Standing at a lectern, about to make a speech about teaching, Diane Vreuls instead begins to recite, in alphabetical order, the names of all her Oberlin creative writing students, past and present.
This calling of the roll is a dream she's had--possibly in anticipation of this interview. Recounting the dreamscape, she recalls that the recitation of names "filled [her] with sensuous pleasure."
It might please the possessors of those names--scores of fiction writers, memoirists, journalists, and teachers--to know that after 19 years of teaching, on the occasion of her retirement, Associate Professor of Creative Writing Diane Vreuls remembers them.
"It was extraordinary to come across that many people," she said. "Sharing their lives in the intimate way you do when they're writing was really a privilege."
The name Kelly Dwyer '86 would have come up fairly quickly in the roll. G. P. Putnam Sons published her first novel, The Tracks of Angels, in 1994; she's now at work on her second. Dwyer said that Vreuls taught her "to look around, to be observant and fascinated by things in the world."
This lesson, and Vreuls' own writing life, can be traced back to parents who were, she said, "radiant intelligences." Immigrant children who learned English only to have their own dreams of college and teaching shunted sideways by the Depression, they nevertheless bequeathed to their children their own sense of wonderment, instilling in them an abiding love of music, art, literature, learning, and expression.
This inherited radiance is manifest in Vreuls, sitting in the brick-walled kitchen of the home on Elm Street that she shares with her husband, Professor of Creative Writing Stuart Friebert. She is all lightness and silver--as though perpetually backlit by the kindest gods of photography. It is tempting to say that there is a translucence about her, but to do so would belie a vivid strength that seems concentrated in her eyes, which are unequivocally blue, and through which, said Rachel Drew '97, "Diane sees the whole world."
"The difference between people's achievement," Vreuls said, "has to do with how enraptured they are by the world, how seized they are by what they see and hear, and the need to tell it. More than anything else, it's the desire to make something. I try to help people see the joy in simply doing the work, day by day, being in the moment of that scene, deciding how the words go, describing what the wind is doing, making that beautiful sentence."
If everyone were assigned an identifying word, Vreuls' would be "make." On the artist as activist: "I believe it's important for people to make a difference in their communities." Her work on the Committee on the Status of Women at Oberlin in the early 1970s and also her help drafting Oberlin's original sexual harassment grievance procedure stand as examples of the artist existing for more than art's sake.
On retiring: "I thought I should retire and make room for other people coming up."
On her future plans: "To be a maker."
On writing: "I have to be making something. I write to find out how it is that people make their lives." And teaching: "I'm not just teaching grammar or how to put a story together; we're making a relationship that continues."
The word works as a sort of map when surveying what Vreuls calls her "serial careers."
After taking degrees at the University of Wisconsin and at Oxford, the young English Lit. scholar turned to painting and printmaking, and the first installment in her serial career was under way.
Marriage and the births of Sarah in 1963 and Stephen in 1965 heralded career number two. Motherhood, she said with a deeply satisfied laugh, "was--and is--really wonderful. The best."
By 1971, with the publication of her first book, Instructions, Vreuls combined poetry with printmaking in a sort of how-to manual for the heart. Not only was she balancing the visual with language, she was also balancing domesticity with a writing life. Career number three took off in earnest in 1975 with her novel Are We There Yet? (Simon and Schuster). A collection of short stories, Let Us Know (Viking), followed in 1986.
She added teaching to the mix in 1977, joining what is considered to be one of the best of only a handful of undergraduate creative writing programs in the country.
On now to career number five. To be a maker. To be continued.
--Marci Janas '91
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