Many well-known writers — Northwest novelist Ursula Le Guin, Native American author Sherman Alexie and poet William Stafford, to name a few — have spoken to Clark students and faculty, thanks to the Columbia Writers Series. Memoirist Debra Gwartney recently joined this award-winning lineup.
The series, a tradition at Clark since 1988, features a variety of speakers who read from their works or lead workshop sessions, said English instructor Alexis Nelson, co-director of the program.
But finding great speakers isn’t as easy as it looks, Nelson said. “We want someone who’s going to be open, and easy to relate to,” Nelson said. “Humor is always good too.”
Gwartney, a nonfiction writing instructor at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, fit the bill. Gwartney spoke to Clark students Feb. 17 about issues that young writers might encounter, and gave advice on the writing process.
Her presentation, which she said was similar to a talk she gives her graduate students, focused on common technical pitfalls that young writers encounter while writing memoirs. She also discussed the use of narrative voice, the development of the character “I” and using scenes to move a story forward.
Gwartney is very familiar with the misconceptions people have about writing. Having taught nonfiction writing for 20 years while freelancing for magazines, Gwartney said many young writers mistakenly assume that writing is supposed to be easy.
“It’s hard,” Gwartney said. “It’s not mining coal hard, but it asks everything of you.”
Gwartney said that she tries to teach students to be patient with their own work, and considers herself to be a slow writer. “I try not to feel bad about that.”
Gwartney said that she has spent the last six years working on a book about Narcissa Whitman, an early settler of the Northwest who tried to bring Christianity to Native Americans, but who was killed in a massacre at the mission she and her husband established near what would become the city of Walla Walla. Gwartney said she’s on her fourth or fifth draft of the book. ”I’m still trying to figure out how to combine her story and my story,” Gwartney said. “That’s my challenge.”
Despite spending years writing articles for a variety of magazines, Gwartney said her writing really came into the public eye in 2009 when her book “Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love,” was published by Houghton Mifflin.
According to Gwartney, the book, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award, recalls her struggle to reconnect with her two oldest daughters Amanda and Stephanie, who as young teens ran away from home after her divorce.
During that time, Gwartney said that it was culturally frowned upon to talk about the “dark side” of parenting, but she believes that memoir writing can bring people together, and show them that they aren’t alone. As a teacher, Gwartney believes that she’s responsible for showing people that their personal stories are valuable.
Gwartney said that it’s an important time in our culture for narrative-nonfiction writing. “People are aching for an authentic story.” Gwartney said she speaks at many events and writing conferences around the country and hopes that students, especially women, are inspired to pursue writing.
Nelson, who became the co-director for the Columbia Writers’ Series in 2014, believes events like the series are part of the “college experience.” She said it’s important for students to be exposed to literature, even if they aren’t pursuing careers in writing.
A published essay writer herself, Nelson hopes that students relate to speakers and realize that they’re normal people working at their craft. “You don’t have to have some magic power in order to be a writer,” she said. Nelson, who studied under Gwartney when they were both at Portland State University, hoped that Gwartney made writing seem accessible for students at the presentation. “She really did that for me when I was in graduate school.”
Nelson said that many teachers actively encourage their students to attend these workshops, and hopes those students who aren’t studying writing can enjoy them as well. “It’s something I want the whole campus to feel like they can participate in.”