Tuesday, January 10, 1995

Molly Daniels Tuesday Interview for the Chicago Maroon

Tuesday Interview: By Pamela Miller (Appea)
The Chicago Maroon
Originally published January 10, 19995

Molly Daniels, native of India and Hyde Park Resident of 33 years, teaches writing at the University of Chicago’s School of Continuing Education. In addition, she regularly conducts sessions within her own program, the Clotheslines School of Writing, at Hutchinson Commons and the Woodlawn Tap. MAROON Reporter talked with Daniels about her literary personality and her dynamic and controversial teaching style.

Maroon: Could you tell me about the classes you teach?
Daniels: I started the workshops in ’79, in ’83 or I think ’84, I joined the Continuing Studies Program and they were very, very good to me … I published the workbook for that purpose, so that we have 400 exercises and lessons in the workbook for anyone … they will get a great deal [from it.] Class is different, because in class we have some 30, 40 people who are so energized by the method that literally you can feel the electricity in the room. It is very exciting.

We begin first of all with brainstorming exercises. We do sensations and we focus on these things for quite a while, we go visit a primitive place from way back, [and] we get back to childhood.

We try to feel our deepest wounds because as Odin said, “these wounds are an opportunity for further growth.” That is the focus … Odin said that, “the so-called trauma is an opportunity for further growth.” I was very glad when we came upon this because I had always believed this, my whole method is based on the fact that it is only when you touch base that things [begin to] come out … from there, we start moving out.

We go through a great deal of material that has been printed. These materials that have been printed [area[ our greatest consciousness. One cannot step out of consciousness, for creativity comes out of all of this material. There is a transformation that takes place when we use literary techniques, but the substance is our life … [after] we started brainstorming … everyone [in the class] wrote such brilliant stories in the end after we brainstormed for all of these different situations [in our lives.]

Maroon: So you are interested in letting the autobiographical stories come out first, as opposed to fictional work, in order to form your student writers?
Daniels: Well, in the first workshop, we don’t call it autobiographical. We look for images that have the greatest impact on us. [In] autobiography, we are more faithful to this one person about whom we are writing the story, but when we write in our workshop, we move out of that ‘focusing on the self’ to focus on others.

Fiction is the art of moving the camera outwards … but in order to do that well, they must be in touch with concepts … things they understand as conflict. They must know what their own conflicts are … You have to really go to the most dramatic moment. For example, I teach play-writing and it is very successful. My poetry class is the most successful, then my playwriting, then my fiction class. Fiction is the most difficult … Poetry is very easy.

Suppose that you are a playwright and you come to my house, and I say to you, think of a scene that keeps returning to you, a scene: there are people, there is action onstage, action off-stage and you are haunted by the scene. It keeps coming back to you, there are so many players here. Something is about to happen and then it happens. Don’t say anything. Just write the dialogue and tell what happens … if the doorbell rings, let it ring … if someone is knocking at the window, let them knock at the window. Write that scene, once that scene is done, write the scene that came before and then write the one that came after.

Maroon: When did you realize that you were first interested in writing, and what led you to become an educator?
Daniels: Well, when I was very young, my mother recited a proem to me, and I learned that poem by heart … I ran all the way to my uncle’s house to recite the poem, and I had forgotten the poem … so I ran … all the way back. I lived twenty minutes away, and studied it again.

From then on, I studied poetry every day … of course in India you had to recite a poem every week in class by heart. That was enough to start anybody. Some of my poetry was published, in high school, in the Sunday papers. Then I wrote a novella called Yellow Fish. A lot of people have written about it … But then, I don’t like it. I don’t have an English copy, but there are passages that are available.

I noticed when I was teaching in Delhi, that my students became writers overnight—even when I was teaching literature they would write. Two of my brothers wrote, and they claimed that I influenced them. My son writes. Everyone I know writes. But then I go married … it became very clear that there could not be two poets in the house. It was very difficult. I started trying to write fiction. In ’68, I wrote for Saul Bellow—a book, A Salt Doll. He believed in it. He tried repeatedly to get it published. I let some Indian publisher publish it. These Indian publishers don’t even proofread. That got some attention in India.

Then I wrote another novella called The City of Children. I’ve written two books of criticism, one of them is called A Prophetic Novel. Since ’78, I have increasingly become the writing teacher and I do not have a lot of time. When the quarter is over, I try to cool my brain and try to prepare myself for the [new quarter.] It really is emptying my mind of all of the images of the previous quarter and keeping it open for the new set of students.

Powerful things come out in the fiction workshop … I use a lot of poetry in the fiction workshop … the brain is matranomic; when it is exposed to iambic rhythm with variation, it is, capable of more creativity than ever.

We use poetry to open up. They submit it to me … and I select passages to be performed at the Woodlawn Tap. Every Sunday at 3:00—we’ve had 532 performances, and we have poems and short passages from fictions, alternating.

Maroon: With your busy schedule, do you think that you will have any time in the future to write or publish any books in the future?
Daniels: It is the deepest tragedy in my life. I enjoy my work there, and every day I get more rewards for it. My students are always telling me how much it has helped them—it has changed their lives, they are happier … but sometimes I think in another three years, I should stop all of this, if I can manage.

Maroon: You have been a resident in the Hyde Park area for 33 years now, and you mentioned the possibility of going away. Where would you like to go?

Daniels: Fantasies, Pure fantasies. I have had fantasies [about going away.] I could go to India. I could go to Sri Lanka. I’m waiting for them to finish their civil war. Unrealistically, some days, I think I could go to Mexico, but no it is impossible … maybe I will continue what I am doing, because it is very rewarding.

Maybe, during breaks, I could just continue polishing up stuff. I did not write as much as I could have, because I live here and my material was Indian, and I am not a conventional writer, so I am caught between two worlds. If I wrote more conventional stories, then of course I might have been one of the foreigners that gets published in this country, but I do not write that kind of book.

My readers are usually other writers … I would say

Maroon: Could you tell me a little bit about your education? Where have you studied?

Daniels: Well, I studied in Bombay, and I taught in Delhi. Then I went to Indiana University for a year as a Fulbright [Scholar.] Then I came here and got married. Off and on, I would take a course here at the university. I went off to India twice [then] to Minnesota for a year. There were a lot of interruptions, the kids, the family; it was only in ’86 that I got my degree. My Ph.D. I never stopped thinking. I never stopped caring about literature. It got even more intense from somehow feeling deprived. I never have had a good job in this country like I did in India. Women like me have to create their own world. You cannot expect someone to hand it to you.

Maroon: Through the years, have you encountered any racism or sexism directed towards you? How do you deal with it?

Daniels: No more than I would anywhere else, nor less. In India, a woman has more opportunities. A vast number of women in India are illiterate, so they are not competing for the type of job that I want; the few women who are educated can go anywhere they want, but India is much more prejudiced about everything.

Racism is part of humanity … I think it is good for some of us that we fight against prejudice. It is good for some of us who live in a prejudiced world. It strengthens us, it gives us an extraordinary rhetoric, we develop our personality. I would hate to be a person who thought, ‘I am the best. I come from the best traditions. There is no one better than me.’ I have had to struggle, and it is out of the struggles that I am who I am.

Maroon: What do you have to say about those who criticize your teaching method? People have said that it is too aggressive, too forceful, too intense. Would you say that they are uncomfortable with the feelings that you bring out?

Daniels: Well, if they come regularly to class, they will not be uncomfortable. The people who come to class—who are not prejudiced—who do not run away the very first week will go on talking like that. The people who are there, the record shows, are extremely comfortable, extremely happy, because they are not focused on themselves. The method requires for you to move the camera out. So, I would say, if you take a hundred students, about three quarters would be extremely positive about the experience. If you come to my class, we do not criticize; the writer is not on trial, the listener is.

Maroon: Do you feel you have to be aggressive or assertive as a teacher to get your point across as a student?
Daniels: No I think that is not the way; I believe it comes from inside people. My method is to awaken them spiritually, emotionally and to let them be brave about the material and also to let them have an inner sense.

I don’t need to be aggressive in class or at the Hutch … Each student reads their best piece three times in class. Three times they get themselves reflected back, not critically, but [they hear the stories out loud.] That is the method.

Maroon: I have heard that you met Saul Bellow. What do you have to say to people who believe that his writing is offensive?
Daniels: They are quite mistaken. I think he is the least prejudiced person I know. It is true as a writer that he sometimes gives characters an opinion, he sometimes overstates a case. Bellow is a writer’s writer, he is not a reader’s writer. Bellow is a great craftsman you have to read like a writer, not like a passive reader.

In the Puritan tradition, literature is not looked at as a freeplay of the mind, it is looked at as a treatise for on how to live, as a model dogmatic text … to think of literature as text of how to live is the most dangerous thing in the world. A study of dramatic irony—there is more than one level of meaning—you stop being fascist. You stop being bigoted, if you do not know what irony is in literature, you are likely to end up with extreme opinions that are dangerous.

I think it is a misreading of Bellow. He is not there just to tell you pretty stories. I have learned a lot from him. He is not a perfect writer, but then nobody is.