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On Mentorship: The World of Things

by Jill Gerard

Today's Chautauqua blog is the conclusion of On Mentorship, a blog series in memory of Philip Gerard, beloved writer, professor, and co-editor of Chautauqua, who was taken from us all too soon. Philip's generous and whole-hearted ethic of listening and encouraging everyone to be their best selves enriched the lives of everyone in his orbit. It is what made him such an excellent teacher, mentor, and friend. To honor Philip's indelible spirit, we have asked our editorial team to recall moments of mentorship that inspired them, shifted their worldview, or put them on the path to follow their dreams. Today's piece is a special note from Chautauqua's editor, Jill Gerard. We hope this blog series allows you, dear reader, to sit and reflect with us.

—James King

Managing Editor


I did not start writing poetry until well after my undergraduate program had ended. Though I took a fiction writing class or two in my Master’s program, I was mainly interested in literature and academic work. Then, I was teaching—and I was asked to plan on teaching creative writing—something that I had never really done myself. I felt unprepared completely for poetry.

Ever the good student, I signed up for a poetry writing course through Continuing Education at UVA. Our class met at a downtown coffee shop instead of a classroom and those 15 weeks changed my life.

Lisa Russ Spaar encouraged us to begin by focusing on the concrete details of the world, to ground ourselves in the minutia and to figure out why those details mattered. “No ideas but in things.” I think William Carlos Williams said that but Lisa made it real to me, showed me how it could become a tool to unlock ideas, to unlock one’s self.

I began by mining the world of things—things in the world around me, bits of memory. Things I could touch or smell or taste. I remembered the papery wasp nests in my grandmother’s attic, the sweet smell of pansies—their deep purple petals and bright yellow markings, the welts that could rise if one were hit with a belt. Each detail had language, specific language that suited that focus. Each detail had a story behind it.

That request to focus on concrete things is something I remember every day. I lean on it in my own work—name the thing and name the thing. Those details are important. In a series of poems that became reborn in a novel, I watched endless dissection videos. I made lists of the names of muscles, bones, tendons, types of cartilage. I looked closely at the textures and the shapes. The muscles on the back began to look like the drawings I make for essays in my classes. Essays, an attempt to make ideas clear on the page. Our lives—attempts to find clarity in the tumble of moments. The names of things are a way of cataloging, of remembering. The words have music to them. The music of the words creates connections.

There have been so many people along the way that have shared lessons that meant so much to me. But Lisa Russ Spaar was an important person with useful and pragmatic lessons at the beginning of my writing life.

—Jill Gerard


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23. Dez. 2022

Thank you, James and Jill, for this inspiration. I woke up thinking of Philip, not quite knowing what to do today to honor him. Here it is.

Like Jill, I came to personal writing, what we call creative writing, through literature. And like so many of us--is it almost all of us?--there was that one mentor who made all the difference. i think that the crux of the teacher/mentor influence usually starts in high school, where most of us can remember the teacher who first totally believed in us (thank you again, Diane, who doesn't really like to be named), but when you become a grownup writer, most of us need our Lisa Russ Spaar, the one who helps you…

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