Meeting Madison Smartt Bell

Post Date: November 26th, 2010

“Fiction workshops are inherently almost incapable of recognizing success. The fiction workshop is designed to be a fault-finding mechanism; its purpose is to diagnose and prescribe…Whenever I pick up a student manuscript and read a few pages without defect, I start to get very nervous. Because my job is to find those flaws. If I don’t find flaws, I will have failed. It takes a wrenching sort of effort to perform the inner volte-face that lets me change from a hostile to an enthusiastic critic and start rooting for the story to succeed. (Though in fact there’s nothing more exciting than that moment, and probably it’s the main thing that makes me want to teach.)” — Madison Smartt Bell, Narrative Design

J.K. Rowling remembers the first time she saw long, long lines wrapping around corners of New York City streets. She wondered, What are all these people here for? and then realized, Me. It was her first Barnes & Noble signing.

How fabulous is that? How might it help America to have paparazzi chasing authors down the street–lots of ’em? What if for every pro athlete, political pundit, and sex tape maker with her own reality show, we made time and autograph space for favorite writers? Thank goodness for YA literature and its fans: teens and tweens flood bookstores when the sequel is imminent.

The other night at the awards ceremony for the NCSU Short Fiction contest, I met an author who should be turning heads: Madison Smartt Bell. It’s possible he’s not on the tip of the tongue of the average reader. I mean, he’s only written nine novels, two short story collections, and an incredible book for all those seeking the expertise of a writing professor. Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form is a must-have all of us in pursuit of our personal MFA. From the way he discusses teaching, you know he’s a delight in the classroom, too.

He’s also a delight in person. He asks you questions, he wants to talk music when I tell him my husband plays, and he’s got a wry, calm sense of humor that came forth when he read from Devil’s Dream. What emerged as he read is a pitch-perfect storyteller, painting a landscape of character and setting so rich I saw it shimmer before my eyes. He told the story of the Civil War general Nathan Bedford Forrest and his horse King Phillip that attacked Federal soldiers. I saw every moment and heard every sound of that melee. I heard all the voices gathered around the stove bringing forth biscuits, especially Henri, the son of Toussaint L’Ouverture (for purposes of fiction). Henri has come to the U.S. to lead a slave rebellion but now has found Forrest as his man to follow.

I have Bell’s autograph, and I’m thrilled his eyes judged a contest where my story, “3.0,” became a finalist. I aspire to write well as I can, and his works aid me. Writers, remember that solo work at our pages is just as essential as time spent being a fan.

How much have we read today? Raved today? Return to that page written by someone else, that page that may not yield instant gratification but with a little more concentration, opens worlds of absolute beauty. And if you don’t have time or chance to stand in line for the signature, find a way to let authors know what their work means to you. Root for their stories to succeed as much as yours.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

1. Whose autograph would you wait in line for? Why?
2. Why should people wait in line for yours?
3. Write about a time when you rooted for someone to succeed.
4. Write about a time when someone rooted for you to succeed.
5. List all the persons/places/things you are currently a fan of and why. Prioritize them. Then choose only one and discuss why that deserves your fandom.
6. Which author, living or dead, might you wait in line for? How has the author’s writing changed your thinking? Your life?
7. Have you ever met a person whom you idolized and been more than impressed? Why?
8. Have you ever met a person whom you idolized and had a disappointing experience? What was the experience as compared to your imagination? How much do you excuse person and circumstances or blame them?


  1. Hi Lyn! Your blogline showed on my FB news headlines. I’m now following you. Love this entry. You mention tweens and teens and their insatiable appetites for sequels… how true that is! Best of luck with querying your MS. That’s exciting. Kerry

  2. Thanks, Kerry! Good luck with your writing as well, and keep me posted on what’s happening with your writer’s journey. It’s a long process, isn’t it, but I find every day rewarding that’s spent doing what we love.

  3. Your words about Madison Smartt Bell remind me of how I feel about Wendell Berry’s writing. His novels are poetic and tap into what it means to be human with such a vivid rhythm. I love his stories and his poems. I have met him before and respect who he is as a person. He is a good man who cares deeply for the earth and for the truth of who we are and how we are made. It is a great gift to meet an artist who does not disappoint us with who they actually are.