Days of Thankfulness: Dan Williams
I feel fairly confident in saying that many of us have had this professor. That one teacher who you looked at with a tilted head at the time and thought “What in the world are they doing?” The crazy one who didn’t make any sense when you had them, but you did what they told you to do because you wanted to pass, you wanted to graduate, and you didn’t really realize all you were learning in the process. That was Dr. Daniel Williams for me. He came into Geneva college my senior year like a whirlwind of new ideas and shook up the entire writing department. He replaced both writing professors in one fell swoop and, as surprised as I was to figure it out, I’m so thankful for my time under him.
Let me tell you about Dan Williams. I could call him nothing else for a long time because I had no idea what he was. He was fresh out of school with his PhD when he came to Geneva and I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the Dr. part of his name for the first semester. He was unlike any doctor I’d ever had. He was, is, also quite mad, in the best possible way. I have a theory that once you get your PhD, you are free to be as eccentric as you want. Dan Williams proves this rule. He wears crocks every day, the classic kind, with his semi- professional teaching wear, and often with a floppy hat to protect his face. He told us all about it one time. He is currently sporting a very impressive mountain man beard. He looks as crazy as he is. He hides nothing.
My first semester I spent two writing classes trying to figure him out. We read a lot of Samuel Beckett, it was awful. In the advanced writing class we had to write ten minute journals that were free flowing thought. He wanted us to sit down at the keyboard and write for ten minutes straight without taking our hands off the keys, or even stopping the motion of typing. We were to keep typing no matter what, even if it was just the same word over and over again. Naturally, they started out pretty grammatically normal. They had punctuation and structure and everything. Dan Williams slowly killed that in all of us. He didn’t want sentences, he wanted thoughts. He once gave me these instructions for my journals
“Imagine a train yard where the trains are made of smoke and they’re all cutting through the guts of one another, making T’s and +’s of one another as they criss cross. Sentences interrupting as thoughts interrupt.”
I’ve been reading back through his responses to my journals and enjoying the vivid imagery of his language as he pushed me to write differently. I was forced to abandon structure, to let thoughts flow free, to let go of my writing habits that wanted to shape every word and just let them fall. I couldn’t find it this time, but somewhere in there he demands that I “kill the Austen,” followed by some gruesome description, I’m sure. At the time I just wanted to find what he was looking for, to get to where he was pushing me so that he would stop, so that he’d finally be happy. I understand now, looking back, that he wasn’t pushing me anywhere. He just wanted me to move. To find something new in myself, to dig deep and experience emotions in my writing so I could translate them into characters later on. I understand now that he wasn’t looking for anything from me, he just wanted to see what he would get.
I recently explained to my husband the truth behind the madness. Sure, I was super stressed my senior year and Dan Williams drove me bonkers trying to figure him out, but when the dust settled and the smoke cleared and I was married and living in my own home and writing by myself without anyone driving me I looked back and found all the value in his madness. From him I learned true free-writing. I learned to get thoughts out of my head and onto a page where I could deal with them at will, where they didn’t crowd out my stories. I learned the importance of a community of writers, the importance of having someone to read my work and tell me “This character is not relatable,” or “This scene doesn’t really fit,” or “I’m not sure what’s going on here, can it be clearer?” You can’t write in a bubble, you need to break out from that, take a leap of faith and let people see your work. I learned that it’s important to get your work out there, even if it’s rejected. I learned so much more.
I grew more as a writer in my senior year of college than I did in all the other years combined. I am so excited for Molly to have him next year. I’m so excited to see, through her, all that he’s done with the program since I left. I was severely disappointed that I didn’t get to be part of his reading series. It was always during play practice, dress rehearsal or the play itself, so that was a thing, but I would have loved to have taken part. It is my favorite thing that he brought to Geneva. I hope that Molly will find her way in, though I don’t know if she’ll be as into it as I am. I am thankful for my time under Dan Williams, and I’m thankful that Molly will get to learn from him as well. Today I am thankful Dr. Dan Williams. What are you thankful for?