The Spiritual Oomph of Robert Boswell

August 22, 2013, by

bozOn Monday, August 26, Robert Boswell & James McBride launch the 2013/2014 Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series reading from their new novels Tumbledown and The Good Lord Bird. Both books have received high praise from reviewers, so it is no wonder that the reading has sold out.

In addition to being a great writer of fiction, what the general public may not know is that Robert Boswell is also a great teacher of creative writing. Boswell teaches every spring at the UH Creative Writing Program—as co-holder of the Cullen Chair in Creative Writing with his wife, fiction writer Antonya Nelson—and his students love him. We asked Inprint blogger Allyn West to tell us what it’s like to study under Robert Boswell. (We should note that before teaching at UH, Boswell taught at New Mexico State University, in Las Cruces.)

These emails recruiting us grad students to come out for pool nights showed up every Thursday. The sender? Robert Boswell. The venue? My Brother’s Place, in Las Cruces. It was the one place to go in that town. Three years of these emails, and I went out once.

Boz and I ended up near enough to each other at the bar that it would have been more awkward not to say something. The truth was I’d spent 3 years trying to avoid him. Everyone called him Boz — except his wife, the writer Antonya Nelson, to whom he was Robert — and so I was pressed into that, but such a diminutive, familiar name for someone like him, coming from someone like me, seemed wrong.

It’s not that he’s intimidating, or mean, or overbearing.

But he does look a tad like God might have in His younger days: the long, kind face, the early graying beard and hair that’s just begun to thin.

And his eyes are the color of stone, or ice, or some other timeless material that, when combined with the inferences you make about what they must see when they take you in, tends to turn you inside out.

It seemed this way when I was in my early 20s. I wanted not only to know how to write but to know how to be a Writer. And when I thought of Boz, I thought: Here’s a Writer. I’d heard of the legendary comments he typed out for other students, just as long and usually twice as interesting as the story he was responding to. I’d heard of assignments requiring that his students “own” a story, read it no fewer than 10 times, each time paying attention to some other element of fiction.

And I’d taken one of his classes. Every week, we had to churn out a short story. He insisted that we write using the “landscape” layout rather than “portrait.” (Why? He never explained. Boz works in mysterious ways.) Our assignment on the last night came after 3 hours of discussing a few stories by Alice Munro. Boz asked us, essentially, to be up to the demands and possibilities of the art as Munro embodies them.

“Spend the rest of your life trying to write like this,” he told us.

And I’d read every one of his books, playing hooky from the papers I was supposed to grade and telling myself that I was learning something about writing.

So how are you supposed to go and be normal with someone with whom you’ve spent this kind of time? It’s almost indecent. That night at the pool hall I might have managed to ask him how he was before I lost my nerve and wished to hell he’d go pick up a cue and let me wither in peace.

Last summer, he was at his house in Colorado with Toni. I was here in Houston. I was supposed to be writing, but I’d lost all faith. I didn’t have anywhere else to turn. I sent an email to Boz. Help me, I wrote.

And I waited a few days, believing I’d imposed or presumed and made a fool of myself. But a reply came. Boz wrote that he had to drive down to the one store in town that had WiFi. He typed the email from the front seat of his car.

And he proceeded to do this a dozen times on his summer break.

That got me through a few months. And when I lost all faith again a few months ago he met me for lunch.

There’s nothing supernatural about this extracurricular outreach; it’s just what very good teachers do. But what’s most strange to me is that, with Boz, there comes along with it an almost spiritual oomph. I’ve never gone home from one of his classes or left a conversation or clicked away from an email feeling as though I couldn’t do it, that he didn’t want me — or you, or any of his students — to do it, that he didn’t believe I could. Because he had; he had done it, through lots of error and lots of trial, and he believed in it. And all he seems to ask in return is that we believe, too.

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