The gentleness of John Sheehy reveals itself only after the first impression has time to fade. John is a big man with the body of a boxer, triceps that stretch the sleeves of his shirt and bird legs poking out of shorts. He has a shaved head and a graying goatee and a pickup truck and a low voice. None of this screams gentle.
But it is that voice that first betrays the light touch to follow. It is often half-whisper, especially when giving advice to writing students, especially when guiding the hesitant over that swaying rope bridge that connects private creativity to public consumption.
John is a creative writing professor at Marlboro College, a white-clapboard-and-green-shutters oasis on a hill in Vermont. It’s a hardship tour, for all of us, hiking via footpath to an airy library to talk about writing. Seventeen students, John, Maurice Decaul, Matt Gallagher, Jen Percy and I, plus Brandon Willitts of Words After War, planner of the party, at the organization’s first summer writing intensive.
John defaults to generosity. He has few rules in the writing workshop, but these two stand out: respect everyone’s work, and give them a cookie for the good parts of every piece. Harder than it sounds, that last one.
But our students have responded and mirrored his approach. Some are veterans, some are not. They have varied writing interests and goals, but all seem eager to learn and take pieces home with them better than the drafts they brought. I have heard stories of hurricanes and flirting in art galleries, coming out and the old Scots-Irish families in West Virginia. Many don’t contain military themes at all, and yet are informed by that experience, in subtle ways.
I did not enter writing through a traditional academic path, so for me this workshop experience is still somewhat novel. I can count on one hand the number of such sessions I have attended prior to this week. And so I find John guiding me as well, gently and by example, to not assume the familiar role of editor, and instead be facilitator and counselor and coach and motivator and sage that has looked inside the writer’s Bag of Tricks.
It’s timely practice for me – I’ll be teaching another workshop at the Chautauqua Institution next week. Thank you to John and Marlboro and my fellow writers and the students for the on-the-job training.