(Photo by Elyse Lopez)
Listening to a favorite professor talk with a colleague about a book they’ve written in the Conversations with Cal Poly Authors event is fun, Communications and Public Programs Coordinator Karen Lauritsen said.
“Writing a book is a major accomplishment, and learning about how that process works both in terms of creativity and with publishers, I think, is very valuable,” Lauritsen said.
Lauritsen always organizes the events to leave time for students and community members to ask questions, she said.
“It’s a really nice, low-key way to get to know somebody so it doesn’t feel like there’s that wall between you and a faculty member,” Lauritsen said. “You’re all just kind of there together having an informal chat.”
History professor George Cotkin spoke at a Cal Poly Authors event in October.
Cotkin describes his book as an attempt to think about the meaning of “Moby Dick,” to think about how different people have encountered it and to do something creative with the book, he said.
“It was a thrilling ride,” Cotkin said. “It’s great to think along with all these people who have written about the book for over a hundred years.”
“Moby Dick” is his favorite book, he said.
“It’s a book about the meaning of life, questions about God, the role of the individual, nature — all of these are huge issues,” Cotkin said. “To get to think about them, along with other people who read the book, is wonderful.”
“Moby Dick” is 135 chapters plus an etymology, an epilogue and extracts, Cotkin said. Writing commentary on each chapter would prove to be difficult and he needed to decide on the most effective approach, he said.
“I realized I couldn’t write very long chapters, it would be thousands of pages,” Cotkin said. “I decided to keep all my chapters to 10 tight pages or less.”
Each one of his chapters relates to a theme, word, phrase, sense or a feeling he gets from Melville’s chapters, Cotkin said. His chapters range from rap stars to Bob Dylan to suicide.
“It’s different kinds of things,” he said.
Aside from “Moby Dick” being Cotkin’s favorite book, it wasn’t until he reread the novel on an Alaskan cruise with his wife’s family a few years ago that he really felt inspired to write his own book, he said.
“So I was rereading the book and when I was finished with it, I said ‘I’d like to spend more time with this book,’” Cotkin said. “I had to think, ‘Well, gee, what can I do?’ since so many scholars and critics have dealt with the book over the years.”
That’s how he came up with the responses to each chapter, he said.
Originally, he had written 130 pages of a rather traditional analysis of the reception of Moby Dick over the years, Cotkin said. It didn’t feel right to him, so he threw it out, he said.
“You’ve got to go with the way you think it should be, rather than what is the easy way out,” Cotkin said. “It’s always good to try something original and creative and not settle.”
He is pleased with his results, he said.
“That was what I spent a couple years doing,” Cotkin said. “It was fun; it was more fun than my other books.”
The way he set his chapters up made it easier because some days he could write three chapters, he said. The short chapters made it easier to balance with teaching as he was able to write during breaks, he said.
“When I had grading, it went to the side, but then I could write a short chapter between classes some days,” He said.
While it was fun, there were bad moments of course, he said.
“After I had written three chapters, I realized I had 132 to go,” Cotkin said.
The more one sits down and just writes, the easier it gets, Cotkin said.
“Just stop making a mountain out of a molehill,” he said.
The one thing Cotkin has taken away from being a writer is to always be genuine to your own voice, he said.
“You should always work on what you feel you need to work on, nothing else,” Cotkin said. “Don’t compromise with that, it’s a mistake.”
Spanish professor Gloria Velásquez said even if she had never gotten published, she would have kept writing. Her life is archived under the Gloria Velásquez papers at Stanford University, she said.
“If you’re born to be a writer, you will keep writing no matter what,” she said.
Velásquez had piles of rejection letters when she first started the Roosevelt High School series, but she continued writing and pursuing her dream, she said.
“It was my way of being able to create social change and be a part of social change,” Velásquez said.
When Velásquez was a girl, she never had any books because she was too poor to own any, she said. She came from poverty and her family worked on the farms, she said.
Her mother never quite understood why she wanted to be a writer, she said. Her mother only had an elementary school education and the expectations for Velásquez at the time were to get married.
“It’s kind of ironic I became a writer,” Velásquez said.
Velásquez does credit her mother with teaching her a strong work ethic, respect and drive, she said. But it was her Navajo-Mexican grandfather, with his unconditional love, who was her biggest support, she said.
Writing gave her a voice, she said. She wanted to change her social circumstances and the way society looks at people of color, Velásquez said.
“Growing up in a time of stark racism, poverty and discrimination is what gave me the sensitivity, or what I call the ‘Eyes of God,’ to be able to express myself,” Velásquez said.
She started writing in high school with an underground newspaper, but didn’t really start writing poetry seriously until she entered college, Velásquez said.
She is a founding part of the Chicano Civil Rights movement and the Chicano Literary and Arts, she said.
“It’s (an) amazing thing when you’ve been a part of any movement like that,” she said.
It was then when her poetry started flowing out of her, she said.
“I think poetry is song,” Velásquez said. “I think it’s music.”
Chicano literature was virtually unknown in the ’80s and she is proud of how far it’s come, she said.
“Above all things, I consider myself a humanitarian and then a writer,” she said.
Her favorite novel she’s written, “Tommy Stands Alone” from the Roosevelt High School series, made national headlines when it was banned in 1995, she said.
“I always say that book is the closest to my heart because it’s truly about human dignity,” Velásquez said.
When “Tommy Stands Alone” was banned, she was out on a book tour and the stories her readers told her touched her significantly, she said. A gay man who came up to her and told her how he wished he had a book about a gay teen when he was in high school and a girl who told her about how their mother with AIDS were very memorable, she said.
“Those stories are all very meaningful for me,” Velásquez said.
She learns most from her fans, she said.
When Velásquez published “Teen Angel,” which dealt with teen pregnancy, she received so many letters from young girls all over the country talking about sex and friends who had gotten pregnant, she said.
“Just reading their letters and hearing what they had to say and what they learned from reading one of my books, that to me is the most rewarding and most meaningful,” Velásquez said.
She wants to think she is helping to make this a better world through writing, Velásquez said.
“Writing is like a falling star, and you catch it,” Velásquez said. “Magic.”
She has countless ideas in her head for the Roosevelt High School series, and continues to write poetry, songs and fiction, she said.
“Tommy Stands Tall,” the sequel to the novel “Tommy Stands Alone,” will be out in the fall.
“I’m one of those writers who has the opposite of writer’s block,” she said.
She is on a reduced teaching load and that’s given her a little more time to write, she said. She does most writing during the summer, she said.
Being a writer influences the way she teaches, she said.
“Because I use my creativity in the classroom,” Velásquez said.
Lauritsen hopes to add more professors and speakers to the Conversations with Cal Poly Authors program, like Velásquez, she said.
“Everyone is welcome, there’s always coffee, tea, treats and again, it’s a nice opportunity to talk to people one-on-one,” Launtsen said.
Students can always find information about the events on the library’s Facebook and Twitter, she said.
A previous version of this article incorrectly identified George Cotkin as the most recent author to speak at a Cal Poly Authors event. Professors Ron Den Otter and Craig Russell have spoken since Cotkin’s appearance.