Close to the Center

When he is writing, he is at his computer by six a.m., or even five or five-thirty, if the long light of summer gets him started sooner. Six days a week, five or six hours a day, he works at his craft, producing novels, essays, and stories that touch people from all walks of life.

During the twenty-four years that he has been teaching literature and creative writing on the Indiana University Bloomington campus, Professor of English Scott Russell Sanders has been part of what he describes as "a cluster of writers" at Indiana University, professors who work steadily at their art and "teach out of their practice." There is no substitute for that, Sanders says, for students in his writing classes are learning from someone who knows, first-hand, the writer's life. He is living proof to them that art matters enough to him that he has to do it. "If you want to be a musician," he says, "you have to play music every day. If you want to be a writer, you have to play your instrument—which is language—every day."

After fifteen years of writing only fiction and six years of writing both fiction and nonfiction, Sanders has become almost exclusively a writer of nonfiction. He has done a few children's books, which he describes as a "little outlet for fiction," but his energies have turned mainly to the personal narrative. "I discovered," he says, "that what I do best and what I do in the fullest and most complete way is to write about the things that concern me in light of my experience and my observations." Sanders draws from this practice as he encourages his students to write as a way of discovering who they are. "The ability to write clearly and cogently and concretely is a tremendous skill for students to develop," he says. "It will enrich their capacity as thinkers. It will make them notice more about their world and reflect more on their lives."

Sanders describes himself as a man preoccupied with "place and land and nature and family," who in recent years has been "moving towards an interest in community." His newest work, a book about hope, "will speak of healing and renewal, within individuals and within communities and within the larger culture." Many writers, including himself, have "invested a lot of energy in identifying wounds such as loss, suffering, causes of harm to people and to communities," he says. "I am at a point in my life where I feel the need to speak to my children, to my students, to the younger generation coming along, about what resources I feel we have and what resources the planet has for renewal."

Sanders' collection of essays Writing from the Center was just released by Indiana University Press (Fall 1995). "It dwells a lot more on the Midwest than my other books have," Sanders says, "and on what, if anything, distinguishes this region, this culture. The center I am talking about in that book has several meanings. One is geographical—our dewelling here in the center of the continent, this great heartland. Other meanings are social and ecological—our dwelling within the circles of family and community and place. And yet another meaning of ‘center' is spiritual—our inward search for the source of our being." As he balances the responsibilities of being a writer, a teacher, a husband, a father, and a son, Sanders says he tries hard to stay close to the center in his own life. He is moving towards it, and he is writing towards it, "always seeking to lead a whole and gathered life."

--Nancy Cassell McEntire