An intimate and informal setting in Crookshank Hall at Pomona College Tuesday allowed students to get to know Philip Graham, a prolific essayist, poet, novelist and editor, as more than just a name or byline.
Instead of a lecture, he encouraged interactive discussion about the different paths, strategies and fears of each attendee, in a conversation and lunch with English professor Jonathan Lethem and 5C students.
“I thought he was just going to lecture us for a bit,” Natalie Huang PO ’22 said. “I didn’t know it was going to be as interactive as it was, which I really enjoyed.”
His event began with an anecdote about moving to Rhode Island and being forced to select a limited set of books from his shelves. He said that he realized he was most interested in the stories where the reader is the unintended recipient, eavesdropping on drama that unfolds between the artist and the characters.
Afterward, a few students asked Graham about his approach to writing novels in comparison to short stories.
“Graham offered some really helpful advice about expanding your fiction,” Huang said. “I tend to write short fiction, and so I really enjoyed his advice about not being too harsh of an editor on yourself and just let your writing take form as it is and go back later.”
Graham, whose writing has appeared in newspapers and magazines such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Paris Review and The Washington Post, is also the co-founder of the literary journal Ninth Letter, and professor emeritus in the creative writing program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
He spoke about his experience as an editor, the process of developing a collection of stories and poetry for a literary magazine and the pain and procrastination he endures while writing rejection letters to aspiring writers. While building each issue of Ninth Letter, he told students, every edition takes on a new personality to create a mosaic that captures a specific theme interweaved through each carefully selected piece of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. The advice he gave proved fruitful for attendees.
“[The lunch and discussion] definitely inspired me to write more,” Huang said. “I went back and revised my manuscript for class. After listening to Graham talk, I wasn’t as harsh on myself and just let it flow.”
Graham gave advice about tackling all forms of writing, but his last piece of advice, delivered in the form of a story, was particularly noteworthy.
While washing dishes one evening, he said he heard a voice, his inner self, that suggested ideas for eight short stories and told him to write them all at the same time. For two years, he ignored this advice and focused on just one. It turned out to be his least favorite piece ever written.
In the next two years, Graham decided to try to follow the ominous instructions he had received. He then finished the book with all eight stories completed simultaneously, in the same time it had taken him to write the first one.
Graham said that following one’s instinct can save an abundance of time and headaches, as it always knows what is best for one’s writing. “Don’t ignore your imagination or unconscious,” he said.