Dec. 10, 1999-Jan. 13, 2000
Alumnus Frank Batten Sr. gives $608 million to Darden entrepreneurial institute
Policy changed to match U.Va. employees' free speech rights
In age of narrow specialization, a writer who does it all

Garrett to receive $10,000 Aiken Taylor Award for his poetry

Exhibit explores 300 years of American views on apocalypse
Hot Links -- Governmental Relations
In Memoriam
Y2K workers gear up, but expect a quiet night
U.Va. is ready for Y2K -- are you?
U.Va. gets $1 million IBM grant to develop e-business technologies
NEH challenge grant will boost E-text Center endowment
Legislative forum to be held Jan. 7
Entrepreneurial spirit continues to feed Frank Batten's success
George Garrett
George Garrett in 1963

In age of narrow specialization, a writer who does it all

By Robert Brickhouse

When a young, Florida-born writer and former amateur boxer sporting an infectious grin and a growing literary reputation arrived here in 1962 to take a newly created position in the English department, the novelist and poet R.H.W. Dillard recently recalled, "although the term had not yet been invented by physicists, ordered chaos is what ensued. Students began congregating in faculty offices and in the hall, carrying manuscripts, talking loudly, even playing an oddly narrow and elongated baseball game with a red plastic ball and bat ..."

Words of wisdom from George Garrett

On the writing process: Sometimes I don't have the slightest idea where something is going. But that's one of the pleasures of it, finding out how you work.

On teaching: It's not our duty to discourage. On the other hand, it's not honest to be overly encouraging.

On publishing: Today you have to be tough, but people have succeeded in spite of everything.

Today, as he prepares to retire as the Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing (on his second tour of duty at U.Va.), George Garrett, the author of some 30 books and editor of 19 others, and holder of prestigious honors as fiction writer, poet and essayist, has still been known to attract moments of ordered chaos. But, he says, "it has become in some way, for better or for worse, slightly more respectable to be doing this."

He is talking about writing and the teaching of writing. During his tenure, the graduate Creative Writing Program of which he has been a mainstay has built a reputation as one of the best in the country. Garrett has helped countless students learn about the craft and themselves and often see their stories into print or first books published.

"He is a kind of writer that is essentially vanishing, a true man of letters," says George Core, editor of the Sewanee Review literary quarterly.

Virginia has a venerable tradition of affiliation with writers, from the days of Poe as a student to noted writers-in-residence such as Katherine Anne Porter and William Faulkner. But the idea of having a working writer to teach regularly on the English staff was new in the 1960s when Garrett -- at 32 already the author of several well-received books of fiction and poetry -- was invited here.

He eventually went on to teach at other universities too, including Michigan and his alma mater Princeton, and to help found the Associated Writing Programs, the national organization for university writing workshops. He even had a stint writing Hollywood scripts. All the while Garrett kept assisting and boosting the careers of young writers and colleagues with a generosity that has become famous around the country.

Henry Taylor, a student of his here in the earlier period who later won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, has told how Garrett helped assure the publication of Taylor's first book by withdrawing an already accepted manuscript of his own because the publisher had room for only one more book that season.

Garrett returned to U.Va. in 1984 to take the Hoyns professorship. He was writing by then in an broad and sometimes experimental array of styles and genres, often to highest acclaim: stories, novels, poems, criticism, essays, plays and the editing of anthologies of other writers.

Though his wide-ranging kind may be vanishing, Garrett himself has no intent to. This restless, questing creativity continues to pour forth steadily, in longhand and from an old typewriter. "Sometimes I don't have the slightest idea where something is going," he says about the writing process. "But that's one of the pleasures of it, finding out how you work."

Garrett's trilogy of novels set in Elizabethan England -- Death of the Fox, The Succession and Entered from The Sun -- has been called among the most imaginative historical recreations in modern literature. His fiction has ranged from this Renaissance scholarship to portraits of small-town Southern life, from Army tales to politics to wildly offbeat satire.

The full range of his classic, often anthologized short stories may be sampled in his 1984 collection, An Evening Performance. For his work in this genre he has received the highest honors, including the PEN/Malamud Award for Short Fiction. John Updike and Saul Bellow were the two previous winners of that award when Garrett became the third in 1990.

Dillard, who directs the writing program at Hollins College, has listed in an essay some of the qualities of Garrett's fiction: "directness, seriousness, a Chaucerian comic sense which in no way conflicts with that seriousness, imaginative vigor, sheer intelligence "

Garrett, Dillard says, "has always continued to grow and change in his work while so many of his contemporaries have faltered or simply repeated themselves in book after book."

The poet and critic Neal Bowers recently said about him that "in an age of narrow specialization he is one of those rare writers who lives at ease in several genres."

Garrett's genial, personal essays, examples of which may be found most recently in Bad Man Blues: A Portable George Garrett (1998), have been included in the annual Best American Essays.

Cited in 1989 as "one of the most inventive and artistic writers of his generation, he won the T.S. Eliot Award for Creative Writing, a $20,000 international prize whose recipients have included Walker Percy, Octavio Paz, V.S. Naipaul, Eugene Ionesco, and Jorge Luis Borges.

Retirement for Garrett, who turned 70 this year, will simply mean more time for writing. As if he hadn't tried enough new things, he has just published his first electronic poem in The Cortland Review. But, he quickly adds about the Internet, "Nothing's going to replace having a book in your hands. It's the single most efficient means of communication anyone's ever come up with."

In the spring he and his wife, Susan Garrett, an author of nonfiction books, both will spend some intensive writing time at the Bellagio center for creative arts on Lake Como in Italy.

Asked about his protean ability to move from one form to another, Garrett says he believes there is ultimately little difference among genres, that all are linked through an urge to create and communicate.

As for his ever-surprising variety of subject matter (which includes the screenplay for "Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster"), he says that meets a creative need too. When he was writing his meditative Elizabethan novels, for example, he found he was also writing poetry on "everyday" topics (which for Garrett might range from musing on teaching to Southern politicians to the deeper meaning of a bear wandering through his neighborhood). And when he was working on comic or satiric or rural fiction, "the poems tended to be a little high-falutin.'"

In teaching writing, Garrett says, he has never viewed himself as a "gatekeeper" to the field. "It's not our duty to discourage. It's been my experience that some of the most talented writers didn't go on to do that much, and some less talented went on to do fine work." On the other hand, "it's not honest to be overly encouraging." Creative writing programs and workshops, he says, although they present some real danger that American writing may become "increasingly institutionalized," are useful to learn both about sensitive reading and writing and to provide "time to find out how you work best."

Among his advice for writing students is to remember the power of revision, to build the five senses into a narrative to give it the texture of life, and also to remember the power of suspense. In a recent essay on craft, in the anthology Letters to a Fiction Writer, Garrett speaks about the freedom a creative writer has to name new things and make new worlds. He says, perhaps explaining some about all he has done, "You are Adam and you are Eve, every day at your desk."


© Copyright 1999 by the Rector and Visitors
of the University of Virginia

UVa Home Page UVa Events Calendar Top News UVa Home Page