By M.A.W.P. student Brittany Petersen
On Tuesday, author Ryan Van Meter returned to his graduate school alma mater to read from his new book, If You Knew Then What I Know Now, and to answer questions from students eager to replicate his journey to success. But Van Meter was the first to admit that journey was improbable, to say the least; he didn’t want to mislead his audience into thinking that his ascension as a writer was the easy or typical road. It really doesn’t happen like this, he said. At least not on a regular basis. He worked hard; he got lucky; seriously, you guys, this never happens.
But for Van Meter, the fairy tale came true: After graduating from DePaul with an M.A. in creative writing, he landed an M.F.A., published his thesis, and secured a faculty position at the University of San Francisco – all in a few short years. That thesis was published this month by Sarabande Books and so Van Meter returned to stand in front of his peers, an example of what the DePaul English Department can help you achieve. He is a tangible success story, a testimonial for that potent combination of talent, dedication, and hard work (though having a really good memory certainly helps).
Van Meter’s book is a collection of creative nonfiction essays, some of which were begun under the tutelage of DePaul Professor Michele Morano. Years after she first noticed the pupil with the striking aptitude for narrative storytelling, she couldn’t keep the grin off her face as she introduced him to a room full of current writing and English students, including the fifteen students in her graduate revision workshop. (I’ve taken two classes with Professor Morano, and we’ve read Van Meter’s work in both.) Van Meter addressed this new generation directly: Morano’s class, he said, changed his life. It was at DePaul that Van Meter truly learned what creative nonfiction was, after all.
After growing up in the closet in Missouri and earning a Bachelor’s in English from the University of Missouri-Columbia, Van Meter packed his life into his car and moved to Chicago at the age of 22. The excerpt he read on Tuesday, titled “The Goldfish History,” told the story of the years that followed: his relationship with his best friend, Kim; his realization that he was gay and subsequent coming out to Kim in the bathroom of a gay bar; his first goldfish; his first boyfriend. Van Meter wrote, “Goldfish…have a reputation for being disposable. If it dies, you get another one. The pet store tanks are full of hundreds and maybe even thousands of them, glittering and tightly packed together like sewn sequins. Drunk kids used to swallow them as a dare because presumably no one would miss a few dozen, so why not? It might be said that goldfish aren’t usually important.” Framing the story around the lifespan of his fish, Rufus – named for his favorite musician, Rufus Wainwright – Van Meter explores some of the most important relationships in his life and tracks how they developed, changed, died, were reborn, or weren’t. He told the story of this fish, and all this fish came to represent.
If the rest of the book is anything like “The Goldfish History,” I’ll read the entire thing in one sitting. In fact it’s sitting on my desk at this moment, staring at me, willing me to ignore it until my other work for the day is done. (Hint: That won’t happen.)
After the reading and a short Q&A, Van Meter stuck around even longer to talk to Professor Morano’s workshop students. I asked a question about how he’d structured the story, which covered six years in just 21 pages and provides an impressive display of mastery over transition, the seamless juxtaposition of action and background and exposition. Another student asked about how Van Meter secured an agent and his plans for his next project; Van Meter joked that his contract requires that his publisher get “right of first refusal,” which sounds so negative – shouldn’t it be “right of first acceptance”?
Van Meter’s visit, in my opinion, was a marked success; to see anyone thrive spiritually and financially as a writer is inspirational. To see a DePaul graduate do it is even better.
If You Knew Then What I Know Now is available directly from Sarabande Books and at bookstores around the country (including Amazon). A video preview of the book, based on Van Meter’s story “First,” can be seen here. Pictures from the reading can be seen here.