Michigan writing well never runs dry

Monday, September 14, 2015 - 6:36pm

Playwright Arthur Miller, author of "The Crucible," was a Michigan Daily alum.

Playwright Arthur Miller, author of "The Crucible," was a Michigan Daily alum. Buy this photo
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Last January, on one of those frozen nights where the coffee shop windows fog up too much to see in from the outside, I journeyed across campus to a cozy bookshop called Literati. The store, still in its infancy, opened by Mike and Hilary Gustafson in 2013, and is a beacon of literary light for Ann Arborites and college students alike: a small but rich collection of books, spread on repurposed shelves, sided by an old typewriter on which visitors leave their own words behind.

The store’s second level houses The Espresso Bar, a clinking counter that keeps a running tab of guests’ coffee. The room, light and airy by day, becomes dim and smoky by night; particularly that night, as dozens of writers and bibliophiles tucked in to hear Rebecca Scherm, recent MFA graduate from the University’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program, read from her debut novel “Unbecoming.” The reading was the first of a country-wide tour; it was fittingly in an Ann Arbor coffee shop, much like those where she had first typed her story. I squeezed into a corner and watched Scherm as she watched us, her eyes welling up in tears.

“This is just so weird,” Scherm said. “All of you here. Wow. Thank you, all of you. I wouldn’t have this book without you.”

Her wavering voice clarified as she began to read. The room grew silent save for Grace, living undercover in a Paris antique shop, running from her dark past. Professors, peers and I listened, enrapt, coffee spitting in the corner and the typewriter humming below. Words were alive here.

Rebecca Scherm is not the first, nor will she be the last, brilliant writer to come through the University. In the 1920s, Betty Smith moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Ann Arbor for her then-husband to pursue a law degree. Though she hadn’t finished high school, Smith enrolled in University classes; under the guidance of Prof. Kenneth Thorpe Rowe, she mastered her skills in writing and drama, winning the Avery Hopwood Award for Drama in 1931. A little over a decade later, in 1943, Smith published her international bestseller “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” drawing from her own childhood experiences.

During his tenure at the University, Prof. Rowe also taught two of the biggest names in literature: playwright Arthur Miller, class of 1938 and a Michigan Daily alum; and poet and art critic Frank O’Hara, class of 1951. Like Smith, Miller also grew up as a poor Brooklynite, delivering bread in the mornings to pay for college tuition. Miller thrived as a journalism major at the University, where he wrote for The Michigan Daily, but his playwriting talent prompted his switch to an English major. In 1936 he won the Hopwood Award for his play “No Villain,” then received the award again in 1937 for “Honors at Dawn.” Miller went on to become a Broadway legend — his plays “Death of a Salesman,” “All My Sons” and “The Crucible” exploding onstage — and a tabloid star, with his rocky marriage to actress Marilyn Monroe. Later in life, Miller retained his alma mater ties, establishing the Arthur Miller scholarship award for talented young writers at the University.

While Miller’s plays flashed on Broadway, Frank O’Hara honed his poetry skills as a graduate student at the University, winning the Hopwood Poetry Award for “A Byzantine Place: 50 Poems and a Noh Play” in 1951. After receiving his MFA in English, O’Hara moved to New York City, where he became a curator at the Modern Museum of Art and established himself as a poet and critic. An unconventional writer, O’Hara believed that poetry should be written solely in the moment — scribbled on the subway, or in a room full of people — and his method spurred the poetry collections “Oranges: 12 Pastorals,” “Meditations in an Emergency” and “Lunch Poems.”

O’Hara’s strong impact on the NYC art scene reverberates today. Season two of AMC’s “Mad Men,” about high-pressure advertising agencies in the 1960s, heavily referenced O’Hara’s poetry. The show’s final episode, appropriately named “Meditations in an Emergency,” shows protagonist Don Draper finding a copy of O’Hara’s book.

While many students meditated on poetry and novels, others found their niche in journalism. Neal Gabler, who graduated summa cum laude in 1971, has worn nearly every hat in the writing world: His columns have been in The New York Times, Vogue and Esquire; he has published four books, winning the USA Today Biography of the Year for “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination”; he has been broadcasted on the “Today” show and “Good Morning America.” Today, he’s a Senior Fellow at University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center and teaches graduate courses at State University of New York Stony Brook, covering a range of topics from biography to film criticism.

Gabler has also taught at the University in the past, receiving the Outstanding Teaching Award from the University in 1978. He had close ties to the Screen Arts and Cultures department as a student and teacher — especially with Hugh Cohen, current SAC professor and his former mentor, who invited Gabler to give a guest lecture on film criticism this past April. In his speech, Gabler reminisced about his years as a film critic for The Michigan Daily, where he famously wrote more column inches than anyone in the paper’s history.

Outstanding mentors and professors are crucial in cultivating creativity. Prof. Rowe inspired Smith, Miller and O’Hara, among others; Prof. Cohen piqued Gabler’s interest in film. Naturally, University professors, many who return to teach after receiving University degrees, are accomplished writers themselves. Laura Kasischke, a 1987 graduate of the Zell Writers' Program and a current professor at the University, has published eight collections of poetry and nine novels.

“Ann Arbor has really become an active writing community — the Zell reading series, and now Literati, and the many writers who live here have put us on the map,” Kasischke said, about what draws writers to the University. “But, even when I started school here in the ’80s, there was an astonishing writing community.

“Ann Arbor isn’t a large place, but the University obviously attracts people from far and wide who write,” she continued. 

Among many awards, Kasischke won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2012 for “Space, In Chains,” a poetry collection with an underlying theme of grief, presented through her raw and resonant imagery. Kasischke’s fiction explores dark topics like global pandemics and school shootings, spun in the same startling realness as her poetry. “The Life Before Her Eyes,” about a survivor from a Columbine-like school shooting, was adapted into a film starring Uma Thurman in 2007.   

When discussing dark and twisted themes in novels, Megan Abbott’s name also undoubtedly arises. Abbott grew up outside of Detroit and graduated from the University with an English degree in 1993, then went on to pursue a Ph.D. in English and American literature at New York University.

Inspired by the noir writings of Joan Didion and female crime fiction, Abbott edited “A Hell of a Woman,” an anthology of female crime fiction. She also wrote “The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir” and seven fiction novels. Her 2012 novel “Dare Me,” about a sinister crime covered up by a high school cheerleading squad, as well as her latest novel “The Fever,” about a sudden sickness that sweeps through a high school clique, are both being adapted into TV shows for HBO and MTV, respectively.

“It wasn’t until I started taking classes in the (University’s) English Department that I really learned how to write at all,” Abbott replied when asked an e-mail interview.

She continued, “And workshops, especially the one I took with the brilliant and kind Keith Taylor (a current English professor), offered me my first true experience of creative writing, of burrowing into the dark corners of one’s own head.”   

Abbott also attributes her writing success to her time spent at The Michigan Daily. “Working on the (Daily) Arts staff filled my last 12 months at Michigan,” she said. “I learned how to write book and movie reviews; how to be a rigorous editor of my own work and that of others. It was the first time in my life that I was surrounded by people for whom words mattered so much, story mattered so much.”

Every University alum brings a different story to campus. It’s here that those stories are shared and fleshed out, where interests take root and relationships flourish. Even when they leave Michigan, writers’ words remain, spoken in bookshops on winter nights and bound in volumes in the Avery Hopwood room of Angell Hall. They’re read in undergraduate English classes, by young students who may someday cast their own stories into the world.  

“Every year, I find so much talent in both the undergrad and graduate classrooms that it seems like it should run out someday,” Kasischke said. “But it doesn’t.”