By JASMINE L. HENDERSON ’15
Steven Haasis ’14 once told a teacher, “Math is the universal language.”
In fact, the biology major never had interest in written language, much less taking a writing seminar. This semester, though, fate—or just the fact that he registered late—led him to Adjunct Professor of English Lisa Gratz’s course, “The Craft of Creative Nonfiction.” The seminar, part of Gratz’s efforts to foster Arcadia’s presence in the creative writing community, dared students to explore creative nonfiction. Unlike most writing seminars that require the drafting and revision of several essays, the course tasked students to tailor a single piece that could be considered worthy of publication. Gathered in the Castle Rose Room, they read brief excerpts from the manuscripts they had spent the semester writing.
The audience was riveted by stories that reanimated past struggles, fascinations, strained family relationships, and deep friendships. Dawn Loney, whose daughter Alyssa Loney ’14 shared her study abroad experience in Rome and divulged a childhood desire to be mummified, found the event compelling and touching.
“It was a privilege to attend,” said Loney. “They were so honest, so heartfelt. I felt honored that they let me into their world.”
She was particularly tickled by an excerpt by Amy Carpenter ’14, a rollicking retelling of the time her father shaved a cow, leaving him—her father—coated in sweat and freshly cut cow hair just in time to impress, or puzzle, guests at a family get-together.
“I could picture that,” said Loney, smiling as she recalled the story.
This is what creative nonfiction does for the reader. The genre uses techniques from fiction such as characterization and dialogue to bring alive real people and events. Professor Gratz was introduced to the genre as an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh and fell in love with its possibilities.
“Those blurry, watery places into which creative nonfiction writers bravely venture contain the material we need to expand, to gain understanding of ourselves and others,” said Gratz, who explained that creative nonfiction often requires exploring sensitive topics or mining painful memories in search of meaning. “This is what inspired the seminar.”
However, the students were unaware of the adventure and personal growth that awaited them when the semester began.
“When we started I thought it would be awkward,” said Aksa Joseph ’16. “But by the second class we were all talking like we knew each other.”
The seminar took students out of their comfort zone. To guide them through the confrontation, three published authors provided personal interaction and encouragement that Gratz felt was essential for nurturing students’ emerging talents. Jay Kirk, a literary journalist whose work has appeared in publications such as Harper’s Magazine, acquainted the class with his style of fearlessly infusing memories and daydreams into his observations of real people and events. Michelle Reale, published poet and faculty librarian at Arcadia, discussed prose poetry as an avenue for telling true stories and exploring their impact. Professor of English Dr. Richard Wertime, an award-winning author, led the workshop “Taking Risks: From Memoir to Publication.” During the talk, Dr. Wertime addressed concerns the students had with crossing boundaries, such as re-living painful times and disclosing information about those closest to them.
At the end of the semester, reading in front of an eager audience, the students had fully embraced the challenge of creative nonfiction, said Gratz, having “faced its risks courageously and emerged on the other side changed but gloriously alive.”
The change was drastic, especially for Haasis, the student who did not know he had a single literary bone in his body. He said he hardly recognizes himself and then laughed, saying “Now I want to write a book and it’s like, ‘Who’s this guy?!’”