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How a former academic reinvented herself as a novelist

It’s that time of year when PhD graduates whose hopes have been dashed — whether in the job market or on the path to tenure — need to start thinking about next year. Should we try again or is it time to give up university life? Harriet Scott Chessman is a hopeful role model for people who need to reinvent their lives after being kicked out of academia.

I met her at Yale University when I was a student and she taught English 125. From her I learned to love Milton and Wallace Stevens and see possibilities for me as a writer . Refusal of tenure at Yale in 1990, she pivoted become a fiction writer and librettist. She has since written five novels (translated into seven languages) and two opera librettos. His new opera, Sycorax, will be played in Switzerland in September. I reached out to ask him about his career path for the Scholars talk about writing series (or in this case, a former academic).

Let’s start by talking about what you call your “tumble” down the tenure ladder at Yale.

Room: Oh, the power of metaphor! I love the word somersault because it sounds so playful and acrobatic. The truth is, the tenure decision was more like an accident or a miscarriage. I was 39 that spring of 1990 and had been at Yale since 1973, first as a graduate student in English, then as an assistant and associate professor of English and Women’s Studies. I had two young children and had built a life of teaching and scholarship. I felt so out of balance that I couldn’t even consider applying for full-time positions at other universities.

Fortunately, I also felt the freedom to do something new with my life. One of the best choices I made was to join a children’s book writing group. A few years later, the idea for a novel came to me.

What was the climate like at Yale then?

Room: In the 1970s and 1980s, Yale was pretty inhospitable to women, and even more so to people of color. A certain amount has changed, but clearly much more needs to change. I was only able to watch one episode of The chair, because it made me squirm in recognition.

I resumed teaching when my first child was 8 weeks old. If I had given birth in the year, I think the university would have given me a few weeks off, but my baby arrived in the summer. It seems ridiculous to me now, but I remember I didn’t want to look like I was dropping the ball by going on unpaid maternity leave. It felt like an acknowledgment of difficulty, and I wanted to look like dealing with motherhood and my career was a breeze.

Most of the female professors I knew – especially the female tenured ones – had either a child or no child. The idea was to wait to start a family until you had a permanent position – if for some strange reason you couldn’t resist having children.

You grew up as a college kid and your husband, Bryan Wolf, was an art history professor. [he retired in 2014]. How did you feel about not being a faculty member anymore?

Room: Oh, it was hard at first. I felt that I had been pushed out of the special circle. I continued to teach part-time, but I was sensitive to the sense of hierarchy I had absorbed during all those years in an elite institution.

It helped and didn’t help that my wife was so happy at Yale. I remember arguing about whether I would attend one Yale-related event or another. I said I didn’t want to go there, and Bryan said passionately, “But it’s my world! and I was like, “Well, it’s not mine!”

Yet I landed on my feet. My friends and family have been so supportive of me. And I continued to meet other writers and artists who opened up a whole new world to me. Soon I realized that I was simply living my life in a new way, closer to my own wishes.

What did it take to go from erudition to the production of fiction?

Room: I always wanted to become a writer. Many writers I knew taught at the Bread Loaf School of English, where I spent a few fun and creative summers. I loved the feeling of being an academic writer in the middle of a literary community when I started my book on Gertrude Stein’s experimental poems and operas. Stein’s wonderfully playful language pushed me to find a more personal voice for my own writing style, which the atmosphere of Bread Loaf encouraged.

About 15 years later, I returned to Bread Loaf to teach creative writing and immerse myself in this inspiring community.

Let’s talk about your writing career.

Room: At first, I tried to set aside a few hours a day for my writing, as I was teaching part-time to earn money. I looked for agents. I had the third child I had always wanted. I published a few children’s stories in magazines. Five years after I started writing, I found an agent for my first novel, Ohio Angels, which was published by Permanent Press. It gave me tons of encouragement. I have collected new interests for my second novel, Lydia Cassatt reading the morning paper. And then my third, Someone not really his mother. I felt launched.

The path was neither direct nor easy. It’s always a wrestling match with each book – to find your form and your voice. Each book presents you with a new impossible problem. Additionally, the publishing landscape has changed and it is not easy to find lyrical publishers dedicated to characters and story. But I’m here to say: it can be done.

You have to fight your way and be stubborn. You have to believe in yourself, top, bottom and sideways. You must persevere. You need to listen to good editors and other readers, who can help you improve your work. And of course, what everyone says is true: you have to love the writing itself. You have to revel in the search for a story, the design, the first steps, and then you have to allow yourself to make a thousand mistakes – because the writing has to make so many mistakes before it finds the form that suits it.

What have your college years done for you as a writer?

Room: I learned to listen carefully to the language – to hear the voice and to understand the beauties and intricacies of how the stories unfold. I feel lucky to have had those days in class or in my office, poring over a poem or a story, thinking about it, wondering. This attention and this curiosity are always part of me and go into my own writing.

My research on the art of Mary Cassatt has found new life in fictional form. While still at Yale, I received a contract for my second scholarly book, Mary Cassatt and the maternal body. Once I started writing fiction, I discovered that his beautiful, fascinating paintings could rather open up to fiction. This subject of Cassatt and his mentor Degas lingered in my imagination and led me to write my most recent novel, The lost sketchbook of Edgar Degas.

I’m also an independent development editor. I love reading other people’s work and I’m sure years of responding to student essays have helped me become a thoughtful editor. First I listen carefully to a piece and figure out what the writer wants to say, then I help the writer say it. The genres may be different, but the effort to encourage good writing is the same.

What did you have to unlearn?

Room: A few things come to mind:

  • I had to unlearn my own hesitation and shyness about my wishes and my strengths.
  • I had to unlearn the idea that you were or weren’t “a writer”. I had to discover that actually you could grow in your writing, follow it, revise it, see where it takes you.
  • I had to unlearn the strange habit of thinking that scholarship was a more honorable and justified activity than creative writing.
  • I had to unlearn the idea that you had to know your subject before you started writing something.

What writing tips do you have for academics?

Room: If you love a certain type of writing, go ahead and read everything you can, write down who posts it, and take the time to see what comes out of your heart, soul, and commitment. Look for poems, books, stories, plays, TV shows, movies, and music that give you something new. Contact other writers, of all kinds. Go to readings and participate in conversations. Join writing groups that nurture and encourage.

Develop very thick skin. Cut the voice of all those who discourage you. Believe that anything you desire is possible for you.

What advice can you offer to people who have fallen off the path to permanency or never made it?

Room: You have to become your own best supporter. Carefully and curiously examine your own expertise and gifts, and consider how you can find new ways to bring them into the world. If you want to continue applying for tenure-track jobs, go ahead, but don’t let the success or failure of your applications break your heart. Think about how you can keep doing what you love, possibly in a new form.

In all my years of dreaming of writing, creating a booklet was never even part of the dream. So, I guess another piece of advice is: keep the door open to possibilities you wouldn’t even have imagined. They will come.

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