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Joan Silber '67, MFA Writing Faculty
When did you know that you wanted to become a writer?
I always wanted to write. But initially I wanted to be a poet. When I went to Sarah Lawrence as an undergrad 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 I threw myself into the story. Grace worked with me revising it, getting it to go deeper, then revising it some more, and everybody liked what I wrote. A few years later I decided fiction was for me.
Did Grace Paley have the greatest influence upon your teaching practices?
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.
How would you describe your approach to teaching?
They often give me the graduate novel writing course because I’m one of the few people who likes teaching it. And I 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. 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.
What sets Sarah Lawrence apart from other writing institutions?
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 helpful. In a regular class, they’re writing and you’re just making of it what you will. And in some schools, you have the teacher as maestro—proud of being hard on the students. You can’t exactly do that in the conference system. If you’re going to have this close relationship with a student, one-to-one, it doesn’t work to be cruel.
With so many great writers either teaching or studying in the graduate writing program at Sarah Lawrence, is there ever a clash of egos?
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, and that’s really not true at Sarah Lawrence. I also think the atmosphere around the grad students is really supportive. They’re critics, but there’s definitely a feeling that they’re in in it together. They applaud each other’s work. And the school has tried to further that – there’s much more use now of Slonim as a student center where people gather for group events. I think there’s real comradeship among the students. I’ve taught here for so long, some of my most important friendships are with writers that I teach with. I’m close with Myra Goldberg and with Kathleen Hill, particularly. And I treasure my conversations with everybody.
How have students looking for teaching experience found ways to fulfill this need while at Sarah Lawrence?
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. They've really enjoyed their experiences. And this teaching definitely counts on resumes.
In what ways do students generally take advantage of the proximity of New York City?
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 and it’s a pretty direct 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.
What kinds of students would most benefit from a Sarah Lawrence education?
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. 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 traditionally "well-formed." But Sarah Lawrence is really wonderful for its range, 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—students get a lot from the school.
By Daniel Ross '13