Author Jeffrey DeShell to discuss ‘Stealing Beauty’ in Brown Bag



If nobody will read it, then why write it? Many authors might grapple with this question, assuming there is no point, but Week Three’s prose writer-in-residence for the Chautauqua Writers’ Center Jeffrey DeShell sees it another way. 

“It’s important for me to be open to what the possibilities of writing are,” DeShell said. “Whether they are marketable, or whether they are insightful — I don’t think that, sometimes, is that important.”

DeShell has published seven novels, including Masses and Motets and Arthouse and a critical book on Edgar Allen Poe’s fiction. He was a Fulbright Teaching Fellow in Budapest and has taught in Northern Cyprus, the American Midwest and at the Milton Avery Graduate School for the Arts at Bard College. Currently, he is the director of creative writing at the University of Colorado Boulder. He will be giving a Brown Bag lecture titled “Stealing Beauty” at 12:15 p.m. EDT Friday, July 16 on the CHQ Assembly Virtual Porch.

“I always tell my students, I’m just not a storyteller. I’m not very good at it,” DeShell said. 

Instead, DeShell sees himself as a thief. He consumes many different kinds of media, such as music, film and visual art and then uses these to inform the books that he writes. Many of his stories come from being interested in exploring a way of writing, or a way to tell a story, rather than the story itself. It takes him on average four to five years to complete a novel, so he gravitates toward what can hold his interest for that period of time, rather than what he thinks other people will want to read. 

For example, his book Expectation was based on Arnold Schoenberg’s serialism style of composing music. Schoenberg would have a tone row — a particular sequence of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale used as a basis for 12-tone (serial) music — like a C, D flat and a G, and before he could use a C note again he would have to go back through the whole row. DeShell translated that idea of a tone row into different parts of speech. While he was composing a sentence, it would go something like “verb, adjective, adverb.” In order to use another verb, he would have to go back down the row.

“I came into some weird combinations that were actually pretty successful in the sense that they sounded kind of like his music,” DeShell said. “The sentences were much less crazy than you might think. They just were a little bit off.”

However, this method of using interesting compositional elements inspired by other people’s works does have some drawbacks. DeShell points to one of his books, inspired by Miles Davis. He said it exclusively contains dialogue, no description or punctuation. This style of writing makes it difficult to develop the characters psychological characteristics. Although, he said this is fine with him because he does not enjoy writing psychological realism. 

DeShell likes not knowing where he is going to end up in his writing, either at the end of a sentence, or sometimes the end of a novel. The adaptability of his writing style and the act of “stealing beauty” leads to a new kind of creativity that can grow with the writer and lead them to new places.  

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Sarah Vest

The author Sarah Vest