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Not just

for dead geniuses

Professor-writer Peter Grandbois examines how his teaching
and writing fit together, shares what he’s learned
about writing over the years and discusses
how his latest book of poetry came about.

'I kind of learned this myself, but I wish maybe somebody would have told me a little earlier. To me, success is not measured by the number of books sold or the amount of money made. It's about touching another person with your work, and if I can just touch one other person, I feel like it's a success.' –Peter Grandbois

Interview by Deanna Benyo , Bethel University

Peter Grandbois has written eight books, his latest being a book of poetry titled This House That. One of his favorite lines in the book, about “the barking odor of being alive” can be blamed on his two dogs. As a professor, novelist, poet, playwright, essayist, editor, husband and father, Grandbois has to maintain a tight schedule in order to make time for his family, his work and his writing. His writing, however, was nearly left off the schedule.

When somebody asks you what you do for a living what do you say?

“I actually say I'm a teacher, and a writer. I put it in that order. The teaching pays the bills more than the writing anyway, but also, it takes more time. I mean, the truth is that probably the smallest part of my day is writing. You try to have time to write but oftentimes you don't. But being a creative writing teacher, it's so important to practice what you preach, so I do try to write as much as I can.”

Do you think that your teaching feeds into your writing or your writing feeds into your teaching?

“Definitely. Probably nowadays most writers are teachers, but there are definitely some that are not. But I think there are real benefits to being a teacher-writer. I am inspired by my students. Just having the conversation about writing and about great books and great stories and poems inspires me and sometimes leads me to projects. If I'm teaching a class on a particular subject I find that suddenly I might be writing something related to that subject. And vice versa, so whatever I'm interested in in terms of my writing often leads into my teaching as well, leads me to think about new courses or new subjects within the courses.”

What does a typical work week look like for you?

“On a good work week I'm writing three mornings a week. Oftentimes mid-semester I don't get to write at all because it just gets too busy. Then I go and teach my classes. Meet with students. Plan the classes or grade in the afternoon and evening. Then come home, drive my kids to various activities. And then go back to grading or planning my classes for the next day.

"Teaching is an occupation that will suck everything out of you that you're willing to give it. One of my reading teachers gave me some good advice early on in my career, in my MFA program. She said, ‘Listen, when you become a professor, be sure and guard your writing time, because the university will keep trying to take more and more of your time and they won’t care.’ And it's true. Everybody needs time.”

How much time do you usually spend (writing) in the mornings?

“On a normal year when I'm teaching I might get three mornings a week for two or three hours, so anywhere from six to nine hours a week.

“Last year I had a sabbatical, which was great. I got paid to sit at home and write. I didn’t have to teach at all. I spent five hours a day every day, so, probably twenty five hours a week. Four or five hours, that's my maximum, I think. Even four hours is tough. I get drained mentally by then, so I'm not as good at the end. But if I could do it, I would do four hours a day. That would be amazing. Sometimes in the summer I've done stints of a week or two where I can do eight hours a day, but it can't last very long.

“I tell my students this and I believe it's true, although I’ve been failing at it recently: if you could just find a little bit of time to write every day, or even every other day, that's pretty good. I think the problem with writing is, it does – for most people, myself included – take a little while to dip into that space where you can find the words. It's hard to just do it for a short time. Probably an hour would be the minimum. But if you can do that, that's worth it.”

Are you good at sticking to deadlines?

“I'm pretty good at sticking to deadlines. Not every writer I know is, especially poets. The poets I've known tend to be pretty bad at it, and also many writers, so I don't think it’s a precursor to being a successful writer. Everybody has to go about it the way, you know, they go about it.

“For me the discipline has been important because I came to writing much later in life than most people do, so I already had a family, and a job, and a career, and so it became very difficult to juggle my time. So if I wanted to write I had to be very disciplined about it. I think if you start writing before that you don't have to worry as much about that.”

So you had to fit writing into the structure of life that already existed.

“Yes. Exactly.”

I'm also curious to hear what your journey was, writing-wise, from high school to present time.

“It’s bit of a different journey from many people. I remember writing a poem or a story here or there (in elementary school), but not a lot, not very often. I certainly didn't think I was going to be a writer. By the time I got to be a senior in high school the thought about being a writer entered my mind, but it still seemed way too scary and far away.

“I came from a sort of working class family. Neither of my parents went to college. We didn't have a lot of books around our house, we had a lot of TV. So, the idea of being a writer, that seemed like you had to be this dead genius person: that was a writer. I couldn't possibly do it. So that fear kept me away from it for a while, but I did write off and on in college as an undergraduate. And then was rejected promptly a couple times by the University of Colorado literary magazine, and so, gave up writing for a while thinking I was untalented and couldn't do it.


“Then I got involved with life. I was into the sport of fencing for a while, I did a lot of different jobs, I started a family — well, I got married, anyway. Then somehow, about a month after my first child was born, I started to write again. And something just clicked in me, and I realized that time was wasting, that I was getting older, and if I didn't start doing something with this thing that I loved, I would never do it. So I overcame my fear, this fear that I wasn't good enough or wasn't smart enough, and just started writing.”


Was there anything that you wished you knew about the writing world when you first started out in it?


“I wish that I knew to take it more slowly. I think when you're just starting out you try to rush through everything. You wanna find success, and you don't realize it takes a very long time. You try to get things out to be published and they might not be as good as they could be. I wish somebody would have told me just to take it slower and just relax a little bit. And to enjoy that part of it. I think that's important.

“I kind of learned this myself, but I wish maybe somebody would have told me a little earlier. To me, success is not measured by the number of books sold or the amount of money made. It's about touching another person with your work, and if I can just touch one other person, I feel like it's a success."

Contact Peter Grandbois, Denison University.

Edited by Deanna Benyo, Bethel University.

Submitted photo.
Published in August 2017.
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