S.1 E.6 “There’s No Such Thing as a Bad Writer”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews English professor and writing expert Eric Vrooman.
Posted on June 10th, 2020 by

Eric Vrooman—English professor, award-winning author, and director of the Writing Center at Gustavus—discusses his path to a career in writing, the Writing Center’s role on campus, and teaching creative writing.

Season 1, Episode 6: “There’s No Such Thing as a Bad Writer”

Transcript:

Greg Kaster:
Learning for Life at Gustavus has produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

Joining me today is professor Eric Vrooman of the Gustavus English department. Eric directs our outstanding campus writing center and is the award-winning author of numerous short stories published in such venues as The City Review, Passages North, and the Kenyon Review, to name just a few. Among his awards are grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board and the Jerome Foundation. In addition to leading the writing center, Eric also teaches courses in creative writing at Gustavus. Welcome, Eric, and it’s great to have you.

Eric Vrooman:
Thank you. Great to be here, Greg.

Greg Kaster:
Thanks. Why don’t we start, since I’m a historian, I like to start with people’s pasts, of course. Tell us a little bit about how you came to be what you are, which is not just a writing instructor, but an active writer, as well.

Eric Vrooman

Eric Vrooman:|
Yeah, so my path is not similar to many academics. I was an English major at Carleton and as a friend once said, her dad as an English major would ask her, “Are you going to open up an English store?” And that wasn’t really an option. I had a job in a bookstore for a year, I worked in a law firm for a year as a legal assistant, and I’m glad that I did that because a lot of English majors go right into law school and then learn the work of lawyering isn’t quite what they had hoped, and that was the case for me. And then I spent five years working in a literary agency in Minneapolis, selling manuscripts to publishers in New York. And I did that for about five years and I learned a lot about the business of publishing, there.

Greg Kaster:
After Carleton, after you graduated you were doing–

Eric Vrooman:
Yeah, I taught in the summer writing program at Carleton a couple of summers, and I evaluated written answers to standardized tests. I did a lot of different things revolving around writing, volunteering for variable press as a reader. But it was really that job as a literary agent and working with some professionals in the industry that gave me a sense of the market at large. And then I decided, as much as I like working with authors on their books, I didn’t like selling. And so I thought, I prefer writing to selling. And so I went to grad school at UNC Wilmington. My plan was to work with Kevin Canty, who was a short story writer I really admired. He left before I got there, but it was still a good decision. And then after I graduated from UNC Wilmington with an MFA, I started teaching at Gustavus, but also maintaining a strong presence as a freelance writer and editor. I’ve written or co-written a number of books, blog posts, strategic plans, just a wide range of materials.

Greg Kaster:
Right. What about as a kid, like before you wound up in college or went to college, was writing on the horizon at all? Were you doing any kind of writing?

Eric Vrooman:
Yeah, I mean that was where I most enjoyed school, was in reading and in writing, and particularly fiction writing, yeah.

Greg Kaster:
And at the MFA level, does one specialize in a particular kind of writing? Were you particularly interested in short story writing, it sounds like? Is that what you were doing?

Eric Vrooman:
Yeah, although my thesis there was a novel, it was based upon an idea that I had sort of developed in a screen writing class and I think it failed as a novel, but I learned a lot from the process. It was about, imagine what would happen if there was a buyback clause to the Louisiana Purchase.

Greg Kaster:
Oh yeah.

Eric Vrooman:
And the French were allowed to buy back one state and they chose Minnesota.

Greg Kaster:
Excellent.

Eric Vrooman:
So it was a lot of fun to write. I think comic novels are difficult to sustain, but I did learn a lot from the process.

Greg Kaster:
Well, we historians call it counterfactual history.

Eric Vrooman:
Right. And I like speculative fiction, in terms of what I choose to read and write.

Podcast host and historian Greg Kaster

Greg Kaster:
Thank you. Why choose to teach about writing? You teach writing. I mean, so often I’ll hear from a student, not just at Gustavus, where I’ve taught before at Boston University, “Well, writing isn’t my thing.” Or, “I just don’t write well.” What do you say to a student like that?

Eric Vrooman:
You know, we get that a lot. And so I’m always, as the writing director, anticipating what barriers might be to students coming and seeking help. And so, one of the main ones is that, they consider themselves bad writers. Yeah. And there is no such thing as a bad writer, like there is better and worse writing, but sort of defining yourself as a bad writer is often an out, a defense mechanism. Writing is often personal in nature, and so when you are graded poorly or it’s received poorly, your writing, you often feel that bodily, that it’s really a criticism of you, personally. So it’s easier just to say, “I’m a bad writer, I don’t have to own what I’ve written.” But the writing is thinking. And so it’s important. You can be a good thinker and still be a struggling writer, and that’s where we’d like to think that you can help it by building your confidence. Writing is a confidence game, I say that quite a bit.

Greg Kaster:
That’s a great answer, which I will be, not plagiarizing, but using with attribution, like the way a good writer should. I love that, that there’s no such thing as a bad writer. And that’s the other thing, this idea, which I assume you don’t agree with that one is either born a good writer or… I find that in my own case and with students I work most closely with, writing is just a lot of work. It’s not necessarily, there may be something to talent, maybe, but it just is a lot of work. Even though yourself included, the few professional writers I know and speak to about writing.

Eric Vrooman:
It’s a grind. But I really enjoy that, the fine work of revision.

Greg Kaster:
Yes, same here.

Eric Vrooman:
If you do it for a book, you often are so tired of the pages and the words that, when authors go on speaking tours, they’re excited about their new project, not the book because in some ways they want to put that to bed. But yeah, it’s a real grind and you have to work your way through it. And I think there are people that have more creativity, or it comes a little bit more easily to them, but it’s the amount of words and pages you write.

Greg Kaster:
Yeah. And I think what you said about writing is thinking, those two are… Not one comes after the other, or before the other.

Eric Vrooman:
When I was a literary agent, I’d often get… Not often, but I remember a handful of times when I was told from a perspective author that, “I’ve got this great idea for a novel, I’ll give you 50%, all you have to do is write it.”

Greg Kaster:
That’s the kind of person who doesn’t understand that it really is in the writing, there is no such thing as it just writes itself.

Eric Vrooman:
Right. You actually have to get through the grind.

Greg Kaster:
What about the writing center, itself? How do you see its role at Gustavus? What, if anything, is distinctive about it? I mean, lots of schools have writing programs. I know when I was hired at Gustavus in ’86, it wasn’t long before that, that the writing program had been featured in the New York Times, which impressed me. But it’s been a long time since then, obviously. So maybe a little bit, too, about how the writing program has evolved in your time?

Eric Vrooman:
Sure. And so it’s important to distinguish the two. The writing program is run by Becky Fremo. I’m the writing center director, I participate in the Writing Across the Curriculum Committee. But they are two separate positions.

Greg Kaster:
I forgot, yeah.

Eric Vrooman:
Yeah, no, but we work in tandem quite often. And Becky, I inherited the writing center from Becky and she helped developed, I think the ethos of the writing center, which is… And it’s become a very special place where writing center tutors. We got, I think 40 applications this year, and about that many last year to be tutored for just 10 to 12 spots.

Greg Kaster:
Wow, that’s terrific.

Eric Vrooman:
We do interviews, we do take writing samples and applications. We get nominations from professors and current tutors and seek out who they think would be strong potential tutors.

Greg Kaster:
Right.

Eric Vrooman:
I think that’s a big part of it. We have, I think 12 different majors represented now, and two international students are tutors. We like to think of ourselves as representing the whole Gustavus community, not just the English department.

Greg Kaster:
Yeah.

Eric Vrooman:
Somewhat distinctive. A lot of programs try to hire tutors from other disciplines, but don’t get quite the balance that we’ve managed to get, which has been great. And part of that comes from strong writing across our campus. Biology has a great writing instruction program.

Greg Kaster:
Wow. Oh, that’s interesting, I didn’t know that. Yeah, I was going to ask, so some of the tutors are from the sciences, or natural sciences, not just humanities.

Eric Vrooman:
Absolutely, yeah. In fact, the three current team leaders we have right now, Rebecca, Stephanie Lye-Dotson and Evie Doran, they come from poli sci and computer science and biology. So it’s quite a range.

Greg Kaster:
That’s excellent. I have to say I’ve taught maybe at two other institutions as a graduate student. And the writing at Gustavus overall, I think actually, especially in more recent years is really quite strong among first year students. There’s always room for improvement, there’s always room for the writing center. And I certainly refer students there.

Eric Vrooman:
We work with a lot of FTS classes and I think for the last three years, the number of FTS tours that we do has grown. And I think we had 15 or 16, about roughly half of the FTS classes came in to visit with us.

Greg Kaster:
Right, I know I sent one.

Eric Vrooman:
Just sort of, again, demystifying what we do, making it clear that we work with writers of all abilities. The tutors themselves work with each other and counsel each other. Writing is never done perfectly, there’s always room for improvement.

Greg Kaster:
Right.

Eric Vrooman:
And we pride ourselves on an asset-based disposition towards writing, that we see multilingual writers as having assets that single lingual students simply do not. They have more words, they have more flexibility with language. They better understand structure. It’s not just unconscious, it’s conscious. So we learn a lot from each other and from our clients. We don’t presume that it’s a one way street where we offload our expertise on the client.

Greg Kaster:
And that certainly fits with, well, with the liberal arts ethos, and even within our discipline of history where it’s much more now about, as I tell my students, I’m not coming in to dump facts over your head, it’s a workshop. We’re going to work out with materials. That’s terrific. Talk a little bit about your own teaching. I’ve had the privilege of sitting in on a couple of your classes. I’m always amazed at your patience and great insights into what the students are presenting, but what are some of the rewards and challenges of teaching creative writing anywhere, especially at a place like Gustavus, a liberal arts college?

Eric Vrooman:
Yeah. So I love teaching at Gustavus. I mean, my favorite class is the intro to creative writing class to teach.

Greg Kaster:
That’s the one I sat in on, I believe.

Eric Vrooman:
Oh yeah. And the reason why I like it is we cover a number of different genres, and so we’re always moving from one genre to the next. We’re seeing this interconnectedness in ways that some genres borrow or overlap with others. We start with the biggest form, the short story, for us, anyway. And then move to short stories and then the poems with an eye towards, how can we write more concisely? How can we make each word count by the time we get-

Greg Kaster:
Music to my ears.

Eric Vrooman:
Yeah. And then the last thing that they normally do, this year is a little exception because of the coronavirus, but they do a one-act play, which they write collaboratively and then perform.

Greg Kaster:
They perform it in front of just the fellow students or anyone?

Eric Vrooman:
Largely our class, but sometimes they invite friends. Yeah. No, but it’s informal. I don’t expect them to be polished actors, but it’s a fun way to sort of get to learn how difficult it is sometimes to write collaboratively, and that’s a skill that I think is important for students to learn. But also the pleasure in sort of seeing the words jump from the page to the stage.

Greg Kaster:
Yeah. That’s cool, that’s great. I didn’t know about that. What about, you mentioned the COVID, and here we are teaching, as virtually all schools are in this country and other countries, online. How are things going, first of all? What has changed in your teaching of necessity? What seems to be working well?

Eric Vrooman:
Yeah, so there are a couple of things. One, we really had to adjust on the fly as a writing center. We really enjoy working side by side with students, and then in-person presence.

Greg Kaster:
Yeah.

Eric Vrooman:
Now, all of our tutoring is happening online. So we have asynchronous and synchronous options for students. We have 15 writing center tutors, and all work study students were told that their contracts would be honored, or largely honored.

Greg Kaster:
That’s terrific.

Eric Vrooman:
Projected hours. And so the tutors did not have to come work for the rest of this semester, they were going to get paid regardless.

Greg Kaster:
Right.

Eric Vrooman:
But all 15 of our tutors are tutoring now.

Greg Kaster:
That’s terrific.

Eric Vrooman:And
I’d really like to thank Dean Elizabeth Kubek for coming up with at least a little bit of a bonus of 0.25 credit for their work. That’s an extra incentive, that means a lot for some of the tutors.

Greg Kaster:
Yeah. That’s terrific. How about the actual teaching? Are you finding much has changed, or what has changed, what’s remained the same as you teach creative writing online? Which I suppose happens in normal times quite a bit, and there must be a lot of online writing programs [crosstalk 00:16:02]

Eric Vrooman:
For sure. And I had some hesitation and fear that we wouldn’t be able to do the synchronous stuff, the video chats like this, the Google Hangouts.

Greg Kaster:
Right.

Eric Vrooman:
That’s worked for most students. I have one student who is in Jordan and was in quarantine for more than two weeks. And for him, that’s been a real struggle. He’s able to watch the videos of the classes that we’ve held. We also are doing some asynchronous options too, using Moodle forums. I think there is participation in using chats, using forums, posts. I think we’re getting roughly the same amount of student interaction.

Greg Kaster:
That’s excellent.

Eric Vrooman:
And the workshop model has gone pretty well, I think, with the video live chats.

Greg Kaster:
I’m finding the same. Most of my history colleagues are not doing synchronous, and for listeners, synchronous means in real time as it’s happening. I’m doing more of that and enjoying it, as we are here. I get to see the students. And I find, basically, the students who are quiet are still sort of quiet, maybe a little less so now that it’s not in person. But yeah, so far so good. To wrap this up, which I always hate doing because it’s fun to talk with you. What about tips for young writers? What are Eric Vrooman’s top three, four or five? Or one?

Eric Vrooman:
I’ll go into that. I did want to mention one thing, and that’s that, with the writing center and the way that, at Gustavus, I think there’s a desire to do service work. We found way, at the writing center, to do that this year. We’re working with Le Sueur County jail and Josh Overmold there, the program director. And we’re doing monthly workshops with the inmates there, and those were phenomenal, both for the tutors and for me, and for the participants. We had, on our first night, we got six guys on a Sunday night. It was the night of a Packers playoff game and they chose to be with us, rather than to be there. And so I think there’s a desire for all of us, many of us. And I’ve worked with Andrea Smith and her Chautauqua workshops at the Minnesota correctional facility in Shakopee, too, for the past three or four years.

And that’s now suspended because of fears of COVID, right? Transmission. So that is really unfortunate, but you can see in working with that population, and I’ve taught at the loft in Minneapolis with students ranging from 17-80 years old. There’s a desire to express ourselves creatively, to tell stories. That goes back as far as we can recall. So I think there’s a storyteller in all of us, and we’d love to have an audience, we love to make people laugh. We’d like to make them sort of trigger all emotions. So I think what you typically hear in writing workshops is write what you know, or write to explore. Fill a gap, or write something that you would like to read that you aren’t able to find out there.

Greg Kaster:
Right.

Eric Vrooman:
Overall, great piece of advice. But I do think just the simple act of writing is both inactive creation, exploration and thinking. It helps us better process who we are, where we’re going, and it’s also a diversion, too, which is good in times like these. No small thing in times like these.

Greg Kaster:
Excellent points, all. Thank you so much, this has been fun. Also, I will try to link. If it’s okay with you, we can talk afterwards. Maybe one of your short stories of people listening to the podcast want to read one of those, or more if you like, and maybe even have you come back and read one. I thought of that, too. So thank you, Eric. Great work, much appreciated by faculty and students. Take good care.

Eric Vrooman:
Thanks Greg.

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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