Creative Energy: Acclaimed Writers on Campus

From left: Russ Rymer, Susan Faludi, Sarah Braunstein, and Jaed Coffin

From left: Russ Rymer, Susan Faludi, Sarah Braunstein, and Jaed Coffin (Photo by James Marshall)

Right now Bowdoin is a writing powerhouse. No fewer than four illustrious writers – Susan Faludi, Russ Rymer, Jaed Coffin, and Sarah Braunstein – are on campus this year as visiting faculty members, joining Professor of English Brock Clarke to teach courses in fiction and creative nonfiction.

Between the five of them they have authored a wide array of published works – books on feminism, articles on science, novels, memoirs, short stories, and more. “Having these distinguished writers with us is an inspiration and invaluable resource for our students,” said Dean for Academic Affairs Cristle Collins Judd.

The Pulitzer-winning journalist and Backlash author Susan Faludi came to Bowdoin as a Tallmann Scholar through the Gender and Women’s Studies (GWS) program. Described by GWS director Kristen Ghodsee as “perhaps the most prominent voice in feminism today,” Faludi has previously taught at Harvard and is teaching two courses at Bowdoin this year.

Read excerpts from their books:
Sarah Braunstein’s The Sweet Relief of Missing Children • Brock Clarke’s The Happiest People in the World • Jaed Coffin’s A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants • Susan Faludi’s The Terror Dream • Russ Rymer’s Paris Twilight

With Faludi’s arrival the English department acquired another top-notch writer in the bargain: her husband, Russ Rymer, a celebrated longform journalist, science writer, and editor who recently forayed into fiction with the novel Paris Twilight. Having taught at institutions such as MIT, Smith, and Caltech, Rymer is offering a spring course at Bowdoin on writing about science.

Jaed Coffin’s ties to Bowdoin go way back: he more or less spent his childhood on the college grounds before striking out on adventures around the globe. When not penning book-length memoirs about becoming a monk in Thailand and a boxing champion in Alaska, Coffin writes literary journalism for magazines. This year he took over for writer-in-residence Anthony Walton, currently on leave, to teach a fall course in creative nonfiction.

Sarah Braunstein, an emerging novelist whose work explores themes of place and gender, won the 2012 Maine Literary Award with her book The Sweet Relief of Missing Children. Along with Coffin, she teaches for the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. Braunstein’s next novel is set on the Maine coast – one of many reasons for her appointment as this year’s Coastal Studies Scholar at Bowdoin, a position that has her teaching a course each semester.

Bowdoin’s own novelist and short story author Brock Clarke rounds out the group of acclaimed writers on campus, bringing “not just the steady presence of a first-rate contemporary novelist but also the expert instruction of a veteran writing professor,” according to English department chair Aaron Kitch.

Each of these writers knows how to capture and compel, to engage readers’ emotions as well as their intellect – a potent skill when applied to just about any discipline. Faludi uses her enormously influential journalism to advocate for equality between women and men, while Braunstein, Coffin, and Clarke weave narratives that provoke contemplation of identity, culture, and the quest for truth. Rymer’s science journalism gives readers an entryway into important but intimidating topics that otherwise tend to be dismissed as too complex for the layperson.

Creative writing can be transformative not only for readers but for the writer, too, as Bowdoin students are discovering. “Writing used to feel disconnected from my life and who I was,” said Cordelia Orbach ’17, who took Faludi’s fall seminar on intergenerational feminism. “I didn’t really think that my opinions mattered.” But working with Faludi changed that. “I realized that my personal experience informs how I view the world, so I should put that in there,” Orbach said, noting that her writing has become more meaningful as a result.

As Braunstein observed, when students write from their own experiences or imagination, “the stakes get higher, and they want to make it perfect and grammatical and stylish. It encourages a new relationship with language.” Coffin said that creative writing also develops broader skills. “Writers have to figure out on their own how to invent something out of nothing,” he said. “To take an idea and give it a container, to find a subject who can tell that story, to hunt down material – that really requires a lot of organization and discipline.”

The visitors have been spreading the writing gospel beyond their own classrooms. Faludi has met with Bowdoin Orient staff and is academic advisor for an op-ed group newly formed by students on campus. Coffin gave a fall semester reading from his forthcoming book Roughhouse Friday to a jam-packed audience, which included Bowdoin’s crop of visiting writers and students from their classes. The other writers are doing readings this spring (Rymer’s reading is coming up on March 31).

“I think it’s interesting for the students to see all of us together like that, because it gives them a sense that there’s a community of people doing these things,” Clarke said. Students benefit from being exposed to the range of paths that different writers have taken, he said, and they come to realize that successful writers “actually have fears and struggles and all sorts of things that students themselves have.”

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The students are soaking it up. “It’s been an eye-opening experience for how writing can actually be fun, be powerful, and be exciting,” Orbach said. “Not just something I’m doing for a class.”

This story originally appeared in Bowdoin Magazine’s Winter 2014 issue.

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