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Conversation with David Elliott

by Asher Ellis '06, Adjunct Professor, Humanities, Fine and Performing Arts

Photos of David Elliott by Michael Seamans

Humanities faculty member David Elliott joined the college in 1998 and teaches creative writing, adolescent literature and playwriting. He also serves as the director of International Student Services, all the while enjoying a successful career as a New York Times best-selling children's book author. After nearly 15 years of service, this spring marks his final semester at Colby-Sawyer College.

What is it about the Colby-Sawyer community that you especially enjoy? What has kept you here?

It seems to me that the faculty and the staff are devoted to young people and that's a very nice environment to be in. But if I have to say what's really kept me here, my work with the international students has been unbelievably fun and interesting. I've worked with people who are willing to come six or eight thousand miles away from home, who want to know more about the world and themselves. For many of these individuals, the quest is to find out who they are, and their place in the world. It's been terrific to be part of that process.

How has working with students from other countries and cultures enriched your own life?

To begin with, I just turned 65. And most 65 year-olds I know are kind of boring! I shouldn't say that, but well, it's true. I'm very lucky to have spent so much time with young people, especially those who are not yet jaded, who may be experienced but who have somehow retained their innocence. I'm really thinking about that in terms of my own life, the struggle to remain fresh, open. The connection with the students, some of whom I've gotten to know quite well, has been a constant reminder that I am human on those days when I feel I am not.

I was in the cafeteria recently and a saw a group of Nepali students sitting with a couple of American students. Then I saw a group of Americans and there were some international students sitting with them. There's a lot more of this kind of connection on the campus than there used to be. When I started there were 30 international students, most from Japan. And then September 11 happened and the numbers dropped. One year we had as few as seven, but now we're close to 140! And it's a very diverse group, too, representing 31 countries.

Have the courses you've taught offered their own challenges but also rewards?

For me, it's almost always the same challenge. And the challenge, especially when teaching writing, is that the classroom structure is often antithetical to learning. There is a set number of drafts; we move through the semester linearly, and the instructor tells the students what to write about. Real writers don't work like that.

My quest was always to be as authentic in the classroom as I could. Students ought to get something real. So that was the challenge: To make whatever I was teaching real and not to rely on the convenient personas of “the professor” and “the students.”

For me, it has to do with honesty. I know it has to be about grades and getting the credit and all that, but what I always say to my students is, “This is our time together. So let's have it be real. If you're pretending to be interested, it's a waste of time for all of us. But if you write something you're really invested in or excited about, I get that excitement, too.” Writing, after all, is about the struggle toward truth and the human connection.

What is it like to juggle teaching and a writing career?

The writing life is kind of crazy. In spite of the number of my publications, I'm never sure if I'm doing the right thing. And I can still write a really bad book. But I try to bring my writing life into my classroom; that's one way I think it worked very well. Especially when I'm teaching creative writing or adolescent lit or children's lit. I know about those worlds. I know about the publishing world; I know many of the authors that we read. So in that way, it was a benefit to me and my students who were interested because I could say, “This is what it's really like.”

What's next for David Elliott?

I'm hoping to spend much of my time writing, especially longer works. I have five picture books in the pipeline. They'll be coming out within the next few years, and I'm also working on a couple of novels and some essays. But I find that writers who isolate themselves and identify only as “writers” end up being not very good writers and not very interesting people. Because the writing life is so solitary, I'm afraid that it will be four in the afternoon and I'll still be in my pajamas, staring out the window, eating bonbons. I want to learn French. I want to lose 30 pounds. Hopefully, I'll find some teaching opportunities, too. It's a way to give back all that I've been given. And I hope there will be some surprises. All in all, I feel so happy to have had this experience.

ON THE FARM: Text copyright © 2009 by David Elliott. Illustrations copyright © 2009 by Holly Meade. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.