Greater than Fiction

As a child, UCSD literature professor and MFA Writing Program director Sarah Shun-lien Bynum had little desire to become an author: Instead, she nursed the dream of forming a band and living off her piano prowess. She never imagined that she would become a critically acclaimed writer, featured in The New Yorker’s prestigious “20 Under 40” issue (a list of 20 of the best contemporary American fiction authors under the age of 40) published July 5, 2010.

This wasn’t Bynum’s first brush with the illustrious magazine. Her previous short story “Yurt,” about the love affairs of elementary school teachers, was published in The New Yorker two years earlier, on July 21, 2008. The 2010 issue features Bynum’s story “The Erlking,” about a mother and daughter who attend a Waldorf school fair where unusual mishaps occur. Originally scheduled to print prior to the “20 Under 40” issue, magazine editors notified Bynum that they would be pushing back the publication date of her piece in order to include her.  Typically, editors only contact writers to notify them if they’ve been accepted or rejected, but in Bynum’s case they made an exception.

Once the news reached Bynum, she was taken by surprise. Bynum only wrote “The Erlking” (from the German poem “Erlkönig”) as a favor to fellow writer Kate Bernheimer, who was creating an anthology of revised fairy tales. After weeks of careful consideration, Bynum decided to write a modern retelling of her favorite folk tale. Depending on the interpretation, the original “Erlkönig” illustrates the death of a young child -— either through illness or supernatural beings.

“The point of the anthology was to revisit a favorite fairy tale, so I chose a German folktale, ‘The Erlking,’” Bynum said. “It was a wonderful little poem written by Goethe that is often attached to a song. I used that story as a jumping-off point.”

With Germanic inspiration in tow, Bynum proceeded to take several slow months — between shuttling her 5-year-old daughter to various summer activities, attending her book club and tending her vegetable garden — to weave the intricacies of her short story.

“I’m actually a really slow writer,” Bynum said. “It requires a certain concentration that’s hard to muster when there are so many distractions in my life and the world. Just to find a space where I can concentrate hard enough to write is in and of itself a major task. It’s so tempting to have distractions take over.”

Though she has improved at committing to bouts of intense concentration, Bynum still concedes that, for her,  writing has always been a lengthy process inundated with difficulty. Her first novel, Madeleine is Sleeping — a story about a young girl’s coming of age — took ten years of sporadic bursts of writing to complete. She relies on the support of her friends and mentors in order to get her through elongated periods of writer’s block. But even with two novels, eight short stories and several personal essays under her belt, Bynum still occasionally succumbs to doubt.

“Writing has never been easy for me,” Bynum said. “When I’m in the process of writing, I’m just thinking about the end of the sentence and how I’m going to get to the end of the paragraph. I just hope that I can continue to finish the story.”

Bynum’s love for writing is inspired by a childhood home filled with music, books and culture (Her family hosted several foreign exchange students in high school.) The days when she visited Louisa May Alcott’s house in her hometown of Boston and scribbled clumsy limericks or the occasional short work of fiction in her school notebook provided the genesis for her future literary career.

Today, she draws much of her inspiration from her daily life — a visit to the marketplace, teaching, spending time with her children. “Literature was my first love,” Bynum said. “I love literature. I love books. I love talking about ideas. I love the conversations that come with writing. I can’t quite imagine anything else.”

Through every piece she struggles with, Bynum said she feels lucky to have a strong basis of support for her career. She still keeps in contact with her ninth-grade English teacher, who first nurtured her talent and encouraged her to write.

“Forming writing friendships are really important,” Bynum said. “You need to find people who are good readers for your work and for whom you are a good reader. These are the relationships that will last long after the class is over, long after you’ve graduated. It’s having someone whom you really trust, who you can share your work with. It’s someone who can be a source of support, camaraderie and sympathy.”

Not only does Bynum rely on her own personal community, but she also finds enlightenment within UCSD academia. According to Bynum, the most exciting part of being a professor is the opportunity to meet new, young and passionate literary voices in her fiction class.

“Every quarter, you encounter a voice on the page that you’ve never heard before,” Bynum said a few days ago. “Sometimes in my really large introductory class, I’ll come across a new writer that just blows me away; he’s doing something that I’ve never seen before. It’s always a sense of discovery, a sense of surprise. It makes me very hopeful of where fiction can go. There’s so much uncharted territory, and so many young writers excited about charting that territory.”

It’s a mutually beneficial system — Bynum’s students have frequently helped her improve her writing by experimenting with new forms.

“There’s a lot of risk takers among students,” Bynum said. “For me, that’s exciting, and it challenges me to take risks with my writing.”

As the director of the MFA Writing Program,  — now in its sophomore year of offering degrees in fiction or poetry— Bynum hopes to better define the relatively new program and clearly distinguish it from others.

“It’s been really fun, to start something from scratch, to build something new,” Bynum said. “And the first MFA class has been really great; they’re really contributing enormously of themselves to shaping the identity of the program.”

For the time being, Bynum plans to continue working on her next piece, a tale about a haunted house (about which she is regrettably mum).

As for the new generation of writers that haven’t yet had the benefit of her teaching, Bynum offers some advice.

“Keep a low overhead — make choices that will allow you to live simply, so that you can continue to write, so that you don’t have to be working at some other profession to support your own expensive lifestyle,” Bynum said. “If you can keep a low overhead and if you can live simply, that will make a big difference in terms of protecting your own writing.”

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