If they probe the writings enough to find parallels in their own lives, they might just find they have much in common.
"Find a point of entry. If you can see yourself in the story, it's going to be much easier."
That's how TTU English instructor Andy Smith urges his class of American literature students to approach readings they might not ordinarily encounter were it not for the Living Writers Project.
Smith designed the course for general education students to introduce them to American literature in a manner unavailable to most. The fact that the students then get to meet the writers by semester's end – and publish a book alongside those writers – is perhaps what's most surprising about the class.
"That really interested me about the course," said sophomore journalism major Sarah Townsend. "I think when the authors start coming to town that will be really surprising. I'm excited about that."
Smith said he wanted to show students that great literature isn't created only by those long deceased.
"In literature courses, we love to profess that prose is a living thing, that great works and great words live forever. But in practicing this proposition, we tend to teach the words written by dead writers," Smith said. "But what about the living writer, the working writer, our contemporaries who today publish and teach and give readings? For 2010, I decided to teach a 21st century American lit course in our general education core. We had one criteria: the writers had to be living and working."
To accomplish his mission, Smith sought and won funding from TTU's Center Stage program, which uses General Education funding to bring programs to campus that enhance student understanding of the arts, and the Quality Enhancement Plan, a five-year university initiative to improve the quality of student learning.
This semester, the students will meet three writers: David Lazar, author of the book The Body of Brooklyn, which details his Brooklyn upbringing in the 1960s and 1970s; second-generation Beat poet Anne Waldman; and rock author Steven Taylor.
"While I've heard of professors bringing poets and writers to campuses, I've not heard of campus visits being integrated into a course in this manner. So, I'd like to think that the Living Writers Project is somewhat cutting edge, not just for Cookeville but for the general education experience anywhere," Smith said.
At the end of the semester, Smith and the students will co-publish a book of original work alongside analysis and reflection about their experiences in the course.
The public is invited to events Oct. 14 and Oct. 15 in which Lazar will read from his work and answer questions. The first activity is a reading 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 14, at the Backdoor Playhouse located at 805 Quandrangle in the back of the Jere Whitson Building. TTU Professor Michael O'Rourke also will read from his new book, Paul Bunyan Lives! And Other Tales From the Natural World. A question-and-answer session will be held with Lazar from 11:15 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 15, also at the Backdoor Playhouse. A writing workshop will be held with Lazar Friday from 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. and is open to the public by reservation. The workshop will be held in Henderson Hall, Room 318D.
Also at Thursday's evening event, TTU's own Michael O'Rourke reads from his just-publish book, Paul Bunyan Lives! And Other Tales from the Natural World. The book is available now on Amazon and will soon be available at the university bookstore.
O'Rourke, a professor of American literature and creative writing, says the collection of essays about the environment came about after he became interested in the publication history of Paul Bunyan tales and the logging history.
"One thing I found out was Paul Bunyan tall tales are not authentic folklore. They were first fairly widely disseminated as an advertising pamphlet for a logging company," he said.
From there, O'Rourke discovered other lesser-known environmental tales that piqued his interest, such as the Tellico Dam/snail darter controversy in the 1970s.
"I had a dim memory of it, and I realized in the process of doing research that it was almost completely misreported," he said.
Most of the essays have been previously published in literary journals such as The North American Review and the High Plains Literary Review. O'Rourke will read from a couple of his essays at Thursday's event prior to David Lazar's presentation.