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Gwendolen Gross MFA '98
In her pre-Sarah Lawrence years, Gwendolen Gross had a peripatetic home life, never living in any house for more than a few years at a time. Distinctive features from many of them, however, are etched into her memory: the home with the built-in breadbox, the home with the long back yard and forest of rhododendrons, the apartment on Gay Street with the horrible rot-faced radiator she painted to look like a zebra.
While Gwendolen’s approach to living was eclectic, so too was her approach to her career. From a live animal and physical science demonstrator to running a driving service while at college, she hopscotched through a number of strange and wonderful positions. Over time, however, two passions in her life gradually worked their way to the fore: writing and singing.
"I went to college at Oberlin, where I studied voice performance at the conservatory and science writing in the college. Then I moved to San Francisco and worked on science and nursing textbooks and sang in competitions at the San Francisco Conservatory, and in master classes at a bizarrely curated mansion in Pacific Heights. My husband and I then moved to San Diego, where I sang in the opera company, worked as a managing editor on children's books, and found The Writing Center at lunch hours, where I joined a writing practice group."
After joining the Writing Center, Gwendolen realized that it was time to narrow her career focus even further – she knew that it was time to concentrate upon her writing. She was nominated for a PEN West fellowship. Then, when her husband finished graduate school, she applied for MFA programs. She and Sarah Lawrence clicked instantly.
"When I visited graduate schools, Sarah Lawrence struck me not only as a place where I'd enjoy the workshops and learn about revision—the key, I think, to learning to write—but where I'd forge writing friendships."
The program at Sarah Lawrence didn’t disappoint. Gwendolen’s two best readers are Sarah Lawrence friends, and the give and take of the workshops taught her the tedious but necessary art of revision. What is more, with a career in teaching in mind, she knew that she wouldn't be happy teaching in a traditional classroom after seeing what the workshop model had to offer: the careful attention of a smaller group. That she would also have the time to devote to her writing was an added, but very treasured, bonus.
"Having worked—in publishing in particular—for six years before graduate school, I knew the two years to write, working only part time, was a gift and the feedback a luxury. Having people to read my work motivated me to write both a novel, Field Guide, and a poetry thesis, Bone Scattering. Tom Lux, Marie Howe, Linsey Abrams, and Kathleen Hill were terrific teachers and influenced me as writers. I still read and teach their work. I can still hear Tom Lux reading the Maraschino cherry poem."
Gwendolen’s graduation turned out to be a two-pronged celebration: an MFA and a new son on the way. Afterwards, she and her husband settled in New Jersey where she started teaching through community schools, unaware that a third celebration was imminent.
"I didn't think the agent and sale of the first novel would happen so quickly—I'd settled in for the long marketing stretch. I know, and am still often reminded, that the business end of writing is a different shape than the art. I've met some brilliant editors and agents over the years, though. I worked with the same agent and editor for my first two books, Field Guide and Getting Out. Meanwhile, we've stayed in the same house and raised two kids, who are now 11 and 14. I still teach at the community school, and I teach a slew of private workshops. My daughter and I are horse crazy, and we spend too much time at the barn with Archer, our big pony. I've broken my finger learning to jump and I've learned to sew (holding one finger in the air). I learned that I don't like teaching online but I don't mind taking classes online. My garden is full of weeds and I'm writing a new novel."
By Daniel Ross '13