After majoring in history at Macalester, English professor Peter Bognanni ’01 studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop before returning to teach at Mac in 2006. His award-winning first novel, The House of Tomorrow, was adapted into a film that’s due out later this year. Also happening for Bognanni in 2017: his second novel, Things I’m Seeing Without You, is being released in September.

What do you teach?

I teach all kinds of creative writing, including a lot of sections of Intro to Creative Writing, and I teach intermediate courses on topics such as screenwriting and fiction. Recently, I taught a capstone in which students had to write a novella.

What happened on your path to becoming a professor?

When I was a student at Macalester, I didn’t take creative writing until an amazing class with [English professor] Wang Ping late in my time here. I really enjoyed majoring in history. All of the things historians do—doing research, constructing a narrative—have helped my writing.

After college, I worked in children’s publishing for a few years. I was trying to figure out if I wanted to go through with trying to be a writer, if I had enough talent. I chose to see if I could get into a grad school program. I got into the top program, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and I thought that was a sign that I was at least ready for the next step. I had an amazing two years there. Because I hadn’t majored in English, I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do in terms of reading contemporary fiction and learning craft. I moved to Chicago afterward and was teaching there, and then Stephen Burt, Macalester’s English department chair at the time, reached out to me. There was a last-minute opening to teach, and in a pinch, he asked if I would be interested in spending a year as a visiting professor.

That’s all I thought it was going to be. Then my contract kept getting renewed, and I ended up being a visiting professor for seven years before a tenure-track job opened up and I applied. I was kind of permanently temporary—or temporarily permanent—until this opportunity to make a larger commitment opened up.

Why teaching?

In graduate school, I had the opportunity right away to teach courses—and I had no idea if I would like it or not. As that first semester of teaching went on, I found that I really loved it. I was incredibly energized, and I was putting way more work into it than a lot of other TAs were, because I was excited to go into class and have discussions about writing. But creative writing teaching jobs are really competitive, so I wasn’t sure if I would get a job teaching in this area. This was going to be my ideal job if I could find it, and I was lucky enough to find it here.

What do you love about teaching?

For me, at the end of a day of work, it’s ideal if you feel like you’ve spent your time in service to other people. Not every teaching day is like that. You’re not necessarily shaping lives every time you go into a classroom. But when someone writes a personal essay for the first time about what they truly believe, or someone who normally takes science classes gets really excited about a short story—in a small way that expands each person’s reality, their sense of the world. Some days feel more like that than others. But if there’s even just a small moment in class when you see that light switch on, it feels good at the end of the day.

How did you develop your teaching style?

I had a graduate school instructor named Frank Conroy who was famous for tearing students’ work apart. He believed that he had to break everybody of their bad habits and not let us get away with anything. I thought, “Oh, that’s how you’re supposed to teach writing. This is serious business, and there have to be tears and screaming, or else you’re not doing a good job.”

But that’s the furthest thing from my natural personality. As a teacher, I’m much more of a nurturer. I still feel like I have the duty to tactfully tell people the truth about a piece of writing that isn’t working, but it’s impossible for me to adopt the persona that Frank Conroy had. If you’ve had teachers with really strong personalities who are very convincing in their approach, it’s easy to think that’s the way it has to be done. But you’re going to be a better and stronger teacher if you’re using your own truths.

What’s it like to take a class with you?

I believe in the workshop model. Everyone reads pieces from two students ahead of time, and then we have a focused discussion about what’s going well and what’s not going well. If you never show your work to anyone, it’s very easy to write something that’s satisfying to you but doesn’t communicate what you want to your reader. The workshop model allows you to understand what a large group of smart, active readers actually got from your writing. Getting that chorus of voices in response to a piece of art you’ve made is really valuable. Workshops make everyone a stronger writer: the feedback sinks in, and when you sit down to write, you’ll think back to what worked for you and what didn’t in other people’s pieces.

How do students learn to give feedback?

I want students to learn how to articulate their thoughts clearly and truthfully, and to do it on the fly. In a business or post-grad job setting, this happens in meetings and collaborations all the time. Everyone has different opinions. When you’re giving feedback, tone is incredibly important. People are much more likely to actually hear what you have to say if you phrase it in a way that doesn’t sound like a personal attack. A creative writing workshop is a great way to build a skill that will be useful in a lot of other settings.

How do you bring your own writing into class?

When I’m struggling with something in my writing, I assume that student writers are also struggling with it. I’m honest about that in the classroom. I stress revision as part of the process of making writing stronger. But when I’m working on a project of my own, I catch myself not wanting to change things or put that work in because it’s incredibly hard and tedious. It becomes easier for me, then, to teach a unit on revision because I can say, “I don’t want to do this either, and here’s what’s really hard about it—but it’s something you must do if you want your work to be good.”

How do you balance teaching and writing?

I do most of my writing—in terms of creating—over summer and winter break. When I’m teaching, most of the writing I do is revising, so I don’t have to hold the whole novel in my head every day. When I wake up, I can work on a paragraph here or a sentence there. When I’m writing a novel, I feel like I have to get up every day and have that entire story in my head, always thinking about what’s next. It’s hard to do that when I genuinely care about making my classes good. Most of the time, writing and teaching are two different parts of my life.

What are Mac students like to teach?

As a student here, I found a lot of my classmates just as inspiring as the professors. It wasn’t in a competitive way—it was more like “Wow, that person really poured their heart into their assignment. Why am I not doing that?” I see that happening in my creative writing classes. I can tell the students, “Write your best work,” but as soon as somebody turns in a story that raises the bar, other people follow. There’s an amazing creative energy at this school that’s contagious.

What do you hope students learn from your classes?

I hope they become lifelong readers, and that they read outside their comfort zone. I hope they’re better writers in any facet of their life that comes next, because the skills I’m teaching them transcend the creative realm. I hope they’ve come to some more ideas about what they truly believe and how they truly see the world. Writing forces you to think about that. I hope that sticks with them after they leave the classroom.

March 22 2017

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