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Visiting Professor Gives Students a Chance to Learn Creative Writing from a Successful Author

  • News Image
    Students in John Pipkin's creative writing class get a chance to learn writing from an award-winning author (Photo by Carlos Barron).
  • News Image
    Students in John Pipkin's creative writing class get a chance to learn writing from an award-winning author (Photo by Carlos Barron).

Award-winner writer says he enjoys teaching as well as writing

On the same afternoon that the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction was announced, 13 aspiring writers were gathered in a classroom on the third floor of the Olin Building.

Their teacher, John Pipkin, asks them what problems they have when they try to write dialogue.

The students respond with a variety of questions such as how to make sure their dialogue doesn’t sound too “choppy,” how to get their dialogue to be believable, and how they should handle dialogue that includes foreign languages or regional dialects.

Pipkin offers a variety of helpful tips and discusses four different ways that dialogue can be incorporated into fiction writing. In the course of the class, he and the students critique the dialogue in classics such as The Great Gatsby and Anna Karenina, the television show “CSI,”  and recent movies such as “Valkyrie” and “Avatar.”

Pipkin concludes by offering students the following advice: “When I do dialogue, I just write it all down. I can go back later and condense it.”

For the students in the class, this isn’t just advice from a professor. It’s advice from a successful author.

Pipkin gained critical acclaim for his first novel, Woodsburner, which was published in the spring of 2009. The book is set in Concord, Mass., in the spring of 1844, and tells the story of a forest fire accidentally ignited by Henry David Thoreau a year before he decides to live alone at Walden Pond.

Woodsburner earned Pipkin the Center for Fiction’s 2009 First Novel Prize, which came with a $10,000 cash award. Several newspapers picked it as one of the best 100 fiction and nonfiction books of 2009, including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post and the Christian Science MonitorWoodsburner also has been named as a finalist for the Massachusetts Center for the Book 2009 Fiction Prize, the winner of which will be announced April 28, and as a finalist for the Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner First Novel Award, which will be announced May 1.

Pipkin has taught creative writing at Southwestern since 2007. “I really enjoy teaching here,” he said. “I am impressed with the quality of writing and the energy, enthusiasm and creativity the students have shown.”

By the end of his creative writing class, Pipkin said students have two or three polished pieces that could be parts of a novel or used in their portfolios for the future.

Pipkin is one of two visiting professors who are teaching creative writing at Southwestern this year. Nick Courtwright, a published poet, also teaches classes on the subject. 

“John and Nick have created an exciting opportunity for our students that didn’t exist before,” said English Department Chair Jim Kilfoyle. 

Kilfoyle said he has been seeing strong interest in creative writing, both among current and prospective students. Pipkin’s class for the fall is already full.

“Most of these students will probably not become professional writers, but many of them will be working with words in their professional life and having such an intense experience with language will have many payoffs,” Kilfoyle said.

Some of Pipkin’s students do want to pursue careers in writing. Sophomore English major Chance Colbert wants to go to graduate school to earn an MFA in creative writing.

“Dr. Pipkin’s classes have been very beneficial for me,” Colbert said. “I like how he approaches us like his editor approaches him. He helps me correct things rather than doing it himself, which makes for a better learning experience.”

Kilfoyle said Southwestern is lucky to have a writer such as Pipkin teaching classes because many writers want to focus on their writing instead of teaching.

Pipkin continues to do both. He currently is working on his second novel − another historical novel that he is tentatively calling The Blind Astronomer’s Atlas. The story is set in Ireland around the time of the Irish Rebellion in 1798. It focuses on a young woman whose father is an astronomer. When he goes blind, she decides to continue his work and search for a new planet.

Although the pressure to produce a second successful book is “a little intimidating,” Pipkin said that pressure is reduced by the fact that much of the manuscript for his new book was actually written before Woodsburner.

Plus, he already has a contract for it. The manuscript is due to the publisher in July 2011, and could come out as early as 2012.

– Ellen Davis and Reese Cisneros ’10