Fiction Writers Review: An Appreciation of Nicholas Delbanco by Elizabeth Kostova

In honor of Nicholas Delbanco’s retirement from the University of Michigan, Fiction Writers Review is dedicating this week’s content to a celebration of Delbanco’s influential career as both a writer and a teacher. On December 4th, a symposium entitled “The Janus-Faced Habit: The Art of Teaching and the Teaching of Art” took place in Ann Arbor as part of a tribute to his legacy.

Here’s an excerpt from Elizabeth Kostova on the lasting influence of Nicholas Delbanco, both in her work and in developing the habits of a writer:

Nicholas Delbanco, author of a prodigious list of novels, essays long and short, short stories, reviews, and textbooks—have I missed anything?—was one of my several remarkable advisors and mentors at the University of Michigan a decade ago now. I didn’t meet him there, however. In one of those odd circular windings of life’s staircase, I met Nick when I was a seventeen-year-old freshman at Warren Wilson College, a desperately wannabe young writer with little to say. He was the first professional writer I’d ever actually met, an important occurrence in the life of every beginner; in fact, Nick himself would later regale his graduate seminars with the parallel encounter in his own childhood—pleasant family acquaintances who turned out to be H. A. and Margot Rey, the creators of Curious George.

On that occasion when he visited Warren Wilson for a week of readings and seminars, his coming was presaged by posters and library displays. I was fascinated by the idea that a live human being called himself a writer; up to that time, I’d been under the impression that they had all died by about 1940 (most of them, in fact, by 1895). He arrived, with his beautiful young family in tow, to critique our fledgling efforts, and his praise of my short story stayed with me for years as encouragement. I was thrilled that this elderly and distinguished writer (he was 40) seemed to think I had some kind of adroitness on the page.

I saw his teaching gifts again, many years—and for him, many books—later, when I arrived as a graduate student at the University of Michigan in 2002. Nick, while generous about our work, was tough in his teaching; we were writers-in-training. He required us to try hard, in our discussions, and in the stories we turned in. Most of all, he modeled a steadiness about writing. “I got up early this morning,” he’d say in our evening fiction workshop, which rolled around for him after a twelve-hour day of teaching and meetings, “and I wrote for an hour, first thing. An hour isn’t much, perhaps, but you can do a great deal in an hour.” If one of us exclaimed over Nick’s productivity, all those books in the midst of a busy teaching career, he would say, “It’s mostly habit. Years ago, I formed the habit of getting up early and writing.” We learned from him about the importance of persistence, as much as about prose style or character development.

Read the full article: An Appreciation of Nicholas Delbanco by Elizabeth Kostova