Thursday, September 7, 2017

Yes, I'm writing a book about Saint Joseph's College

So I've had many questions asked of me about my writing a book.

I can confirm that I am indeed writing a book about the closure of Saint Joseph's College. After said confirmation, I'm then often asked "What exactly is this book going to be about?" To that, I answer in three parts:

1. I want to tell the story of those who were there. That means faculty, students, staff, alumni, and the people of the community of Rensselaer. Many have suffered much and their stories deserve to be told. We, sadly, have come to know many stories of what happens when a factory, steel mill, corporate office, or other such industry that a community depends on shuts down. How is it the same/different when it's an institution of higher learning? Unfortunately, the nation may know more as time goes on if Moody's Investment Guide is any indication. Which leads me to...

2. How does the closure of Saint Joseph's College compare to other college closures across the nation? If you're writing a book. you must also think of business and marketing. That means finding an audience beyond the Saint Joseph's community. How does what we experienced tie in to what has happened with other small, American colleges? It's been predicted that there will be a record number of small college closings in the coming years. Yes, I'm an academic and I tend to think in terms of compare/contrast. Also, does this have anything to do with the current political climate of the country?

3. Of course there have been many conspiracy theories about why the college closed...or "suspended operations" as the party line would force-feed you to believe. If any of the dark motivations are verifiable and if innocent people have been victims of chicanery, then I would like to bring the perpetrators to justice. That, of course, requires me having verifiable facts and that might be difficult. If I can gather enough solid facts and enough people who would be willing to talk, then yes...there are people whose careers I would love to ruin. But again, any accusations must be supported by the facts and the law must be on my side.

So how will the book be written?

This will be a work of literary nonfiction.

What does that mean? How can something be "literary" and still be nonfiction?

Let me put it this way:

This Monday will be the anniversary of 9/11. I could write a book about that day of terror using only the facts. I could give the exact time of when each plane hit each tower of the World Trade Center. I could give the exact number of people killed that day. I could cite the political deliberations in Congress in the days following the attacks via use of Congressional Record. But would that give anyone any idea of what it was like to be in New York City that morning? Would it convey what it was like to breathe in pulverized glass? Would it give any human depth of what it was like to experience such a day? No. For that, you need the techniques of a fiction writer. To find out what really happened, you need to leave the "just the facts, ma'am" position of the news and write in a way that brings home the descriptive truth of the moment.

What will this mean in terms of a book about St. Joe? Well...

1.The writer will be a character. I cannot be neutral about this in the way that a journalist could. This is my story. I am a character in my own story. I am writing about this in the way that I experienced it. Not only will I convey the facts as I observed them, but I will be offering my own thoughts, feelings, and reactions. This is in keeping with the memoir style of writing, of which you can read more here.

2. Mobile stance. I can weave between subjects. While discussing Saint Joe, I can digress and talk about...say, Antioch College. How are we the same? How are we different? The more people I can draw connections to outside of the SJC community, the more people our story will resonate with. Believe me, my research has already demonstrated to me that there are several academics/students across the nation who have shared a similar experience and we should stand in solidarity. To present this, I will need...

3. Research, research, research. Though literary, the writing must first and foremost be in service to the truth. I will need to be become intimate with my subject. This means learning about what has happened at other colleges in the U.S. It also means learning about how not only Saint Joseph's College but the town of Rensselaer and the Society of the Precious Blood came to be. One must know the complete history of how something came to be in order to understand it. The Core program taught me that. I am also finding that I need to become at least semi-knowledgeable on the subjects of business and finance. I have already undergone a vast number of interviews with people both inside and outside of the Puma community. Here's well-known nonfiction writer Susan Orlean on the subject of research and "being there."

Still want to know what this book will be like? Well, then I have a reading list for you. What kind of a professor would I be if I couldn't assign readings? To get an idea of what I'm trying to do, check out these books...

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.
Capote went to Holcomb, Kansas after he read a small blurb about a family that had been murdered in a botched robbery. Yes, I know Capote likely fabricated and condensed many facets of his narrative, but he spent copious amounts of time interviewing people in and researching the town of Holcomb. He pioneered the idea of the "nonfiction novel."

The Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer.
I read this book in grad school and it really opened up my eyes to what nonfiction writing could do. Mailer is master of phrasing as he describes his participation in a march on the Pentagon during the Vietnam War. His relation of the events plus his gestalt-like observations of himself in the moment changed everything. Very meta. The novel as history. History as a novel.

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe.
Research conveyed through the techniques of a fiction writer. True and riveting.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson.
Hunter is the man. This is "gonzo journalism" at its finest. It's a true story but the writer is very much in it and engaged. Seemingly breaking the rules of journalism, the writer could not get closer to the subject...and it works. I hope I can convey the very same sense of intimacy in my book...only without all the drug use. Then again, maybe I should have been using drugs. Might've made the final days of St. Joe more bearable. But I digress...

This is not to say that I place myself or my work on equal parity with any of these writers or their books. Not at all. They are models, templates to follow. In fact, my biggest hope is simply that I can do justice to the people who were there at Saint Joseph's College and lived through this whole nightmare.

Also, this all depends on me finding a publisher who is interested. If any Pumas out there know of someone and want to help out, hit me up.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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