It's one of his rituals. Once every semester, Tristan Davies leads his writing class in Gilman Hall up a final flight of stairs into Johns Hopkins University's clock tower. Outside on the rail, it's as clingy and windy as any lighthouse, with 360 degrees of stories out there, waiting to be reeled in.
By the book, good teaching requires subject mastery, rapport, relevance, enjoyment and listening. But ask Davies' graduate students from this past semester and they'll say good teaching is giving them a panoramic look at the imagination's possibilities - along with wit and wisdom and unfailing commitment to their writing lives.
A senior lecturer in the Hopkins Writing Seminars program, Tristan Davies' subject was "Formative Genres," a heady phrase for classic forms of writing such as the Romance and Confession. His 11 students had to write three short fiction pieces and read work from Albert Camus, Julian Barnes and Gustave Flaubert.
In return, they graduated Thursday from Hopkins with a master's degree. Many will teach, some will write, others will do other things. But from January to May, they were together, a class, with a class teacher.
Diet Pepsis and Cheez-Its served as the students' place settings around the table in Room 500, which is more of a Florida room with a cross breeze. Every Thursday for five months, their short stories were "work-shopped." Being critiqued can be like dancing alone without music in front of other people. This can be a brutal experience or a constructive one - it depends on the mood set by the teacher.
During one class in March, Angshuman Chakraborty is mute as his story is work-shopped. It involves a painfully human decision regarding an adoption - in this case, the adoption of an otter. Davies - in smart tweed and tie - praises the story but likens otters to "mucous-covered rodents. Otters are creepy," he says. The students fend off Davies' otter bias and articulate their high opinion of Chakraborty's story.
"I really like your reading of it," Davies tells them. The 39-year-old Davies is the eternal student. He is not full of concrete, loud opinions. He listens and talks and listens some more. A born teacher? Maybe. Certainly, Davies was born to read.
He comes from a family of readers. Dinner time in his Colorado home was run like a graduate seminar. As a boy, Tristan read "Horatio Hornblower" novels and is slightly embarrassed by that now. It wasn't an English class that excited him, however. He loved geometry in school but more accurately, he loved his geometry teacher. Davies had the feeling he alone mattered. There was a connection between teacher and student.
At home, Davies picked up a Yamaha guitar when he was 7. He remembers his father trying to teach his mother how to play it. There was not a connection. So, Susan Davies turned to her son to teach her to strum along with Tom Rush songs. Tristan taught his mother a few simple chords and, in return, he received a few simple words about his teaching. "You're good at that." He was good.
But life, unlike geometry, doesn't stay in the lines. By 1985, Davies - recently graduated from Brown - found himself in San Francisco with plans to become a movie director and screenwriter - not a teacher. He enrolled, loosely, at a film school in the bay area. Davies found himself in a class attended by exceedingly beautiful women and one greasy-looking instructor. What kind of films were these? As the only male student in a suspicious film class, Davies took his exit. "I lasted four days."
There was always law school. Tristan's parents did have the boy saying "habeas corpus" at age 3. Davies' father, Leonard Davies, was a civil rights lawyer who represented Black Panthers in the 1960s. His son Tristan would later be accepted into law school at Georgetown University in Washington. But a college professor from Brown put in a word for Davies with John Barth - then the signature name in the Hopkins writing program. Davies' head was spun toward Baltimore. Over coffee, novelist Stephen Dixon suggested Davies could defer law school for one year and get a master's at Hopkins. Plus, they would pay him to teach.
So, Davies wrote stories and taught. "I loved teaching. I was hooked." But he had a lot to learn. In Davies' inaugural "Introduction to Creative Writing" course in September 1986, he gave students a prepared speech. His new colleague, Dixon, told him after class: Relax. Be yourself. Have fun. No more speeches.
Sixteen years later, Davies is still at Hopkins teaching. He's married and has a 6-year-old daughter named Olivia and a 3-year-old son, Emlyn. Davies teaches two classes a week and annually reads more than 100 student short stories. "There's always some heartbeat in there," he says. The stories are the students' china, given him to hold and not break. "You have to be really, really careful about that."
"His teaching is superb. Most of all, Tris demands more work, and he gets more work. He commands respect," says Dixon.
Davies has not missed film school.
A round of criticism
"Where's Angshuman?" Davies asks during class. The seriously smart Angshuman Chakraborty was scheduled to be the primary critic on Jacquie Marino's story. Chakraborty is out with a fever, the teacher is informed. What, a little cold, a few sniffles? Davies asks. "You're not the toughest grad students I've ever taught," he says, in his warm, sarcastic way.
Christine Grillo leads the critique of Marino's story, "Marie's Gift: A Romance." When Pierre Marchand first saw Acadia, a woman was vomiting on his shoes. "Well," Davies says of the first line, "she provided a hook." He's impressed with Marino's pacing. "The way you keep us going is amazing, absolutely amazing." These writers don't need their semicolons challenged; they might need help with structure and endings. Beginnings are no problem - unless they belong at the end; beginnings and endings often can trade places.
Marino remembers a teacher telling her one of her stories was "inept." It stung enough for her to bring up the comment months later. A writer can't be so fragile to wilt under criticism; then again, the tag "inept" may not be conducive to artistic development and confidence. She feels her writing is safe here: safe to succeed, safe to fail.
At any given moment, Davies will tell a little story. (He has many.) He once had a short story sent back from an editor, who apparently had tried to use the pages to roll a joint. Davies found marijuana buds in his rejected short story. He's heard of story pages returned with foot prints on them because the pages had spilled on the floor of some editor's office. But pot leaves accompanying a rejection letter? Well, it's better - certainly more imaginative - than hearing your story is inept.
The next week, student Andre Young is back following the unexpected death of his mother.
"How are you doing? Davies asks.
"I'm a little crazy. I don't really care about school. I sleep a lot. But I'm here."
"Yes," Davies says, "you're here." Sympathy and affirmation all in one response.
When teaching, Davies doesn't speechify. Energy doesn't get sucked out of the room by too much lecturing. His teaching is laced with concepts such as "internal cogency" or "background radiation" - the internal logic in a story, or the sense of something interesting happening off-stage. Then Davies will downshift and ask the class to explain Kid Rock and whether his music is intentionally bad in a creative effort to be post-ironic.
"You're giving him too much credit just thinking about it," says John Woods. It's a funny, relaxing moment: Davies was itching to discuss, God knows, the internal cogency of Kid Rock's music before the class talked him down. The students feel they can say and, more importantly, write anything.
"In Tristan's class, we can break out of our mold," Grillo says. The 32-year-old Hampden resident is the only mother in the class. Parenthood gave birth to her fiction. "What did I write about before?"
When he was a student, Davies was a student of teachers: what worked and what didn't. Often, he thought he could teach better: be more passionate, more accessible - not just with office hours - but "emotionally accessible," as student Shanthi Sekaran calls him. And don't forget humor, which is a serious teaching aid.
John Woods' cell phone rings during class. "Is it ... a drug deal?" Davies asks. The room cracks up, then the teacher rolls out stories about how famous writers are shorter in person and how the last two chapters of Moby Dick made him cry when he was 19. Davies was flying over Kansas, and the man next to him in the plane bought him a drink. Literature can make you cry and drink.
Davies likes Grillo's story about a dying diabetic mother who eats grapes and her daughter who brings home a boyfriend after an amorous ride in a taxi cab. Davies, wide-eyed, is thrilled to learn that sugar-loaded grapes are terrible for diabetics. He did not know this. A new fact from a new story brings Davies visible joy.
In early April, the class critiques Andre Young's story about an AIDS health care worker who doesn't believe in safe sex. In his story, Young takes off on a flight of literary fancy about a man exploring a leather bar: I bet the big guy ... has the helium heels and dreams of pleasing, more milkmaid than regina despite his duds.
"That rocks. That's why we have the English language," Davies says, as others in class privately ask themselves: What the heck do helium heels and regina mean?
Moments later, he says: "Can I just say something? You guys are wrong. Kid Rock is a master ironist of the first order." Whether it's ancient Greek texts or modern-Southern-hip-hop-heavy metal music, Davies' curiosity makes the rounds. As Alison Presley says, "How can you fault a teacher that relates your story to a WWF fight he saw?"
This is Young's best story of the semester, his teacher and classmates concur. He wrote it just before his mother died; he didn't revise it. He spun it from his heart. Given the intimacy of Young's story - he was a health care worker in Washington - he might not have wanted to share his story. But it was safe here.
How does a teacher at this level feel rewarded? When students compete to work again with their teacher. Hopkins' one-year graduate writing program has been extended to a second-year program for 10 writers. Several of the 10 students who applied for the Coleman Fellowship want to continue their work started in Davies' class.
Chakraborty, a Coleman Fellowship winner, has been assigned to work with Davies again next year. John Woods, another Coleman winner, taught fiction writing to high school students at the Carver Center this past semester.
"I have actually thought about Tristan's method in the classroom," Woods says. "He presents himself as a peer. When he presents an idea he doesn't expect his students to accept it as gospel."
Kid Rock, master ironist? Hardly.
One never knows where Davies' mental Rolodex will land. One day, Davies tells the class that unlike Survivor cast members, Gilligan's Island castaways have not been stripped of their social identities. The Professor knows who he is. The Skipper knows who he is, etc. And, somehow, they have a radio on the island! "That's very, very cool," Davies says. "It's a canny forevision of the Internet."
The class mulls this over - but not for too long. Sometimes Davies is simply entertaining - not a bad teacher feature. Good teachers also know and bring good guests.
Lightning zaps around the ivory tower that is also Room 500, where there's a ringer in the house in late April. John Glusman is editor-in-chief at publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Glusman - Hugh Grant comes to mind - has read a batch of stories from the class. Glusman cuts to the business of writing. "Why should I be reading this? Why do I care?" he asks of any writing. It's reminiscent of what Davies instructs his students to ask of their work: "Who is telling the story and why?"
With the final class two weeks away, Davies' students make a shocking decision. They vote to extend class another week.
Three stories are critiqued in the next week, including a clever piece by Susan Domagalski called "Scars: An Anatomy." A scar is a sign of healing ... there are eleven rock bands in the world with Scar in the name ... cutting becomes an addiction. Anxious teens feel calmer once they have cut themselves ... no scar can be completely removed.
Susan has been thinking how she's felt free to go anywhere in her writing. "It's like when we went up into the bell tower. 'Is that OK?' 'Can we do that?' Then, 'Wow, this is cool,'" she says.
"That's the metaphor for this class."
What about Davies' own writing? He is considered a fine writer, but it's hard to imagine someone as absorbed in teaching finding or making time for a full writing life. He does write short stories, which tend to be about the upper-middle class - "the tension of family life and the flights of fancy," says department chair and author Jean McGarry. "Tristan is a modern-day Cheever." But Davies hasn't had a book published yet, and publication leads to tenure.
Last week, Davies learned his collection of short stories, The Thing Itself, will be published by the Johns Hopkins University Press next spring. "It's the all-important first step," the author says, before correcting himself.
No, the all-important first step all along has been his teaching.
During the bonus round in early May, Davies finally takes off his blazer and loosens his tie. The end must be near.
"Thank you very much guys," he says, after the last round of stories is critiqued. The next order of business is arranging an end-of-term gathering. "Have you come to a conclusion?" Davies asks Susan Domagalski. Indeed. Happy Hour awaits the class at the Charles Village Pub: two-for-one drinks. Rum-and-Cokes, for starters.
At the watering hole, Angshuman Chakraborty says he's off to Mississippi for the summer with $20 in his pocket to wait tables and write stories. Christine Grillo still has a stack of papers to grade from her undergraduate class before she can exhale. Robyn Ewing, perhaps the toughest critic in the class, will soon have her poetry published.
Others plan to marry after graduation. Others will be back teaching and writing at Hopkins next year, while others might move to New York and try to break into publishing. Several will work on novels, knowing too well that short story collections rarely sell. Some will wonder, who among the class will break out? Whose novel will be published first? And next fall, Tristan Davies will be back in Room 500 with another class of fiction writers taking the field trip into the clock tower.
For tonight in Charles Village, the students and teacher raise their two-for-one drinks to toast one another.
"Cheers," they cheer.
As with other stories, the ending is really the beginning.