Reflection: Elizabeth Gaffney

From Herman Melville to Haruki  Murakami, from Lorrie Moore to Philip K. Dick, my students have loved and hated the stories and novels I’ve given them to read. They’ve written works that are real literary triumphs and turned in some awfully big messes. I sometimes think I like it best when they hate the texts we read together—what passion, what ruthless analytical insight! And I definitely love it when they take the gigantic risks that sometimes lead to flops—what vision, fresh forms, and wonderfully weird ideas! For when can one chisel out one’s own taste and style, when can one be as outrageous as one must to be an artist, if not in college? And where if not at the inspiringly named Riggio Program for Writing and Democracy?

If I do my job, which I see as preaching the gospel of the written word and its use in manipulating other people’s minds, my students come away from a semester of reading, writing, and repeated rounds of editing with a renewed faith that literature matters—because it can sometimes, at its very best, change a reader’s life. And the great thing is, every time I teach a Riggio class—every time I read my students’ work, every time I try to unravel with them the workings of a great story we’re reading together, I am rewarded with the same thing: a reinvigoration of my own belief that because words are how we communicate with one another, the very matrix of our society, every act of literature has the potential to make another person—or one’s self—see the world anew, and thus to alter that world.

Read Elizabeth Gaffney’s “Down the Manhole,” and watch an interview with her.

Elizabeth Gaffney is the author of the novel Metropolis, which was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection.  She has translated three books from German, and her stories have appeared in many literary magazines.  She worked as a staff editor at George Plimpton’s Paris Review and currently is editor at large of the literary magazine A Public Space.  Gaffney has been a resident artist at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony and the Blue Mountain Center.

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