Fiction Writers Review: An Appreciation of Nicholas Delbanco by Travis Holland

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 Travis Holland on Nicholas Delbanco as a master teacher, as well as Delbanco’s approach to running a writing workshop that matters: “This is good, now let’s make it better.”

It begins, I imagine, without our even knowing, in a room filled with books, at an enormous table so covered with poetry journals and literary magazines I can almost feel the weight of all those words around us as we cautiously file in for our first workshop. It is a mild September evening in 2002, and we have come to the University of Michigan’s MFA program for fiction to spend the next two years of our lives writing—a prospect which seems almost too good to be true. Part of me is in fact waiting for some purse-mouthed university factotum to gravely tap me on the shoulder and tell me there’s been a terrible mistake: the invitation has been rescinded, the welcome mat put away for some more worthy applicant, thank you, goodbye. Part of me is waiting to wake up back in my former life, in a barren office overlooking three parking lots and two interstate highways, where I’m paid to process software contracts but in fact spend most of my time gazing out the window at a particularly interesting tree. Instead of working, I write lapidary little passages on oversized post-it notes meticulously describing that tree: the way the fluttering leaves flash silver as the wind passes through them. One day it might be a school of darting fish, the next day hundreds of tiny flags frantically twitching out some semaphore distress signal meant just for me. It’s a difficult thing to exactly describe, that tree, but I keep trying.

I suppose we’re all feeling pretty uncertain as we quietly find our seats. We’re all in our own way waiting for that tap on the shoulder, which surprisingly never comes. Instead, the professor arrives, welcoming us to what will be our first writing workshop at the University of Michigan. His name is Nicholas Delbanco—Nick will do just fine, he tells us—and he is, as most of us by now know, the author of dozens of books of fiction and nonfiction, a prize-winning essayist and one-time director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing. National Public Radio book critic Alan Cheuse has called him “one of our finest fiction writers,” adding: “He also happens to be one of our country’s finest master teachers.” I smile as Nick welcomes us, we’re all smiling. It’s what you do, right? You smile, and think, Is it warm in hereAm I having a heart attack? And go on smiling, through all the weeks and months to come, as the autumn days gutter out into early darkness, as the cold evening approaches when it will be my story on the chopping block.

Oh God, my story.

And God, it’s a mess, this story of mine. I just know it. Overwritten, or maybe underwritten, in every paragraph some giggly blue-eyed darling I’ve never quite had the guts to murder. It’s all middle and no end, all polish and no point, a boat without a rudder, lazily turning circles while the drooping sail drags in the water. Yes, I’ve worked like hell to get it this far, nights and days, but this far, it turns out, is still within spitting distance from the dock. And Nick will see the story for what it is—a dull, dismal failure—and then everyone else will see it, too, and that, as they say, will be that.

Read the full article: An Appreciation of Nicholas Delbanco by Travis Holland