by Amanda Nicklaus
On Monday, April 17, students and faculty gathered in the Massey Boardroom to listen to Dr. Gary McDowell speak as part of the Robert E. Simmons Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series. The Series, named in memory of the former Dean of the School of Humanities and Education, provides faculty members in the College of Arts & Sciences an opportunity to share significant research with colleagues. Simmons Lecturers are chosen based on a “high level of teaching and level of accomplishments,” according to current Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences Bryce Sullivan. McDowell certainly fits this description. Holding a Ph.D. in American literature, creative writing, and poetry, he is an accomplished author, with publications including seven books, 150 poems, six critical essays, and eleven interviews, as well as having over fifty awards to his name.
His lecture, titled “On Being One on Whom Nothing is Lost: A Writer in Search of a Genre,” outlined McDowell’s writing journey as he tried his hand at several different genres. He knew he wanted to tell stories, he said, but a professor in grad school, upon reading one of his short stories, told him bluntly, “You’re not good at this.” She did, however, suggest trying poetry, and McDowell’s love of language moved him forward, this time satisfying his affinity for storytelling through the intentional, colorful language of poetry.
Eventually, McDowell published a few books of poetry. Many of them were shaped by his life at the time, experiencing marriage and the struggle of a newborn who wouldn’t sleep through the night. He refers to this as a “transformative time,” reflecting that the physical world “became both a playground and tapestry.” However, this growth period led McDowell to realize that the content of his poems didn’t always fit into the structure of what might be considered poetry, and soon he began writing lyric essays, enabling him to better articulate his ideas in that framework.
McDowell’s growth as a writer clearly can be seen in his attempts at different genres of writing. Not surprisingly, he has come full circle, and is whole-heartedly working on fiction, the genre that drew him in to begin. This time, his storytelling is strengthened by his focus on poetry, and he is able to master the structure of the stories he is telling after exploring how content relates to form. “I think it’s a novel,” he joked, as he shared scenes from his current project. He recognizes that his writing now carries the characteristics of several genres.
The excerpts show those influences. The prose is poetic, and now he is clearly writing about what he knows, which he admits was his initial mistake—attempting to write about that which he did not know. Now, in paying close attention to the details of his life and his writing, it is clear that McDowell is not only, as Henry James put it, “one on whom nothing is lost,” but is convinced that this is the way for writers to find their voice. After Dr. McDowell shared his journey with us, I too am inspired to look at the pieces of my writing, and my life, with new eyes, to try to be that writer on whom nothing is lost.
Amanda Nicklaus is a Junior BU English major.