Why I Am Teaching …

Schoolteachers and professors think I’m kidding, when I tell them that I envy them.

After all, as a freelance writer I have everything they dream of.  I can plan my own schedule.  I don’t have to report to any bosses.  There’s no political maneuvering.  And I make more money than most teachers.  Why in the world would I envy them?

They see only the advantages of my career — and the disadvantages of their own.

But there’s a reason why I’m joining the faculty of Southern Virginia University.  I will have only a half-time teaching load, because it is in both my interest and the interest of the university that I continue writing and publishing fiction.  But I intend to take an active role in the university and work closely with students, especially writing students who are serious about writing as a profession.

And it isn’t mere chance that I will be taking on this responsibility at Southern Virginia University.

Writing Is Not Enough

The writing life may seem glamorous, but it’s full of contradictions.  Publishers and booksellers want a writer to make endless public appearances, forgetting that books are composed in solitude.  So the actual work of writing sometimes suffers.  Instead of being the focus of your thoughts for the months it takes to produce a novel, your writing becomes a distraction, something fitted into odd moments here and there, while signing copies of your books for strangers and speaking to them about your books seem to be the most valued activity of your life.

The glamor quickly dissipates.  Hotels do their best to accommodate your every need — but they fail.  Home is where my wife and children are, where my ward and callings are, where my garden and my library and my widescreen television are.  There isn’t a hotel on earth that can even begin to feel like home.

And going to book signings and giving speeches does not remotely compensate for the utter loneliness of writing.  Sure, it gets me out of that attic room where I squeeze out the stories, but the conversation between writer and audience that takes place in bookstores and auditoriums is largely one-sided.

A few try to say something meaningful, and I appreciate knowing that a book of mine has made a difference in someone’s life.  (I appreciate a lot less those who feel an urgent need to tell me which of my books they did not like.  What, am I going to rewrite it now?  Then what’s the point?)

These conversations are not really a relationship, they’re a report on one — and it’s a mediated relationship at that.  I wrote the book six months or five years or two decades earlier; some time later, the reader encountered it at a point in life when it made some difference; and now, long after both events, I’m hearing about the results of a relationship I didn’t know I had.

It’s wonderful to know that my work was, to this person, worth doing.  But I’m not present for any of the important moments.  It almost leaves me more lonely than before.  Something important is going on, and I’m not there for any of it.

The Siren Song of Teaching

Teaching is the opposite.  It’s never lonely, and you’re there for most of the best stuff.  That moment when a student finally gets it; the exciting give-and-take of the classroom.

Of course, I can already see a lot of teachers cringing.  “‘Exciting give and take of the classroom’?  He should see the bored-looking students who greet me with blank stares every day — when they bother to look at me at all!”

I know it’s not exciting all the time.  But as teachers do their work, they’re surrounded by others — human beings toward whom they have a responsibility, from whom they have a right to demand responses, and their goal is to provide or at least encourage in those people the skills, information, attitudes, and ambition that will lead them to be functional members of our society and, for the best of them, reinventors and recreators of our civilization.

Teachers can — indeed, they’re required to — measure progress in their students.

The Ideal Life

My wife and I both grew up in professors’ homes.  We were surrounded by the life of the university from childhood on.  We also thrived in school — both of us enjoyed our teachers, our classes, and the association with fellow students.

James B. Allen.  Kristine’s father was part of a close, collegial faculty that had served together for many years; they were so close as to be almost an extended family.  This is rare, of course, but it was all the sweeter as a possibility.  She saw that kind of life as an ideal to be aspired to.

My “ideal academic life” came in part from coming to know Kristine and her family — along with the other professors who were such a vital part of her family’s life.  My own father had never been fortunate enough to belong to such a collegial faculty; sometimes, sadly, he was in academic departments that epitomized the opposite.  I certainly learned to see how vicious and petty academics could sometimes be.  But that made the relationships among the BYU History Department faculty where Jim Allen taught all the more refreshing and inspiring to me.

I also had a chance to see Jim Allen in action as a teacher, long before I married his daughter (but not before I wanted to).  I was working on my play Liberty Jail (as well as a never-finished project on Reed Smoot) and had his guidance as he helped me through the pitfalls of research.  He gave me the titles of books to look up and read; he helped me deal with the kind of information that anti-Mormons use to shake members’ testimonies, keeping things in context.  Above all, I had the simple example of a man who already knew all this material and yet had a firm testimony of the gospel and actively participated in the Church as a willing steward of whatever calling he was given.

My wife, of course, had far more influence from him, and she has spent decades teaching as her father taught: by demanding rigorous research from herself and her students.  Her Seminary and Institute students may not realize exactly what it was she was doing to them — but as her father had done with her, she demanded that they not automatically believe whatever someone said was “doctrine” or “history,” but instead go to the sources and look up the facts.

From her father, Kristine learned the right kind of skepticism — the kind that squelches folk doctrine and rumorous history, rigorously going to sources and sticking to what can be shown and therefore publicly known.  The kind of skepticism, in other words, that is a servant of orthodox faith.  Our children have learned the same attitude, to their enormous benefit.

I had many other good, inspiring, befriending teachers over the years — the list would be too long for this essay.  Two professors in particular, however, shaped my thinking about what a professor ought to be.

Charles W. Whitman.  Dr. Whitman (even now I can’t bring myself to call him “Chuck,” despite his invitations; it still feels disrespectful to act chummy) was the playwriting teacher at BYU when I majorerd in theatre there in the late sixties and early seventies.  He was a dreamer and a believer in dreams.  He saw that the Mormon people were hungry for their own stories, and plays were a way of reaching a large audience with compelling, emotional, and intelligent plays that could affirm and transform our faith and our self-perceptions.

In other words, he urged his students to be excellent — but to be excellent in a particularly Mormon way.

He not only encouraged us to write plays with LDS-centered themes, he also tried to make sure that the best of them got produced.  Some of them he directed himself — for instance, my play Stone Tables became a hit play at BYU while I was on my mission, because he couldn’t wait to put it on the stage.  (He also made it into a musical by inviting my collaborator on previous projects, Robert Stoddard, to turn my verse into songs — a brilliant idea that made the play far better than it would otherwise have been.)

But I was hardly the only student he encouraged.  Most notably, Dr. Whitman encouraged Mormondom’s most-successful playwright to date, Doug Stewart, by workshopping plays for him.  He also affably encouraged an extraordinary group of young actors and directors to break the bonds of the academic program and simply do theatre at every opportunity.  Indirectly, he was responsible for my two-season repertory theatre company that was the first ever to perform at “the Castle” in Provo, and Robert Stoddard’s original “Walk-ons Incorporated,” which began by performing Shakespeare in a Provo park.

Dr. Whitman was not the only teacher encouraging students at the time; but he was working with the writers, and as anyone in show biz knows, it all starts with the script.  He was also fortunate in having a group of extraordinarily talented students to work with — I think of the list of fellow students I was fortunate enough to work with, and even though some of the most talented have been lost to us from AIDS or apostasy, the number who are still contributing artistically and academically to the Church (and the world!) is quite impressive.  It was a bit of a renaissance — no, a naissance, really — and Dr. Whitman was, as a teacher, a vital part of it.

Hugh Nibley.  I never took a class from the other teacher who shaped my ideal of what a professor ought to be.  I have no idea what kind of lecturer he was, or how he interacted with students in the classroom.  What I envied and wanted to emulate was the stream of visitors to his home, the people I saw coming and going, the door often open, the conversation dazzling.  His home, along with the home of my father-in-law, became the closest thing to the “salon” intellectual climate of the era of Samuel Johnson in England that I have personally experienced.

The Best Laid Plans

The result of our experiences as children of and students in academia was that we absolutely expected that we would live our lives in a university community, with one or both of us on the faculty of a university.  For one thing, we weren’t so foolish or blindly optimistic as to think that the undependable, fluctuating income I brought in as a freelance writer (and, at first, editor as well) could be counted on.  We expected that our real income would be rooted in a university salary.

So even as my writing career gradually bloomed, I was pursuing academics.  I earned my M.A. in English at the University of Utah (working closely with three other wonderful teachers: François Camoin, Norman Council, and David Kranes).

And because we took it for granted that of course we would live and teach in Utah, we decided to pursue my doctorate outside the state (a virtual requirement, as Utah schools tried to avoid intellectual inbreeding).

At Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, I found the academic life I was looking for, or at least a taste of it.  Of course I had my share of incredibly inept teachers and of fellow students who had no idea what education was or how to obtain one — but I also had Professor Ed Vasta, a man who had retained his enthusiasm for his subject and his love of good students throughout a long career; and our friends and fellow grad students, Laird and Sally Edmon, committed Christians in an academic world that, even at Notre Dame, often despised genuine, active faith.

Then there came the recession of the early 1980s.  Publishers, panicked by high interest rates, began offering lower advances to writers — and, whenever possible, simply bought nothing until the books they had already paid for were turned in.  My income disappeared just like that — precisely the thing that we had hoped that an academic career would allow us to avoid.

I had to get an honest job for a while.  I ended up taking a position as book editor for a computer magazine in Greensboro, North Carolina, never guessing that even though I would leave the job nine months later, as my Alvin Maker books and then the novel version of Ender’s Game provided us something like a secure income, we would stay on in Greensboro for what has now been 22 wonderful years.

We were just as happy to stay where we were:

Three times it looked as if we might move back to Utah to teach, but in every case it quickly became clear that such a plan was not on the Lord’s agenda for us.  And we were content with that.

The Teaching of Writing

Along with my goal of teaching, however, I was also actually doing it.  Beginning with my work as a freshman comp teacher at the University of Utah, I found opportunities to teach as often, it seemed, as I wanted.

I started a writing course through the U of U evening school while I was working on my master’s degree there, and first began some of the signature techniques I use in all my writing classes.  I taught a playwriting course during summer school at BYU.  I also taught ad hoc writing workshops at a few science fiction conventions, and had a couple of gigs as an invited teacher in several established writing workshops throughout the country.

I quickly learned a few important things, from my own teaching and from the writing classes I had taken:

1. Motivation and intelligence have a lot more to do with learning how to write good fiction than mere talent.  Students with motivation, analytical intelligence, and humility improve; students with less of them do not; and the students who improve pass up the talented students who lacked in those areas.

2. People can learn any aspect of writing, but almost no one knows how to teach any of the ones that matter.

That latter point was the shocker.  Even my best writing teachers relied on workshopping, which amounts to little more than the audience screenings that filmmakers sometimes use to test their product before it is released.  Participants make random comments, rarely rising above the level of vague generalities and proofreading, and then the professor sums it up, without any kind of method or any guiding principles.  The critiquing usually starts out as useless and gradually, through the term of the course, becomes harmful.

I remember the writing teacher — unnamed in this essay — who actually, ludicrously, began his writing class by saying, “I don’t know much about plot, so in this course we’re going to concentrate on style.”  Style!  The one element that can only be “taught” destructively, erasing what is best about the writer’s natural voice and replacing it with something artificial at best, incoherent or dead at worst.

The good writing teachers were helpful, not because they actually analyzed what they were doing or identified core skills that needed to be learned, but because they happened to be wise readers and almost by chance said things that turned out to be helpful to a particular student at a particular time.

I mean no disrespect to these good writing teachers.  It was hardly their fault!  The teaching of “creative writing” was treated more like therapy sessions than an academic discipline at practically every university in the country.  In part this was because the literature departments were committed to silly hero worship in their teaching of the works of writers of the past, so that good writing was regarded as the product of “genius” rather than of learnable craft.  In part it was because what few systematic methodologies had been tried were so ineffective that writing teachers gave up and assumed that writing was the one art that could not be taught.

Imagine the foolishness of such an attitude, if we applied it to any other art.  Imagine if novice dancers got together in workshops led by a “teacher” who had never actually given a public performance, critiquing each other without any idea of dance other than what they had seen in the movies!

Imagine if a student with some talent at drawing went to an art school, and instead of finding courses in figure drawing, lessons on perspective, on color, on proportion and balance, and analysis of the actual craft of past masters of painting, could only enroll in a single repeatable course called “art.”

Or the music school in which students can dabble in any instrument but are expected to learn none, while the composition students are given no instruction in theory, but are forced to pick up whatever they can from looking at each other’s incompetent work.

I’ve heard writing teachers complain that because everybody speaks a language, and can decode letters and write them, forming them into words, they think writing is so easy that anyone can do it.  Thus the countless people who cheerfully announce to professional writers, “I’m going to write a book someday, when I get the time.”  To which the writers rarely respond with the cold hard truth: That this common remark makes as much sense as saying, “I’m going to fly a 747 someday, when I have the time,” or “I’m going to transplant a kidney someday, when I have the time.”

But if writing teachers have such disdain for those who think writing is easy and anyone can do it, why do they teach writing as if writing could not be taught?

It became my project to discover just what the core principles were and how to teach them.  I have not, by any means, completed that project.  But I’ve made great progress, and the result of it is that in my writing classes, the students with ambition, analytical intelligence, and the humility to take suggestions get better

My Own Teaching Method

Over the years that I was working on isolating the techniques of writing and discovering how to teach them, I had a wonderful opportunity to test what I was learning — and to learn more.

Jay Wentworth, who may well be the best teacher alive, co-taught an intense weeklong writing workshop sponsored by the Watauga College program at Appalachian State University.  We would go to an interesting city — usually Washington DC, but sometimes New York and, one time, Charleston SC — and in a solid week in which we owned the students body and soul, we crammed into their heads a rather astonishing amount of theory and practice of fiction writing.

Jay, being a teacher who combines affability and genuine love with relentless intellectual rigor and an incredible depth and breadth of knowledge of everything, took second place to me during the workshop, letting me — with my obvious professional credentials as a writer — take the lead.  But when he and I were alone, he was just as rigorous with me as with any other student.  We looked at the techniques I was using, at the problems the students were having, and not only reshaped the course to fit the needs of each particular batch of kids, but also honed it to be better for anyone who might take it.

I also learned from Algis Budrys’s techniques in his series of workshops sponsored by the publishers of the Writers of the Future anthology, and have picked up useful techniques from others.  I wrote and published two books on writing that have also helped shape my teaching, though it puts me in the always-awkward position of requiring students to buy one of my books as the text for the course.  (The books are Characters and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.)

Those workshops with Jay worked well enough — but the students were mostly freshmen and sophomore in the two-year Watauga College.  Few of them were serious about making a profession of writing, though some have indeed moved forward into literary careers.  I decided to try something new — a novel-writing course.

Semester-long classes rarely try to tackle an actual novel, given the exaggerated terror that a novel puts in the minds of students, and the fact that students have other classes they may wish to attend from time to time.  But in an evening class at Pepperdine University, under the sponsorship of professor, critic, scholar, and leading Mormon poet Michael Collings, I made my first stab at it.  By grouping the classroom sessions into three intense periods, I was able to handle the commute, coming to Southern California for weeks at a time.  Between those intense passages, the students would (presumably) work on their novels, bringing ever-larger chunks of revised prose and plot synopsis to class.

For some of the students, the semester was productive, but as always I was hampered by the fact that I only had these students for a short period of time.  There was no chance to follow through, to help them grasp concepts that they had not at first been ready to receive, or master skills that they were slow to acquire.

Literary Boot Camp

One of the biggest barriers to expanding my teaching was that it simply cost me too much money.  The fees paid to adjunct professors are ludicrously low, and of course someone perceived as a science fiction writer is never offered those lucrative visiting professorships that go to writers of literary fiction (or “li-fi,” as I like to call it).

The obvious move was to move the course out of the normal university framework and make it a course that was open to the general public.  The result was my combination “Uncle Orson’s Writing Class” and “Literary Boot Camp.”

The writing class consists of two days of lecture, directed experience, creation and invention of stories, and small-group workshops.  It’s an intense experience.  But it’s almost a vacation compared to the Boot Camp.  The bootcampers take part in the writing class, but then take a single day to write a story based on work done in the class.  Then for three more days we read and critique each other’s work, with whatever riffs and lecturettes I come up with along the way.

Ultimately, the two most important methods of learning how to write are:

1. Write.  You learn more from writing a 100,000-word manuscript than from any number of writing classes.

2. Read failed fiction.  Good fiction doesn’t actually help you as much as reading something bad that you didn’t write yourself, and figuring out how to fix it.  It teaches you how to be a dispassionate critic.

The Boot Camp offers an intense, deadline-driven experience in both areas, plus the fact that those who are ready to understand and internalize the things I teach will gain from that as well.

Anyone eighteen or over can come to the writing class.  The Boot Camp has an audition process, not so I can choose the best — it’s easy to claim that a writing workshop produces good writers, if you admit only writers who are already good! — but so that I can choose those who are ready to benefit from the things I teach.

Writers who clearly have no idea yet what a story is need to attend only my class and then go back and practice inventing and developing story ideas before they’re ready for Boot Camp.

At the same time, I have also turned away writers whose writing samples showed that they have already mastered the things we concentrate on in Boot Camp.  I can’t see taking somebody’s time and money just to teach them what they already know.  And I make sure that writers who are turned away for that reason are told as much — I assume they will regard such a rejection as encouragement.

The real test, frankly, is the time and money.  If adults are willing to set aside a week of their job and spend some money on a course, chances are they will take the work seriously and pay attention.  They will be open to changing the way they work — which is essential for the course to do them any good.

Long-term Mentoring

The results, in my opinion, have been impressive.  But they have also been frustrating.  I am closely involved with their writing for a week, and then they go away.  Some of them hit the ground running; most take months or even years for the lessons of Boot Camp to sink in and show up regularly and intuitively in their writing.

It has become increasingly obvious that I need a long-term relationship with my students, to work with them over a period of years.  My choices were two, as far as I could see: To start my own writing school, or to join the faculty of a university.

The first choice had first occurred to Kristine and me when we still lived in South Bend, and visited Nauvoo.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to move to this lovely historical Mormon city and found “the Nauvoo School,” a place of refuge and training for writers, where they could choose the isolation of a hermitage or the close association of a classroom.

The trouble was that novice writers are almost all penniless, in part due to their inability to concentrate fully on their day jobs, so tuition could not be high enough to justify the cost, and as a result, to found such a school I would have to find donors.  Since I didn’t know any rich people and would detest the process of asking them for money even if I did, the project went about as far as my would-be movies — nowhere, surrounded with fruitless plans.

Then the Church built a new temple in Nauvoo and my dream died.  Nauvoo would no longer be a historical backwater, and people with a very different kind of dream would take possession.  Still, I memorialized the riverside town of Nauvoo that we fell in love with in my story “Feed the Baby of Love.”  Door closed.

So I was left with the second choice.

Sci-Fi Writer on an English Faculty?

There are writers who, by virtue of their writing alone, and without regard to formal education, are invited to join the faculties of English Departments — whether they know how to teach anything or not.  However, such positions are bestowed on those writers who will bring prestige to the department, and sci-fi writers are definitely not in that category.

Never mind that science fiction was the great literary revolution following modernism; never mind that science fiction has so penetrated our society that its names for nonexistent technology have pervaded the culture (there are no androids or cyborgs or warp drives; sorry to disappoint you); never mind that science fiction has more variety inside it than the rest of contemporary literature outside it; never mind that sci-fi has a vibrant critical community along with its large community of volunteer readers.  Science fiction remains the most despised of literatures in almost all English departments — not least because it does not need the mediation of professors to be understood.

So bringing me into most English department faculties with my writing as my only credential would be unthinkable.

That’s why I made one last effort toward getting a doctorate, this time in the graduate writing program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  This department was different, I was sure — mostly because the brilliant and great-hearted poet and fiction-writer Fred Chappell taught a regular science fiction course there and kept the door open to that despised genre.

I had no doubt that I could write the kind of fiction that was rewarded in university creative writing programs.  I knew the game and all its rules, including the need for edginess and dazzle; it was for writing classes in that program time that I wrote stories like “Rubber Gloves.”

The trouble was that I simply didn’t fit in that culture.  Creative writing was still being taught as a kind of therapy for would-be writers — instead of helping each other to learn the craft in those classes, the other students made oblique and inoffensive criticisms and then tried to bury them under ludicrous levels of enthusiasm for mostly-mediocre work.

I realized that for a writing program like this to gain a reputation for excellence, it would have to screen its students carefully to make sure that only excellent writers were admitted in the first place.  The likelihood of serious craftsmanship being acquired through this process was nil.

So I gave up on the doctorate — much to the relief of the other students, since they had hated my comments on their stories so much they actually petitioned the teacher to shut me up.  The hilarious thing was that I was never abusive or unkind — I merely spoke with the candor used in peer workshops of professional writers.  I spoke like one serious writer talking to another — but that was unbearable to these fragile souls.  They weren’t interested in learning anything, only in being stroked and encouraged and, most important, unchallenged.  And the teachers were all too ready to oblige them.

And this was one of the best of the writing programs in the country.

Thus I gave up on getting a doctorate, and as a science fiction writer I could not get a university teaching position without one.  Moreover, I became convinced that there was no such thing as an American university that was willing to treat writing as a craft with known principles that could be taught — so where would I find students who were serious about learning how to write, not for professors, but for the vast audience of volunteers that constitutes our culture — our civilization?

I saw one ray of hope — a “popular writing” program at Seton Hall University, where nontraditional students (i.e., grownups with day jobs) could earn a degree and, more to the point, gain serious professional training without having to attend a university full time.  The fact that one school had dared to attempt such a thing suggested that maybe, someday, the teaching methods and subject matters I had developed over the years might be put to good use with serious students of writing.

Which Students?

In all the classes I taught, I worried about many of the students.  Because they were being indoctrinated in universities dominated by anti-Christian (and, in my opinion, anti-civilization) ideologies, their writing increasingly seemed to be in support of values that I believed to be perilous to any community that wishes to survive.

So when I made them more effective at writing their stories, what was I actually doing?  Hastening, by just that much, the downfall of the civilization that had brought freedom and prosperity to more people than any in history?  Wouldn’t it be better not to teach writing at all, than to teach it to those who would use it as a weapon against the world I wanted my children and grandchildren to inherit?

Fortunately, the situation is not quite that dire.  In the first place, writing a story is inherently a community-building activity, so at core it can’t be completely nihilistic; in the second place, as my former students matured, they would grow out of believing at least some of the propaganda they had swallowed from their sixties-blinded professors.

Still ... as long as I was wishing for what didn’t exist — a faculty that would welcome me or my methods of teaching writing as a learnable craft — I might as well wish for it to be at a university committed to a value system more similar to my own than, say, UNC-G.

(I wished many times that I could teach at North Carolina A&T, also in Greensboro.  A historically black university, it still retained the Christianity and spirituality that are unashamedly alive in the African-American community.  However, I suffered from the disability, in this case, of being white.  How could I presume to suggest to a mostly black faculty that I could teach professional writing to their mostly black student body?  So I never worked up the courage — or, one might say, the gall — to approach them.)

Mormon Education in the East

Then Southern Virginia College in the Shenandoah Valley was acquired by a group of LDS donors with the intention of turning it into a liberal arts college for those who share the values of Mormonism.

For me, the combination seemed perfect: I could remain in the South and teach students who share my values.  If, that is, the faculty and administration were interested in what I had to offer.

My first opportunity came when Robert Stoddard, my friend and musical collaborator since college days, accepted a teaching position at SVU.  By teaching jointly with him, I was able to teach a course per semester for the 2003-2004 academic year.

Not only that, but Robert helped me develop a couple of exercises that had been missing from my two-day and weeklong workshops.  Now that we had more time, we could focus in class on topics we’d had to glide over or hope that students would absorb from my books.  The exercises worked, and now I’m incorporating them in Boot Camp as well.

We had a predictable portion of students who didn’t understand that our class really was for serious pre-professionals — they assumed it was the normal therapy-like writing workshop.  Some of them seemed quite stunned.  But most of them adapted to the rigors of the course and made great progress; some of them leapt forward to publishable or near-publishable quality.

That summer, SVU hosted my Boot Camp, and again it seemed a good fit.  This past year, however, I couldn’t continue teaching — it hadn’t been worked into my schedule, and I had several long foreign trips that were going to make it impossible.

Then came the offer of a permanent appointment.

The Right Faculty

Just a week ago, I attended a faculty retreat with most of the other teachers in the English program.  I was delighted to find that here was the kind of collegial faculty I had hoped for — people who listened to each other with respect, whose focus was on the needs of the students, and who were bursting with ideas.  Students who come to SVU to prepare themselves to be professional writers will find that all the English faculty will contribute to their goals.

They were also open-minded enough to accept a writer best known for science fiction as a member of their faculty, and to welcome the idea that I would teach literature courses as well as writing course.  This fall I’ll be bringing my spin to teaching a science fiction literature course — I teach it out of current issues of the magazines and recent original anthologies — and in the spring I’ll be teaching a course that focuses on Tolkien and Lewis.

At the same time, fall semester will include my professional short story writing course, and in the spring I’ll teach the novel course.

The faculty are jointly planning to sponsor a “master class” for English majors that will meet during a lunch hour, in which faculty, visiting speakers, and the occasional advanced student will present essays, fiction, or poetry, followed by discussion; we are hoping it will develop into an Inklings-like tradition, even if we won’t have Tolkien puffing away on his pipe during the sessions.

Even though for the first year or so, at least, I will be commuting — three days on campus, four days at home in Greensboro — I will be on campus long enough at a stretch to be able to take part in the university life.  And within a few years, Kristine and I may well be able to realize at least some version of our plans for the academic life we expected when we first got married.

Most important, however, is the fact that I’ll have a permanent place to offer student writers whatever help my methods of teaching might give them, in preparing them to get their voices heard and their influence felt.

I will still teach writing classes and Boot Camps from time to time, both at SVU and elsewhere.  But my roots are now getting planted in the soil of the Shenandoah Valley.  Now I hope that students who want to learn the things I have to teach will come to me here.  Not only will they get my training in the craft of writing, they will also get everything that SVU has to offer. 

and Why SVU is Important

SVU is an important part of the overall educational picture for the LDS Church for several reasons.

First is the fact that SVU is small.  While the BYU schools have the admirable goal of fitting in as many students as they can, without growing the campuses much beyond their current dimensions, there are many immediate benefits to being on a campus with fewer than 1200 students.

The faculty all know every single one of the students majoring in their subject area — and many students beyond that, as well.  The students all know each other, so you feel like you’re part of a network of friends.

Second is the location.  Buena Vista is a very small town, and nearby Lexington, while it has been a college town for many years, is not much bigger.  There are few distractions.  The campus is the center of life for the students.  At the same time, the setting is beautiful — what is lacking in amenities like first-run movie theaters and restaurants is more than made up for by the mountains, the meadows, the woods, the rivers and streams.

Yet, when the isolation of a small town becomes too much, Roanoke is an hour away by freeway, offering the movies and restaurants and big bookstores; Charlottesville and Lynchburg are only slightly farther away.  And DC, with both a temple and a huge part of America’s heritage, is three and a half hours away by freeway.

SVU students also have checkout privileges at the Washington & Lee library, and there’s a serious effort to bring a full-service bookstore to campus.  And if there’s a lack of first-run films, there’s no dearth of on-campus theatre, music, and other arts; and of course there are plenty of athletic opportunities.

Third is the fact that SVU is not affiliated with the Church.  The administration insists on an honor code as stringent as BYU’s, but students do have a chance to learn from good teachers who happen not to be LDS.  They won’t find their beliefs attacked as so often happens to Mormon students at more worldly universities, but neither are they to be taken for granted.

So the university is permeated with LDS teachings, LDS culture, and LDS ideals — yet it is not a monoculture.

I could not think of a better place for a would-be professional writer to prepare to reach an audience much wider than the “Mormon Corridor” of the American West.

But SVU is also a wonderful place for any student interested in an up-to-date old-fashioned education.  What “college” used to mean — not trade school, but a broad-based exposure to all of western culture — is still available at SVU.  At the same time, there is nothing old-fashioned about the content and methodology of the courses.

I think of SVU as the cutting edge of education, where people of faith learn the best that the world has to offer.  I’m proud to be part of this educational community.

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© 2005 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved

About the Author:

Orson Card
Photo Credit: Bob Henderson
Henderson Photography, Inc.

Born in Richland, Washington, Card grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He lived in Brazil for two years as missionary for the Church. He received degrees from Brigham Young University (1975) and the University of Utah (1981). He currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina. He and his wife, Kristine, are the parents of five children: Geoffrey, Emily, Charles, Zina Margaret, and Erin Louisa (named for Chaucer, Bronte and Dickinson, Dickens, Mitchell, and Alcott, respectively). To learn more about Orson Scott Card please click here.

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