Writing off the ‘lone genius’

Oct. 13, 2010, 3:03 a.m.

Writing off the 'lone genius'
Senior Jones lecturer Tom Kealey leads a creative writing seminar. Kealy teaches classes including "NaNoWriMo" and "The Graphic Novel." (KATIE FINLEY/The Stanford Daily)

Creative writing lecturer Tom Kealey teaches a collaborative style

If you walked into Meyer 220 on a Tuesday night this quarter, you would see students writing together and critiquing each other, each trying to complete a 50,000-word novel in just one month. This room is the home of two experimental creative writing classes at Stanford: “NaNoWriMo,” short for “National Novel Writing Month,” and “The Graphic Novel.” The force behind both of these classes is creative writing lecturer Tom Kealey.

Often, writing is perceived as a solitary endeavor, but Kealey encourages his students to work collaboratively, and his classes reflect this approach.

“The idea of collaborative writing is really crucial,” Kealey said. “In most classes we’re taught the ‘lone genius’ concept.”

Instead, he likes to see teamwork taught in writing as much as independence.

“It’s difficult sometimes to write in a vacuum,” Kealey added. “And for students to bounce ideas off of each other, to give suggestions, it’s an amazing thing to see.”

For November, which is National Novel Writing Month, creative writing lecturer Scott Hutchins floated the idea for a class where students write 1,667 words a day for each of the 30 days of November. The goal is 50,000 words (about the length of Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”) by the end of the month.

NaNoWriMo, co-taught by Kealey and Hutchins, is a class that encourages students to give each other feedback while completing their own projects.

“The class is in many ways teaching students about what a writer’s life is like,” Kealey said. “It’s about getting the words down on the page every day and understanding that good writing is hard writing, and it takes many drafts to find what you want to say and say it right.”

Both the students and the instructors are writing in the class, allowing for students to collaborate not only with each other, but also with their instructors. According to Kealey, what he likes best about teaching undergraduate students is that he gets to learn things, too.

“This may sound silly, but sometimes I feel after two or three weeks of my instructing that I’ve just become the most experienced student in the class and I learn along with them,” he said.

Kealey has developed a reputation for teaching innovative courses, teaming up with creative writing professor Adam Johnson for a class called “The Graphic Novel.”

Johnson, who wanted to create a course in which creative writing and art students worked together to create a full-length graphic novel, conceived the class.

“I thought at first we were going to make a pamphlet, but instead we made a 200-page book,” Kealey said.

The class was a challenging but rewarding undertaking for the instructors.

“I always say about ‘The Graphic Novel,’ it’s my most favorite class I’ve ever taught, but it’s also the most difficult, and part of that is finding our way,” Kealey said. “You don’t make anything successful without either setbacks or failures along the way.”

In “The Graphic Novel,” students are confronted with the task of individually proposing novel topics and then choosing one as a group.

“My favorite part of the class was also the most uncomfortable part of the class,” Kealey recalled. “‘Pika-don’ [last year’s novel] won in a vote–seven to six–over another idea, ‘Baghdad Burning.’ Students debate, negotiate, collaborate and eventually decide on a topic and, through the process, you can see students go from disparate needs to having a commitment to the same project.”

Students also recognized how Kealey facilitated an engaging learning environment. Avantika Agarwal ’12 recalled a positive experience in “The Graphic Novel” class.

“Never have I come across such a warm, giving and wonderful teacher. Tom creates the perfect classroom atmosphere that respects and nurtures each individual, while maintaining a high standard of intellect.”

Kealey fosters commitment and community in his classes while at the same time challenging his students to go beyond their comfort zone.

“Writing can be a deeply personal, challenging and downright embarrassing experience–but Tom does an excellent job of making his students face all of that, consider it, and then use it to fuel creativity,” said Jessica Rowe ’12, who took “Introduction to Fiction Writing” with Kealey. “He encourages students to be fearless and learn through triumph and through failure.”

Kealey discovered his passion for teaching in graduate school at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, only after working as a bartender, a technical writer and an editor for an art and literary magazine called “Cities and Roads.” After he finished graduate school, he came to Stanford as a Stegner Fellow in creative writing in 2001 and was a Jones Lecturer in creative writing from 2003 until he became a Senior Jones Lecturer in 2006.

As a teacher, Kealey is drawn to the commitment he sees in his students.

“Stanford students are intelligent and motivated and also kind to each other,” Kealey said. “There’s a sense of cooperation and collaboration at all the classes here at Stanford. I like to be a part of that.”

Kealey the writer is not far removed from Kealey the person. He carries a notebook around with him to capture a spontaneous inspiration or catch interesting dialogue (though he confesses that nowadays he mostly jots down notes on his Blackberry).

“I once heard on the subway one boy say to another, ‘I don’t want to hug no skinny-bones girl,’ and I thought that that was an unusual and odd thing to say, but also unique…And from that quote came a character and out of that character came a story,” Kealey said.

In his spare time, Kealey runs marathons. Recently, he even swam, biked and ran a triathlon, an experience that gave him insight into his writing. Intending to write an article about the triathlon, Kealey created an outline for the story beforehand.

“It’s not until I ran the race that the idea of the story changed completely,” Kealey said. “Everyone else out there gets to run a half-marathon, but with every step out there, I was writing a story. Writers don’t get to rest.”

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