'Tie a knot and hang on'

Carnegie Mellon offers its creative writing students an extensive education, with classes in subjects as diverse as nonfiction and screenwriting, many of which are taught by published authors. But the outside world is not paved with story workshops and poetry readings. Thus the question remains: What is a creative writing major supposed to do after college? Sue Stauffacher, a children’s author and graduate of Carnegie Mellon’s creative writing program, came to speak in the Adamson Wing of Baker Hall last Wednesday, proving that her major is not without hope — or the possibility of success.

Jim Daniels, a professor in the English Department, is amazed at how Stauffacher “continues to have a great energy, vitality, and passion… [she is] living and experiencing life to its fullest.” While introducing Stauffacher, Daniels complimented her personal life as well as her writing. “[She and her husband] hold the record for longest lasting marriage of our department,” he said. Maybe this too inspired hope in the student audience; Stauffacher met her husband Roger Gilles in a class at Carnegie Mellon.

Specifically, it was a creative writing workshop. While reading a piece about the negative aspects of men, Stauffacher found herself agreeing the whole way through. Surprisingly, the author was male. Stauffacher fell in love with his writing but worried, as she admitted in her speech, “I hope he doesn’t look like a troll.” To her relief, Stauffacher continued, “He was normal-looking.” Gilles was the best thing that ever happened to her writing, Stauffacher explained. She advised aspiring writers to “make sure your partners understand the importance of writing.”

During Stauffacher’s Carnegie Mellon years, she resided in Greenfield. Her daily commute took her past Squirrel Hill, where she regarded the lit-up homes with envy. She had no conception of the later success which would bring her into a similar position. “When I was your age I didn’t think I would write for children,” Stauffacher said. “It started calling me.” She chose children because her humorous style is suited to that age group, though she admits that children are a difficult audience to please. “Children are the hardest ... they know when they are being patronized, they know when things aren’t right,” said Stauffacher.

Although she has written magazine articles and book reviews in addition to teaching at universities, Stauffacher eventually found success in the field of children’s literature. Her most fruitful books have been her stories about Franklin Delano Donuthead, a semi-neurotic middle-school boy who is trying to take life one step at a time. Stauffacher included a quote by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Donuthead’s namesake, in the preface to the book: “When you get to the end of the rope, tie a knot and hang on.” Another hit novel was Harry Sue, about a child whose parents are convicts. Life calls for the protagonist to have a heart of steel, but she falls short and instead has a caring heart.

During her talk, Stauffacher read excerpts from Donutheart, Harry Sue and one of her current works in progress. Then, she quoted Viktor Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning: “Success like happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue.... In the long run ... success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.” She lives her life by these guidelines, she explained, and understands that artists cannot waste time searching for fame; they will be found. According to Stauffacher, appreciation for the art of literature is waning, which may prove a problem for future writers.

Since 1992, Stauffacher has been working on novels for middle-grade readers. Her work entertains children, but uses a sophisticated tone, making references to history and medicine. “I saw my daughter devour Donutheart in a day,” Daniels said.

Stauffacher has achieved success not only in her life, but also in her ability to satisfy a difficult audience. That should give creative writing majors a little more hope.