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The Carletonian

Hamilton encourages whimsy in writing

<ne Hamilton, novelist and class of ’79, is back at Carleton this term. She is teaching two creative writing classes, a short story workshop and a class of her own creation, Narrative Lab. This is Hamilton’s third time returning to campus, having taught courses in 1996 and 2008, and spoken at convocation in 2008.

“The last time I was here, in 2008, I taught an introductory class,” Hamilton said. “I wanted to do that again, but I wanted it to be a little bit more flexible than that introductory class had felt to me when I taught it. So calling it ‘Narrative Lab’ suggests that we’re experimenting, we’re going to see what happens.”

Hamilton’s movement from Carleton to her writing career followed a similar path. She was an English major, but did not expect to become a full-time writer.

“When I graduated, I’d been told that being a writer wasn’t something that you could probably do as a real profession, which was good advice, really, because it’s hard, and not everybody can do it. And there’s the matter of having to eat,” she said. “So I just always knew that I would write, but I figured it wasn’t going to be my real job.”

Hamilton was rejected from the two MFA programs she applied to (“There weren’t a million the way there are now,” she pointed out), but this turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

“I went off and I ended up just accidentally falling into my life, which is living on an apple orchard and getting married and having children and so forth,” she said. “But I kept writing. What was actually very good for me was not going to grad school and getting an MFA, not going to New York and trying to work in publishing and then write at the same time. It turned out to be instructive, and it turned out to be the right thing for me to educate myself.”

Her Carleton experience, too, affected her career. Hamilton took creative writing classes with former professors Keith Harrison and Davis Taylor.

“I overheard Keith Harrison on the third floor of Laird,” she said. “He was telling somebody that he thought I would write a novel someday. And that was really impressive to me, because I’d only written fifteen-page short stories. How did Keith Harrison know that? Because he never said it directly to me, it actually had more power. And I came to the point in my life when I was ready to write a novel, and I think having heard that gave me the confidence to think that I could.”

Hamilton’s first novel, The Book of Ruth, was published in 1988 and won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award for the best first novel. She has written six additional novels since. Her work often concerns family relationships, and is frequently set in the Midwest.

Hamilton has advice for students who aspire to a writing career. “I think it’s important to read, and to read widely,” she said. “Make sure you’re curious about everything and everyone, as much as is humanly possible. And listen more than talk.”

She has much to say about a writer’s apprenticeship period, having spent her own in the Wisconsin apple orchard where she still lives today.

“I think for a while, anyway, developing in private is important,” Hamilton said. “And to not walk around saying, ‘I’m going to be a writer,’ because you actually don’t know if it’s going to work out. And if you announce that you’re writing a novel, then everybody has their expectations of you, and there’s a certain pressure. And if you can have a certain space in your life and times where you’re simply doing the work to develop your own voice in private, I think that’s important.”

Carleton, Hamilton said, has changed in some ways, but has remained essentially the same.

“I’ve taught here three times in twenty years now,” she said. “In 1996, email was maybe a couple of years out. And then in 2008, I was here; Facebook was a thing, but the students didn’t have smartphones yet. And now it’s now. But fundamentally, it’s much the same. Throughout when I was a student and the three times I’ve taught here, what has stayed the same is how remarkable the students are. You people are tremendously smart and curious and kind and whimsical and up for things.”

“Whimsical and up for things” could also describe Hamilton’s Narrative Lab class. Its course description asks, “What do we require of narrative in 2017? What form is best suited to specific material?”

“I want to see what we’re really interested in and good at, or not good at,” Hamilton says. “We did short shorts and fairy tales, and now we’re embarking on ten-minute plays. What’s most wonderful about it is that the students are so game to do the work. And they are amazing. They have blown my circuits.”

As the description of Narrative Lab suggests, Hamilton said that fiction is important in 2017. “I think that this day and age is going to give us lots of material for fiction, as any day and age does,” she said. “But it’s so extreme now, the world in which we live. Never in my lifetime has politics been theater the way it is now.”

Writers, Hamilton said, have roles to play in this new age. “Does the moral arc of the universe tend toward justice?” Hamilton asked. “I don’t know. But we will all be writing out of wonder, outrage, despair, and hope.”

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