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Best-selling author filling shoes
of professor, mentor
February 2, 1998
Best-selling author Wally Lamb vividly remembers the first time his work was "published." He was an undergraduate at UConn when his English professor, Joan Hall, read aloud to the class a piece he had written about his father. "I put 'published' in quotes," Lamb says. Hall "took my essay to the public of the class, and that felt really good to me, because I'd worked hard on the piece."
Lamb says Hall has been highly instrumental in his career. "I would call her one of my most influential mentors," he says. While he was writing his novel, She's Come Undone, Hall continued to offer advice and constructive criticism on the manuscript.
Now Lamb is filling her shoes, leading the creative writing workshops that Hall left behind when she retired last summer.
Although best known as a novelist, Lamb says he knew he wanted to be a teacher much longer than he knew he wanted to be a fiction writer. He recalls playing school with his sisters as a child. He was always the teacher and they were the disruptive students, he says, and this helped to prepare him for his teaching career.
Lamb, a former high school teacher, found his first semester at UConn a challenge. Torn between his role as a professor and the task of finishing his upcoming novel, the semester was, Lamb says, "more difficult than I had ever imagined, because I tend to teach wholeheartedly and I tend to write wholeheartedly as well. And whereas one is all about connecting with other people, the other is all about solitude."
Solitude is an important issue for Lamb, especially in the midst of writing his second novel. "When you write a novel, you have to sort of seal yourself up in some kind of biosphere and not come out, so that the reality of the story can be the reality that you're dealing with. And of course, a teaching semester with all of its demands and all of its people to remain in contact with - that keeps pulling you out of that fictional stupor that you're in."
The biosphere that Lamb the writer uses to separate himself from Lamb the teacher is a small apartment he uses exclusively for his writing. Following an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show last year, his house was flooded with phone calls from other writers, journalists and people who wanted him to speak at their events. Presented with a multitude of good causes, Lamb had a hard time saying no. "There developed a tension between whether I was going to be a writer ... or whether I was going to be, in quotes, an 'author,'" Lamb says. "The 'author' is the public person, and the writer is a very private person. I found that being the 'author' was taking a big chunk out of my writing time."
So he rented an apartment in Willimantic on the same street where he had written She's Come Undone.
The apartment - his writing space - is undecorated and unfurnished, except for his desk. There's plenty of room for Lamb to pace while he's writing. On the walls around his desk are three bulletin boards with his second novel mapped out on index cards. Lamb says the absence of a telephone is "one of the big draws of the place.
"That apartment is just about fiction writing," he says. "When I go up those stairs and walk through the threshold into that room, it has to be all about the story."
When Lamb isn't writing or spending time with his family, he devotes his energies to his teaching duties. He likens the fiction workshops he leads at UConn to the writing workshops he attends when working on his own writing. "It's basically the same kind of thing. You want to be supportive, and yet give critical insight to the writing," he says.
Lamb says teaching fiction at the university level has given him the opportunity to watch student writers grow. "One of the things that is really exciting to me about the semester ... in both [classes], is that I can see some real differences, real leaps forward in terms of what people were doing in the beginning of the semester and what they're doing now. And that comes from lots of writing. It's a hard fact but it's a true one, I think, the more you write, the better you get at it."