Peter Selgin, MFA
Affiliate Faculty, MFA in Creative Writing Program
Peter Selgin (fiction, creative nonfiction) is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, Life Goes to the Movies, a novel, several books for children, and three books on the craft of fiction writing, the most recent of which, Your First Page: first pages and what they tell us about the pages that follow them, was published in 2017 by Serving House Books. His memoir, The Inventors, won the 2017 Housatonic Book Award. Of it the Library Journal’s reviewer wrote, “It is a book destined to become a modern American classic.” His stories and essays have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including Glimmer Train Stories, The Sun, Slate, Colorado Review, Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, Best American Essays 2009, and Best American Travel Writing 2014. Confessions of a Left-Handed Man: An Artist’s Memoir was published by the University of Iowa Press and short-listed for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. His novel, The Water Master, won the 2012 William Faulkner William Wisdom Prize, and his essay, “The Kuhreihen Melody,” won the Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize and the Dana Award for the Essay. Another essay, “My New York: A Romance in Eight Parts,” has been chosen by guest editor Paul Theroux for inclusion in Best American Travel Writing 2014. Selgin’s paintings and illustrations have appeared in the New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, Outside, Gourmet, and other publications. Selgin is also an award-winning playwright. His full-length play, A God in the House, based on Dr. Kevorkian and his suicide device, was a Eugene O’Neill National Playwright’s Conference Winner. He teaches at Antioch University’s MFA in Creative Writing program and is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia College & State University.
Life Goes to the Movies
Your First Page: first pages and what they tell us about the pages that follow them
The Water Master
We’d meet in his Greenwich Village apartment, a creaky duplex across the street from the Jefferson Market. During prohibition it had been a speakeasy; the Judas window was still there. An oval recess in the ceiling commemorated the existence of a small stage. We’d sit side by side at his long oak dining room table walled in by books. Except where a set of tall drafty windows faced Sixth Avenue (and whose sills his wife, Nancy, had adorned with cobalt blue bottles) every inch of the place, from its warped floorboards to its stamped tin ceiling, groaned with books.
Armed with his Mont Blanc fountain pen, my mentor* slashed through my sentences, slathering them with ink, making me read first my version and then his, and see that his was always superior. For eighteen months we did this, until I began to bridle at my mentor’s “improvements.” By then it didn’t matter. I’d learned what he had to teach me: never allow a dead or droopy sentence—a sentence not worth reading twice. In those eighteen months, I became the next best thing to a poet: I became a stylist.
From my apprenticeship I also learned that not only can creative writing be taught, it has to be taught, since it has to be learned. But good writing teachers don’t so much teach us how to write as they teach us how to read ourselves and others. Those books lining my mentor’s shelves: they were the real teachers, but to learn directly from them without his guidance would have taken me much, much longer.
The writing teacher’s job is, or should be, I think, less about guiding students toward any particular habits or aesthetic than about turning them into more sophisticated readers. Once we can really see what we have put on the page—as opposed to what’s in our minds or what we feel—then we can judge, and if we can judge then we can edit. And editing is where so much of the best work gets done.
Above all I’d like my students to have strong opinions about what they read and write, to care deeply about words and sentences, to forge cast-iron principles such that, no matter what anyone (including me) tells them, they write, ultimately, like no one but themselves.
I’ll work with writers individually to design a program that suits their needs. Together we’ll arrive at a schedule for submitting work, how much and when, and the kinds of feedback that I’ll offer. Reading and other assignments will be given on an as needed basis.