Gayle Greene: Preparing Minds Through Creative Writing

By Kaela Nurmi '15, News Section Head

Kaela Nurmi: Why did you choose teaching? Gayle Greene: I went to New York looking for the “real world” and didn’t much like what I found. I worked in publishing, on Madison Avenue—think “Mad Men”—and it was clearly not for me. I was not sure at that point that I wanted to go through a PhD program, but working in an office was a very deadening experience. It was clarifying, though; I needed time away from school to know I wanted to be back in school. When I got my first job teaching, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I put myself through grad school teaching.

KN: What has kept you here at Scripps? GG: I hadn’t given a thought to teaching at a women’s college; it actually made me a little nervous. But after about a week here, I thought, “this works.” I really like it, and I would never want to teach at a UC school —many of my friends do, and it is a factory system: huge classes, you can’t get to know students the way you can at Scripps and as a faculty member, you’re slotted to a narrow field of specialization and supposed to teach and publish mainly in that field, whereas at Scripps you get to range widely. The interdisciplinary Core program encourages that.

KN: What do you teach? GG: My main point of entry was Shakespeare. I’m lucky to have chosen Shakespeare—he’s one of the few writers you can never tire of. I teach contemporary women writers, and was writing about Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood and others while working up courses on them. Lately I’ve branched out to creative non- fiction; my books have taken me in that direction. I teach a Core II course, “Sleep: Nature, Nurture, Mystery” and a Humanities upper division course, “The Poetry and Science of Sleep.” These were spin-offs of my latest book, and are laying the groundwork for a new one.

KN: Is there a class you have always wanted to teach or see yourself teaching in the future?

GG: I’m happy with the creative non-fiction class. You never know what’s going to happen. The Core course on sleep is relatively new, and for the time being that’s used up my energy for developing new courses; it’s a challenge, teaching the science.

KN: What do you love about teaching? GG: It keeps me on my toes. Dealing with young people keeps me young. Scripps is like a family that never grows old; individual students may leave, but new ones come and those students stay the same age.

Teaching and writing are really closely related. [Scripps has enabled my] writing and teaching [to] work together. I can try out ideas for my books on classes and if people look confused, I know the ideas need working on. It is a reality check.

The students have definitely changed. Everybody’s so much busier, crazy busy, though I’m not one to talk. I could write a book on that. I did write an article...[in the] Huffington Post.

KN: What books have you written? GG: I started in lit[erary] crit[icism]. Some my books were Changing the Story and The Woman’s Part. My book Insomniac took me into the field of sleep. It ended up much more scientific than I had intended, because I had planned on it being a memoir. For The Woman who Knew too Much: Alice Stewart and the Secrets of Radiation, I worked with Stewart for five years. She discovered in 1956 that x-raying a pregnant woman doubles the risk of childhood cancer. Nobody in the 1950s wanted to hear that; it meant that a fraction of a radiation dose “known” to be safe could [actually] be lethal. [Stewart’s] work has become newly relevant with Fukushima, with people wondering what effect those radioactive emissions will have.

KN: You mentioned your book Insomniac. How did you get interested in insomnia? GG: I’ve always had trouble getting to sleep. My next book is going to be about sleep as well. I’m fascinated by the subject. It’s undiscovered country: why we sleep, how we sleep, where dreams come from. Sleep is fundamental to everything. Sleep is our creativity.

KN: What is something you think students should know?

GG: What I mainly try to communicate in my literature courses is a love and enthusiasm for literature—I’d like others to derive the kind of pleasure and sustenance from literature that I have. I’m old-fashioned: I believe in great books.

Gayle Greene will be giving a lecture "Sir Richard Doll and Dr. Alice Stewart: Gender, Politics, and the Road to Fukushima" in the Malott Commons Hampton Room on October 10 at 7 p.m.