Confessions of a Professor

November 3, 2011 Campus, Features

Peter Selgin, distinguished visiting assistant professor of creative writing, openly admits that he does not tell the whole truth in his new memoir, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man. At least, not when telling the truth would get in the way of what he is trying to say.

To Selgin, revealing the emotional truth behind a story has always been more important than getting the specific facts of the event exactly correct. Selgin says, “The best we can hope to do in memoir is be precise, since accuracy is often beyond us … verification is either impossible or impractical. What’s important is the essential, emotional truth.”

Revealing this truth plays a large role in Confessions of a Left-Handed Man. The first reading Selgin gave, which was from the story “Color of the Sea” in his Flannery O’Connor Awardwinning short story collection, Drowning Lessons, was about a man and a woman who meet each other while traveling in Greece and, to quote Selgin, “learn new things about the meaning of loneliness.”

The second reading, a chapter titled “Black Words on Yellow Paper” from Selgin’s memoir, dealt with the author’s early adolescence in Connecticut and his relationship with his friend Victor, who, to quote from the book, “couldn’t part his lips without lying.”

The excerpt revolves around questions of truth and falsehood and determining which is more important: the facts of a story or the meaning behind it. These questions take on even more importance when the author reveals to the reader that he may not even be recounting the event with factual accuracy.

“To doubt is to own that much less of the world and its miracles. Life is a whopper, disbelief a form of death. To the extent that one puts faith in them, lies are negotiable,” Selgin writes at the end of this chapter.

Selgin is currently on a one-year stay at Rollins teaching creative writing and other English classes after having lived on the Canadian border. “I’m loving it down here,” he said. “I love the campus, my co-workers, my classes and students … my only regret is that I’ll have to move on, possibly back to the brutal north.”

He said that when it comes to teaching his students the craft of writing, he tries to impart “a love of language and a love of truth” above all other things. “When it comes to fiction writing, ‘truth’ has a special meaning that frees it at least partially from factual accuracy, and that aligns it more closely with the notion of precision. In making very judicious, precise choices with details, the fiction author creates a sense of authenticity that makes the work believable whether or not it’s historically or factually true.”

When asked what he finds most difficult about writing, Selgin cited the need to be constantly self-driven in his work. “It’s just you and your ideas and no one to spur you on, often without any deadlines or promise of publication or any sort of audience,” he said. However, he believes that the rewards of writing more than make up for its challenges.

“Perseverance is indispensable,” he said. “If you’re not willing to persevere, you’re not willing to be a writer. When aspiring writers come to me and ask, ‘Do I have what it takes to be a writer?’ I tell them, ‘If you don’t quit, you have what it takes’ … to the extent that you’re engaged in the process of writing, you’re a writer. Be dissatisfied, but never give up.”

About Caroline Hunt

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