Friday, March 23, 2012

Author Thomas Mallon teaching at Davidson College

This has been one busy spring for author Thomas Mallon. Along with making a book tour to promote his new novel, "Watergate," he's teaching this semester at Davidson College, as the visiting McGee professor of writing.

One class is fiction writing, the other creative nonfiction. That's fitting, given that Mallon's writing credentials extend to just about everything.

He's the author of eight novels, including "Watergate," which Sam Shapiro reviews this week on the Observer's book page.

Then there's his nonfiction, which includes books on plagiarism ("Stolen Words"), diaries ("A Book of One's Own") and letters ("Yours Ever"). He's also the recipient of a National Book Critics Circle Award for reviewing, and his essays are regularly published in top magazines. Let's hope his students are suitably impressed.

As George Washington University's Creative Writing Program director, Mallon regularly teaches undergraduates. He told me recently that his Davidson students are "very good, very prepared, lively."

But in general, he finds, today's college students face some new writing challenges.

When you count Tweeting, texting and other social media, they're probably out-writing previous generations of students. But in this case, Mallon finds that practice doesn't make perfect. "When you're writing all the time," he says, "you'll think of it as a casual thing, and you get sloppy."

They also face new challenges as they try to develop distinctive writing voices. Now that the Internet allows anyone to publish anything, "it's sort of harder to get your voice heard above the din," he says. "Students have always been told to develop voice," but with so many voices talking at once, "it's very daunting."

And then there are emoticons. Advice to Mallon's Davidson students: Don't send your professor a smiley face.

"I don't believe I have ever used one," he says, "and if I manage to expire with that record intact, I think I'll be happy."