Department of English Newsletter: December 2021

Remembering P.K./Remembering Jim/Department News/How I Write (Ricca)/Alumni News//

Remembering P.K. Saha

by Bill Siebenschuh

I have many fond memories of P.K. Saha: his wonderful sense of humor, his amazing memory and command of just about everything he ever read or saw, the way the students loved him. But when I learned that he had passed, the first thing I thought of was something that happened in my first year in the department. As the new Director of Composition, it was my responsibility to teach English 500. To do so I felt obliged to include some Chomsky in the syllabus. The problem was, I didn’t understand a word Chomsky wrote.  One day as I was discussing the course with a senior graduate student who had already taken it, I asked him what Chomsky they had read, and he said, “P.K.’s translation.” I didn’t know P.K. very well at that time, but I went to see him and asked him about it. He just laughed and said, “Oh, yes. I did that a couple of years ago for my students in the linguistics course. Chomsky can be unintelligible. I just summarized his basic ideas. Do you want to borrow it?” I used his translation, which was clear as a bell, and by the end of the course the students understood Chomsky and finally so did I. In my early years in the department, P.K. became a sort of guru-at-the-ready. An international student would come to the Writing Center in Pardee Hall and ask, “In English, why does one say ‘the big white house’ and not ‘the white big house?’” I would look at my watch, say, “Oh, look at the time! Come back on Wednesday, and I’ll explain.” And then I would get on the phone to P.K. He was always ready to help.

He had an amazing career which began in Calcutta, ended in Cleveland, and included what seems like a little bit of everything. He was a first-rate linguist, an award-winning teacher of both graduate and undergraduate students, a wonderful colleague, a formidable poker player, a genial host, a gourmet cook, and, late in his life, a forensic linguist. But my first memory of him was about his kindness to the new kid in the department.  As another of my gurus, Samuel Johnson, once said, “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.” By that measure, P.K. was about as good as it gets.

More remembrances of P.K. here.

Remembering Jim Sheeler

by Chris Flint

Photo credit: Todd Heisler.

As many of you know, when the English Department recruited Jim in 2010 to be Shirley Wormser Professor of Journalism and Media Writing, he already had a distinguished career as a journalist, starting as a cub reporter in Boulder, and ultimately advancing to news feature writer for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, where he specialized in stories about war and loss. What you may not know is that his first desire was to be a veterinarian, a sign of his abiding love of animals and nature in general. Jim was born and raised in Houston, but came to love Colorado, where he hiked incessantly and drove his beloved jeep recklessly along dusty tracks and mountain roads. After a semester of pre-veterinary classes, he quickly turned to journalism and never looked back, becoming a newspaperman specializing in feature writing, particularly stories about loss. While seemingly unconnected, there was a link in both of these career options: Jim’s deep concern for the hurt that comes to others. He was always turned outward to the world, using his verbal and emotional resources to heal pain and sorrow.

By the time he arrived at CWRU, Jim had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for a long story about a Marine he shadowed for over a year, Major Steve Beck, who was tasked with informing families of GIs killed in Iraq, helping them to navigate the difficult return of the body, commemorate the soldier, and deal with their loss. Jim expanded that story into the bestselling book, Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives, one of five finalists for the 2008 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Those awards, coupled with appearances on NBC Nightly News, NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and invited visiting stints at institutions ranging from Harvard to the Sorbonne, marked him as a star. The extensive obituaries that have appeared in such newspapers as the Washington Post and the Denver Post testify to the range of his fame. But you wouldn’t know about Jim’s professional stature from his demeanor, which telegraphed humility, generosity, and kindness, combined with a wiry defense of those who are vulnerable and powerless.

Before the Iraq stories, Jim spent most of his early newspaper career working the death beat, a term that journalists use for obituary writing. Characteristically, Jim turned what was often considered a thankless task (even professional punishment) into an artful form of compassionate reporting. But doing that wasn’t enough; he also wanted to help others genuinely celebrate the lives of those who had died. He co-authored Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers in 2005 and was promptly inducted into the International Obituary Writers’ Hall of Fame the next year. Gathering a selection of what he wrote, Jim then published Obit: Inspiring Stories of Ordinary People Who Led Extraordinary Lives.

Jim’s knack was not only to tell stories but to teach aspiring writers how to create them from the raw materials of everyday life. A beloved teacher, his English courses at CWRU included immersion seminars on local residents in one of the oldest operating African-American nursing homes in the United States, the Eliza Bryant Village in Hough, and on individuals at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center, where students pursued stories of veterans with prosthetics, the rehabilitation of the blind, and a nurse who served with the Army infantry in Iraq – all of these courses required students to produce video projects of their subjects that they could circulate widely. Jim was also in high demand as an undergraduate advisor. He served as faculty supervisor for The Observer, and placed students in internships at local media outlets such as Cleveland Magazine and WCPN, and some farther afield, such as the White House. He received the University’s Carl F. Wittke Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 2016, having been nominated several times in prior years.

Jim’s students have created a gratitude box of reminiscences from faculty, students, and staff as a tribute to what mattered most to him. As one of his students, Halle Rose, notes, “Jim began the first day of every class he taught by pulling out his ‘box of gratitude,’ where he kept all of the thank you notes the families he worked with had sent him…he would always take a full armful of the notes, literally scoop them up in this sort of big loose embrace until they were overflowing from his arms, and tell us that THIS is why we do the work. He would then pick up the Pulitzer and say ‘I know this is what people always ask about, and it’s nice of course, but this isn’t what matters,’ before tossing it back in the box.”

Jim was no less committed to service. It is a testament to his abiding volunteerism that Jim was, at the time of his death, the English Department’s Director of Undergraduate Studies, its Associate Chair, Faculty Advisor to The Observer, volunteer in the Provost Scholars Program, and member of several Department, College, and University Committees. Over the years, he served as an ambassador for the University—for President Synder, the Board of Trustees, Undergraduate Studies, Office of Admissions, and numerous others. In one of our conversations in August, he mentioned excitedly that he was awaiting confirmation on two important issues. One was news about his application to serve as a Court-Appointed Special Advocate for Cuyahoga County, defending the best interests of abused and neglected children in schools, courtrooms, and the community. The other was word on the refurbishment of his dusty old jeep, which had been left on his parents’ farm for others to use until the farm was finally sold this year. It was coming to a new home here on the decidedly less dusty roads of Chagrin Falls.

Finally, on a more personal note, I’d like to mention another passion of Jim’s. He was an avid rock fan and might, I believe, have just as easily been a music journalist. Jim and I routinely went to hear various groups play at local Cleveland venues. Invariably, after the concert was over, Jim would dash backstage scrounging for backstories on the musicians. Afterward, brandishing the band’s t-shirt or a vinyl record, he would tell me what he had learned or observed. He just never stopped being a journalist.
I will miss those concerts, but I will miss just talking to Jim much more. To me, as to many of you, he wasn’t just a colleague or teacher. He was a staunch ally and willing hand; he was an ethical beacon; he was a beautiful friend.

More remembrances of Jim here.

Department News

Tom Bishop, former professor of Renaissance literature at CWRU, will be the first Writer-in-Residence supported by the Stonum Family Fund. His visit will be from February 15th through February 25th of 2022.

Cara Byrne discusses the Imagination Library.

Michael Clune receives the 2022 Baker-Nord Center Award for Distinguished Scholarship in the Humanities.

Mary Grimm has a new flash fiction in Five on the Fifth

English minor Winston Kam was featured in The Daily.

On November 6th, Amber Kidd presented her paper “Memory, Grief, and the Palimpsest: Exploring the Nature of Loss in Susan Howe’s That This” on a panel about life writing at SAMLA’s annual conference.

Francesca Mancino‘s book review on Robert Volpicelli’s Transatlantic Modernism and the US Lecture Tour was published in issue 35 of The Modernist Review.

William Marling published “The Shooting. Charles Bukowski” in American Literary History.

Marilyn Mobley served as moderator for the artist talk given by CWRU law school alum Amanda King at her first solo exhibit “God is Anti-racist” at Karamu House on Wednesday, October 20th.

John Orlock has been selected as a Baker-Nord Center Faculty Affiliate for the Fall 2021 semester. His lecture, “What’s the Story? And where does Lulu fit in?: Shaping a Screenplay about Richard Olney and His Kitchen,” took place on November 16th.

The Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities has selected Camila Ring to attend the National Humanities Center’s “Podcasting the Humanities: Creating Digital Stories for the Public” virtual institute. The five-day institute runs from January 10-14, 2022.

Brita Thielen has a chapter entitled “Consuming the Past: Food Metaphors in the Intergenerational Food Memoir” in Consumption and the Literary Cookbook, edited by Roxanne Harde and Janet Wesselius (Routledge 2020) which has recently won the South Atlantic Modern Language Association’s Book Award for an Edited Collection.

Thrity Umrigar‘s new novel Honor will be published on January 4th.

Hayley Verdi has been accepted to the HILLS Doctoral Symposium which will take place at CWRU December 11-12. The HILLS program aims to develop and promote leadership potential for doctoral students in the humanities, arts, and humanities-related disciplines, with a particular commitment to promoting diversity in higher education administration. The goal of the symposium is to provide students with the possibilities of serving in administrative leadership roles before they complete their doctorates and begin the next phase of their academic careers.

How I Write (Now)

by Brad Ricca

This past fall, I was asked by Professor Vinter to give a talk on writing nonfiction. I was flattered to be asked to come back to Guilford – back home – to be with people who wanted to talk about things other than Spongebob Squarepants. I was even more excited when she suggested we make it about process. I try not to be a big advice person, so I approached it as things I wish I had known when I started. Here’s what I think I’ve learned.First, writing for a trade publication (an article in a magazine or a book in a store) is not that different from writing for an academic one. Though the styles may differ, the process depends on the same intellectual and written kung fu that any English major, MA, or PhD student knows better than anyone. It just happens in reverse. An English major writes a paper on Frankenstein by looking at the creature and analyzing it from a variety of critical approaches. They take the monster apart to find meaning. But the nonfiction writer gets to take the opposite approach. We get to make the monster.But how? I hear you asking. First, I choose what I call a secret theme. What do I really want to write about? Think about? Learn about? And admittedly, get others to engage with? These themes lurk in the shadows of everything I do and are broad and unwieldy topics: creativity (Super Boys), missing girls (Mrs. Sherlock Holmes), whiteness and suicide (Olive the Lionheart), and conspiracy thinking (True Raiders), but they are never the story itself. I will explain why in a moment. Once I’ve got my secret theme, I go hunting for a specific story to, for lack of a better term, get into it with. My own process isn’t efficient: I cast a wide net by looking in archives, newspapers, and so on. This can be the worst part sometimes, but it’s also the most exciting. Looking for a story – one that fits me and what I want to write about – is a weird combination of time travel and luck. It is frustrating, but when you finally find something, when you find it (and can get by those next several minutes of intense Googling to make sure there aren’t twelve books on the subject), well, that is the good stuff.

Story is important. It should be, by all accounts, entrancing! thrilling! topical! Most editors prefer that it also involves murder, the Civil War, or Nazis (in that order), but you can ignore that. It just has to be good. But what is a good story? And how do you tell it? Hey Brad, I don’t have an MFA from Syracuse! And I hear you again. But come on. You know this already. You know all the elements of good literature that you can name, analyze, and lecture on (with all due respect) until the first three rows of any classroom in America are asleep. You know how your favorite works of literature work. I’m not saying it’s not magic when a good book works, but I’m saying you know the magic. Model the works you like, ape them, transform them. A good story has good content (which all your specific areas of expertise have), but it is also how it is told. I almost gave up on my last book because I had a bunch of different narrators (some of them highly unreliable) and I couldn’t figure out how to organize it – until I remembered As I Lay Dying (thank you Williams –  Faulkner and Marling). Storytelling is a skill of techniques. Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Writers are readers. Cliches are endless.

Still, I hear you again: how do I write the actual sentences, man? I would suggest organizing your writing into scenes. Instead of paragraphs about Charles Dickens and his writing process, study old accounts, photographs, and weather reports to bring that place to life. You don’t want your readers to see flat words standing in for meanings in a dictionary. You want your words to smell, taste, and feel like something. You want your readers to be there.

Why? Because your reader wants to be there. After all, they bought the book! To get the reader of an academic piece to stay interested, you offer more evidence to carry them along your line of thinking. In a trade work, you do the same, but through suspense. Reveal things bit by bit. The act of holding the shark or xenomorph – the subject itself – in the background will help create a sense of story through suspense. But what if I’m not writing about scary aliens? The experience we love of researching, reading, and thinking is also a kind of suspense – as discovery – that your reader wants to experience with you. The books I like that do this – In Cold Blood, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant – are problematic texts in many ways, but they offer up significant spaces of discovery for the reader. This is why I write about real stories and not their secret themes. For one, writing about the theme itself would be boring; a theme is something Charlie Brown would get a D+ on. By instead creating a space between the story and the subject – as a metaphor – the reader has yet another space to engage in. If the reader can make meaning there – or find horror of a different kind – then the work (I think) becomes deeper and hopefully more persuasive; it becomes a better story. Tell the truth, but tell it slant (thank you Emily D. and Gary Stonum).

When I first started this type of work, I obnoxiously thought “Oh, I just have to take my academic writing and ‘dumb it down’ for a ‘general audience.’” I wish someone would have punched me (though gently). I was very wrong, and quickly learned so. The only thing you can safely say about a trade audience is that it is BIG. It is the largest, most diverse classroom you can imagine. That, to me, is terrific. And they are reading for the best reason of all: they want to. It is so much harder – and satisfying, for me – to write for an audience like that because it’s not about changing any big ideas, just thinking more about how best to employ them.

I’m not trying to make you question your path or interest you in an alternative lifestyle. No, a nonfiction trade book will not get you a tenure-track job in the 18th. C., but it could get you a job in a writing program. Freelance writing will never get you health insurance (thank you, Caroline), but the pay can be good, and it can get you noticed, if that’s something you want. There is no peer review, but there are plenty of editors, copy editors, lawyers, and eagle-eyed critics on Goodreads. You can also use a lot more em dashes. All I’m saying, I think, is that I’ve found this type of writing to be another kind of market for the skills I was trained in, which are, thank God, the things I love to do. It is hard work, and sometimes uncertain, but I’m able to chart my own path. I’m not saying it’s the best path or the worst, only that it exists.

If you have questions, want to see a template book proposal, or want to brainstorm an idea, I am happy to help. For though the story of this little essay was how I write now, the secret theme was simpler: If you can analyze a story, you can tell a story. And you have a major head start.

Brad Ricca earned his PhD in English from CWRU in 2002 and taught there for nearly twenty years as a full-time lecturer. He is the Edgar-nominated writer of five books, including his latest True Raiders (St. Martin’s, 2021). See more at

Alumni News

Jason Ray Carney (‘15) adapted Elie Wiesel’s The Trial of God  into a libretto for the Christopher Newport University production.

Iris Dunkle (’10) has started writing articles for FF2 Media, a news outlet that focuses on telling the stories of the lives of women. Beginning today, you can follow her journey writing Sanora Babb’s biography via a series of articles. The first article takes you to Red Rock, Oklahoma, where the writer Sanora Babb grew up.

Paulette Goll (’87), President of Global Vocabulary LLC, is pleased to announce a 5-star rating from the Educational App Store for the newly released Vocabulary Upgrade II iPhone app. Additionally, “Just Face It: A Kinesthetic Approach to Vocabulary Acquisition” was recently published in Education.

William Heath‘s book of poems Night Moves in Ohio is available from Finishing Line Press.

Brad Ricca discusses The Real Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

Karl Zender (’62) is now a Professor Emeritus in the English department at the University of California at Davis. This past June, he published a book, Shakespeare and Faulkner: Selves and Others (Louisiana State University Press). This is his fourth scholarly monograph, with two of the previous three on William Faulkner’s fiction, the other on Shakespeare’s plays.

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