By Molly McCarthy, Office of Communications, Le Moyne College
Matthew Fledderjohann has been spending a great deal of time in the mind of Charon. According to Greek mythology, this ferryman of Hades carried the souls of the departed across the River Styx and Acheron. Fledderjohann wonders: What can we learn from his story? What does it tell us about the human condition? And, perhaps most probing, what would that job be like today? Those questions lie at the heart of Boatman, a 300-page novel that Fledderjohann has been working on for several years and which he is carefully editing, that is, when he’s not busy working with students and designing curriculum in his role as the director of Le Moyne College’s Writing Center.
Fledderjohann is among many of Le Moyne’s faculty who spend their days teaching, mentoring and guiding students, and their free time exploring the subjects closest to their hearts, or simply the things that are most interesting to them, as authors. They write in coffee shops, at kitchen tables or beneath trees in their backyards; in complete silence or with music; on brand new MacBooks or longhand on bright yellow legal pads. No matter how they practice their craft, they do so because they love the written word.
But as educators, they do so because they understand that writing, thinking and learning are inextricably linked to one another. “Humans have been writing for thousands of years,” Fledderjohann said. “It is part of who we are.”
Each of these authors comes at this work a little bit differently. For English Professor David Lloyd, the process of writing begins by assessing what is immediately around him, such as the current global environmental crisis that has inspired so much of his recent poetry. For his departmental colleague, Linda Pennisi, the process is often launched by what she calls “something outside myself – a chair sitting in the middle of a field or an elderly man dancing down the sidewalk as I pull up to a stop sign.” And for Dan Roche, a Professor of Communication and Film Studies, it starts with the material itself, exploring topics that spark his curiosity. (Roche also keeps works by a few of his favorite writers, from Joan Didion to E.B. White, close at hand, so that he can “dip in and hear their voices and be energized by what they’re doing well.”)
Le Moyne’s Writer-in-Residence, Patrick Lawler, has experimented with an array of genres over the course of his life as a writer. Poems have become stories, stories have become scripts, and scripts have become poems. “My writing process is like entering a room, and then discovering all its intricate and intimate furnishings—the chairs, some pictures, a rug,” he explained. “And finally, I find a box and, upon opening it, I discover another room inside it. This is when I begin to write.”
For Elisabeth McCaffery, director of Le Moyne’s Welcome Back Center, writing is the opportunity to address everything from the Black Lives Matter movement, to the loss of her beloved grandmother, to her passion for running. She publishes a regular e-newsletter, ThirtyShield, in which she has addressed these topics, and many others. For McCaffery, the newsletter is not only a creative outlet, but a way to encapsulate what she is thinking about and what is important to her at this time in her life – as a professional, a wife, a mother and a friend.
All of Le Moyne’s authors have found that their writing – and writing process – has evolved over the years. Pennisi, who is currently working on a series of poems she initially called self-portraits, usually writes on a laptop in a quiet room, but now finds herself needing some background noise and wondering: “Has too much quiet become terrifying these days?” Where she “used to rely on the adrenaline of deadlines” to move her writing forward, she now takes regular breaks when she is drafting something. In addition, she is “more a fan of revision now than ever.”
In addition to self-expression, there is something else that keeps these faculty members writing. It connects them to their students, as they go through the stops and starts of this process. Roche acknowledged that there are times when he believes that what he is trying to write is “bound to fail.” But he never lets that discourage him. He talks it out. He gives it time. If the project has potential, Roche will eventually see new possibilities in it. A few years ago, for example, he finished and published an essay he’d initially drafted 20 years earlier.
“It’s gotten sharper, I hope,” Roche said of his writing. “I’ve gotten better at avoiding sentimentality (a danger for a personal essayist or memoirist). I’ve become better at putting hard truths on the page.”