(I'm still getting the hang of these reviews. Regardless, I'd like to discuss the work of Laurie Uttich. Again, I have no idea what I'm doing, or whether these posts are perceived as respectful or disrespectful in their unrefined, emotionally biased reflection. But just as the work of Dr. Poissant has affected me in several ways and on several levels, so, too, has the work of Laurie Uttich.)
Professor Uttich embodies what it means to be an instructor, a mentor, a guiding force in the lives of others. If she's as kind and caring, as empathetic and accepting of her students, I can only imagine her parenting style, her friendships, her professional relationships. I can't imagine such warmth being limited to only one sphere of a person's life. She radiates nothing but positivity, and it's absolutely infectious.
I first had Professor Uttich in a giant auditorium class for Theory and Practice of Creative Writing during my first semester as a creative writing undergrad. But I had little reason to fear, despite the intimidating class size. Professor Uttich had one of the warmest personalities I'd ever encountered, and was so kind and encouraging to each and every one of her students. It was through her that I found a new appreciation for creative nonfiction as a genre. But it wasn't until I had her as an instructor for a smaller, advanced course that my taste for nonfiction truly developed. The pieces she had us read and the exercises she guided us through helped me find the medium and voice I'd been searching for. I felt I had so much to share about my personal reflection and life experiences and trying to incorporate those aspects into my fiction work just wasn't doing the job. Even as unrefined as my nonfiction was, it was cathartic in a whole new way.
As much as I adore Professor Uttich, I wasn't as lucky with her as I was with Dr. Poissant for class registration. Professor Uttich is just as coveted an instructor as Dr. Poissant, and I suppose I only have so much luck. I didn't have her for Creative Nonfiction Workshop, and my poor experience in that introductory online workshop soured my enthusiasm for the genre and for my degree. That was not a particularly riveting semester for my nonfiction--it showed in my work and in my attitude. I did, however, manage to enroll in Profess Uttich's Advanced Nonfiction Workshop the following semester--and thank goodness, too, because I was about to give up on the genre.
I have a tendency to do what I call "bleeding on the page." I try to be as honest as possible with the pain and trauma and just plain awfulness I've experienced. Creative nonfiction is theraputic. It's a way to work through issues. It provides a type of structure in the telling of not just any story, but your story, that allows a level of psychic distance between you as the author of the story, and you as the person who experienced the event. And Professor Uttich was compassionate enough to encourage that type of honesty, that level of raw emotional baggage on the page.
And on the last day of class, she shared with us Do Not Read Out Loud, an essay she wrote and narrated, that one of our graduate students illustrated. (The YouTube link is above.)
Unlike Dr. Poissant's work--easily available on Amazon or at Barnes & Noble--I hadn't had much opportunity to read Professor Uttich's work. Yes, sometimes she'd briefly show us examples of essays or form using stuff she "experimented with," and sometimes she'd do the assigned exercises with us, but the bulk of demonstration came from the work of others. This video, though, was on a completely different level.
Again, there was that epiphany of realizing that the idiom "Those who can do, do; those who cannot do, teach" is a bunch of bull. Do Not Read Out Loud talks specifically about teaching creative nonfiction, and because it's nonfiction written by your professor, you can only assume the feelings expressed are genuine and sincere. Self-discovery and reflection are on point, executed in a way that gave me the "ah-ha!" feeling of realization. Phrases like, "write vertically," "let the title rise organically from the work," "developed metaphor" and "authentic reflection"--while having made sense on some associative level--made sense on a practical application sort of level. Professor Uttich, instead of spelling out specifically what needs to be done to improve a piece ("use x, y, z, to fix this problem"), coaxes you to realize the weaknesses on your own ("try delving a bit deeper" or "write a bit more, even if you don't keep it, and see where it goes").
I want to spend a moment talking about voice. The craft element is stressed in any type of creative writing, but hearing Professor Uttich read her work as she intends for it to be read versus reading it on a page and inserting my own assumptions was...powerful. The class as a whole was moved by the work--which should speak to the poignancy found in what Professor Uttich writes. She delivers universal truths without bias, but seamlessly inserts reflection and perspective without an overwrought sense of sentimentality. It's organic and authentic and honest and is what skillful craft looks like on the page (or sounds like when she does read out loud).
As I continue to write and rewrite and revise and edit my nonfiction pieces, I'll be turning to what I have of Professor Uttich's work as a benchmark for accessibility, for word economy, for finite aspects of structure. She uses the human experience as a way to address her personal concerns, and I hope that with a little more refining, my baggage won't seem as burdensome a load. It will become something that connects with others.