By Deb Booth Summers, '07

“If you want to be a writer, get rid of your TV. Get it out of your life right now.”

Difficult advice for a group of tuned-in 20-somethings keeping up with ESPN, MTV and the latest HBO series. But over the next 15 weeks, Josephine Humphreys’ instruction and guidance helped us find our pens, and almost without notice, lose track of our remotes.

Richmond’s Distinguished Writer-in-Residence program brought Jo to campus in the fall of 2005, the beginning of my junior year. An accomplished author of four novels, Jo’s relaxed but focused demeanor set the tone for our “Intro to Fiction” course. Before our first class and after reading some of Jo’s fiction, I remember feeling excited, intimidated and embarrassed. Her novel Dreams of Sleep won the Hemingway/PEN award and another, Rich in Love, was made into a feature length film.  I had always wanted to write fiction but had never found the courage, and here I was about to read in front of and be graded by an award-winning author on something I had never even attempted.

The fifteen or so students in the class ranged from New Englanders (most) to rural Virginians (me), English majors to business school buffs, those who summered in the Hamptons and those who summered behind the counter at a coffee shop. Jo helped us create a community in which we became comfortable reading aloud our own writings, many which were admittedly part autobiographical. I had never shared my creative work with anyone, not even my then-boyfriend now-husband. By the end of the semester, my fear and embarrassment had subsided, and I was submitting my work to writing competitions.

She came to class every week with some kind of sugary snack, a photocopied stack of our stories, and a new piece of advice, from practical writing tips to life lessons. “Find what you love and do it.” “Read… everything.” “Surprise the reader.” “Add something strange, but make it work.” “Just use ‘she says,’ no one really uses verbs like ‘interjects’ or ‘exclaims.’”  When my writing lost its voice mid-semester, simply: “start fresh, it will return.” She understood my perspective, and taught me to write my corner of the Southern experience without stereotypes, how to write a hillbilly granny without writing a Hillbilly Granny.

She treated each of us like we were already writers. Some of us had talent, some of us had desire, and Jo challenged the talented to desire the writing life and the desirous to discover their talent. She had a way of encouraging while offering pointed critiques, of teaching the subtleties of writing just by listening and reading. Her laugh was not the practiced laugh of a polite Southerner, but a whole-hearted laugh, one that told you your sentence worked and your character’s quirks had the intended effect. She helped bring other writers to our class, including Curtis Sittenfeld, author of the New York Times bestseller, Prep.  Reading her and Jo’s work taught me to write in a straightforward manner while crafting whatever it is that keeps readers turning the page, too complex to be deemed suspense and too unstructured to be called mystery.

Since Jo’s class, some of us have continued writing, some are in MFA programs, and some have had our work published. Many of us stay in touch with Jo. In a recent email exchange, she mentioned teaching again but knew it would not be the same without “those particularly wonderful Richmond students.” I wanted to tell her that, after her class, everything has been different: not just reading and writing, but the mundane moments of life, in which I now hear stories, savor strangeness, and keep my pen close at hand.

Deborah Booth Summers, ’07, is currently a graduate student in Rhetorical Studies at the University of Minnesota. Since graduation, she has published two scholarly essays and two news features.