A Way With Words

Through constructive critiques and good humor, Hopkins writing teacher Tristan Davies makes it safe for his students to succeed.

May 25, 2002|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

It's one of his rituals. Once every semester, Tristan Davies leads his writing class in Gilman Hall up a final flight of stairs into Johns Hopkins University's clock tower. Outside on the rail, it's as clingy and windy as any lighthouse, with 360 degrees of stories out there, waiting to be reeled in.

By the book, good teaching requires subject mastery, rapport, relevance, enjoyment and listening. But ask Davies' graduate students from this past semester and they'll say good teaching is giving them a panoramic look at the imagination's possibilities - along with wit and wisdom and unfailing commitment to their writing lives.

A senior lecturer in the Hopkins Writing Seminars program, Tristan Davies' subject was "Formative Genres," a heady phrase for classic forms of writing such as the Romance and Confession. His 11 students had to write three short fiction pieces and read work from Albert Camus, Julian Barnes and Gustave Flaubert.

In return, they graduated Thursday from Hopkins with a master's degree. Many will teach, some will write, others will do other things. But from January to May, they were together, a class, with a class teacher.

Diet Pepsis and Cheez-Its served as the students' place settings around the table in Room 500, which is more of a Florida room with a cross breeze. Every Thursday for five months, their short stories were "work-shopped." Being critiqued can be like dancing alone without music in front of other people. This can be a brutal experience or a constructive one - it depends on the mood set by the teacher.

During one class in March, Angshuman Chakraborty is mute as his story is work-shopped. It involves a painfully human decision regarding an adoption - in this case, the adoption of an otter. Davies - in smart tweed and tie - praises the story but likens otters to "mucous-covered rodents. Otters are creepy," he says. The students fend off Davies' otter bias and articulate their high opinion of Chakraborty's story.

"I really like your reading of it," Davies tells them. The 39-year-old Davies is the eternal student. He is not full of concrete, loud opinions. He listens and talks and listens some more. A born teacher? Maybe. Certainly, Davies was born to read.

He comes from a family of readers. Dinner time in his Colorado home was run like a graduate seminar. As a boy, Tristan read "Horatio Hornblower" novels and is slightly embarrassed by that now. It wasn't an English class that excited him, however. He loved geometry in school but more accurately, he loved his geometry teacher. Davies had the feeling he alone mattered. There was a connection between teacher and student.

At home, Davies picked up a Yamaha guitar when he was 7. He remembers his father trying to teach his mother how to play it. There was not a connection. So, Susan Davies turned to her son to teach her to strum along with Tom Rush songs. Tristan taught his mother a few simple chords and, in return, he received a few simple words about his teaching. "You're good at that." He was good.

But life, unlike geometry, doesn't stay in the lines. By 1985, Davies - recently graduated from Brown - found himself in San Francisco with plans to become a movie director and screenwriter - not a teacher. He enrolled, loosely, at a film school in the bay area. Davies found himself in a class attended by exceedingly beautiful women and one greasy-looking instructor. What kind of films were these? As the only male student in a suspicious film class, Davies took his exit. "I lasted four days."

There was always law school. Tristan's parents did have the boy saying "habeas corpus" at age 3. Davies' father, Leonard Davies, was a civil rights lawyer who represented Black Panthers in the 1960s. His son Tristan would later be accepted into law school at Georgetown University in Washington. But a college professor from Brown put in a word for Davies with John Barth - then the signature name in the Hopkins writing program. Davies' head was spun toward Baltimore. Over coffee, novelist Stephen Dixon suggested Davies could defer law school for one year and get a master's at Hopkins. Plus, they would pay him to teach.

So, Davies wrote stories and taught. "I loved teaching. I was hooked." But he had a lot to learn. In Davies' inaugural "Introduction to Creative Writing" course in September 1986, he gave students a prepared speech. His new colleague, Dixon, told him after class: Relax. Be yourself. Have fun. No more speeches.

Sixteen years later, Davies is still at Hopkins teaching. He's married and has a 6-year-old daughter named Olivia and a 3-year-old son, Emlyn. Davies teaches two classes a week and annually reads more than 100 student short stories. "There's always some heartbeat in there," he says. The stories are the students' china, given him to hold and not break. "You have to be really, really careful about that."

"His teaching is superb. Most of all, Tris demands more work, and he gets more work. He commands respect," says Dixon.

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