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Dave Jauss' last lesson 

A UALR creative writing icon steps down.

click to enlarge Dr. Dave Jauss image
  • Brian Chilson
  • Dr. Dave Jauss

After 34 years of teaching at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the English department's creative writing professor Dr. Dave Jauss is retiring. He's devotedly guided generations of students (myself included) through fiction and poetry workshops, teaching them the tools that make a good story.

It's a perfect space, Jauss believes, to teach writing. Stories incubate on two fronts: first, at a classroom level, where students share ideas and experiences, and classmates' feelings boil together. But stories also cook with years, so that the longer one's lived, the more advantages she has when writing fiction, which, Jauss says, is ultimately about the effects of time on people. UALR, then, is a great place for fiction writing students, whose classmates range across all demographics, including age. In the single fiction class I took with Jauss were several mothers in their mid-30s, coming back to school so they could one day teach classes of their own; students in their mid-to late-20s there to finish the degrees they began as teenagers, and a retired copywriter from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette named Bill.

Most books on the craft of fiction say, "write what you know," but in his introductory speech to the class, Jauss — who always sat behind a particle-board table, wearing either a short- or long-sleeved buttoned-up shirt and blinking at his students behind silver-rimmed glasses and a short white beard — argued for another guiding principle: Once you've discovered the things you know, you have the power to write into the things you don't. People who have a little more life experience understand this better than students who are young and steady on the traditional four-year route, Jauss thinks. Writing beyond ourselves is how writers discover things about themselves they didn't already know; this, he says, is how they discover their secret selves.

***

Jauss' ideas about writing come with well-earned authority. He has won two Pushcart Prizes and an O. Henry Prize, and has been anthologized in "Best American Short Stories." He's been granted a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, three fellowships from the Arkansas Arts Council and is a recipient of the Porter Fund Award for Literary Excellence. He taught the poets Lynda Hull and David Wojahn, and studied under Stephen Dunn, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2000. Dunn would ask him to read and comment on his work when they were at Southwest Minnesota State together, and they still often exchange their writing. Jauss' collection of criticism, "On Writing Fiction," is taught in more than a dozen creative writing programs all over the country.

When he first started working at UALR in 1980 after graduating from the University of Iowa (then and now the most prestigious creative writing program in the country), Jauss became the editor of the influential American literary magazine Crazyhorse. His professors at Southwest Minnesota State, Dunn and Philip Dacey, had been editing the magazine when he was an undergraduate, but it had jumped around since then and, though well respected, had become bankrupt and homeless by 1981. The editors reached out to Jauss, who raised enough funds with the help of Little Rock lawyer and writer Sandy McMath to pay off the magazine's latest debts and relocate the journal to Little Rock. Crazyhorse couldn't afford to pay its editors, and so on top of the four classes he taught every semester, Jauss read over 1,000 short story submissions every year for the next two decades without extra pay. The magazine published Bobbie Ann Mason, Andre Dubus and Dan Chaon within the 20 years he worked on it.

In 2005, Jauss also began mentoring Damien Echols. Early that year, he received an email from a friend telling him that there was "a pretty good writer on death row there in Arkansas." He'd believed the West Memphis Three — Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, convicted in the killings of three boys in West Memphis — were innocent since the first nodes of doubt began to surface in the '90s, but never thought he could do anything to help. When he found out Echols was a writer, though, he immediately made plans to see him. As time passed, Echols requested to see Jauss more often, and for the next seven years he served as Echols' writing advisor. He transcribed his writing and made only slight corrections to the growing book manuscript that eventually became "Life After Death." He's been like family to Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis, ever since they met that first year through the plexi-glass at the Varner Supermax Unit.

***

Traditionally, faculty members in creative writing workshops are called only by their first names. There is a certain degree of emotional risk in turning in a piece of creative work, and I think the purpose of this convention is to establish familiarity and trust between the student and the teacher. Jauss tried for years, when he first started teaching in the South, to get his students to call him by his preferred name, Dave. Mr. Jauss is his father; "David" is the compromise between "Dave" and "Mr. Jauss." The way he talks about it, all of these different names seem to represent different personalities. He no longer invites his classes to call him "Dave," and it feels weird for me to even imagine calling him anything but "Dr. Jauss," though this may not be the person he'd intended to be.

In the years since he started teaching, Jauss has unintentionally developed a kind of cult personality that's won him a band of devoted followers of varying writing talents and sanities. In his early years at UALR, a senior citizen named India Swepston started taking his classes every semester and didn't stop for the next 28 years. She published quite a bit of her work before she passed away a few years ago. A friend of mine, who graduated two years before I did, remembers a young man from her fiction classes whose mystery-adventure stories always involved magic-realism or a fantasy element, in which a "figure in a hooded cloak" would randomly appear, revealing only his trim white beard and silver spectacles before dissolving away into the night. The figure was obviously Jauss, but no one ever mentioned this aloud.

I think the intensity of his following has at least a little bit to do with Jauss' personality in the classroom: He lies back in his chair, surveying the class with a coolness that borders on the sarcastic (but not judgmental — he is everything but that). Fiction workshops are brutal, and criticism from your peers isn't easy to take. Jauss' jokes puncture the harshness like a balloon, and he always gives the author something positive to take back. He's kind, and quick, and his comments ring out sharper than those from the harshest critics. In my fiction class last semester, one student showed his appreciation for this wit by throwing his whole body back in his chair every time Jauss cracked a joke. "This dude," he'd say, while jabbing at Jauss with his finger, "gets me every time." He did this a few times every class.

Jauss has also helped a number of his acolytes move on to some of the most prestigious creative writing programs in the country. At least two students a year have left Arkansas to pursue their dreams as writers, including the poet Hull (who currently has him beat in Pushcart Prizes — she stacked up four of them before she died in 1994.) Some years, as many as six graduates from the department at UALR have been accepted to creative writing programs around the country. This is a high volume for such a small department, particularly one with no more than two or three creative writing faculty members typically on staff at any given time, and much of this is due to the care that Jauss takes with his students' work. He has a way of narrowing in on the psychology of a story that's uncanny, even haunting, as his former student and current UALR creative writing Professor Nickole Brown told me. She pointed out what I couldn't articulate when looking at the careful comments he'd left on the stories I gave him over the course of the semester: He assesses a story's form and structure and seems to be able to track an author's inner program of creativity. He gets inside the story but also inside the mind of the writer. It's addictive to be his student — having someone trace your process for you, read into the heart of your work. It's like having an analyst.

***

Until just a few weeks ago, the walls of Jauss' office in the UALR English Department were ribbed floor-to-ceiling with a portion of his book collection. It wasn't like the offices of other English professors, whose shelves tend to be weighted mostly by specialized books on literary theory. Jauss' shelves were home to story collections, books of poetry, novels. The top row was exclusively books on jazz, one of his lasting passions. It's gotten to the point, he said, where every wall in his house is lined with books, except for the bathrooms. "My house is kind of like a library. I look at rows and rows of books as just being extra insulation. They're like friends: I don't want to lose them. And I've found over the years — I've given lots of books away — and I find that almost inevitably after I give a book away I find a need for it."

But when we met a few weeks ago, his office was a skeleton of its former self — bare shelves against sad walls. His desk had been cleared of all the stacks of students' stories and departmental memos. He's thoroughly planned for his retirement, which became official in late May — he wants to spend it fly fishing (which he loves because it "gives you a socially acceptable reason for standing in the middle of a river") and spending more time with his grandkids, who are 8 and 3.

Jauss has tried to pass on as much institutional memory as possible to the remaining creative writing faculty — currently just the poet Brown and the Times' own David Koon, who was also his student. He respects them both, as writers and as people. Of Koon he says, "He was an extraordinary student, an excellent writer," and of Brown, who will pick up most of the courses he's leaving behind, simply, "She's perfect." As we talked about his life and career and the quiet years of retirement to come, his voice echoed a little against the blank space that another professor's books will soon fill.

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