Department of English Language and Literature
M.F.A. University of California, Irvine
Elise Blackwell is flattered when her creative writing students at the University of South Carolina tell her they have read one of her novels.
But she almost would rather they wait until after the class to pick up her books.
“If I have students in my class who haven’t read my work, which is most of them, I ask them to wait until the class is done,” says Blackwell, an English Language and Literature professor in the College of Arts & Sciences. “I don’t want them trying to imitate me or to think that they have to write in my particular style.
“If I have a student whose real forte is comedy trying to write very dark, serious, lyrical fiction, he might be better off following his natural impulse toward comedy.”
The goal of Blackwell’s undergraduate creative writing class is to encourage writing, or reading, in many styles and modes. The students do not have to be great writers, just willing to create and explore their own fictional world.
“At the undergraduate level, people are often just trying it out,” Blackwell says of creative writing. “There are a few in there who might want to be writers of some kind or another.
“What I hope I give to all my students, even if they never write anything, is a new appreciation of reading. The kind of role-taking that you have to do to put yourself into a character’s mind helps nurture a kind of empathy in students that I hope will be useful to them in their lives and make them better at everything they do.”
Prompted by her own love for great writing, Blackwell also lures half a dozen well-known authors to USC each spring to discuss their recent works for the Open Book series. Blackwell or colleagues in the College of Arts and Sciences conduct a talk on each author’s book on a Monday. Then on the following Wednesday, the author discusses the book and writing in general at a public forum.
The books discussed have ranged from Charles Johnson’s historical fiction Middle Passage to Ian McEwan’s award-winning Atonement to Marilynne Robinson’s religion-inflected novel Giliad. The talks are free, and they draw as many people from the community as they do students and faculty.
“The Open Book series appeals to people who are in book clubs, but it takes a slightly more rigorous approach,” Blackwell says. “Sometimes we choose slightly more challenging books than somebody might choose for their book club. We get some insight into the book from a writer’s point of view, and participants really enjoy meeting the writers.”
In addition to her teaching schedule, Blackwell squeezes in some writing daily as well as on weekends and over breaks. Her body of work includes five novels as well as short stories, essays, and cultural criticism. She will slip away to book festivals throughout the country several weekends this fall to promote her latest novel The Lower Quarter, a literary noir set in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Blackwell grew up in southern Louisiana, did her undergraduate work at Louisiana State and earned a Master of Fine Arts from the University of California at Irvine. A past winner of the Michael J. Mungo Undergraduate Teaching Award at USC, she has spent most of her time in recent semesters working with advanced Master of Fine Arts students. She looks forward to the return of undergraduate creative writing courses to her schedule this fall.
“If you type in the question: ‘Can creative writing be taught?’ You’ll see a firestorm of competing, sometimes angrily competing, answers,” Blackwell says. “I don’t think that deep talent can be transmitted. But talent can be educated and nourished and cultivated. You can also help people find it who don’t know they have it.”