallel. I remember a student with a head of red curls walking by singing an aria so loudly I could hear it through the glass. I knew, right then and there, that Lawrence was my home. I can’t imagine doing anything else, at any other college.
But, for the sake of argument, I also think I would have made a pretty good Coast Guard rescue swimmer.
Right at home: Whether for work, relaxation or reflection, what’s your favorite spot on campus?
Step inside the Mudd Library and turn left. Follow the wall past Angela Vanden Elzen’s office (be sure to say hello) and you’ll come to the Lincoln Reading Room. The last chair on the right, closest to the window, is my favorite place on campus. I finished my first book, and wrote three others, in that chair, all while watching the leaves on the Japanese maple beyond the window turn from green to red and then fall to the ground, year after year.
One book, one recording, one film: Name one of each that speaks to your soul? Or you would recommend to a friend? Or both?
One of the best things about Lawrence is that our own students have produced some of my favorite books and films. No one should miss The Soul of Power by Callie Bates ’09, The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay ’09, or Return on Investment by Magdalena Wąż ’11. Magdalena and her partner, Micah Paisner ’11, co-created my favorite web series, My Astronaut, which is just uproariously hilarious. And I’m beyond excited to read Bread and Fish by Andy Graff ’09, due out early in 2021.
Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org