The Colgate Scene ON-LINE


Fairchild Professor of Literature Fred Busch introduced his former student Kim Edwards '81, who had returned to Colgate to speak about the writer's life and read a story on the eve of the publication of her first book The Secrets of the Fire King (W.W. Norton).

When Kim Edwards '81 began her studies at Colgate, in September of 1979, she was a local kid, from Skaneateles. Now, four days before the publication date set for her first book, she returns here as a traveled woman. From Hamilton, in 1981, she went to Iowa City, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts degree in the writing of fiction from the famous and very arduous Program in Creative Writing -- the original Writers Workshop -- at the University of Iowa. I recall her there as the unhappiest first-year MFA candidate I'd seen; and I heard about her, from friends on the faculty, that she was one of the most promising second-year candidates they had ever seen.

Then she set out for farther frontiers. She taught in Malaysia, in Japan, in Cambodia. While she was a wife and a teacher and a traveler, she was always a writer. She won the Nelson Algren award in fiction and was flown from Asia to Chicago to receive it. Her work, which appeared in such first-rate magazines as The Paris Review, Threepenny Review, Story, and American Short Fiction -- and now she was a wife and teacher and traveler and mother -- was further honored by its inclusion in the Pushcart Prize Anthology and in Best American Short Stories.

The Threepenny and then Pushcart story, "The Way It Felt to Be Falling," I have bored my writing students about all semester. They are so very tired of hearing that its first version was written, and studied by a workshop, at Colgate. Kim remembered her workshop teacher talking about verisimilitude, plausibility, about doing research for fiction, and getting it right. So she went out to the airstrip, and she took the skydiving lessons. That is to say, she jumped out of an airplane and fell toward the surface of the earth, obedient to gravity, and defiant of every atavistic response, every micro-measure of caution implanted by the evolution of our brain stems, but in fullest obedience to her commitment to be a writer.

Oddly enough, as her career is going to show, and as these stories promise, and as the courageous music of her fiction demonstrates, she did not fall down. She fell up. And she is still rising. Kim Edwards.

Thank you so much, and thank you all for coming this afternoon. It's really a great honor and also a great pleasure to be here to share the publication of my first book with you. It's also absolutely appropriate that this celebration happen here, because if I hadn't come to Colgate, it's very unlikely that I would have become a writer.

I transferred to Colgate from a community college in my junior year, and spent one semester of my senior year in London, so I was really only a Colgate student for four semesters, and only on campus here in Hamilton for three. It's amazing for me to think about that now, because my experience here was a profound one -- truly life-shaping -- and it seems it should have taken much longer. Friendships I made here endure to this day. I was challenged in almost every class I took, and it seems that I was continually involved in discussions, both in and out of class, whose questions I would keep thinking about for years after I had left.

I did a lot of important things while I was a Colgate student, but certainly the most important thing I did was to sign up for a fiction workshop with Fred Busch. I did this without realizing how much this one class would change my life. I'd wanted to be a writer since I was very young, but it seemed an unlikely dream. I'd never met anyone who was a writer, and I had no real sense of the demands and pleasures of a writer's life. Likewise, I was so completely unaware of contemporary writers that I didn't realize when I signed up for the workshop who Fred Busch was. After the term began I started reading his work and began to discover what a tremendously fine writer he is, but I didn't know any of this when I walked into his class.

Jane Pinchin and Kim Edwards

However, it was immediately clear to me -- and clear, I think, to everyone in that class -- that we were in the presence of a real writer, a masterful teacher, and that the fiction workshop would be an exceptional course, even by Colgate standards. It was. I remember it as a time of enormous discoveries. A time when I came to understand stories and even the nature of fiction in a new way. I was challenged to do the best I could -- and even beyond that, actually. By the end of the term I'd written the first draft of a story which was eventually published in the Threepenny Review and later awarded a Pushcart Prize. The story was then called "Cords." Now it's called "The Way It Felt to Be Falling." The title isn't the only thing that's changed. The story has been through many, many revisions. It took years for my skills to catch up with the initial vision I'd had for the story while I was a student here. Still, in spite of all the changes the story has undergone, its essential heart remains the same, and was written here, at Colgate. I'm very proud to have it in my collection, to have that connection with the place where everything began for me as a writer, and with the people who helped make it happen. I went on from Colgate to study at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, where I had many wonderful teachers and very accomplished colleagues, but the fact remains that the best fiction workshop I've ever been privileged to take is the first one I took here with Fred Busch at Colgate.

Today I'd like to read a story called "The Great Chain of Being." As you'll see, this story has its literal origins in my experiences on the rural east coast of Malaysia, where I lived for two years. But all stories have secret sources too. Like dreams, stories seem to arise out of disparate elements that come together and somehow form a new whole. In this story some of the hidden sources have to do with Colgate and I wanted to mention them briefly.

I'm thinking in particular of a women's studies class I took, taught, in part, by Jane Pinchin, which gave me an enduring framework for considering the ideas and concerns of women and women writers. I'm indebted to that class, and to Jane Pinchin herself, for opening up so many sources that would give me insight into my own life, and that would so deeply inform my writing over the years.

Also, I owe a debt in this particular story to the late Jonathan Kistler, his course on the novel, and a discussion we had one day on the nature of fate. Mr. Kistler asked us to consider what it was, finally, that we could control in our lives. He suggested that we could pretty easily control some things -- what we wore on a given day, for instance -- but that other things -- the era, or the social circumstances into which we are born -- were less open to our influence. The question intrigued me. I kept thinking about it as I lived and traveled, and eventually I thought about it so much that it became the organizing framework for this story, "The Great Chain of Being."