Sunday, November 27, 2011


Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire,” is memorable because it has stuck with you for at least forty years.  Predicated on the need for a nameless character who has to provide life-saving warmth for himself against the arctic chill, London’s character has some—but not many—matches and access to burnable spruce tree limbs.

“Day had broken cold and gray,” London writes.  In fact, “exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high, earth-bank, where a dim and little traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland.”

In a stark recasting of the story circumstances, you have been recruited to light a fire.  Your fire is more metaphorical than that of London’s character; it is to be lit in the northernmost reaches of Santa Barbara rather than the Yukon, where the atmosphere may tend more toward boredom, sloth, and procrastination rather than life threatening Arctic chill.

You are now charged with great specificity to build a metaphoric fire under a group of students and faculty.  Instead of matches, your tools will be books, stories, essays, possibly even “The Wire,” one of the more resonant television dramas of recent memory.

This mission statement came together last night, after you’d all but dismissed the notion of taking on yet another creative writing course at yet another venue.

In your entire span of career at these venues, you have had energizing association with two deans, one in particular who’d been at MIT to study linguistics with Benjamin Whorf, and whom you admired because of his willingness to discuss with you The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that thoughts and behavior are determined to some considerable degree by language.  This discussion provoked the enormous outrage of your department chair (as in, “How the fuck could you stand there talking linguistics with him at a reception that was funded and held in the first place to focus on the needs of our department?”).

The other dean was the remarkable Susan Kamei, who always had time for a chat with you about anything, listened to your suggestions for classes, had a biscuit at the ready for Sally, and caused Sally to be Department Mascot on the Department’s Webpage of the university site.

Now you appear to have another shot at inflaming the imaginations of students, articulating similarities and differences among brother and sister faculty and, far from least of all, raising the bar over which you hope to pass.  This from a Dean with whom you can discuss and argue as colleagues, a man who frames his wife’s paintings, a man who is dedicated to his vision of the college he oversees.

This may sound as though you were backing off from your goal of completing writing projects, but as you drove home last night after a splendid meal and conversation, you were greeted with the arrival of an email from your editor/publisher informing you of her plan to reprint The Fiction Lovers’ Companion in January or February of 2012, schedule your proposal for The Dramatic Genome:  The DNA of Story, in January of 2013 (which means for all practical purposes you have until late August or early September to finish, and to simultaneously publish a collection of short stories.  So no, you will not be backing off into teaching, even though your agreement as visiting prof will be three classes a year for three years.

You are still a bit edgy about UCSB, thanks to comments by friends of yours who teach there about the general attitude of students.  But you are being brought in for your fiery potential.  It is nothing less than what you hope to embed in your writing, so why not the teaching as well?


Anonymous said...

Made me smile - happy

Sarah said...

Your continued willingness to dive into life is inspiring Shelly.