By Caitlin Hill
35th Anniversary Reading Series event on September 30.
Aside from being a fantastic mentor, teacher, and writer, Bob is a tremendously talented storyteller, and it is a joy to listen to him. In preparation for his upcoming reading, Bob has shared some words of wisdom and a bit of his own story with us. We are only able to print some of it here, but the full version can be found online (more details at the end of the piece). Be sure to get your tickets to Robert Bausch & Allison Leotta: Teacher/Student, where we will kick off our 35th anniversary. It’s only fitting that we launch this celebration with a man who embodies everything twc stands for: community, talent, dedication, encouragement, faith, openness, and an unfailing sense of humor.
Caitlin Hill: You drove a long way for many years to teach with us at The Writer’s Center, despite all the teaching you were also doing much closer to home. What kept you coming all this way (besides the allure of a good audio book)?
Robert Bausch: I took a sabbatical in 2004. I sat at home and wrote until 3 in the afternoon. I’d read until 7 or 8, with dinner in between. After 8, family time. Next day, everybody’s gone and I’d start writing again. Sometimes I’d finish at 2. Or 1. I never had so much time to write. I’d read for a few hours. Nobody home yet. I’d end up playing Madden NFL football, just so I wouldn’t lose my mind. Some days, I never got out of my sweats. I had no classes for the first time in many, many years. I kept thinking of the expression: Be careful what you wish for. I thought I’d go nuts. Then Sunil called.
He wondered if I’d be willing to read from The Gypsy Man. I agreed, drove up for a reading with my brother Richard. After that reading Sunil asked if I’d be interested in teaching a workshop. I jumped at the chance. I wanted to get back into the classroom. ANY classroom. What I did not expect was the quality of the writing I’d see, the commitment and dedication of the students I’d work with.
After that first workshop, I was hooked. I worked with Michelle Brafman, Greg Lipscomb, Lisa Gschwandtner, Peirce Howard, Glen Finland, you, Tricia Gonzales, Jennifer Haupt, Anna El-Eini, Peter Brown, James Mathews, Solveig Eggers, Joram Piatagorsky, Rimas Blekaitis, Leslie Shwerin, Ann Cavazos, Jo Buxton, and so many others. They were all serious, talented, and terrific fun to work with. It was challenging, and exciting, and good for my own discipline. During my time at The Writer’s Center I wrote four novels: Out of Season, In the Fall They Come Back, The Legend of Jesse Smoke, and As Far as the Eye Can See. I was always working.
The drive was long, but I just couldn’t quit: to get a chance to work with such talent was like being in a great graduate program in writing, and not having to go to any committee or admissions and application meetings. If I hadn’t fallen asleep one evening on the way to NOVA, and crashed into the guy in front of me, I’d probably still be working there. But my family wanted me to stop working so hard, they worried about me, and I couldn’t have that. So I finally had to quit.
CH: There’s a push for writers these days to get a degree at an accredited university. I, myself, made that choice in 2007. TWC is not university-affiliated, and you don’t walk out of a class with a degree. So, what’s the appeal to taking a class at a place like this?
RB: I think it’s a great place to see if one is suited to a graduate program. It is so much like one, not because of the format, but because of the high caliber of writers who go there. I can’t vouch for the other classes, but mine were always full of really good, talented writers—folks who may not have been seasoned, but who were already making memorable fiction, and teaching me a thing or two about the art, students who were adept at criticism and tact. I rarely had any difficulty getting responses from everybody and most of those responses were valuable to the writer. I think the major appeal is that chance to get an immediate and highly astute response to one’s work before investing a fortune in a graduate program. It’s a way of finding out if such a course of study can be meaningful and useful. So many of my students have discovered the writing program is just what they want, and they’ve gone on to do graduate work: Michelle, Lisa, Tricia, you, Rimas, Ann, Rachel Swift. Others have gone on to publish: Michelle, Solveig, Peter Brown, James Mathews, Allison Leotta, Glen Finland, Anna El-Eini, and Greg Lipscomb, among others. Some come to the workshops having already completed an M.F.A., and get back to their work that way. I think it is an invaluable resource for writers at a fraction of the cost of an M.F.A. program.
CH: You have proven to be a prolific author, with six novels out and short stories aplenty. I also know you’re shopping around another manuscript or two. Does any of it get any easier?
RB: For a mid-list writer like me, it can get damn hard. Harder in fact than it ever has been. Right now, I’m shopping three novels. I’ve published In the Fall They Come Back on Kindle, but I’m still looking for a publisher for it. I’ve got The Legend of Jesse Smoke making the rounds right now. I just finished As Far as the Eye Can See, and I’ve got my agent supposedly reading it; I don’t know what the progress of that is. I’m currently looking for a new agent, and when I find one, I’m going to start once again trying to find a new publisher. So no, at least in my case, it only gets harder. But that does not keep me from doing it. I’m a writer. It’s who and what I am. So I continue doing it, without calculating any sort of recompense. I don’t worry about that stuff except in my worst moments.
CH: Whom do you read when you need inspiration? Whom do you read simply for the pleasure of it?
RB: I think, except forsome poorly written freshman essays, almost all of the reading I do is for pleasure. I read six or seven books at once. Right now, I’m reading The Fire This Time, by Randall Kenan, Going Away Shoes, by Jill McCorkle, a book of Alan Shapiro’s poems called Old War, my brother’s most recent collection, Something Is Out There. I’m reading Shakespeare again, King Lear. I’m also reading a fascinating book called The Last Tsar, a collection of Nicholas and Alexandra’s correspondence as well as the memories of their contemporaries about their last years before the monarchy fell. I’m almost finished with Ruffian, a great little book about perhaps the greatest horse that ever stepped onto a race track. I just finished The Elegance of the Hedgehog. A fine book.
I read as many at once as I have time for because I know if I do, I won’t ever sound like anyone but myself when I sit down to write. Also, I simply love to read, and see no reason why I should limit myself to one book at a time. I would never limit myself to only one friend. When I am with my friends, I know essentially what’s happening in their lives. It’s the same with the books. I know when I pick up one of them where I am and what’s gone on before I got there. Some think themselves not capable of reading like this, but they really are; all they have to do is try it.
As far as inspiration, I get that from everything I observe, overhear, dream, think about, see in movies and television, or read in books. Almost any human thing has the capacity to move me and inspire me. I am especially and deeply moved by evidence of compassion in people, by a child’s purity of thought and action—good and bad. I am always aware when I witness a person thinking of people, rather than about them. When I’m not inspired, I work anyway. I never, NEVER wait for inspiration to work. Work is its own inspiration.
CH: Must we write every day?
RB: What I believe is: ANY day you write, even if the writing does not go well and you end up frustrated and defeated, is a GOOD day. It's perfectly okay to choose NOT to write on a given day, but it's better to plan those things, so you have complete control over your working life. When I don't write, I plan on not writing. Any day I have not planned to NOT write, I have to do it. I have to make it a good day. I have to make my work behave for me. I have to show up for it, and do it, good or bad. I have to do it for a significant span of time—to give the thing a chance. I have to be completely faithful to my work, without having allegiance to it; I may throw away everything I wrote on Wednesday on Thursday morning. I don't think I've wasted Wednesday if I do that.
You can't waste creative effort any more than you can waste good practice on an instrument, or hitting a tennis ball against a wall. You are working on your scales or your groundstroke and practicing. That's what you do when you show up to write. Practice.
CH: How do writing and teaching coexist in your life?
RB: They do co-exist, it's true. I almost never think about it, except when one gets in the way of the other. When I have a ton of papers to grade, and I frequently do, I plan on not writing for whole weeks so I can get the grading done. I sometimes end up having to read an entire novel I'm working on over again so I can recapture the tone of it for the next chapter. My whole career I've taught between six and eight classes a semester. I wonder sometimes how many books, how many short story collections I might have written if I had taught fewer classes each semester.
My twin brother Richard, who has taught one or two classes a semester most of his career has produced an extraordinary array of work—nine novels and seven or eight story collections. All of it—and I'm serious about this, ALL of it is truly fine work. Among the best fiction this country has ever produced. I doubt seriously if I would have done the same thing, but I think it's safe to say I might have written more books. But it's really useless to think about it. So I do my work and forget about what I can't change. Remember, when I DID have a lot of time to write, during my sabbatical, although I wrote Out of Season, and the first draft of In The Fall They Come Back, all in one semester, I also nearly went out of my mind.
CH: What do you think you would’ve done for a living if not teaching and writing?
RB: When I graduated from college I went to work for a financial institution as a collector. I was given the name Robert Davis. I worked in an office next to a dozen or so other folks with fake names. We called people on the phone and demanded they make a payment or some other arrangement to avoid further legal procedures. I worked that job two days. On the second day, I leaned over to the guy next to me and whispered, "I'll be right back." I got up, walked out and that was that. I never even collected a paycheck from that place.
Except for that job, all of the other non-teaching jobs I ever had, including the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War, I was asked to leave. The Air Force gave me an early out, everybody else fired me. I don't think I could have been very successful at anything in business. I often think I might have been a comedian. I sometimes feel as though I'm doing stand up in my college classes and a lot of what I teach comes with humor. But I don't know if I could have worked that life for very long and still had a family. I liked having a family. Still do.
My wife says I break the rules way too readily and easily. I don't pay much attention to authority and never have gotten along very well when I have to deal with authority figures. She thinks I'd have been trouble in almost any job and might have spent a lot of time going from one to the other until I broke some rule that got me in real trouble. I guess the truth is I might have landed in jail if I wasn't teaching and writing.
CH: What are some words of wisdom for a writer who feels stalled out, frustrated, untalented, in despair?
RB: We all feel that way at one time or another. What every writer needs is hope and belief. When I feel stalled or in despair, I just get back to work. Lower my standards and go on. If I find I can't do that, I'll turn off the monitor and write without seeing what's ending up on the screen. If I can't see it, I can't judge it. The main thing is you have to do the work.
The writer's life is doing the work. Everything else, even the publishing, is extraneous and counterproductive. Editing, doing book tours, giving readings, and so on—all the trappings that come with writing success—have nothing whatsoever to do with BEING a writer. People who have their books ghost written for them do all that stuff too, but they are not writers. No one who is doing that stuff is a writer. You're a writer when you write. As soon as you stop writing, you are no longer a writer.
You must read to feed the muse. Fill your head and heart. KNOW the world's voice and soul. I've never met a writer who was not a reader. I've met plenty of folks who say they want to be writers and don't read, but they are not writers, nor will they be—ever. Reading is ammunition. And one should read eclectically; biography and history, novels, poetry, drama, short stories, essays, science, law, the great classics. Everything you can get your hands on. You must KNOW one hell of a lot to be able to swell a scene; you don't want to say, "Across the way some trees bent in the wind." They better be sycamores, or hickories, or willows. All of the concrete detail of every work comes from what the writer KNOWS as much as from what the WRITER imagines.
That knowledge comes with reading. It goes in there and waits, in quiet repose, for when you are struggling to find the image you want. You don't go around like Cliffy the Postman TELLING everybody what you know, but you have it in you for the writing. It comes out in surprising ways, sometimes without your calling for it. Your reading should feed your work in subtle ways like that; not so you can show it off in the writing, but so it comes out in the engineering of a story or a situation in a story.
Robert Bausch was born in Georgia, at the end of World War II, and was raised in the Washington, D.C., area. He was educated at George Mason University, earning a B.A., an M.A., and an M.F.A., and he says he has been a writer all his life. He spent time in the military teaching survival, and worked his way through college. Since 1975, Bausch has been a college professor, teaching creative writing, American literature, world literature, humanities, philosophy, and expository writing. He has taught at the University of Virginia, American University, George Mason University, The Johns Hopkins University, and The Writer’s Center. For the balance of his career he has been teaching at Northern Virginia Community College. He has also been a director on the board of the Pen Faulkner Foundation. In 2009 he was awarded the John Dos Passos Prize in Literature.— Written by James Gilford for robertbausch.org