Writer-teacher dies

Tracy Ellingson

Members of the University literary community experienced shock and tragedy this week as they learned of author Michael Dorris’ death.
The award-winning 52-year-old author was planning to come to the University to teach in the English department’s creative writing program this quarter, but withdrew several weeks ago, citing health problems.
Several news media reported on Monday that the cause of Dorris’ death on Friday in Concord, N.H., was suicide.
Rebecca Liestman, a local author who was scheduled to take Dorris’ course, said the writer’s death left her with an empty feeling.
“I think it’s an enormous loss to the literary world,” Liestman said, voice shaking, “and it’s an enormous loss to me personally, from a professional point of view, to not be able to hear him speak and to find out, to learn about how his mind works to create what he did create that was so beautiful.”
Dorris had taken leave from his teaching position at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire so he could devote more time to writing. But last year the University’s creative writing faculty nominated the author for a Winton Chair Scholar position.
The College of Liberal Arts nominates and selects scholars from around the world to teach a course and give at least one public lecture.
“(Dorris) wasn’t really familiar with the University of Minnesota. He was just really interested in teaching,” said Madelon Sprengnether, director of the English department’s creative writing program.
“What he said to me is that he missed the classroom and just really was looking forward to interacting with students again, and he was especially interested in teaching fiction writing,” said Sprengnether, who first met Dorris at a book reading where he told her he was interested in teaching at the University.
Dorris was selected for the Winton Chair Scholar last year, but in March his aide called the English Department and said the author was too ill to teach the first class.
Prior to his death, students enrolled in the class were contacted and told the author would not be able to fulfill his appointment.
“We had been hoping that he would be able to teach the course in an altered format,” Sprengnether said, “maybe for half the quarter rather than the whole quarter. We had been waiting to hear from him when the news of his death came (Monday).”
The workshop-style class, “Topics in Advanced Creative Writing: Building Character,” drew a great deal of interest with 37 students submitting manuscripts for Dorris to review.
Some of the 15 students Dorris selected to take his course had difficulty speaking of his death.
“He was one of my favorite writers and when I heard he was giving a class this spring I just had to get into it,” said Renie Howard, an extension student and free-lance writer and editor who Dorris had selected to take the class.
“It’s a tremendous loss to everyone,” said Howard, who read about Dorris’s death in the paper on Monday. “I’ve been out walking for hours because I don’t know what to do with myself. I can’t work.”
Both Howard and Liestman said that they are not taking a course to replace the one Dorris was to teach.
“I had a hard time thinking it was replaceable,” said Liestman. “It was something I very much wanted to do with that particular person because he is my favorite author. His work really speaks to me and his perceptions tend to be in line with my perceptions.”
Howard said she would like to work with the creative writing program to see if the students from the course still wanted to work together.
“Just getting to work with him would have been a real privilege and a boon to the work that I’m trying to do,” Howard said. “I was also looking forward to being a part of a group of writers.”
Dorris is the author of a host of award-winning novels and children’s publications including his debut novel, “A Yellow Raft in Blue Water,” and “The Broken Cord,” in which he recounts his personal experience becoming the first unmarried man in the nation to adopt children.
Dorris adopted three Sioux Indian children, who all suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome, before marrying novelist Louise Erdrich in 1981. Erdrich, who is a native of Minnesota, and Dorris were going through a divorce when he died. The couple had six children, including the three Dorris adopted.
“We have so many writers with such good literary technical skills,” Liestman said, “but some of them just don’t have the passion and voice that Michael Dorris does.”