Author Jo Ann Beard visits campus, mentors students

Last week Jo Ann Beard a celebrated author of both fiction and memoir, visited Colby as part of the Stahl Writer in Residence program (named in memory of Kristina Stahl ’99) through the Creative Writing department. Her visit included multiple appearances in creative writing classes in both fiction and nonfiction, as well as a craft talk and a fiction reading in the Robinson Room. Beard has two major publications to her name, a novel called In Zanesville and a nonfiction book of essays called The Boys of Our Youth. Most famous, perhaps, is her 1996 essay “Fourth State of Matter” which is an incredibly evocative, intense description of a school shooting at the University of Iowa.

Beard’s is that special kind of writing that makes you sink deep into her words and is completely immersive; after you’ve finished it, you’re frozen. She has a gift of spellbinding her audience with utterly evocative details and descriptions, and has an uncanny way of winding her way into her characters’ minds. In her visit to the nonfiction class, students prepared questions for her about her writing process, her approach to starting a piece, how she got published, and how she shares and revises her work. Beard, calm and thoughtful in demeanor, answered that she writes one sentence at a time, never looks back, and rarely talks about certain pieces or reads them again. Her advice about getting published was to have confidence, a true desire to be published, to have no fear of rejection, and to surprise someone. In the case of two essays she wrote based on true events entitled “Werner” and “Undertaker Please Drive Slow,” the former depicted how a man saved his life by jumping into another building during a fire in his own building, and the latter followed the assisted suicide of a woman named Cheri Tremble. Beard did an incredible amount of research in order to provide factual context for these stories, and then added her own beautiful details and descriptions to make the stories unbelievably vivid and alive.

Her craft talk spoke to her aforementioned extended writing process, and how she incorporates parts of her own life into her stories. She read from an already typed speech, citing her inability and discomfort with speaking on the spot, and painted a beautiful picture of capturing her pet ducks into their pen so they didn’t get eaten, how they were scared of her and her big puffy coat, and how she found a poem by a friend in the New Yorker that she found inspiring. Rather than a step-by-step rendition of her approach to writing, Beard let us watch her stories take shape, how she takes time to think and experience and “go out and do life things”, as she mentioned in the creative nonfiction course.

Her fiction reading took place the following night and included an excerpt from a 45 page piece that hovers in between a novella and a short story. It was about a home invasion, and flip-flopped between action in the moment and reflection on mundane aspects of life. The mundane details were autobiographical—Beard answered calmly that she’d never been part of a home invasion, yet her protagonist ended up being based on her, and embodied true details from her life.

Beard’s visit to Colby was a rare, special insight into the life and writing of an incredible author. When told that students had trouble with ending stories or writing one genre over another, her advice was simple: take your time, give the story room to breathe, and let it flow. In the case of her own works, she certainly has, to tremendous, earth-shattering results.

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