Write or mow the lawn?
In downtown Clemson, the oldie-but-goodie Nick’s Tavern and Deli is filled for a special literary event. In one corner of the warm, easy-going establishment, Clemson creative writing professor Keith Morris reads from his new book, Travelers Rest. Students, faculty and community members surround him, sitting at the various wooden booths, one of which — table three — has a plaque inscribed with Morris’ name.
Although this most recent publication is his fifth successful print, Morris has a complicated relationship with his craft.
“I prefer almost anything to writing. When I’m in the thick of the plot, the hours slip by, but otherwise, it feels like torture. I will mow the lawn instead of writing,” Morris said. Still, he plans to continue.
But when Morris leads from the front of a class, students feel none of that reluctance — only his genuine passion for teaching and cultivating a love of literature.
“As a professor, I get to work with the same students over and over, encouraging and guiding them toward doing what they hope to do. I take that part of my job very seriously,” Morris said.
The audience in Nick’s sits in rapt attention to the slightly grizzled Morris, clad in his classic loose button-up, reading. Travelers Rest is, in Morris’ words, “a psychological dream story, a little thrilling,” where time becomes meaningless and characters wade through memories to discover themselves and understand relationships — all in a slightly sinister hotel in an eerie Idaho town awash in a blizzard.
But the story isn’t about horror or fear, and the tone isn’t dark. Those in the audience who know Morris, and his wry sense of humor, understand the comedic undertones. One student, Miriam McEwen, especially enjoys it.
“Keith’s sarcasm is definitely in there, and you can tell he wrote it. It’s so funny,” said McEwen.
McEwen is there with her good friend Katie Zottnick. Both seniors, they have studied under Morris and worked with him on Clemson’s Literary Festival Creative Inquiry, an initiative that Morris started eight years ago. He now co-directs the event with Clemson’s other resident fiction writer and professor, Nic Brown.
As Morris sits chatting with these two students, exchanging witty banter and hearing about their day, his appearance of gruff writer gives way to warm mentor.
“I’ve learned as much from my students as I have anything else. I hope my students feel encouraged and know that I care about what they’re doing,” Morris said. He firmly believes in a classroom philosophy that emphasizes building relationships on mutual respect.
“The authority you have in the classroom comes from the things you know, not the way you present yourself,” Morris said.
He does know what he’s talking about, and his expertise and investment have led to strong student relationships. Former students have hosted and reconnected with Morris during his ongoing book tour across the country.
As the event winds down and Morris makes his way through the crowd to chat, laugh, and enjoy the familiar time, his final words on literature mix in the thoughtful atmosphere.
“It can have a dramatic effect on the way you think about the world, the way you perceive your relationships and responsibilities and what you can do to become a successful person,” said Morris.
“I’m trying the best that I can to say things that are important to me through what I’m writing, and if other people get something out of it, then great. At least, it seems like something positive I can do.”
Morris’ work has been reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly which, along with The Independent, a UK publication, and The Chicago Tribune, chose his short story “The Dart League King” as a Pick of the Week. In 2005, his short story “The Culvert” won the 2005 Eudora Welty Prize. Travelers Rest was published by Little, Brown and Company, one of the country’s oldest and most esteemed, and publishers of J. D. Salinger, James Patterson and David Foster Wallace.