Murray Hill Resident Leads Popular Creative Writing Course
Published January 22, 2008
Laura Oliver s students are a mixed lot: an admiral might be sitting next to an 18-year-old, an attorney and a housewife struggle with the same metaphor.
They're all in Mrs. Oliver's classroom to soak up that ether of creativity that surrounds her. It colors and lifts her speech above the mundane level of the 6 o'clock news.
In an essay, entitled "First Night," Mrs. Oliver wrote: "They've gambled tonight, paid actual money for a class that won't give them a marketable skill and may in fact require self disclosure and fortitude, yet they are here and their longing is palpable."
For 11 years the Murray Hill resident has taught a class at St. John's College that is so popular, the school's undergrads are not allowed to repeat, so as to make the class accessible to a greater number of students.
It is a creative writing course offered through St. John's Fine Arts School called "Catch and Release: Writing the Personal Narrative."
Fifty percent of the class seats are reserved for members of the St. John's community - students, graduate students, faculty and staff. The remaining seats are open to area residents.
"Personal narratives are stories crafted from life experience. These stories may take the form of essays, vignettes or memoirs, but each narrative exposes a point of connection between the personal and the universal," she said. In the class students learn "to plumb the depth of experience for emotional truth and to shape that journey on the page in a way that engages the reader."
Beyond the ABCs and rules of grammar, she noted creative writing is taught much the way "someone teaches another to draw or to sing. All the arts are creative and all expressions of creativity can be enhanced by learning the skills of that particular craft.
"It is my intent to inspire my students to find their true subjects, their authentic writing voices and then to learn how to make the writing itself shine, how to make it compelling," she said.
In her course, the group reads essays "that move and delight, we learn how to use metaphor and simile to deepen a work and give it a unique voice, and how to describe in ways that are evocative and memorable."
It is not an easy elective. Students have to read, practice and do heavy lifting with their imaginations.
Acupuncturist Camilla Schwarz,a firstptime student, found the course "transformative."
"I found a voice I didn't know I had and I found the courage to use it," Ms. Schwarz said.
"I found my voice by doing what she suggested: just start writing without the 'guidance' of your internal critic.
"Her astute insights and suggestions took me beyond where I thought I could go. What I really appreciated was that I came away with a sense that good writing isn't something totally mysterious and God-given. It is a combination of innate talent and the elegant application of skills that can be taught."
Student Therese Borchard said Ms. Oliver is a bit like a midwife, or a healer, in that she sees the potential that the writer often can't. And she facilitates the process of that writer being born. And reborn. And reborn." Ms. Borchard would love to take the course again, except she's too busy writing.
In addition to two writing courses at St. John's Mrs. Oliver also teaches a fiction-writing course at the University of Maryland , Baltimore County "My job is to absolutely respect each and every person there," Mrs. Oliver said. "Help them find their real story, their voice, the emotional truth. I want to inspire them to write something that makes them want to write more."
Mrs. Oliver practices what she preaches. Her essays have been published in The Washington Post and Country Living magazine. Her fiction has appeared in national and regional literary reviews, including The Baltimore Review and Glimmer Train.
She is a 2006 recipient of the Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction and a top 25 finalist for Glimmer Train's Very Short Fiction Award, Summer 2007.
Inspired by the classic "how-to" tome revered by writing instructors, Anne Lamott's "Bird By Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life," Mrs. Oliver has written her own book.
"Mighty With Song: Creative Writing Principles for Mind and Heart," is a series of stand-alone essays about her experiences as a teacher who is always learning.
"Mighty With Song" uses lessons absorbed from her students. "When you teach a craft, you stay connected to the craft," she said. "I have to read a lot. What feeds them, feeds me. When something ignites my inner voice, I can't wait to get it to class."
Like many authors, she's also received rejection letters. Lots. But lately, they haven't been form letters. "I receive great rejection letters from New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly," magazines she said.
Mrs. Oliver's husband, Clay, a 1973 Naval Academy graduate and former academy instructor, is a naval architect who has been involved with the America 's Cup.The family spent several years living in New Zealand , while he worked on America s Cup projects in that country.
They have three children who make frequent appearances in their mother's works: Audra 27, a resident of Southampton, England ; Andrew, 24, who returned to New Zealand ; and Emily, 19, a Severn School graduate studying at Colgate University Hamilton, N.Y.
Mrs. Oliver earned her bachelor of arts degree in English from Washington College in Chestertown, and a master of fine arts degree in creative writing and literature from Bennington College in Vermont . At various points in her career, she worked as an editor for Chesapeake Bay and Chesapeake Living magazines, and has been a marketing copywriter.
"My students write to explore people, events, relationships and feelings they don't quite understand. They write to cherish, to remember, to discover and to honor what matters to them. They write to entertain," she said.
"I help them learn to do that in a way that is both intensely personal and universal as well. This, in my mind, is just a little of what it means to teach someone to write."
"Catch and Release: Writing the Personal Narrative," a 10-week class taught by Mrs.
Oliver, begins Feb. 12. Classes are from
She also teaches "Creative Writing: The Craft of Story" on Wednesday evenings, starting Feb. 13. Tuition for each course is $175.
Call 410-626-2881 410-626-2881 to register or for more information. For online information, go to www.stjohnscollege.edu.