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The Writing Life

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For many high school students, literature is lifeless and uninspiring; they struggle through books by dead authors about long-ago times and faraway places. Despite English teachers' best efforts to bring the writing to life, many students never shake the notion that novels and stories are antiquated, things of the past.

Some students in Washington, D.C., however, are learning a different lesson: that literature can be vibrant and vital. On this winter morning, in fact, 10th graders at Woodrow Wilson High School are passing time with a living, breathing--and yes, even entertaining--representative of the world of books, author Frederick Busch.

Busch has come to the school to discuss his short stories, which deal with topics on the minds of many 16-year-olds: parents, teachers, pregnancy, and suicide.

"Writers tell stories because they feel compelled to tell stories,'' the author explains to the 30 English students. "They are driven to write.''

Students at public high schools throughout the nation's capital have been treated to similar face-toface encounters with noted authors, thanks to the PEN/Faulkner Foundation's Writers in Schools Project. The project's list of visiting writers reads like an honor roll of modern American literature: Amy Tan, Pat Conroy, Russell Banks, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ishmael Reed, Robert Stone, and Amiri Baraka. These and others have visited Washington classrooms since the program began in 1989. This year's roster includes Ken Kesey, Jamaica Kincaid, Andre Dubus, Fay Weldon, John Edgar Wideman, and Mary Gordon.

"We're trying to show students that literature is alive, that the people who write it are alive,'' says Janice Delaney, the executive director of the PEN/ Faulkner Foundation. "This program is restricted to the District, so we're talking about kids who may not see books that much at home.''

Busch, like all the program's visiting authors, is in Washington to participate in the foundation's series of fiction readings, held at the Folger Shakespeare Library. He will also receive an award from PEN, an international organization of writers, for his short fiction. The award recognizes a body of work that has been compiled in many shortstory collections, including Absent Friends, which all of Maida Zamoff's 10th graders at Wilson High clutch as they enter class today. Through arrangements worked out with the participating authors' publishers, students receive free copies of their books in advance, so they have a chance to read and discuss the work before they meet the writer.

Busch has come dressed casually in sweater and corduroy pants. Teacher and students alike are surprised when he steps to the middle of their circle of desks and asks for questions, skipping any introductory remarks. After one brave student breaks the silence, the author puts the class at ease with his mix of self-effacing humor and blunt sincerity about his work and about the life of a writer.

Some of what he says contradicts lessons the students have learned over the years in English class. For example, teachers typically ask students to identify main themes and symbols in stories. But Busch tells them the messages in his fiction cannot be reduced to a sentence or two and says he hates "loose talk'' about symbols. "If you want to deliver a message, it's easier to buy an ad in the newspaper,'' the author says. "I can't say things more clearly outside the story. One of the reasons you make art is because art says things for which there are no clear words. You say the unsayable.''

In addition to fielding general questions about his work, Busch discusses the three stories the class has studied. He tells how he developed the plot and characters of "Name the Name,'' about a teacher who visits homebound students unable to attend regular school. Near his home in rural New York State, he says, there is such a teacher. The teacher in the story visits a girl who tried to commit suicide; the girl is reduced to communicating by writing on a magic board, something Busch's talkative mother-in-law was forced to do late in her life. The idea of teenage suicide stems from his fears that his own two sons might consider killing themselves.

"In everything a writer writes,'' he says, "there is some element of autobiography. You steal little things from life because you want your stories to be persuasive.''

"What does it take to be a writer?'' one girl asks him.

"Talent,'' Busch responds. And that, he says, cannot be learned or cultivated. "The most important thing it takes after talent is energy,'' he adds. "Most of writing consists of failing. You write about someone's life, but you usually don't get it right. You need energy to keep writing over and over until you get it right.''

He offers would-be writers advice that teachers love to hear. "Education first. Total, maximal education,'' he tells them. "You have to read all the time. You do your apprenticeship as a writer while you read.''

And he leaves the students no illusions about a writer's life of leisure. "You should find an honorable, useful profession you love almost as much as writing,'' he tells them, "because chances are you'll never earn a living as a writer.'' Busch himself is a pro- fessor of literature at Colgate University.

Afterward, Busch gives students a souvenir of his visit by signing their copies of Absent Friends. While other students wait their turn, Antinique Rawlings looks at the inscription in her copy. "I think you have some of the writer in you,'' Busch has written.

"It was fascinating to hear him,'' Antinique says. "He showed what it's like to be a writer and what it takes to be a writer.''

Teacher Zamoff calls the visit "a big hit.''

"The students thought he really spoke from the heart,'' she says. "His sincerity enabled them to relate to him and to what he was saying.''

Aside from the professional stimulation and teaching ideas the visits inspire, Zamoff and other host teachers receive a $250 stipend from PEN/ Faulkner. "We pay the teacher because we want to send the message that we believe what she's doing is important,'' the foundation's Delaney explains.

Although only a few years old, the program has produced some remarkable results. At one school, the teacher did not have enough students who could read well enough to understand Maxine Hong Kingston's writing, so he formed an after-school reading group to prepare some 30 students for the writer's visit. The reading group continued long after Kingston was gone.

"That,'' Delaney says, "is what this is all about.''--Daniel Gursky

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