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Profiled Fellow: Marianne Gingher


March 1, 2008 | Angie Barker

“My writing life begins with a whopping lie I tell my first-grade teacher.”

So starts the first chapter of Marianne Gingher’s Adventures in Pen Land: One Writer’s Journey from Inklings to Ink. In her 2008 book, Gingher, a creative writing professor and an IAH Fellow, shares how her career as a creative writer began. That lie results in her mother buying her a Ding Dong School Book, a coloring book with blank pages (save for a tiny bell logo in the upper-right-hand corner, she precisely explains).

Six-year-old Gingher filled the pages with stories and illustrations, and the sum of her Ding Dong School Book experience became the first chapter of Adventures, a hilarious and sometimes poignant autobiographical look at Gingher’s anything-but-steady ascent from “liar” to published author in 1986 with Bobby Rex’s Greatest Hit.

A Story Becomes a Book for an IAH Chapman Family Faculty Fellow

Gingher completed the manuscript for Adventures during her spring 2008 semester as a Chapman Family Faculty Fellow at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities. Chapman Family Faculty Fellowships provide a semester-long, on-campus fellowship for outstanding faculty who regularly teach undergraduates. It was Gingher’s second time as a Chapman Family Faculty Fellow; she also won the award in fall 2000.

Adventures grew out of a series of personal narratives on the writing life called “A Woman at Work and Play” that Gingher published in The Rambler, a Chapel Hill-based magazine.

Gingher used her fellowship semester at the IAH to complete Adventures, but her original intent was not to publish a book, as she thought the book was too regional and wouldn’t appeal to publishers.

“I was going to go back to what initially got me writing in the first place, which was enjoying the process,” she says. “Once I freed myself from the harness of expectation, then I could have fun with it. And it was ultimately so rewarding. It was the most rewarding book project I’ve ever undertaken.”

Time: A Luxury for Writers

Adventures shows the conflict a writer experiences in trying to balance life in the outside world with time dedicated to writing.

“It’s about all the life you’re living, the real life,” Gingher says. “Meanwhile, you’re hunkered down trying to write stories or a poem, but you’re also a human being in the real world trying to get through life.”

Gingher appreciates the dedicated writing time that her IAH fellowship semesters have given her to explore her imagination and pursue new ideas.

“It’s one of the most wonderful gifts to the scholars or to the writers, the artists, the musicians, whoever is there, that the University can provide,” she says.

During her first fellowship in 2000, Gingher felt like she kept getting pulled away from her original project by other ideas. She eventually realized the gift in that.

“If you have time to think, then your mind starts to flower, starts to tendril, outside of the box,” she says. “Okay, so you’re not respecting the boundaries of your project, you’re getting distracted by something else, but that’s part of what the fellowship offers.

“I think the gift of time grows you in ways that you don’t expect. For me, that was really the joy of the opportunity. I surprised myself. I learned, after about the first three weeks of having time to wander around in the bookstore and browse, which I never have time to do, that’s part of it, too.”

Illustration Meets Invention

Part of the joy of reading Adventures, beyond Gingher’s enthusiastic, tilt-a-whirl-style writing, are the illustrations drawn by Daniel Wallace, Gingher’s colleague in the creative writing program. Wallace, incidentally, took a creative writing class from Gingher years ago.

Wallace had created illustrations for The Rambler, so the magazine’s editor asked him to illustrate Gingher’s first story. The combination worked, and Wallace subsequently illustrated each installment.

“He got excited about it,” Gingher says of her partnership with Wallace. “He would say, ‘I can’t wait to read the next chapter,’ and I would say, ‘I can’t wait to see what you illustrate from it.’”

When “A Woman at Work and Play” became Adventures in Pen Land, Gingher knew that she wanted to keep Wallace’s illustrations.

“Once I knew I wanted a book,” she says, “I wanted Danny’s drawings in the book because they were so funny. I think the book has a mischievous spirit about it, and so do his cartoons.”

A Commitment to Teaching

Gingher’s Chapman Family Faculty Fellowship, which recognizes outstanding undergraduate teaching, is testament to her profound impact on her students. Gingher glows when she talks about her classes and raves about UNC students.

“We have the best students,” she says. “I learn so much from them, and they’re tremendous sources of inspiration both in their personal choices and in their dedication to things outside of their curriculum, outside their studies.”

One class in particular that inspires Gingher is her Gram-O-Rama class based on a book written by Daphne Athas, who also teaches in the creating writing program at UNC.

“It’s grammar as performance art, so we take grammar rules and break them,” Gingher says. “For example, students will take something in the public domain, like Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ and rewrite the first part of it in passive voice.”

Doing so helps students experience the importance of active voice by witnessing the meaning lost. (Imagine it: “A dream is had by I.”)

At the end of the semester, students perform in front of a live audience in Wilson Library. Students must interview to be admitted to the class and are required to attend regular rehearsals. Gingher’s next focus is creating a comprehensive Web site for the class that includes filmed footage of the performances and exercises that teachers can access for their own students.

A Semester of Fellowship and Imagination

In addition to preparing the manuscript for Adventures, Gingher used her spring 2008 IAH fellowship semester to compile a collection of short stories by North Carolina authors. The project, titled LONG STORY SHORT: Flash Fiction by Sixty-Five of North Carolina’s Finest Writers, will be published in September 2009 by UNC Press.

Gingher views the service provided by the Institute for the Arts and Humanities as invaluable to UNC faculty.

“I think it’s one of the significant treasures of the University to have an institution like that,” she says, “to offer a community of people who are all engaged in serious pursuit of knowledge, to expand their hearts and minds and their talents and their understanding of their subject, to open them to possibilities that they hadn’t even thought about.

“I just think that, and I think most of the scholars would agree with me, that the gift of time is such a luxury. The IAH could offer me a brand new car or a semester off, and I would rather have the semester off.”


Categories: Faculty, News, Profiled Fellows

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