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An instrument for fiction and fiction writers
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
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
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
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
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.