Last week, author Debra Monroe paid a visit to Lawrence to do a reading from her recent memoir, “On The Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family Against the Grain.” The reading was informal and insightful, and there was a sizable turnout, which isn’t surprising considering Monroe’s highly-regarded body of work. She published her first book, a short story collection called “The Source of Trouble,” more than 20 years ago, winning the Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction. Since then she has published four books of fiction and now a memoir.
I had the pleasure of listening to Monroe read her work, complete with interjected explanations and brief asides, all of which gave a somewhat vague picture of her as a writer.
It was clear that she had a background in fiction with a knack for memoir. The prose she read was propulsive and engaging, dedicated to a well-rounded recounting of her experiences as the adoptive, single mother of a black daughter in a rural town in Texas. She stressed that although much of the press her memoir has received has focused on its controversial topic, she didn’t intend to write a memoir solely about race.
These insights, though interesting, provided a limited picture of Monroe as a writer. Luckily, Assistant Professor of English David McGlynn, who organized the reading, also arranged for a weekend in Björklunden with Monroe and a number of advanced creative writing students to help fill in the gaps.
According to senior Bridget Donnelly, McGlynn organizes these Björklunden workshops every year during Fall and Winter Terms for students in his Advanced Fiction course. Explained Donnelly, “These are usually established writers, with a few published works, who can give their perspective upon the writing process and hold workshops or manuscript consultations.”
Monroe had planned on attending workshops at Björklunden during Spring Term of last year but was unable to make the trip. “This year, because of the way the calendar fell, there is no advanced creative writing course held in the fall,” said Donnelly. “Professor McGlynn instead invited a group of seniors who had previously taken advanced creative writing courses to come to Björklunden with Debra.”
Over the course of the weekend, Donnelly and the other students listened to Monroe’s abundant reserve of personal anecdotes, participated in manuscript consultations and generally came to know and understand Monroe as a writer and as a person. By drawing on her considerable experience as a writer, she gave the students plenty of advice. Donnelly said, “Debra has a great sense of humor and was really able to connect with our group. She is constantly telling stories…and she has a flair for making those stories hit home with more meaning than your average anecdote.”
Most of these students had read Monroe’s work before in various English courses as McGlynn and other professors often incorporate works by upcoming visiting artists into their classes, something the students found especially valuable.
Monroe also held manuscript consultations with every student, in which she doled out tough, helpful criticism. “In my session,” said Donnelly, “she took a short piece I’d written and tore it apart. Debra cut out much of the unnecessary ‘fluff’ in order to make the point of my essay hit home much more successfully.”
Over the course of the weekend, the students became accustomed to Monroe’s quirks. “She insisted on calling Björklunden ‘Diffendorfen’ because it sounded more like the Scandinavian names she was used to growing up in Spooner, Wisc.,” said Donnelly. Idiosyncrasies like this made Monroe’s presence more personal, turning an educational experience into something diverting and very memorable.