Honing skills, landing deals

Authors: A program at Goucher College helps aspiring writers polish their talent and publish their work.

April 20, 2003|By Tawanda W. Johnson | Tawanda W. Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

David Spencer doesn't recall wanting to be a writer while growing up in Kingsville. Beyond the usual books required in his high school English class, he didn't read much.

But that changed when, after four years of working menial jobs and traveling around the country, he put his experiences on paper.

"I would just daydream, and I used to think about what conversations would be like with different people," said Spencer, a senior English major at Goucher College in Towson whose first novel -- How I Became a Fisherman Named Pete -- was published this year. "I decided maybe I should write these things down."

Spencer, 26, is the latest student at Goucher to receive a publishing contract after working with author Madison Smartt Bell, director of the college's Kratz Center for Creative Writing.

Bell, who has published 11 novels, including his most recent, Anything Goes, is praised for helping young writers hone their writing skills, and in some cases, land publishing contracts.

Jennifer Crowell, while a sophomore at Goucher, published her first novel, Necessary Madness, in 1996 under the tutelage of Bell. The book received critical acclaim, further solidifying the college's standing as a place where writers are taken seriously.

Spencer, who took his first writing class at the former Essex Community College, said he was drawn to Goucher by Bell's reputation.

"He's very forthcoming," said Spencer. "He doesn't give you a thumbs up or down until the book is finished."

Published by Baskerville Publishers Inc. in Fort Worth, Texas, Spencer's novel is a coming-of-age story about a man, who despite being stuck in a rut, changes his life for the better.

It took Spencer about two years to write his book, which draws on his experiences working odd jobs after graduating from Perry Hall High School in Baltimore County, including as a bookseller, dockworker and tattooist.

"One of the characters in the book is a tattooed trucker named Fritz. I also spent a lot of time doing research at truck stops," he said.

Spencer's mother, Nancy Spencer, said she and her husband, William, were patient while their son jumped from job to job.

"I think it was one of those things that he needed to find out for himself," she said. "He has matured and settled down."

After Spencer's book received the green light last spring, the young author experienced a roller coaster of emotions, he said.

"I wasn't too excited," he said. "I guess I was more suspicious than anything. I kept thinking the whole deal would drop through the cracks.

"I had a very irrational train of thought, like someone in deep denial. I imagined things like Baskerville's offices burning to the ground, or them simply losing interest in me, or us never agreeing on how the book should be edited."

Just the opposite happened. Spencer and his editor, Jeff Putnam, were on the same page during the editing process.

"He was truly a delight," said Putnam. "He's a natural writer, and he tells a wonderful story."

But Spencer wasn't always confident about his writing ability. While a student at Essex, he said he was apprehensive about showing his work to his teachers.

"I kept it to myself," he said, adding he gave his instructors only glimpses of the manuscript. "I would tweak it and turn a chapter into a short story" for classroom assignments.

Before applying to Goucher, he had the same concerns. But he overcame his fear after working with Bell. Spencer said Bell also helped him to understand the beauty of brevity.

"I thought the more words the better," he said. "But I learned you've got to say it in the fewest amount of words possible."

Bell said besides a little "stylistic awkwardness," Spencer's book reflects a great sense of detail.

"I helped him help himself," said Bell, adding that the novel was "fresh and strikingly sincere."

Susan Shreve, a former writer-in-residence at Goucher, was also impressed with Spencer's work.

"His sense of character and place were strongly realized in the book," she said.

Spencer is at work on his second novel, set during the Depression, and is researching a third. He also hopes to teach writing to high school students.

"I want to teach at a boarding or prep school where humanity in a curriculum is appreciated," he said. "I want to see the potential of 17- and 18-year-olds. ... I want to get students excited about reading and writing."

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