The Isms and Outs of Blanche Boyd: a student’s reflection on Conn’s Writer-in-Residence
Blanche Boyd never uses notes, but she’s always in control. She’s in control of the language she uses in her writing (“You see that word I used? That was on purpose. Literature isn’t born in the library.”). She’s in control of the intensity of how those words come together in speech (“I want you to ask yourself these two questions: is it good, and does it matter?”). And she’s spent so many years cutting what’s not good and what doesn’t matter out of student work that when she gets to the podium or the classroom, she drops polished sentences onto us slowly and perfectly. She manipulates the language and delivery into something that will astound her audience, and then smiles, charmingly, because she knows she’s good at what she knows.
In her Endowed Chair Lecture last Wednesday, a symbolic solidification of her title as Roman and Tatiana Weller Professor of English, Blanche told us that “Narrative Nonfiction is not an argument, but a story. The scene is a basic unit of construction, and your story has a beginning, a middle and an end.”
Here is my beginning.
On Accepted Student’s Day Monday in 2007, I walked into the 1962 room for a Major’s Lunch with my father in tow. About 30 round tables were set up, each half-filled with professors from specific departments talking to prospective students. The first thing we saw was a round table labeled “CHEMISTRY”, where two professors sat in high-waist khakis and running sneakers, picking at their pasta salad. “Are you sure?” my dad asked, his dream for my medical future a chair’s length away. I put my hand on his back – we’re the same height – and guided him to the English table.
Edit: take out that part about the same height, says the Blanche on my shoulder. Sure it’s cute, but the detail doesn’t matter.
I put my hand on his back and guided him to the English table.
There sat Blanche, sleeves of her oversized shirt rolled up, forearms resting on the table, a light orchid tattoo staring my father in the face. She was sitting forward as if about to pop back up, and talking intensely to a girl who was laughing at the wrong times. I sat next to her and was immediately told, “You’re interested in writing? This is Blanche Boyd. She’s our Writer in Residence.”
Blanche snapped a piece of Nicorette out of a package in her pocket and looked at me. “Now, are you serious about writing?” she drawled.
I told her I was pretty sure.
“Because if you’re serious, I mean it, I can make you a better writer.”
She crossed her leg at the ankle and listed names of students she had taught. She asked me about the schools I was choosing between, and when I told her she shook her head instantly. “Don’t go there. Our English department is better.”
And then she was gone. My dad and I looked at each other, back at the still-empty chemistry table, back at each other, and then walked to the bookstore still a bit stunned. We hadn’t yet processed why we believed her. I bought Blanche’s book and enrolled the next week.
Here is my middle.
Halfway through my freshman year, I took Blanche on her promise to make me a good writer. But on our first day of Writing the Short Story, she left us with an overwhelming assignment – write a really, really good paragraph – and an overwhelming thought: “It’s a hard inch to cross between being talented and being successful, being good and being terrific.”
It seemed I was supposed to learn “good” by Wednesday.
And so that day I walked in, tired from hours of deleting first sentences, with a safe scene describing the warehouse of my uncle’s company. Blanche collected our paragraphs and started sifting. She skimmed each page until she found a hook that, for whatever reason, intrigued her. Then she just started reading.
Having Blanche read your piece aloud is one of the most nerve-wracking, exciting experiences you will encounter at this college. You don’t know where to rest your eyes. Your pounding heart is shaking the room.
“‘Pounding hearts can’t shake a room,’” says ShoulderBlanche. “You want to be taken seriously? Keep your metaphors realistic.”
You’re convinced your neighbor can see your mouth shaking. You cringe at every word she stumbles over and you smile, gracious and impressed, when she infinitely improves a sentence just by omitting a word.
“You see how I did that?” she’ll say. “You hear how much better that sounds? The transition was unnecessary.”
When I turned my paragraph into a story, she told me she didn’t believe it.
“But what do I do? It really happened,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter.”
She looked around at us, took the Bluetooth out of her ear, and said, “No one knows what’s happened to you. If you’re any good, people will believe what you wrote.” She tapped her finger on the table. “Do y’all hear me? Fiction doesn’t try to be factually true, it tries to be emotionally true. Take what you know and make it feel emotionally true.”
This is a Blancheism, one of many that have been passed down from year to year since she arrived Conn in 1982. Blanche herself has certainly gone through exterior changes, from nylon jackets and cigarettes to a wife, twins and a station wagon. But the isms stay constant, memorable, infiltrating our writing and making us better.
Here goes my end:
I struggled through Blanche’s suggestions, frustrated and embarrassed. What the hell does it mean to be emotionally true? Could her advice be any more opaque? But in that process, I refocused the way I read and wrote, ending with a draft she that made her happy and me proud.
Later in the semester, while directing an ism toward another student’s unpolished story, she saw me smiling from the back corner of the room. “I know you hear me, Miss Lilah,” she said. Everyone turned their heads and she started to laugh. It was a slow, confident laugh that said, You get it now, don’t you. And it came from a woman in control of her class and her words, who doesn’t need any notes.
ShoulderBlanche is poking me. “Don’t kid yourself,” she’s saying. “This story doesn’t have an end yet.”