SJU Writing Studies Blog

Reflections on Creativity and Full Bookshelves by Dr. Owen Gilman







Our Thesis Collection – 160 and counting!







“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,”. . . and with that line, Frost got his “Mending Wall” poem started.  He was thinking about a stone wall, and just about everywhere you head off-road in New England, you’re going to find one of those unloved walls.  But the wall I have in mind is interior, the kind that serves to define the rooms in the dwellings we occupy.  I’m tempted here to take that detail and push it one small step further:  “Something there is that doesn’t love a bare wall.”  Our classroom buildings mostly feature bare walls; we don’t want ornamentation to draw student interest away from the subject undergoing development through lecture or discussion.  Still, it must be admitted that the bare walls are boring.

In our administrative areas, however, we can decorate our walls, do all kinds of things to alter the “bare wall” pattern.   In the territory of an English Department, bookshelves are often introduced to add zest to a bare wall area.  Just over a decade ago, the Saint Joseph’s University Department of English bought a new bookcase.  Naturally, at the outset, its shelves were empty, but over time, they have filled.  This bookcase was obtained explicitly to house the completed thesis projects for the M. A. in Writing Studies program that began offering classes in the spring semester of 2003.  By the middle of the next year, one of the shelves displayed a small collection of newly bound thesis projects.  At present, the number has swelled to 160, with roughly 15 new ones having been added each year.  The collection continues to grow steadily.  The growth has been so substantial that we had to purchase a new, larger bookcase last year to accommodate all the output of creativity.

A bookcase with books–now, that’s something to love, the perfect solution to a bare wall.  And we are very proud of the thesis collection.  It contains a wondrous variety of projects.  There are memoirs.  There are novels.  There are short story collections.  There are poetry collections.  There are essay collections.  There are quite a few innovative mixed-genre gatherings.  The Writing Studies program at every turn encourages originality, always looking for new ways to do all the old things, and some mighty fine fruit comes from this approach.  When you see the past represented so splendidly, thesis-by-thesis, you have a very comforting sense of where the future will be taking us.  More shelves will fill.  Another bookcase will be required.  The bare wall problem solving continues apace.  And yes, there is love, abundantly present, word by word, line by line, thesis by thesis.  Something there is that loves a wall, with a bookcase, filled with exciting thesis projects.  Gods from diverse cultures all chime in to add:  “It is good, this creativity.”


Writing Studies Student (Soon to be an Alum) David Jackson to Present Paper in D.C.




Congratulations to David Jackson, who’s paper: “New Century Approaches to Literacy: Engaging the Margins”, has been selected for presentation at the National Council of Teachers of English this month in Washington D.C.

As a first time presenter, we thought we’d have a brief interview with David by one of St. Joseph’s more seasoned students; impending graduate David Jackson.



So, are you nervous about your first presentation?

DJ: Dude, what do you think?  I’m planning on wearing a Depends under my suit and bra pads under my arms to absorb the sweat.

Seems drastic.  So explain what your paper is about.

DJ: Well, this conference is given for teachers of English on various topics.  This year the focus is on using story as a way to explain existence.


DJ: Over the years, it seems that education has favored empirical and objective modes of thought over subjective ones.  But there seems to have been a gradual shift since the 1970’s that appreciates the contribution of narrative as an equally valuable tool in the formation of theory.  It adds elements to non-narrative theories that can make it more fully understandable.


DJ: Women, children, disabled people, gender-nonconformists, and people of color have usually not been included in the formation of theory.  Even so, throughout history these people have contributed to humanity moving forward as a society.  They have kept journals, written poems, sang songs to their babies, made clothing and danced dances that explain our lived existence in ways that more scientific methods do not.

While I seem to be straying off track, all of these things are elements that tell a story, both overtly and covertly.  This conference is devoted to plumbing the depth of these non-traditional forms of storytelling.

Tell us how your presentation interacts with this.

DJ: I have a presentation that tries to turn the challenge of in class cell phone use into a tool to help engage students that are often disinterested in standard teaching methodologies.  If we use texting as a way to create story, we can take advantage of technology to harness the power of telling stories, which all humans do, and create a communal, reciprocal classroom where each member contributes and where all have equal value.

Good luck at your presentation!

DJ: Thanks.  Know where I can get a discount on Depends?


SJU Writing Series Event November 13, 2014

Saint Joseph’s University Writing Series

Thursday November 13, 6:30 p.m.

Cardinal John P. Foley Campus Center

Saint Joseph’s University Alumnus Thomas Dooley, winner of the National Poetry Series, returns to campus to read from Trespass, his new poetry collection.



 Fabulous reviews for Trespass:

“In these jumpy, surprising poems, Thomas Dooley treads fearlessly as he reveals the submerged secrets of a family and gives utterance to the erotic pleasures and pains of love. Trespass is an intense, eye-opening debut.” —Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States

“Pierces and heals simultaneously….Trespass sings the music of now, shaped on the lathe of experience, and through the pleasures of physical knowledge, revelatory imagery, and imagination, this collection transports us.” —Yusef Komunyakaa, Pulitzer Prize winning poet


The Practice of Daily Writing


I am in West Philadelphia, sitting in a cafe sipping a concoction of espresso flavored milk and munching on a croissant (in my head I can’t help but say it with an exaggerated French accent). I have a laptop studded with NaNoWriMo stickers. My desktop image is one of a super-moon over a silhouetted Pennsylvania lake house. I have a journal my sister gave me, a soft suede with a worn leather lanyard, and the Sharpie pen resting on an open page.

My characters have names, goals, and lives played out beyond the pages – hell, I know what tarot spread the chain-smoking Roma-Wanna-Be read them at the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Carnival, to the tinny tune of the Tilta-Whirl. My scenes have motion. I know what way the gun faces on the mantle and why it will be used to send my antagonist’s world in a tailspin behind that very same carnie ride.

My fingers hover over the keyboard. After a few moments, my face bathed in laptop light, my ears assaulted by the faint sound of yet another girl with a guitar, I close the lid and pick up my pen. I resist the urge to doodle. Pen to paper, I seem to be testing Sharpie’s testimony that they never bleed.

I happen to be good at fighting inner demons telling me I suck, or questioning how many times I can give myself a fresh start before I throw in the towel and get a 9-5. However, those demons start fighting imaginary cowboys or interstellar cyborg ninjas and next thing I know an hour has passed with nothing to show but a dot on a page.

What does daily writing look like?

From countless books, articles, and seminars on writing success I feel I can offer you some advice. This is all stuff you will hear when you listen to authors like the late Mr. Bradbury, Anne Lamott, Natalie Goldberg, and Stephen King, and parrotted endlessly in Writer’s Digest and similar periodicals:


  • Keep a journal with you at all times
  • Journal in the morning
  • Journal in public

Set yourself up for success:

  • Get your friends, family, and co-workers on board with your writing goals
  • Get a writing buddy with similar goals as yourself and revel in their success
  • Prioritize your writing before you do it – schedule it, etc. (I suggest two hours a day)
  • Decide on what project you will work on days before so that choice doesn’t disrupt your writing

The real craft is in the rewrite:

  • Many authors write a little and revise a little every day
  • Put your first drafts away (I suggest a minimum of a month) before revising them
  • Just prior to revisions, read your work aloud

And, of course, you can’t be a good writer without a constant and consistent practice of reading. Sneak in reading however you can (pointedly read the kind of work you want to write).

One Word After the Other

Step One: Live

I believe our best writing comes from our subconscious. The more we’re exposed to the better we will be at expressing our written world. When I decide to write something I ask “what do I know?” I’ve immersed myself in Westerns in all mediums. I am a student of religion and philosophy. My academic and community work is steeped in the history of race in this country. Those are the things I write about. Everywhere I go I visit a Civil War battlefield. When I wrote about Lake Pontchartrain or contemplated St. Louis Cathedral from Congo Square, its based on my experiences being there. Can you write about things beyond your ken? Certainly, but you need to have the scaffolding to pull it off or its never going to resonate with an audience.

Step Two: Pay Attention to how much you write

This will keep you honest and allow you to best compete with yourself. It will help you meet deadlines and create deadlines to drive you toward your goals.

(to be consistent with my revision process I prefer to think in terms of pages; assume 250-300 words per page)

  • Figure out how much raw writing you produce in an hour
  • Decide how much time you have allotted to writing daily
  • There is your daily word or page count
  • Keep track of how many words or pages you write each day, be it in your journal or an excel sheet
  • Once a week do a little planning ahead – how is a character getting to their goals and what’s in their way (I try and plan about 40 pages at a time; roughly each 10 pages is a scene)?
  • Fire your inner editor and just type. Let an idea fuel you and have fun with the process. Your subconscious will do the rest.

And when you dip below your daily quota, consider the why’s – are you not feeling well? Did you stop to fix every comma as you went? Did you let TV or texting distract you? Forewarned is forearmed, right? Knowing what your writing habits are allows you to maximize the precious time you’ve allotted to your craft.

antique-writing-deskIf you get stuck, still write. It’s sounds trite but just write about how you can’t write. Write about how your characters are all jerks trying to fight you for a decent story at every turn. That story will come. All the nitty gritty details will be managed in your first rewrite. Make the details be up to your future self. Your revision process will make you a better writer as well.

But revisions are a topic for another day.

Good Writing!