Embracing Mistakes: Daniel Mendelsohn and Storytelling

Amy Pollard2014 Convention Story
by Amy Pollard
Vice President, Kappa Upsilon Chapter
Saint Martin’s University, Lacey, WA

I traveled 3,000 miles to Savannah, Georgia . . . to learn that I’d made a mistake.

It was Friday night. I’d just returned from dinner at a South African restaurant with some new friends. The convention program informed me that the guest speaker was widely published and held a Ph.D. in Classics, so I decided to swing by the lecture room and hear what he had to say. Little did I know that the first thing I’d learn was that I’d made a mistake.

Savannah, GeorgiaDaniel Mendelsohn had a clear, eloquent voice that resonated throughout the room. He commanded our attention as he spoke, leaning slightly over the podium and making eye contact. He told us that, as a college student, he made a mistake: he changed his major from Economics to Classics. His parents were confused at the time. Even he was uncertain. There was simply no way of knowing that this “mistake” would lead to a Ph.D. from Princeton and a successful career as an author, essayist, critic, and translator.

As I sat and listened, I realized that I could identify with this mistake. In my freshman year, I switched my major from Criminal Justice to English. Although my friends and family have always been supportive, others questioned this decision—why not criminal justice and law school, as I had originally planned? Why English?

Savannah, Georgia picture 2Coming to Savannah helped me answer that question. As I listened to papers on Dante, Shakespeare, and Ancient Greek literature, I was captivated by the ideas presented and the questions they sparked. Overall, I was energized by the space for creative expression and public discourse that literature seemed to create. The convention reminded me that books are so much more than paper and ink—they are ideas that spark debate, challenge norms, and inspire us to imagine our full potential as human beings.

In fact, what grabbed me about Mendelsohn’s talk—besides the self-deprecating humor and references to Battlestar Galactica—was the storytelling. His retelling of key moments in The Odyssey and Antigone reminded me of the most important reason I decided to study English: I love stories. I love reading, writing, listening, reflecting. Stories have always been a window to the world and to my view of it. That night, Mendelsohn invited me to reconnect with storytelling. He invited me to embrace my “mistake.” He invited me to keep reading, writing, and following my dreams.

Sigma Tau Delta 2015 Convention

Plan now to join over 1,000 Sigma Tau Deltans at our 2015 International Convention, March 18-21 in Albuquerque, NM. Over $10,000 will be awarded for student works presented at the convention. Featured speakers for the 2015 Convention include: Gary Soto, Simon Ortiz, and Leslie Marmon Silko.

Convention Submissions

Paper submissions open on September 29 and close on October 27.
View: Guidelines for Paper Presentations and Roundtable Proposals

It’s All About the Fog

This piece was the honorable mention winner in the 2013-2014 Far Western Region Blog Contest.

lbeckerby Leah Becker
Vice President, Alpha Upsilon Epsilon chapter
University of Portland, Portland, OR

Northwest literature is all about fog. Yes, there is much more to Northwest literature than the weather, but what it really comes down to is fog. You see there is no other fog like Northwest fog. It’s not like the fog in New York City that tumbles in like ocean waves and swarms around buildings and into alleyways. It’s not like the yellow fog in T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that rubs its nose against the windowpanes and circles before slumping sleepily on the floor. No, Northwest fog is tall. Northwest fog drips, but at the same time it floats. Northwest fog is tinged blue, giving everything a hue of late dusk or early morning. Northwest fog isn’t a wall and it isn’t a soup: it’s another sky.


Foggy view of Lake Washington in Washington state

The reason why fog is so important in Northwest literature is because a huge part of life in this region revolves around the weather. One of the main reasons it took so long for our forefathers to settle this region of the country was due to the inclement weather. In fact, the weather was more than inclement: it was aggressive, menacing, and threatening. The chaotic downpours of rain, hail, and flurried and watery snow did not allow for the patterned, exacting life of the early Americans. Crops that thrived one year were dead and dormant the next. Houses that withstood winter might crumple in the mudslides of the spring. The land of the Northwest was unpredictable, and thus the region drew a motley crowd of stubborn and crazed settlers from the fringes of “regular” American society.

These settlers—the lumberjacks, determined farmers, pioneer women, and hard-worn children—became the Northwest’s first written authors, following generations of Native American storytellers and oral historians. These original settlers wrote about standing up to the nature of the Northwest, transforming the land in order to build more prosperous lives. While sometimes noted for its beauty, the landscape of this early Northwest region was more often seen as a challenge to overcome.

However, as the proceeding generations learned to listen to the language of the land and live alongside it, the literary depictions of the Northwest region evolved. The hard-worn children of the first settlers learned to accept the region’s “faults” and build their lives around the rain, hail, mud, and ice. As their acceptance of the region grew, so did its value. Thus, nature in current Northwest literature is no longer a driving, antagonistic force, but is instead seen as a daily part of human life that is embraced and utilized for spiritual and meditative experiences.


Cathedral Park underneath the St. John’s Bridge in Portland, OR

Northwest literature today, however, is often overlooked as being Northwestern, for the stories no longer focus solely on mountains, weather, and forests. Instead, books by Northwest writers, or even books taking place in the Northwest, tell larger stories with heroic characters, fantastic events, and dramatic endings. Nature, it seems, has taken a backseat in such literature, for it is no longer a main character, but rather a member of a large and inconsequential chorus. However, to put region and nature into this box in the background would be wrong, for it is not lying in wait behind more essential plots and characters. No, rather nature and region is overarching in Northwest literature. It is in every scene and within every character, shaping actions, words, thoughts, and motives. In this way Northwest literature mirrors Northwest life, for just as the region becomes a part of those who live here, so it becomes a part of all of the literature it inspires. In the world that is Northwest literature and life, region is the sky, encompassing every aspect of the small corner of the world it “rains” over.  The people and the novels soak up this inspiration and become denizens of a Northwest spirit that lives through them.

Thus, Northwest literature is all about the fog. Fog in the Northwest doesn’t tumble or nose its way into things. Instead it slowly eases down from the sky in wisps and droplets. It falls down into the dips in the tree lines and it encircles and curls around those who walk within it. It is weighty and patient as it carefully and expertly seeps into our lives and into the day. Just like the fog, region is not overt in every Northwest novel or poem that it inspires. In Northwest literature the region seeps into the story in the same determined, yet gentle way the fog seeps into the morning. Both fall from their overarching states and settle among us, however subtly, and in all we do, in all we write, we reflect the region and the fog.

Why I Serve

Robert DurborowBy Robert “Chaos” Durborow
Associate Student Representative, Far Western Region
Southern Utah University, Cedar City, UT

The first rule, as my dear old dad drilled into me from birth (a minor exaggeration…but not much), is: pay attention. These two words have served me well over the years, but no more so than when I decided to run for Associate Student Representative (ASR) of the Far Western Region two years ago. The advantages of a position in student leadership are many; let me tell you about some of my favorites.

Any opportunity to serve sits well with me. My father, the greatest man I know, always gave service wherever he noticed a need. Pop infected me with the same service bug in my early youth. I still have it and I’m not looking for a cure.

Robert "Chaos" Durborow with fellow student leaders

Robert “Chaos” Durborow with fellow student leaders

What does this have to do with serving as ASR? In my two years as ASR, I have met some of the most amazing people I will ever know. Moreover, I have made lifelong friends, an appellation I never bestow lightly. The Sigma Tau Delta family is a close knit group, but none are closer than your leadership. We serve because we believe in the Society and what it stands for. I bear witness that your leaders are of the finest character, have a passion for literature and service, and exhibit the highest standards of academic excellence. For us, it’s all about the words and promoting literacy. It is my honor to serve with them.

Perhaps the highest point of my tenure as a student leader began at last year’s annual convention in Portland. I was able to host, introduce, and spend quality time with my literary idol, Ursula K. LeGuin. I have been reading  works by Ursula since I was seven, and she has influenced my writing more than any other author.  For a more detailed account of this amazing experience, please see my previous blog on the subject, The Dream of Chaos and Old Night.

The postscript is that Ursula and I have become dear friends since our initial meeting.  I send her my poor excuses for poems on a regular basis, and she is kind enough to pronounce them worthy. We inquire after each other’s activities and health as if we’ve known each other all our lives. I have achieved a dream I could not even imagine because I paid attention and took the opportunity to serve.

Robert "Chaos" Durburow with Executive Director, William C. Johnson

Robert “Chaos” Durborow with Executive Director, William C. Johnson

I’m not saying you will have the same experience as a student leader…but it’s possible. So why not pay attention to the opportunity to serve that lies before you? Apply for one of the many leadership positions open right now. There are certainly less worthy ways to spend your time.