~From Assistant Professor Todd Mitchell
Sixteen years ago I took a class that changed my life. I think, even then, I knew that something special was happening in John’s graduate creative nonfiction course. Several people had recommended it to me, and I’d never before encountered such an intimate and productive classroom community. Some of my friends were also deeply influenced by John’s class that semester, and a few of them (Steve Church and Justin Hocking to name two) found their voices in creative nonfiction, and have since gone on to publish tremendous books and forge successful careers writing and teaching creative nonfiction.
All this was yet to come, though. At the time, I had no idea how transformational John’s creative nonfiction class would be for me. I didn’t know that it would set me on a lifelong path of reading, writing, and teaching creative nonfiction. Or that it would kindle such a passion for a genre that, back then, I knew almost nothing about. To discover such a new approach to writing was, for me, like discovering a new color, and then seeing it everywhere and wondering how I’d lived so many years without ever seeing it before. But these are just some of the ways John’s teaching changed me.
The bigger changes had more to do with how John taught the class. He not only opened our eyes to the wonder and possibilities of creative nonfiction, he enabled the classroom to become a space where deep sharing and deep listening could take place. And he modeled this sort of listening and brave vulnerability himself, often coupling empathy with exploration. I remember many discussions when John would say, “There’s more here. I don’t feel like we’re getting to what’s really going on in this piece,” and then he’d leave it at that. No answers about what he felt was there. Just a statement that unsettled our certainty that we knew what something was.
Because we wanted to impress him, we dug deeper. Tried harder. Questioned more, and ventured further into the unknown. That ability to inspire while not giving answers shows a profound belief in others. As a teacher, John constantly found ways to both speak and listen, to challenge and nurture and bring out the best in others. In doing so, he sparked a strong desire in me to not just teach a subject, but to engage people fully in a way that helps them grow.
When John talks, people listen. I’ve often marveled at how he does this. I think it’s because he invites us on a journey with his words, and he always travels with us. He’s a master of speaking in stories. He gives generously of his own experiences, while avoiding giving answers. In this way, he often shares wisdom without ever fashioning himself as wise or separating himself from others. He’s both the teacher who sends you out into the world, and the monk you meet on the road.
John has transformed me in other ways as well. He, along with his wife, SueEllen Campbell, have forged a life of enacting their visions and their deep concern for the world. In doing so, both he and SueEllen have helped me navigate a similar path. For many years, John and SueEllen graciously listened to me rant about climate change and species extinction, and my grief about all that was being lost in the world. Instead of ignoring this grief, dismissing it, or trying to distract me from it, they compassionately listened and understood. Through such listening and the sharing of their own experiences, they helped me face and transform grief into positive action. They helped me find the transcendent power of deep struggle.
All this is why I secretly think of John as my Yoda.
I realize that the comparison to a three-foot-tall muppet might not have much resonance for John. However, for people of my generation, Yoda is more than a wrinkled action figure or a sci-fi cliché. Yoda is a symbol of the quintessential mentor. He’s the mystical voice many of us seek, but only a few are ever lucky enough to find—the voice we carry with us and hear when we’re in a difficult place or the darkest pit.
For me, that voice is John’s. He’s long been there to guide me, both with his presence, and with my memory of his words and deeds. He is my Yoda, and as fans of Star Wars know, there’s no saying goodbye to Yoda. Even when you think he’s gone, he returns to nurture what’s good in others, and to protect the life force of the world.
Yoda is eternal, and the same is true of John and his influence. He carries on in countless ways, through me and through the many students and colleagues he’s worked with. And for that, I am deeply grateful.
May 4th, 2016
(May the 4th be with you!)