My students, my friends

cross firesIt’s “In Print Week” here at Ball State–the In Print Festival of First Books. Each year, we invite to campus a poet, fiction writer, and nonfiction writer who have published their first books.

This has been a great year for me as a teacher;  a number of my former students had books come out. We invited one of them to In Print–Eugene Cross. This is the introduction I wrote and read last night, and I think it speaks to a lot of things I blog about here–literary citizenship, community, and how to make it through the dark times. So: I thought I’d share it with you.

Why did we invite Eugene to In Print?: An Intro in Three Parts

1.

Eugene Cross is the author of the short story collection Fires of Our Choosing, published by Dzanc Books, which was long listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. He received an MFA from The University of Pittsburgh. His stories have appeared in some of the best magazines in the country, and he’s earned a place at the table at the Chautauqua Writers’ Festival and both the Bread Loaf and Sewanee writers’ conferences. He teaches at Columbia College Chicago and is currently the Simon Blattner Visiting Assistant Professor of Fiction at Northwestern.

2.

We invited him because Eugene was my student. But only briefly. Just one class. I think it’s more accurate to say that he learned more about writing from his other teachers, and that what I taught him was how to steer his way through “The Abyss,” which is a word I use to describe the time between “finishing school” and “publishing a book,” between “Book 1” and “Book 2.”

Honestly, most young writers don’t make it through the Abyss. Life gets in the way. They lose their resolve. Or they discover they really want something else entirely. It’s a scary, empty, often lonely time, and that’s when I knew Eugene—when we were both wading through different forms of this abyss.

After graduating with his MFA in 2006, Eugene decided he wanted to move home to Erie, keep working on his stories, and teach at a local college—first for peanuts, and then for something that sort of approached a living wage—and he did this for five years. We talked often during this time. How to get a job. How to teach a class. How to write when you’re teaching. How to keep going when you start racking up the rejection letters. How to get an agent. I wrote a lot of letters for Eugene.

And because his momma raised him right, he always sent me a thank you card or little gift. Once, he gave me two tickets to a Steelers preseason game against the Packers—which was awesome.

From the beginning, I urged Eugene to get out of Erie, out of Pennsylvania, but for a long time, he resisted. Then I found out why: he’s got the nicest family. In 2007, I gave a reading in Erie and he and his mother had me over for dinner—which included four courses of authentic Puerto Rican dishes and his entire extended family. I was overwhelmed by their generosity.

Eugene was also a generous reader for me when I was writing my second book. I’d send him chapters and he’d call me up and give me pep talks and say, “It’s good! It’s good! Just keep going.”

I hope you can see the lesson in this: every writer faces the Abyss; thus, you need friends who are writers, and you need to work at keeping those friendships once you’re out of school. Eugene has many friends—2,504, according to Facebook—and I’m lucky to be one of them.

3.

We invited him because I knew you would like his work. He writes about his hometown, and even though it’s 383 miles away, it might as well be Muncie or Michigan City or Peru, my hometown, or yours. In a recent interview, Eugene said, “The end goal is that somewhere down the line, hopefully, somebody is going to read a story I wrote and it’s going to have a similar effect as the stories I read that really changed everything for me. That’s the highest aspiration: to one day write a story that means as much to somebody as the stories I read as an undergrad or the stories I read now—those stories that really stop me in my tracks. That’s the hope.”

Well, judging from the reaction of my students, I can safely say Eugene, you’ve done what you set out to do and I look forward to the stories you’re going to tell next. [end]

bgAnd then we hugged.

If you’d like to see some pictures from In Print, go here.

Literary Citizenship Teaching Writing

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