By Sarah Williams, Staff Writer
Stepping up to the podium in jeans and a plain black T-shirt, David Gessner appeared casual and at ease as he began his much anticipated talk for the third Visiting Writer’s Series on a recent Thursday evening in the Landing.
From the get-go, Gessner made clear that the audience was in for a ride as he encouraged them to clap after each pause from his readings. At one point, he individually singled out an audience member who tried to slip out the back and asked them where they were off to. Another time he heartily welcomed in a latecomer.
In a warm, passionate voice, Gessner read from his own novel, All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and the American West, as well as directly from Abbey and Stegner’s own works. In between readings, he reached out to involve the audience and asked for their questions and comments. On more occasions than not, Gessner had the audience laughing.
In a phone interview prior to the event, Gessner explained how he had great ambitions in college to be a writer. “I was a political cartoonist and had grand visions, but it was hard to put the sentences on a page,” he said. “In highschool I was journaling and writing editorials. Come hell or high water, I was going to be a writer.”
After college, both Gessner’s life and writing took many twists and turns, for better and for worse. In his twenties, Gessner spent his time writing fiction novels while his thirties consisted of severe depression and spending much time working at a homeless shelter. Turning his life around, Gessner applied to five graduate schools and chose to attend the University of Colorado. It was here where Gessner’s writing transitioned from fiction to creative non fiction. His first novel, A Wild Rank Place, described the bitter Cape Cod landscape in winter and his father’s struggle and loss to cancer at age 55.
Today, Gessner spends his days teaching, researching, traveling the world, and journaling for his books. “[It’s] a lot of research,” he said. “Hitting the road and journaling as I go, interviewing as I go. There is a quote out there, ‘Good writers makes outlines, great writers throw them away.’” As of late, Gessner is focusing his writing about the years spent playing Ultimate Frisbee and the excitement of possibly making it to the Olympics.
In addition to his commitment to journaling, Gessner placed emphasis on maintaining his creativity each day. “Every day as early as 5:30 or 6:00 a.m , I write for three to four hours, then get on with real life after,” said Gessner. “As a teacher I stress dailyness in writing creates a magic that can take a leap into something else.”
Jeffrey Thomson, UMF English professor and fan of Gessner, had attempted to have the writer visit campus for almost a year and a half prior to the event. “It was less a reading than a wide ranging adventure across the American west and the landscape of creative nonfiction,” Thomson said in an email interview. “Dave Gessner is not only an accomplished writer, but a terrific storyteller and engaging spokesman for writing, writers and wildness.”
“I found him to be an intriguing fellow, very engaging and audience-inclusive,” said UMF Student Don Hutchins, who attended the event. “I was a little disappointed that he spent less time focusing on his writings and experiences, and mainly on the matters of Walter Stegner and Edward Abbey,” said Hutchins. “As much as I enjoy Abbey, Stegner, and their work, I anticipated learning about a new writer.” Hutchins also commented that he found the Visiting Writer Series (VWS) to be very intriguing and relevant to his environmental/activist interests.
Due to a cancellation in December’s VWS, the next writer to stage the podium remains unknown at this time. However, tonight at 7:30 p.m. in The Landing, The Sandy River Review will have a reading at free and open to the public.