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3 Life Lessons From Portland Author, Teacher Tom Spanbauer

OPB | April 30, 2014 midnight

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Portland author Tom Spanbauer is a pillar of the city’s literary community. He’s been teaching writing for more than two decades and his star-studded roster of former students includes Chuck Palahniuk and Monica Drake. And many others count him as a mentor and influence on their work. Spanbauer teaches what he calls “dangerous writing,” with a conversational style and plot lines that don’t shy away from intensely personal material.

Spanbauer’s own works include five novels. The most recent, released earlier this month, is I Loved You More. The book explores the intricacies of love and friendship through a story that blurs the lines of sexuality and intimacy between a gay man, a straight man, and a straight woman.

Tom Spanbauer on Think Out Loud, 2014

Tom Spanbauer on Think Out Loud, 2014

John Rosman / OPB

While Spanbauer says he draws on experiences he’s had in his life, he prefers to write fiction rather than memoir because the “mask of fiction” allows him to tell the truth in a better way. He joined Think Out Loud for a conversation about his new novel, and his life as an author and teacher. Below are a few lessons he imparted during the interview.

“Fiction Is The Lie That Tells The Truth, Truer”

Spanbauer’s new novel I Loved You More is rooted in painful personal history. He had a friend who died, who he hadn’t spoken to for seven years. The book is a result of sitting down to figure out what went wrong.

One of Spanbauer’s teachers used to say “fiction is the lie that tells the truth, truer.” By tackling these memories through a “lie” of fiction, he was able to distance himself enough to tell the story. Think Out Loud host Dave Miller asked Spanbauer why he would start with something that he didn’t want to grapple with. “It’s just my nature, I think,” Spanbauer said.

That might stem from being bullied as a child. Early on, Spanbauer realized that words gave the power of perspective:

“When fear would get inside of me, I would have to try to figure out what that fear was so that I could write it down. I could somehow deal with it if I wrote it down and had it outside of me. I could look at it and it wouldn’t be something that would always overwhelm me.”

“If Equal Affection Cannot Be/Let the More Loving One Be Me”

As a young man in New York City and a recent graduate of Columbia University, Spanbauer was a superintendent of five buildings and trying to make ends meet. It was a hard time in his life. But that’s also when he came across a quote by W.H. Auden: “If equal affection cannot be/let the more loving one be me.” It’s etched on a plaque in St. Mark’s Place. Spanbauer turned the location into a recurring setting in his most recent novel.

Tom Spanbauer: The fact that someone would have that large of heart. If equal affection cannot be, let it be me who loves more. There’s a way that always brings tears to my eyes; there’s a way that I got strength from that. In the middle of the hassles of New York City, I could find strength because I read those lines.

Dave Miller: It strikes me as a very brave idea, but also one that could lead to a lot of pain. Maybe for that reason all the more brave. You’re the one setting yourself up to be hurt more, if you put yourself out there more.

TS: Yeah. Well, what’s your option?

DM: The option is to close yourself up a little bit. What’s wrong with that?

TS: I guess there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just that aspiration. Maybe it’s the romantic aspiration or the poetic aspiration. Even though the stars tell me I can go to hell — they don’t care about me — I can love them back. And if the universe doesn’t really love me like I love it, I would rather be the one loving more.

DM: Have you lived your life with that as a kind of guide?

TS: I’ve never really thought about it, but I guess I have.

Tom Spanbauer on Think Out Loud, 2014

Tom Spanbauer on Think Out Loud, 2014

John Rosman / OPB

Someway It Comes Back

Spanbauer is better known for his role as a teacher than as an author. By starting the workshop “Dangerous Writing” and the subsequent groups spawned by former students, he has left a lasting impact on Portland.

Author Lidia Yuknavitch is quoted as saying, “From my point of view, he birthed the writing scene here in Portland. … Every writer I’ve ever met in Portland has been influenced by or worked with Tom.“ 

When Dave Miller asked him what he has learned from teaching, Spanbauer said:

By showing them the way, by loving them through something, by dwelling in the unknown with them, and hanging out with them — they always have a gift for me. There’s some way that it comes back. All of a sudden I’m romping around in some wonderful way, that I never knew I could before.”

To listen to Think Out Loud’s full conversation with Tom Spanbauer, click on the audio player at the top of the page.

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