David Stevenson is the director of the Creative Writing and Literary Arts program. He has been teaching creative writing for over twenty years at the University of Utah, University of California Davis, and at Western Illinois University where he was full professor and director of the Graduate Program in English. He first came to Alaska in 1977 on a ski mountaineering expedition to Mt. Kennedy, a remote peak near the Alaska-Yukon border in the St. Elias Range. He was educated in the west at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington (BA '78) and the University of Utah (PhD '94). He writes often about the mountaineering experience both in fiction and nonfiction prose and has published widely in journals such as Ascent, Alpinist, Isotope, and Weber Studies, as well as in The American Alpine Journal where he has been book review editor since 1996. In the late 1990s he spent several summers working for the US Forest Service in the Inyo National Forest (California). There, he was editor and lead writer for the "Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway," a project that placed 23 interpretive kiosks along Highway 395; he also designed and wrote much of the "Restoration Ecology in the Mono Basin" exhibit for the Mono Lake Scenic Area Visitor Center. His short story, "Native," won the Boulevard Award for Emerging Writers in 1999. Recently he contributed to Contact: Mountain Climbing and Environmental Thinking, edited by Jeff McCarthy (University of Nevada Press 2008), edited a book length collection of student writing Practice: Twelve Stories and a Novella, and privately published a short folio of photographs of climbing in the Dolomites (Italy). His novel-in-progress, Forty Crows, is set in Mexico City in the early 1970s.
Some time ago at a final conference with an earnest, graduate student writer I was caught off guard by the question, "Do you have to like to read to be a writer?" I was taken aback for two reasons: first, because it was an assumption I had never before questioned. I had always assumed that people come to writing from their experience as readers. (This has since proven a wildly optimistic and naïve belief.) Second, this student had written an excellent story and shown herself to be a thoughtful reader of others' work. When I said, "Yes, you do have to read to be a successful writer," she wanted to know why. I understood that my responsibility was to somehow do better than Louis Armstrong's famous remark about jazz: "If you have to ask, you'll never know." I was pleased with my answer at the time, and though I am not sure I could give her a better answer today, the memory troubles me––I probably oversimplified a complex issue. I said that reading and writing are in effect like a conversation. The writer speaks; then she listens, that is, observes and experiences. If these observations and experiences don't include reading, she's limiting herself unnecessarily. After a while, I told her, your readers will know you're not listening; they'll tire at the sound of your voice.
Like reading and writing, teaching and learning have always been for me inseparable enterprises. I cannot expect to inspire students if I am not inspired by them–and I always am; I cannot expect to teach them if I can't learn from them–and I always do.
When I work with writers, especially students new to the university experience, or new to graduate school, I tell them that college is part of a historical and ongoing discourse and that their being here constitutes their efforts to enter that discourse, to take from it and give back to it. It is, I tell them, a lively conversation among the best minds. Reading and writing are the tools with which one participates in this discourse. The residency is one of the places where the conversation takes place, a graduate course of study the scene of an elegant, sophisticated conversation.
David's "Must Read" list
David Stevenson, Director