At High School in Washington, Writers’ Program Brings Literature to Life

By Daniel Gursky — January 08, 1992 7 min read

WASHINGTON--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 a thing of the past.

Some students here, however, are learning a different lesson: that literature can be vibrant and vital. At Woodrow Wilson High School, in fact, 10th graders met a living, breathing--and yes, even entertaining-representative of the world of books, in the form of the author Frederick Busch, one recent Friday morning.

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

“Writers tell stories because they feel compelled to tell stories,” the author explains to the 30 intensive-English students. “They are driven to write.”

Students at public high schools throughout the nation’s capital are treated to similar face-to-face encounters with noted authors as part of 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 Stene, Amiri Baraka, and others have visited District of Columbia 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. “We want to give the kids somebody to identify with. This program is restricted to the District, so we’re talking about kids who may not see books that much at home.”

Mr. Busch, like all the program’s visiting authors, was in Washington to participate in PEN/Faulkner’s series of fiction readings, held at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Before they speak in the evening, the authors spend an hour or two at a local high school.

PEN, an international organization of poets, playwrights, editors, essayists, and novelists, also honored Mr. Busch during his visit as co-winner of its 1991 award for distinguished short-story writers. For Mr. Busch, the award recognizes a body of work that fills many short-story collections, including Absent Friends, which all of Maida Zamoff’s students clutch as they enter class the day of Mr. Busch’s visit to Wilson High.

Rather than coming as formal guest lecturers, Mr. Busch and the other authors serve more as teachers for the day. Through arrangements worked out with the 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.

‘You Say the Unsayable’

Mr. 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 with a question, 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 Mr. Busch says contradicts lessons the students have learned over the years in English class. Teachers ask students to identify main themes and symbols; Mr. Busch tells them the messages in his stories 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,” he 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, Mr. 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 housebound 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 Mr. Busch’s talkative mother-in-law was forced to do as she was dying of emphysema. The idea of teen suicide, he relates, 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.”

‘Total, Maximal Education’

Many students want to know more about the life of a writer. “What does it take to be a writer?” asks one girl.

“Talent,” Mr. Busch responds. And that, he adds, cannot be learned or cultivated.

“The most important thing it takes after talent is energy,” he says. “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.” Mr. Busch himself is a professor of literature at Colgate University.

Afterward, Mr. Busch gives students a souvenir of his visit by signing their copies of Absent Friends. As part of the program, every time an author visits a class, the foundation also provides tickets for the teacher and her students to attend the reading at the Folger Library.

‘A Big Hit’

While other students wait to have their books signed, Antinique Rawlings looks at the inscription in her copy. “I think you have some of the writer in you,” Mr. Busch has written.

“It was fascinating to hear him,” says Ms. Rawlings. “He showed what it’s like to be a writer and what it takes to be a writer.” Like Mr. Busch, she says, she gets an idea and feels compelled to write it down.

Todd Johnson, another student, says he enjoyed meeting a writer for the first time. five always wanted to ask an author questions about something I’ve read,” he says. “I thought his stories were really enlightening.”

Maida Zamoff, the class’s teacher, 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, Ms. 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,” explains Ms. Delaney, the foundation’s executive director.

Ms. Zamoff enjoyed the visit so much she says she would gladly do it for free. “I think it’s a wonderful program,” she says. “It really helps me in teaching to hear what people like him have to say.” She only wishes the foundation could send her a writer once a month instead of once a year.

Success Stories

Across town at Anacostia High School, in one of Washington’s poorest neighborhoods, Opal Watkins’s English classes have been visited by Amiri Baraka and Terry McMillan in the past two years. Her students appreciate the encounters, Ms. Watkins says, because they think they live in a part of town nobody wants to come to.

“I get pleasure out of seeing the students’ reactions, seeing them ask questions and talk to the writers,” says the teacher. She tells of one boy who read so much of Breaking Ice, Ms. McMillan’s thick anthology of African-American writing, that he wore out his book and asked for a second copy.

Ms. Delaney relates other success stories from the program’s relatively short existence. At one school, the teacher did not have enough students who could read well enough to understand Maxine Hong Kingsten’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 Ms. Kingston was gone.

“That’s what this is all about,” says Ms. Delaney.

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 1992 edition of Education Week as For High-School Students in Washington, Writers’ Program Brings Literature to Life