Student Spotlight

Two Books by Students

Shivani Mehta has just published an amazing book of prose poems, Useful Information for the Soon-to-be Beheaded. As with all good poetry I can’t really explain these poems, but Shivani’s language and images simply soar.  Girls with voices of glass, memories are “as thick as sails against the horizon”, and “…the closing of my mouth…

The Mother Egg

Two former students have just been published in a wonderful online magazine The Mom Egg (  Denise Emanuel Clemen wrote “Holding Cory” an incredibly moving piece about reuniting for the first time with the son she had to give up for adoption when she was a teenager. Elizabeth Aquino wrote another piece full of emotion…

“An Unforgettable Memoir…”

My darling, talented, student and friend, Monica Holloway, just published her memoir  Driving With Dead People this week.  Today I opened Newsweek and found it was listed under their top picks of the week (3/12/07 page 63) Here’s what Newsweek said about her book: “An unforgettable memoir about a young girl’s struggle with mortality, her…

A Day of Small Beginnings

Thirteen years ago I had a student who was writing fascinating  bits and pieces of a story, that she eventually  turned it into a novel.  Her name is Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum, and the novel, A Day of Small Beginnings, was published by Little, Brown and Company this week to rave reviews. (Publisher’s Weekly wrote that…

student spotlight: nancy davenport

There’s a lot written about the courage it takes to write, facing the blank page, getting the critic off your shoulder etc. But this is about a deeper courage; my student and friend Nancy Davenport’s courage to finish her memoir while enduring the final stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease. And it’s also about community, the kindness and generosity of people who share and understand the passion and necessity for writing and books.
A few years ago Nancy came to class, her guard up and her Phi Beta Kappa key flashing. Older than most of the other students, she was having health issues, but was determined to write about her life. And she made it clear that she didn’t suffer fools gladly. A few weeks later she brought in a piece to read that began with the words: “The very first thing I remember is the last time I touched my mother.” We were all riveted by her writing; the cool ironic tone she used to tell of a horrific childhood – running away from an abusive father and becoming homeless, and then getting herself into UCLA, earning a graduate degree and that Phi Beta Kappa key. And finally becoming a social worker, dedicating her life to helping abused kids. There was no self-pity in her tale, no victimhood, no grandstanding, just her keen eye and ear, her sense of irony, her wisdom and a born writer’s skill with language.
A year ago, deep into writing about her life, Nancy was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. With typical nancy humor she said to the doctor, “But I’ve never touched a baseball in my life.” By now her pieces had turned into a full fledged memoir and she still had a number of chapters left to write. The whole class believed her book could be published but we also knew that because of her terrible illness, she didn’t have the time left to shop a manuscript around in New York to agents and publishers. Her dream was to see her memoir published and we suggested that she self-publish it.
As Nancy lost the ability to walk, talk or even swallow she kept writing, determined to finish the book. Two of her fellow students, Barbara Lodge and Jackie Winspear, jumped in to deal with the zillion details necessary to get a book into print. Everyone gave her feedback on the new pages, voted on which of her paintings should be the cover of the book, read her pages aloud in class when she no longer could speak, and many helped with the final edit. They also called 911 for her when she couldn’t breathe. Nancy’s sister, an Episcopal priest, said that writing the book was keeping Nancy alive. When I was out of town last summer I got an emailed photo of Nancy sitting up in a hospital bed, martini in one hand, and giving the camera the finger with the other. We all wrote letters nominating her for the 2006 Muscular Dystrophy Association’s Southern California Personal Achievement award, telling the story of her courage to finish her book – and she won.
Six weeks ago she wrote the last chapter and the book was rushed into production by a wonderful publishing-on-demand company, iUniverse. The first five copies of Eternal Improv arrived last week. Nancy was in the hospital unable to come to a party we’d planned for her, so we took the party to her. Against hospital rules, we all – friends, family, and her fellow students – crowded into her room. We broke out the champagne and toasted her courage and her beautiful book, Eternal Improv. Nancy died four days later.

student spotlight

Linda Hunt read her essay about winning an Oscar then and now on NPR last weekend. If you heard it you no doubt thought the essay came easily to her. Good writing usually looks easy. But her process in class was to read it, get feedback from the students (not always agreeing with the feedback) – then go off, mull it over, rewrite and read it again in class a few weeks later. She did this for months. And the essay just got better and better. In a town of crazed celebrity worship and hype, her thoughtful essay on Oscar “not being about you” was a beam of pure light and sanity.

student spotlight

I worry sometimes that I go on and on too much about my students. But I get so excited when they’re published, thrilled that they’ve had the courage and tenacity to stick with their writing, to rewrite and to put their work out there with all the risks of rejection. My worry struck me in a class of new students recently when I was telling them about all the amazing triumphs of previous students – novels being published, children’s books, and essays – lots and lots of published essays. I suddenly felt like one of those obnoxious mothers who reels off her children’s successes as listeners roll their eyes. So I asked my new class if they were getting really sick of me talking about this. To my surprise, they said no. They found it inspiring to hear about published students, it gave them the feeling that they too could do it. (Read more on WritingTime…)