Charlotte M. Bacon
Outstanding Assistant Professor
Associate Professor of English
College of Liberal Arts
Photographed on June 24, 2004, in her back yard in Portsmouth, N.H., with son, Toby, and dog, Dylan.
According to Charlotte Bacon, her writing students have all the stories they need for a lifetime. “I tell them, ‘You are so much more than you think you are. You survived childhood.’ ”
And she uses exercises to help them explore their potential. In one, she asks them to tell her a story about a scar. “Metaphorically or literally. Scars don’t happen out of nowhere,” she explains. “You don’t wake up in the morning and there’s a scar. You fall out of a tree, get slashed with a knife, run into barbed wire. Why did those things happen? You have to get into action, motivation, mischievousness. I love it when characters misbehave and do wrong and fly off in funny directions. Scars are stories about bad luck, they’re about misfortune. These are often the truest stories we have.”
Bacon’s world is an intense onrush of language and ideas. She shares it with her writing students, who seem to feel they have encountered a force of nature. The scar exercise is just one of many. In others, she asks students to observe a place at three or four different times of day or night and record what they see; takes them on field trips to Jackson ’s Landing to work with setting; has them write about family secrets, telling the story of something they’re not supposed to tell.
“ Charlotte ’s energy, talent, and conviction in the classroom are literally unbelievable,” says graduate student Joel Rice. “The writing process is so messy and full of doubts. To have this fiery, humorous, stylish, humane advocate behind you is a blessing.”
What sort of notes does one take in a class like this? “Apart from the usual writerly truths about craft,” says graduate student Tim Horvath, “I jotted down quotes like, ‘Schama’s writing is garlicky’ and ‘90 percent of the law is devoted to possession of dogs, children, and stuff.’ She speaks with such profusion you wish a transcript was available.”
And Bacon has success after success to share. Her recent novel, There Is Room For You, was published earlier this year to critical acclaim. Her first novel, Lost Geography, was heralded as “lyrical and convincing” by the New York Times, and “a gorgeous debut” by US Weekly. And her collection of stories, A Private State, was awarded the 1998 PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction and the Associated Writing Programs Award for Short Fiction. She also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, both of which gave her time to write.
The daughter of a New York City banker/lawyer father and landscape designer mother, the Harvard- and Columbia-educated Bacon did not set out to become a writer. A doctor or a veterinarian maybe, a lawyer, or some kind of work with children. “I had the sense I was going to be connected to the world through relationships in some way,” she says. “I had an extremely lucky life and I wanted to be thoughtful about other people’s experiences.”
For two years she worked as a counselor in a halfway house for the mentally ill. Staff were required to keep logs on what happened over the course of a shift.
“I had a colleague who always included the phrase, ‘things just fine.’ But we were in a house with nine chronic schizophrenics. Things were never just fine. So that became my challenge—to record what was really going on. To see how serious and rich you could make six lines of description.”
For Bacon, it is important for students to realize that becoming a writer is not a logical choice. “You don’t just wake up and think, ‘What a great thing it would be to be a writer. I’ll have such a good easy life and it will be so interesting.’ ”
In her writing classes, Bacon is adamant. “No matter what the level is, it’s about the basics, going back to the core of what writing is, which, from my perspective, is people moving across the land. And never neglecting the heart or the spirit of the matter—which is their lives, backgrounds, histories, sorrows, pleasures, talents, misfortunes, the legacies they carry, their mistakes, successes, the totality of who they are.”