Fiction Writers Review: An Appreciation of Nicholas Delbanco by Valerie Laken

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 Valerie Laken on Nicholas Delbanco’s role as a mentor, and giving young writers the permission to dream: “He’s made a career of bringing together, supporting, and celebrating writers, and in doing that he made them all believe—not just in themselves, but in the value of literature itself.”

“But do you think I can, like, do this?”

At least once or twice each semester a writing student turns up in my office to ask me this. In the enormous old armchair that sits in the corner, they look small, too much like children.

Today it’s a quiet brunette who has missed four classes (mono, maybe) and doesn’t seem to read very much but honestly does have a prose style that sometimes makes me close my eyes and thank the heavens. She’s juggling two jobs and creeping toward graduation and fielding questions about career paths from her father, who has read somewhere that no one reads any more.

“You are doing it,” I tell her, which is not the answer she wants.

“It’s just…” She hesitates, embarrassed by the seeming audacity of her question: “I mean, am I good enough?”

I wish for the thousandth time I had a poker face. The truth is, at her age, twenty-one, almost no one is “good enough” to make it as a writer. The best we can hope for is potential, but potential is a slippery, unreliable thing. I’ve seen too many wunderkinds run out of steam, and some talent-challenged worker bees exceed all expectations. So I’m just not very comfortable playing fortuneteller. What if something I say sends her down the wrong path, and twenty years later she’s miserable, bitter, and destitute? I’m not sure I can carry that kind of burden.

Read the full article: An Appreciation of Nicholas Delbanco by Valerie Laken