Wednesday, September 25th, we kick off this year’s English Readings and Lectures Series with a visit from a dear friend of the Department. Professor Emeritus Louis Masson—“Dr. Lou” as he is fondly known to students and alumni—will read from his new book Across the Quad, a collection of essays springing from his 40-plus years of teaching on the Bluff. We recently talked with Dr. Lou about his writing, and about his feelings about UP and the study of English since he retired in 2011. Read on for his answers, and plan to attend what will surely be a terrific reading, next Wednesday, 7:45, in Mago Hunt Recital Hall.
What made you start writing?
Reading. I was read to and then read for myself. All writers begin as readers. My friend and often editor, Brian Doyle, and I talk about this sometimes and conclude that writing is a bug or a virus. And once you are really stricken by it, you never really stop writing. Writers write. Good stuff or not so good stuff, they “write on, man,” as we used to say back in the day. At some point, in my case 2nd year of college after falling in love with poetry and short stories I wrote a sonnet that was published in the college’s literary magazine–I was hooked. So who made me write? Chekhov, Updike, Capote, Hopkins, and Frost–my first literary loves.
What are your approaches to writing? What is your typical writing process?
My first steps are always filled with fear and excitement. The blank page or screen always intimidates. I approach it as hard work that leaves me exhausted but in a very pleasant way, like the labor of turning over my garden beds and planting. I have never found it easy. My writing process? No one ever asked me that before. I fear it is a bit like the approach I took to teaching: I found what worked by trial and error and just did it rather than analyze how I was doing it. Not much of an answer.
I suppose a better answer would be that I am a walker, at least an hour a day, and on my walks my mind wanders and it suggests ways that I might think about a writing project my editor suggested or a idea will come willy nilly and I will play with it. Once I have met the idea, I court it for a few weeks, jotting on a piece of paper I always have in my pockets words that stand for an image or episode I want to write about. And finally, I take the plunge and sit before my computer. It usually takes me three sittings over a five-day period to write a one or two thousand word essay. I do not do drafts. I go from sentence to sentence very slowly. And then paragraph to paragraph. I tend to read each addition aloud, and when I get stuck I read aloud from the first paragraph. I find the first sentences the hardest. I would not get through an essay without some pacing, several cups of tea, and, perhaps, a glass of sherry or port.
How does your most recent work differ from those previously published?
This is a hard one to answer. Like, I said, I don’t like to analyze how I do it, I just want to do it. But I suspect that like most writers early on I found my voice, as they say, and that voice like my speaking voice
ages as I do. And at 70, you don’t quite see the world as you did at 30. But I would like to think that young and old I have found wonder in the every-day world and music in written words.
What do you miss about the University of Portland?
It would be easier to tell you what I don’t miss! I grew up in a small New England town, and when I arrived at the U, it reminded me of living in an almost secluded and ideal village where you felt you knew almost every one–sounds like Cheers. So many interesting and good people–students, staff, teachers–living next to a beautiful river under the gaze of a glorious mountain. I miss the village life.
Why do you think English is worth studying as an undergraduate and/or graduate student?
A few years ago, this would have been a much easier question to answer. But with the cost of college today, the terrible job market, and tragic drift of our country, I found advising, honest advising, difficult.
Something I was glad to leave behind when I retired. I could give you the usual pitch about how it could be the foundation for all sorts of opportunities: teaching, writing, editing, law, marketing, business–I even have a brother who majored in English and is now a professor of theology. But all those opportunities have to be measured against real risks in this very uncertain time. So I advise speaking to more than one of your profs about what the world is really like for an English major these days. If they are honest with you there should be cautions as well as encouragement.
What can your audience next Wednesday expect to hear?
It’s going to be a happening, so I’m not going to spoil the potential for surprises–pleasant I hope. There will be no quizzes afterwards and no door prize. And I will keep my eye on the students who come late and sit in the back row by the exit!!!