October 14, 2008

Writer-in-Residence Walter Kirn tries to connect with students on a personal level

[img id="76840" align="alignleft"] For Walter Kirn, navigating college life was anything but easy.

“At 18 or 19, I wasn’t necessarily understood face-to-face. That led to frustration,” Kirn said. He serves as this year’s writer-in-residence as part of a program established in 2001 by Atlantic Monthly editor Robert Vare (A.B. ’67, A.M. ’70).

Jumping from a small Montana town to Princeton proved difficult for Kirn. But fitting into the college scene paled in comparison to the rigors of academic life, he said.

“The gulf between teacher and student was great. The pedestal on which they stood was high. And the language [professors used] was unintelligible,” he said.

So when Kirn became a professor of nonfiction at the University of Montana, he surprised even himself with the career move.

“I was a student who had done very well on standardized tests, but with a limited body of knowledge, faking it half the time,” said Kirn, who captured his collegiate struggles in his upcoming memoir about his education, Lost in the Meritocracy. “I was a stressed-out student. I found college the most disoriented time of my life. That I could be someone to sit at the front of the class is somewhat ironic.”

In the classroom this year, Kirn hopes to present a more constructive environment than the one he felt in his college days. He teaches a small class focusing on nonfiction writing, but his program will offer a “broad range of experiences” that reflect the many genres that influence Kirn’s own work. He will also present at public events on campus, including a screening this Friday at Ida Noyes of the film Thumbsucker, based on his novel by the same name.

In Kirn’s view, students should see their teacher as an older student.

“I try to keep all the questions open, at least I hope to,” he said, adding that a good teacher works to “expand imperfect knowledge and refine necessarily limited understanding.”

So far, his return to college is going smoother than the first time around. The University community has been exceptionally welcoming, he said.

“Chicago’s unique [in that] it’s both inward and self-sufficient, and outward and far-flung,” he said.

And even now that he has written for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and Esquire, had a Hollywood movie created based on one of his stories, and served as a contributing editor to Time, Kirn still sees the challenges of self-expression that he faced in his younger years as one of the reasons he’s a writer.

“At the bottom of every writer,” Kirn said, “is a frustrated conversationalist.”