Web Exclusives:Features
a PAW web exclusive column

April 18, 2001:
An instrument for fiction and fiction writers

Madison Smartt Bell '79, prolific author and professor, finds himself a literary mentor to his students

By Stephanie Shapiro

Slightly rumpled and munching vitamin-C tablets to nurse a cold, Madison Smartt Bell '79 meets with a student in his office at Goucher College in suburban Baltimore. He's quite pleased with her story, and he's pleased that she's there. Bell fears he had once been too demanding. She slipped away temporarily, but has returned with a flurry of sharply-drawn tales.

Editing line by line, Bell, a laconic man, makes a few suggestions, and lauds the way the story "turns on unusual conceits." Then, he advises her to submit it to Harper's magazine. She laughs, astounded, but he's adamant. "Send it out!" he says.

It is one of those mentoring moments that Bell, a prolific author himself, who shares the Goucher Chair for Distinguished Achievement with his wife, poet Elizabeth Spires, has become known for in the literary world. If he likes a student's work, Bell brings to bear his connections and deep knowledge of New York's publishing culture to get it published.

Notably, in recent years, Bell, also a professor of English, has helped pave the way for the breakthrough fiction of two gifted students. Jenn Crowell had already written Necessary Madness, by the time she arrived at Goucher in 1995. Bell recognized the novel's maturity, and sent it to his agent, who sold it and the promise of another book to G.P. Putnam for $150,000.

As a senior, another of Bell's students, John McManus, sold his short story collection, Stop Breakin' Down, to Picador USA in 1999.

If he is known for his commitment to promising young writers, Bell is also known for having profound reservations about creative writing education, the field he's occupied since 1984.

Send that story in before it's read in workshop at school, he tells the student in his office. The workshop, he suggests in a recent book, Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form, is a necessary evil, where a story can be dissected and reconstructed by committee. It's a process that can turn a piece with potential into a bland muddle.

"Fiction workshops are inherently almost incapable of recognizing success," Bell proclaims in the book, published by Norton for both the college textbook and popular markets.

But he's comfortable working within this paradox. Ample experience at Goucher, as well as the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the 92nd Street Y, and Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, has taught Bell how to help students navigate between writing for others and writing for themselves.

In the same textbook, he speaks of transcending writing mechanics to tap into the "unconscious mind," and its treasure trove of ideas.

It's an approach honed during field research for his trilogy about Hates slave revolt, of which the recent Master of the Crossroads (Pantheon ), is the second installment.

Entering a "flow state" while writing is not unlike being possessed by the demons that dwell in Vodou, the Haitian religion, he says. More often than not, writing is a laborious process. "But there are moments," Bell writes in an essay for the Washington Post, "usually with short stories but sometimes with key sections of a novel, too, when the narrative simply pours itself onto the page without my having any sense of constructing it. I become no more important an instrument than the pencil I hold, when the narrative is speaking itself through me."

For Bell, teaching is an energizing counterpoint to writing. It certainly hasn't slowed his output, which currently totals nine novels, two story collections, and numerous essays. "By and large, some people find teaching is a drain," Bell says. "I've never had that relation to it. I've always been able to work on my own work [while teaching.]"

Before Bell came to Princeton, the man who would become one of his mentors, George Garrett '53 *85 told a 1973 creative writing conference at the Library of Congress that writing and teaching go hand in hand: "As long as we have this sense of exchange, of our learning as we are teaching, as we are meeting problems and articulating them, we're finding out about ourselves and about our writing as well."

In Narrative Design, Bell echoes Garrett, also a prolific author, as he describes the discovery of a pitch-perfect student effort: "There's nothing more exciting than that moment, and probably it's the main thing that makes me want to teach."

Bell shares an office with his wife at Goucher. From there, he also directs the Kratz Center for Creative Writing, an endowed program that invites well-known authors to campus for lectures and residencies.

Bell's former student, novelist Darcy Steinke, is a past writer-in-residence, and in the near future, Garrett hopes to resume a residency interrupted this semester by health problems. The center's creation has compounded Goucher's growing reputation as a mecca for aspiring writers, already strong largely because of Bell and Spires's presence.

"What turns me on are the better students," he says. "The ones I think are really going to make it. Here at Goucher, I've had as many as I've had anywhere else."

But again, Bell has mixed feelings; this time about drawing to the school more and more undergraduates who expect to score book contracts. "I never wanted us to become a studio school for manufacturing precociously published young writers," he says. "I may have to work against the mentality of many students of becoming careerist. I don't want to get to the point where people say, ëMake me a Wunderkind.'"

Stephanie Shapiro is a writer for the Baltimore Sun.