Hall of Fame inductee, literary journalist Lauren Kessler mentors next generation of storytellers
When searching the name Lauren Kessler (Ph.D., 1980) on Google, one might first discover that Kessler is a literary nonfiction writer and author of thirteen books, including Pacific Northwest Book Award winner “Dancing with Rose” and Oregon Book Award winner “Stubborn Twig” (which was also chosen as the book for all of Oregon to read in honor of the state’s 2009 sesquicentennial). But scrolling down to the end of the results or scanning to the second sentence of her Wikipedia page, it becomes clear that Kessler is more than a great writer – she is also a teacher.
“She is the best antidote to the silly idea that those who can’t do, teach,” said Dr. Everette Dennis, Kessler’s former dean at the University of Oregon as she began as a young assistant professor in the 1980s. “She is a doer – a creative artist and a gifted teacher at the same time. She is a rare individual whose academic writing and texts had an impact on students across the country, fostering better writing and improvement in journalistic and literary writing, while her own writing has also resulted in great books that bring enlightenment and pleasure to a larger world outside the university.”
Kessler, who said Dennis was the man who encouraged her to make “literary journalism” her own, is now Director of The Writing Initiative at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication (where she earned her M.S. in 1975) and has created two innovative programs: The Literature Nonfiction Master’s Program in Eugene and the Multimedia Journalism Master’s program on the Portland campus.
“Both these programs demonstrate Lauren’s commitment to developing insightful writers who immerse themselves in the topics they study and create content that helps others understand the topic,” said Dr. Kim Sheehan, Kessler’s colleague at the UO since 1998 who was directing a different professional Master’s program in Portland at the same time. “Building on this, Lauren has taken those same skills that she develops in students and writes amazing books that give us a look into lives and experiences that are not well known.”
Sheehan describes reading one of Kessler’s books to “having a wonderful conversation with your smart best friend,” whether she’s tackling the diverse world of ballet in “Raising the Barre,” investigating the science and hype of anti-aging in “Counterclockwise,” or exploring the stormy seas of the mother-daughter relationship in “My Teenage Werewolf.” Combining immersion reporting with deep research, Kessler fearlessly assists readers in understanding cultures that may be at arm’s length.
“Lauren always stretches the boundaries – she doesn’t settle for status quo, but looks for the story beyond (under, behind, over…) the story,” said Renee Sedliar, Kessler’s current editor for “Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts and My Midlife Quest to Dance The Nutcracker” set to be published this November. “For this book, she immersed herself in the world of ballet – but not just by talking with professional dancers.”
According to Sedliar, Kessler did her own “mini tour” of The Nutcracker, seeing six performances across the country in just a few weeks. She read several bios of ballet luminaries, from Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, to Jennifer Homans’ epic “Apollo’s Angels,” to recent memoirs by Jenifer Ringer and Misty Copeland. And she took classes to prepare to perform – and then performed – The Nutcracker with Eugene Ballet Company.
“If that’s not boundary-stretching and inspiring, I don’t know what is,” Sedliar said. “It shows her creativity, drive, and passion to go beyond the beyond. This is a great lesson – and again, inspiring – to her students, colleagues, peers in all the fields she is involved in.”
Thomas Schmidt, a UO School of Journalism doctoral candidate, is one of those students inspired by Kessler’s passion and chose her as his dissertation advisor. He also worked with Kessler to establish the first TransAtlantic Storytelling summer school at the UO’s Turnbull Center in Portland, bringing a select group of European journalists to Oregon where they advance their understanding of journalistic storytelling.
While also referencing her excellence as a historian and cultural anthropologist, Schmidt said, “Lauren is that unique person who excels not just in one field, but in many. She’s an outstanding writer, an inspiring teacher and the best mentor you could hope for as a graduate student. As a writer, Lauren approaches delicate issues with humility, empathy and a dogged determination to get the facts right. As a teacher, she blends instruction with reflection, enabling her students to discover their best inner-writer. As a mentor, she is dedicated, loyal and absolutely unwavering in her support.”
Schmidt sees Kessler as a role model in terms of being a writer and teacher, but also as a human being – a sentiment mirrored by Kessler’s former editor for two book projects Julia Serebrinsky who said, “Lauren is an amazing person – sensitive, caring, and remarkably smart. She has been a role model for me not just as a writer, but as a woman and mother.”
And every editor’s dream: She never misses a deadline, Serebrinsky said.
“Being a good writer is one thing and making a living at it is another, especially in a culture that doesn’t place high monetary value on storytelling,” Serebrinsky added. “But Lauren understands its relevance, cultivates it in her students, and looks out for their wellbeing beyond the classroom.”
While some may focus on Kessler’s intelligence and passion for producing high quality work, and others on her commitment and dedication of time to the development of her students, Sedliar concisely explained Kessler’s qualifying characteristics as an inductee to the Alumni Hall of Fame into four words:
“Because she is awesome.”
Kessler is a 2015 inductee to the UW Department of Communication’s Alumni Hall of Fame. To RSVP or learn more about the event, click here.