Todd Mitchell, Assistant Professor
B.A., English, Oberlin College; M.F.A., Creative Writing, Fiction, Colorado State University
Todd Mitchell currently serves as Director of the Beginning Creative Writing Teaching Program. In addition to overseeing Beginning Creative Writing sections, he teaches Adolescents’ Literature (E405), Teaching College Creative Writing (E607B), Advanced Creative Writing: Nonfiction (E412C), Intermediate Creative Writing: Nonfiction (E311C), Intermediate Creative Writing: Fiction (E311A), Beginning Creative Writing (E210), Twentieth-Century Fiction (E238), Introduction to Literature (E140), and Writing Arguments (CO300). Mr. Mitchell is the author of several novels for young adults and middle grade readers, including; The Secret to Lying (Candlewick Press, 2010, Colorado Book Award Winner), Backwards (Candlewick Press, 2013, Colorado Author’s League Book Award Winner), and The Traitor King (Scholastic Press, 2007, Colorado Book Award Finalist). He’s also a writer for the graphic novel, A Flight of Angels (VERTIGO, 2011). His short fiction, poetry, and essays have been published in national and international journals, and he’s received several awards for his writing, including an Arts Alive Fellowship, a Knight Select Award for Outstanding Fiction, and a Portland State Best Letter award. You can visit his personal writing website at www.ToddMitchellBooks.com.
How would you describe your work in the English Department?
I’m a bit of a cross-curriculum guy. I direct the Beginning Creative Writing teaching Program, which means I help prepare graduate students to teach E210, Beginning Creative Writing, and I observe all the E210 classes taught by graduate instructors. I also teach a graduate course every fall on teaching undergraduate creative writing. Since I write young adult novels and frequently visits elementary, middle, and high schools across the country, I often teach E405, Adolescents’ Literature — an extreme reading course, required as part of the English Education program, that focuses on contemporary young adult books. And I regularly teach undergraduate fiction and creative non-fiction workshops, as well as some beginning literature courses. So I’m part creative-writing, part lit, and part English Ed.
What brought you to CSU?
The tremendous MFA program here (and the sunshine), lured me away from Portland, OR, where I was teaching creative writing in a high school. I graduated from the MFA fiction program in 2002, and didn’t want to leave.
Why are the Humanities important?
I could go on about the importance of the humanities to communication, business, science, and all other disciplines for hours. But the heart of the matter is this: in life, it’s important to keep the “what” and the “why” in balance. Much of education focuses on the “what.” The humanities are one of the few areas where students and teachers are able to focus on the “why.” All “what” and no “why” and you have a life without meaning or direction. As Haim G. Ginott put it in his letter from a principal to teachers on the first day of school, “I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness: gas chambers built by learned engineers, children poisoned by educated physicians, infants killed by trained nurses, women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates. So I am suspicious of education. My request is: help your children to become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if the serve to make our children more humane.” Where better to try and help people become “more human” than in the humanities?
How would you describe the English department to someone considering coming to work and/or study here?
We’re a remarkably friendly department that houses an unusually diverse range of interests and specialties.
What advice do you have for English department students?
Find your passion and follow it. When I was growing up, I never imagined I could make a living as a fiction writer. However, I’ve since learned that there are ways to transform nearly any interest into an occupation if you’re willing to be diligent and creative.
How does being a parent of small children impact your work?
It makes me wonder what I did with all the free time I used to have, and it helps me to use the time I have now much more efficiently.
How does your writing life influence your teaching, and vice versa?
For years I wondered if I was a writer who taught, or a teacher who wrote. Now I see those two things as being inextricably intertwined. I write to teach and teach to write. The things I learn on a daily basis as a practicing writer are essential to the way I approach teaching, and I think students benefit from an inside knowledge of the struggle of writing, creating, and publishing. Conversely, what I gain from interacting with students on a daily basis helps to push me as a writer, and it helps to keep me sane, connected, and balanced. Otherwise, I’d just spend all day typing in my basement, and that rarely ends well.
What special project are you working on right now?
Right now I’m working on three creative projects in three very different genres. One is a middle grade book that engages species extinction through the eyes of an eleven-year-old. Another is a young adult hybrid-text novel about a teenage artist who sees spirits through his art (it’s a hybrid-text, because art makes up part of the narrative). And a third is an alien invasion comic book series that I’m working on with an incredibly talented Irish artist (available online).
What’s the best advice you ever received?
As a writer, the best advice for me was to “write the book you most want to read.” As a student, the best advice I got was from a poem by Lee Upton, who wrote “Our risk is our cure.” And as a teacher, the best advice was from my first teaching mentor who said, “Never stop being a student.”
What is your favorite word and why?
Syzygy. It’s a term from astronomy for when three or more heavenly bodies are aligned. In poetry it means the combination of two metrical feet into a single unit. And Carl Jung used the word in psychology to refer to a union of opposites. So syzygy is a “stars are aligned” sort of coming together, or close union, between two very different things. How romantic is that?