In fact, Bell had what could have been a soul-destroying experience early in his own undergraduate career. He had gone to Princeton after growing up outside Nashville. He dropped out, not quite ready for college, but returned a year later. After studying with Garrett in his sophomore year at Princeton, he signed up for another creative writing class taught by William Goyen. On the first day of class, as everyone introduced themselves, Bell began to obsess about what he would say when his turn came. The other students seemed so bright, so accomplished, so eastern. Finally, he stood up and walked out.
But he went to Goyen and convinced him to work with him one-on-one. The emphasis on similar tutorials at Goucher is no accident, Bell readily confirms. Nor is it accidental that the first two teachers recruited for the Kratz Writing Center were Steinke, whom Bell describes as his first truly outstanding student at Goucher, and Garrett, his mentor to this day.
Asked about the Goucher program, Garrett, who has taught writing at colleges throughout the country, says: "I would have to say from the outset that I was looking for the good things. Just as if I were looking at a short story, I would start with the strengths."
He said the students impressed him as talented, diverse and empathetic.
"When they are very much like each other and they sound the same ... then you know some mentor has impressed his or her way of seeing and thinking of these things on the students. Which I think is not necessarily a good thing," he says.
"That was the first thing that hit me. They don't write alike but they are sympathetic to each other's concerns. Add that together and you have an almost perfect situation. ... I would put them among the really good programs in America right now."
Bell says he has used his own undergraduate experience to shape the program.
"When I compare my experience as an undergraduate and how I approach undergraduates I teach -- yeah, the connection is clear -- I try not to have Goucher students in workshops for too long, and to give the really good ones as much tutorial time as they need," he says in an e-mail. "They get this time by proving the quality of their work, which is basically how I had to do it as an undergraduate myself."
Goucher recently added a freshman writing course, Bell notes. The demand was clearly there, a consequence of the program's success. But he is keeping a close eye on it -- and the students.
"I think that after two consecutive semesters a certain dullness sets in," he writes. "This group has a higher level of talent than usual -- slightly more than half of the group are talented enough they might turn pro in five or ten years if they keep at it -- and yet the group dynamic is not as good as usual. There's more than one factor at work but I think incipient workshop fatigue may be the cause."
So we are back where we began, with the first-day lecture, and the mystery of the shapes, and all the problems inherent in writing workshops. The students never do get the answer, so Bell finally tells them.
What he has drawn are the two lobes of the human brain. The students seem almost relieved and disappointed by how simple the answer is, how obvious it now appears in hindsight. They will need both sides, Bell warns them, for the class ahead. They will need both sides just to come up with credible excuses for missing classes.
And, as it turns out, the teacher will be tested, too. One student will call his bluff, in effect, doing exactly what he has urged him to do: Sticking to his vision, refusing to revise his work for a panel of 15 "editors."
"I have one student this semester who has been driving me nuts," Bell confides in a later e-mail. "He has been trying to write at a very elaborate high level of rhetoric and the result so far is 90 percent unintelligible. He has persisted very stubbornly in writing this way despite all efforts to influence him otherwise ... and well, his stuff gives me a headache to read right now, and yet I finally realized reading his last submission this semester that he was showing the necessary STUBBORNNESS for survival as a writer; if he persists he may succeed with this elaborate style and produce something really original."
This fall at Goucher, as they team-teach the writing workshop, they will play with the format of the class just as they experiment with form in their work. They will, as always, be on the lookout for students who are at risk of workshop burnout, and for students who are ready to publish. They will mix it up, use any tricks they can to keep the students from getting fatigued. They will help them publish, if that's what they want.
They will, as always, be using both side of their brains, both sides of their lives. It is, as Spires said, all about balance.
OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM
Madison Smartt Bell has written more than 10 books, including two acclaimed novels in a proposed trilogy on Haiti, All Souls' Rising and Master of the Crossroads.