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Joan Silber '67, MFA Writing Faculty
Joan Silber has been a mainstay of the Sarah Lawrence Writing faculty since 1985, but her relationship with the College extends back to her undergraduate years. From an early age, Joan’s family instilled in her the importance of reading, and she recalls how her childhood home was wall-lined with books—she still possesses her father’s copy of The Best Known Works of Anton Chekhov. Nurtured on literature, therefore, it’s unsurprising that Joan already had a writing career in mind before she found her way to Sarah Lawrence.
"I always wanted to write. But initially, I wanted to be a poet. I went to Sarah Lawrence as an undergrad, where I studied poetry, and in my last year I studied with Grace Paley. It was a mixed prose and poetry workshop, and she decided that everyone should try the other genre—if you thought you were a poet you should try writing prose, and vice versa. That was my first serious attempt at writing a story with a teacher at the college level. I still wanted to be a poet, but it was a crucial change for me. Grace worked with me revising it, getting it to go deeper, then revising it some more, and everybody liked what I wrote. That was an important change for me."
As seminal as Grace Paley’s class was for Joan, there was another teacher at Sarah Lawrence whose influence has remained with her, sculpting the way she has approached her teaching career through the years.
"The person who influenced my teaching the most was Jane Cooper, who was my poetry teacher—a wonderful model of teaching. She taught in the way that I and lots of people teach now, with elements of craft stressed. The whole idea of teaching writing has developed over the years. When I was young, it was pretty free-form, people just sort of winged it. Now there’s a vocabulary for writing, which is tremendously helpful."
The specificity that Jane Cooper brought to the classroom all those years ago at Sarah Lawrence is reflected in the way Joan tackles her graduate writing course now. While Joan gives her students the latitude to write about the subjects of their choosing, she brings a steady focus to what happens around the famous Sarah Lawrence round table.
"They often give me the novel writing course. I always make the prospective novelists write a summary of what they want to write—it's always a big shock to them having to think about the whole thing in advance. I just want them to get an idea of parts and wholes. It’s a good idea to think of where you’re going in a novel so you don’t paint yourself into a corner. And I think I’m more directive as a workshop leader than others are—I ask very pointed questions. And I will certainly rein in the discussion if I think it’s going off track. I want people to think about structure. For me, that was the hardest thing to learn, and I’m still learning it."
"...the environment between the grad students is really supportive. They applaud each others’ work. They’re critics, but there’s definitely a feeling that they’re in it together."
In addition to being a tenured faculty member at Sarah Lawrence, Joan is a sought after author who is called upon to read and teach across the country. Joan is a big supporter of the Sarah Lawrence conference system that allows students unparalleled access to their professors.
"The conference system is particularly Sarah Lawrence. What I love about the conferences is that I may have an idea of what I think a student should do—but in conference the student might say, "Oh, I don’t want to do that, I want to do this instead." Once a student has clarified an intent to me, I can be much more useful by giving better informed suggestions. And so, the back and forth in conference is really so extremely helpful. In a regular class, they’re writing and you’re just making of it what you will."
While the conference system paves the way for a deeper working relationship between faculty and students, closely forged ties are to be found at all levels of the graduate program.
"I’ve taught here for so long, some of my most important friendships are with writers that I teach with. I’m very good friends with Myra Goldberg and with Kathleen Hill, particularly. And I’m certainly friendly with everybody. We have this very good rapport in the program—we’re very supportive of one another. And that’s wonderful. I’ve heard that at other places they’re competitive with one another, and that’s really not true at Sarah Lawrence. I also think the environment between the grad students is really supportive. They applaud each others’ work. They’re critics, but there’s definitely a feeling that they’re in it together. And the school has also tried to further that—there’s much more use now of Slonim House as a student center where they gather for group events. I think there’s very good comradeship among the students."
Joan also values the teaching opportunities afforded to graduate students at SLC.
"I’ve had students who’ve taught in high schools who’ve loved it, and I’ve had students who’ve taught in women’s prisons. The students have really enjoyed their experiences. And this teaching definitely counts on resumes."
Another advantage of Sarah Lawrence is its proximity to New York—the hub of the literary world and a place where budding writers can go to sate their literary appetite around the clock.
"The students go to readings in New York City all the time. Take for instance the PEN World Voices Festival every spring—my students are always talking about the great writers they’ve heard at the festival. The very active literary life of the city is open to them, as is the city as a place. And it’s so easy to get there—I commute from New York to Sarah Lawrence so it’s a pretty easy back and forth. To me, it’s THE great city of the world, but you could still say that it’s one of the great cities even if you weren’t as biased as I am."
Rigorous and diverse, the intellectual environment at Sarah Lawrence is especially suited to a student with a flexible approach to learning—someone unafraid of picking up and using the different tools of their craft available to them.
"In general at Sarah Lawrence, you have to be able to work independently. Of course, people want to go to writing school to be given deadlines, a natural paradox. And at Sarah Lawrence, you don’t really work under a single faculty member, unlike some schools. You have a mentor you work closely with every semester, but you don’t have the same mentor all the way through—or, you’re encouraged not to. Some schools emphasize a particular kind of writing—experimental or whatever. But Sarah Lawrence is really wonderful for its diversity, and in the way that we push our students to try different things.
I think students really love our program. We have a high level of satisfaction. The quality of teaching they get and the level of contact they have with one another is very high. I recommend the program when I’m elsewhere because I think that’s a very solid program—they get a lot from the school."
By Daniel Ross '13