Ryan Chartrand

Posters of MTV’s Bob Dylan Unplugged concert and San Francisco’s infamous City Lights Books adorn the concrete walls of English professor Robert Inchausti’s office. His floor is covered wall-to-wall with green carpeting, and to add to the inviting, homey atmosphere are hand-drawn illustrations and printouts of people who “are more interesting than they appear.”

Pictures of his two children – Nick, a 21-year-old at San Francisco State, and Monica, a 24-year-old who lives in Los Angeles – are proudly displayed on one of the many full bookshelves throughout the room. These bookshelves display an eclectic mix of books and anthologies, including several focusing on Thomas Merton, a 1950s Trappist monk whom Inchausti has focused much of his work. Directly in front of Inchausti’s desk, in fact, sits a faded 8 1/2 by 11-inch print-out from the cover of Merton’s “Seeds,” a book of works Inchausti edited.

“He struggled with this idea of being a seeker of truth and whether or not one could do that and be a writer at the same time, which seemed like an interesting problem to me,” Inchausti explained of his fascination with the monk.

Inchausti cycles between teaching Great Books I and III, an American literature survey class, and upper-division English classes in 19th Century Russian Realism (Tolstoy and Dostoevsky), 20th Century Russian Literature, Beat Literature (Kerouac, Ginsburg and Burroughs) and Literary Criticism.

The English professor has always been interested in writing, he said, even though he knew that he wasn’t a fiction writer or a poet. However, he knew that he would end up writing something if he continued in academia.

And that he has. Inchausti has written several books, most of which are more scholarly, intellectual inquiries such as “The Ignorant Perfection of Ordinary People” and “Thomas Merton’s American Prophesy.” But he has also written a memoir, “Spitwad Sutras,” which shows his more reflective, humorous side.

Much of his work, though, focuses on Merton, whom Inchausti first discovered in college. Since the monk’s work was not really part of any of his assigned class readings, he started exploring Merton on his own. Now a Merton scholar in his own right, Inchausti has written works about the monk and edited two collections of his writings.

“Part of what Merton’s influence on me has been his rigorous honesty. Because he was like a writer who became a monk, he had a very strong suspicion, some knowledge of the limitations of the literary life, and at the same time a fascination with its powers.”

“Spitwad Sutras,” published in 1993, is all about Inchausti’s own experiences. The book is a memoir about his time teaching at an all-boys Catholic high school in Sacramento. He describes it as “a kind of comic confrontation, the difference between an academic environment at the University of Chicago (where Inchausti received his doctorate) and the real-world barbarism of a 14-year-old, ninth-grade classroom.”

While there, Inchausti met 65-year-old Brother Ed, who taught him “the ropes of how to survive without becoming a sort of weird disciplinarian, how to actually gauge them without disciplining or tricking them.” After a couple of days, Inchausti realized that “this Brother Ed guy was like a rare bird,” so he kept a notebook, writing down everything his new mentor said to him.

By the end of the year, Inchausti had about 200 pages of notes of things Brother Ed had said to him or things that he had experienced in class. He originally didn’t intend to turn these notes into a book; “it was for my mere survival,” Inchausti said. But after finding a job teaching at the University of California, Davis, and trying to explain his experience to people there, he decided the only way to really communicate what he had learned from his short stint as a high school teacher would be to write a book about it and let it find its own audience.

The book is now used in teaching programs nationwide.

He still writes constantly. Inchausti said he collects “the best thoughts (he sees) floating around (him) and the most interesting ideas” and jots them down on whatever he has on hand. Recently he began writing these insights on decorated composition books adorned with pictures (and glitter!) that his kids find for him “to make them look better.”

His advice for future writers is this: date your work. “I never dated things, so I have 20 years of stuff that is written over and inside and out, and I can’t tell what came first.”

Inchausti said he does want to write again about his experiences, a sort of follow-up to “Spitwad Sutras,” but this will be a project further down the line.

“One of the clichés in writing is that writing is recursive, which means that writing leads to more writing because you realize the limitations of what you said so you have to qualify and amend it,” he said. “You keep growing as you write. What I hope to accomplish is to stay alive to the process and to not feel that the process is an end in itself, but that it is a way of proceeding.

“Writing leads to more writing, and more writing leads to more understanding, and more understanding leads to more life. That’s how I see it.”

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