Dual Loss: The Death of a Mentor and the End of a Graduate Program
On October 31, 2018, the world lost Louise DeSalvo, acclaimed memoirist, craft scholar, expert on Virginia Woolf, and writer of instrumental texts like Writing as a Way of Healing. I say world, but this should be plural — worlds — for Louise was integral to so many communities. She wrote extensively about her Italian heritage, her commitment to education, and her roles as a mentor, friend, mother and wife. As a student in her graduate classroom from 2009–2011 she helped me ask and try to answer the complex questions: Why am I the way I am? How do I write this life? Years of therapy couldn’t compare to the growth that happened during the hours I sat in a small room on the twelfth floor of Hunter College, overlooking the Empire State Building, watching Louise positioned at the head of a long table, hands gesticulating. Or in the bi-weekly one-on-one meetings held in Louise’s office — door open or closed, whichever I preferred — when she would inevitably pose a question that would break open my work, revealing something I thought was lost but was there the whole time.
In the days before Louise’s death, my cohort and I had heard rumblings, whispered rumors about changes in the Hunter MFA, rumors that were substantiated by a HigherEd job listing for a Distinguished Lecturer in Creative Writing. The memoir program begun by Louise DeSalvo would be dismantled and replaced with instruction in “Creative Nonfiction”. The administration announced a gap year, and when the program returned in 2020 it would “seek out writers who are investigating styles that hybridize memoir with other forms of inquiry, such as sociology or criticism, those who wish to marry the political to the personal in global narratives.” I would argue that successful memoir always involves other forms of inquiry; that perhaps we are splitting hairs here, and this is a coded way of saying the program would gear towards journalism and travel writing.
I think about the importance of the stories told in my cohort — narratives of individuals and families on the outskirts of society, who are disenfranchised and fighting against systems who want us to break. Stories addressing acts of violence and intergenerational trauma, while also acknowledging moments of joy, those complex experiences that should make it difficult to pigeon hole and categorize. Louise advocated that our stories be written, and if we choose to, be shared — and in doing so, she willed us towards seeing our own value. This matters, she emphasized, and just hearing these words compelled me to write.
It has caused great pain, the duality of loss, the death of my mentor compounded by the death of a program, or rather it’s resurrection into something I don’t recognize. I’m sure there are complex reasons behind this departmental decision, budgeting and institutional pressure and a way to expand the applicant pool. Us memoirists are a niche bunch, stubborn and determined to craft meaning out of experience, reflecting on joy and trauma, and often taking our sweet time (my memoir, in fact, has taken more than a decade to write). To my knowledge, the memoir program at Hunter was the only one of it’s kind. When I met students in other MFA programs, and they spoke of taking classes in other genres, or shifting focus completely, I couldn’t hide my surprise. At Hunter we submitted a book proposal with our application and worked on that project — or at times, a different manuscript that emerged — throughout the two years. As a twenty-six year old writer, that proposal was the moment I first acknowledged wanting to write about my mother’s experience with polio and being the daughter of a polio survivor, a project that led to my pursuit of a PhD in Disability Studies.
I wish I could recall all of the Louise-isms that emerged over the four semesters she was my advisor, though now that I teach a course in disability memoir at NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study I often find myself repeating the words, “As the great Louise DeSalvo would say…” and then her insight emerges from my body. “If you start to relive, you have to step away,” she would tell us. “Reliving is not the same as rewriting.” She spoke about the two poles, reflection and scene, and how moments in our memoirs would vacillate between them, and to consider the impact of which way our work leaned. She instructed us to find memoirs that could serve as models and to read them multiple times. She wanted us to identify what happened in the beginning, middle, and end of a piece, and to consider the relationship between content and form. As she wrote in her instrumental blog writingalife:
In memoir, the beginning of the narrative isn’t the chronological beginning of the story, or rarely is. It’s that moment in the middle of the story that tells the reader everything he/she needs to know to land smack into the middle of the world of this narrative without saying to themselves, “Who are these people? What the hell is going on?” At the beginning of a memoir, the reader needs to know immediately who these people are and what’s going on. A reader needs to know this by the end of the first paragraph.
I’ve talked to writers who think the reader can wait to find this out on page four. Or five. The reader can’t. The reader will put down our work. The reader needs to know. Now.
Louise taught me to honor the need of the reader, while also honoring why I needed to write. She taught me to honor memoir as a powerful and necessary form of expression, even when critics describe it as self-indulgent “over sharing.” (Louise would point out how gendered these criticisms often were; men feared women — who dominate the genre — telling the truths of their bodies.)
I’m grateful I held onto every book Louise instructed us to buy, that they’ve outlasted multiple moves, including to graduate school in Ohio and then back again to New York City. I return to them as I write my dissertation on collective storytelling in disability memoirs, and when I prepare notes for my undergraduate students. Louise was a big fan of handouts, and I was always disorganized, and so I often find her exercises and feedback folded and slipped between chapters in works like The Art of Time in Memoir and The Creative Habit. Or perhaps, Louise would tell me, I wasn’t disorganized, but I anticipated that years later I would need to discover a new piece of her archive (“Your perceived weakness is also your strength,” she advised).
I am saddened about the many nonfiction cohorts at Hunter who will not grapple with the complex ethical questions inherent to writing memoir, especially when writing about the self often involves interrogating many other lives (“How much to tell? How shall it be told?” memoirist Amy Benson writes.) Or, at least, who will not contend with these questions with the nuance that comes with intense study of a singular form. The nonfiction students will not have a chance to sit in discomfort the way that I often did, writing long entries in my craft journal, sections which would be photocopied and submitted to Louise, because the process was as important to assess than the product — in fact, far more so. “You’re doing important work,” she’d remind us, even when the finality of a publishable piece felt far away.
With Louise’s death — and in truth, her retirement in 2013 — it was inevitable the memoir program at Hunter would change. Yet Louise’s incentive for starting this branch of the MFA is still highly relevant today. Memoir speaks to a timeless need to document stories that are so often not told, or that people try to erase. “We are not navel-gazers,” Louise would tell us. “And we’re not writing so we will be liked.” I can only hope another MFA will pick up where the Hunter memoir program left off. As for me — her student, her mentee — all I can do is carry on her legacy, and work through the grief, the only ways I know how: I teach. I write.