Making sure that students have well-rounded liberal arts educations is something that I know every professor here at the University of Evansville is constantly focusing and refocusing on. During the Creative Writing Senior Seminar I teach, I always invite guests who are living a writing life in to speak to my writers: I want them to see how people use the degree to do a number of jobs that branch off from the original major. However, a few years ago, I began realizing that introducing writing students to other writers was a limited way of teaching how to live a creative life. I’m lucky that my students have always been down to try just about anything— I’m not sure that I always deserve the trust they’ve imbued in me, but they are willing to experiment. The biggest experiment of my career so far has landed us in a wonderful place both for students, for me as a professor, and for the university at large: I can very genuinely say that there are coastal universities that don’t have some of the opportunities we’ve had in the last year or two.

 Last year, I taught Editing and Publishing, and right before the semester started, I realized that we weren’t going to have a journal to publish or any real help in that area. Many of my students are involved in Student Media through The Crescent, so I wasn’t worried about them not getting any experience, but I was concerned that they were going to miss out on formative undergraduate experiences like editing for a magazine or soliciting submissions. Day one, I walked in and told them I didn’t have a syllabus and that we’d have to create one together: it was their responsibility to tell me what they wanted to learn.

By Friday of that week? They’d bought a domain for Mania Magazine and started writing submission calls. (They’re currently on their third issue online and they’ve posted the guidelines for submitting to the fourth: I have nothing to do with it. Mania belongs to the students who created it, and that means not only are they the co-founders of a literary journal, but they have years of experience in editing.)  One of the things that made that class so special, though, was that we would sometimes experiment outside of just the chosen syllabus. When the David Bowie documentary Moonage Daydream came out, student Sam Tarter suggested we all go see it. I’m covered in Bowie tattoos and his posters and quotes litter every room I can call mine, so I thought the students were just doing me a favor. I had no idea how much all of our lives were about to change for the better.

Seeing the movie was one thing— it was a phenomenal, experimental movie that paid homage to Bowie’s love not just of music but of all art and the ways in which they interact and discuss each other— but later that night, while I was debating the merits of director Brett Morgen’s choice to leave out Bowie’s 90s era on Twitter. Surprising me, especially, Morgen (esteemed director of other music documentaries like Montage of Heck and Crossfire Hurricane) jumped into the conversation and led to the beginning of a paradigm shift in Creative Writing at the University of Evansville – he asked if I’d like him to come speak to my class. On Zoom, of course – UE wasn’t suddenly in LA,  and we weren’t suddenly going on that kind of field trip. But when he showed up in his bathrobe, ready to talk about not just editing and making the movie but about telling a story from found materials, to discuss the challenges of standing in for a complicated and dynamic figure like Bowie, and perhaps most exciting to me, about the conversations he had with Bowie before his untimely death in 2016, I realized that we had just had a touchstone moment that no one in that room would ever forget. Brett Morgen is a self-made creative man who lives a life where he makes whatever movie he wants to make, and he was handing my undergrads the keys to the kingdom. He wound up being nominated for twenty-plus awards for Moonage Daydream, and he won two Primetime Emmys and a Grammy. He was also shortlisted for the Oscars for Best Documentary.

This is likely not the kind of person my students thought they were going to be interacting with in landlocked southern Indiana.

After that, I just started looking around. We’re fortunate that we’ve had people like Barry Harbaugh (an alum who has worked for Amazon’s OneStory and works in various publishing jobs), Taylor Gates (an alum who writes short films and has won several awards on the short film circuit, as well as running podcasts), Rachel Ghazal (an alum who has YA books that are doing well in terms of sales and critical acclaim), and Mellinda Helmsly (who has worked in TV and writers’ rooms) who usually take time to come speak with our students and talk about the circuitous path to success. But this year, I decided to keep my eyes open. One day, I was running on a treadmill watching SportsCenter (we don’t have ESPN at home: I run a lot more than I used to), and I saw that behind the young man talking about college football was a copy of Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. I didn’t even have time to think how much that made me like him before I realized there was an Evansville Aces shirt on the same bookshelf. Once again, through the magic of Twitter, we connected, and Harry Lyles Jr., who wrote the definitive piece on the 40th Anniversary of the Plane Crash, spoke to my senior seminar about the ways in which he’d built a career despite not taking writing courses in college. He talked about the books he uses when he’s working on something new, and how he got used to being in front of a camera. These are skills that I think translate, but much more importantly, I think they broaden the scale of what students even imagine they can do, and that’s the most useful thing a guest can do.

This year, I’m teaching a course on How to Write About Music, and I’ve been lucky enough to have guests like The Aquarian Weekly’s James Campion before, but this year, I shot high and messaged Rhett Miller, the lead singer of the Old 97’s (who just celebrated their 30th anniversary), the man behind StageIt’s success during the pandemic, the host of a podcast on mental health and creativity called Wheels Off, the author of a viral article in The Atlantic about his experience on 9/11, and the children’s poet. I knew it was a ridiculous ask: the Old 97’s were about to go on tour for their thirteenth record, American Primitive, and I was asking for an hour of his time, not to tell me about writing or about the record itself (or even about his time working with James Gunn on the Marvel movies, though… it came up… the band played in the Guardians of the Galaxy Christmas special and it’s hard not to ask about something so cool). I almost didn’t know how to explain what I wanted: I wanted him to, as an artist, tell us questions he hates answering, questions he loves, and then to pivot and talk about how he approaches interviews for his podcast.

He BEYOND killed it. Just by joining our class and being himself, Rhett brought a joy and a delight in creation that was invigorating, but he also had practical advice. He reminded students that interviews should be conversational, but they should also be vulnerable. He allowed me to showcase what a good interview looks like, while also discussing it on a meta-level: we talked about when we were listening to each other and pivoting away from the questions we started with, and he was willing to roll with the changes. He also took questions from the students and was so generous with his time. He expressed gratitude that so many people are still interested in learning how to interview artists and engage more deeply with music. And perhaps best of all, for me, I got to show my students that no matter how used to an experience you get (I’ve done hundreds of interviews), I was still nervous— and I pulled it off, anyway. Rhett Miller has been the undisputed King of Dallas in my mind since I was in middle school, and it took a lot of nervous energy for me to approach an hour-long interview in front of a class with someone I’d admired most of my life.

But from Brett Morgen to Harry Lyles Jr. to Rhett Miller, the Creative Writing students are being exposed to auteur filmmakers, SportsCenter superstars, and journeymen rock stars, all of whom have great advice about living a creative life, saying ‘yes’ to the scary experiences, and— honestly— who are giving them an opportunity to see me, a professor with two decades of experience in interviews, a little out of my depth and a little nervous so that they know that doesn’t just go away. In fact, I hope it never does: the nervous energy is just one way of processing the excitement over an unpredictable life full of meeting wonderful people who help widen my perspective on what ‘creative writing’ means.

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