Poly Writers @ Poly

Joseph McElroy ’47 Poly Writers @ Poly poster

In the inaugural Poly Writers @ Poly event, the novelist Joseph McElroy ’47 took the audience of students and faculty in the library on a fascinating journey through his writing process during a literary lunchtime talk and Q&A. The Alumni Office hosted the event and several alumni also joined on a Zoom link on October 27.

(This inaugural event was made possible by the collaborative efforts of Clifford Bernstein ’57 and the Alumni Office. Cliff passed away in August of 2022 and sadly did not see his vision come to fruition. We dedicate this inaugural session in his memory and are grateful for his tireless efforts in highlighting alumni writers.)

Joseph McElroy ’47 with Audrius Barzdukas
Joseph McElroy ’47 with Audrius Barzdukas P’20

Head of School Audrius Barzdukas P’20 introduced McElroy noting the “challenge of looking at a blank page or screen” and having to put down words. Barzdukas credited McElroy, author of more than nine novels, as “a master at stringing words together” as he takes us on journeys to amazing places. Among his works such as Women and Men, Plus, Taken from Him, Lookout Cartridge, or Ancient History, McElroy might examine the relationship between men and women in the 1970s, the meeting of a man and woman in Mumbai, the paranoia of the American psyche, or even a human brain orbiting the earth in a capsule.

McElroy, who was awarded the Alumni Association Distinguished Achievement Award in 2007, wrote for The Polygon and was a member of the Cum Laude and Oasis societies. He graduated from Williams College and went to graduate school at Columbia.  He is a very vibrant 92 years young with “four books in progress.”

“Writing is sometimes not writing, waiting, letting things settle.”

English teacher Sean Mullin‘s students from his Memoir and Autofiction elective class were an eager part of the audience. McElroy, who has taught at universities, addressed them and others. “I am talking to you as writers,” he said, “I hope you keep at it. You will thank yourselves when you are 40 or 50.” McElroy advised them “how to manage your lives to have time to write.” “What hours? What time will you allot?” he asked. But he added how important daydreaming can be. “Writing is sometimes not writing, waiting, letting things settle.”

Joseph McElroy ’47

McElroy told his audience that this is “a time for truth right now.” Chekhov was after absolute truth, he said. Like the literature professor he has been, he quoted  Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty about truth in writing and quoted the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

In memoirs, McElroy said, a writer is “making selections all the time.” He added, “The story isn’t just what happened, but what could happen.”

McElroy encouraged the students to “go deep” in their writing, and in this regard, he quoted JD Salinger, “Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out?” He reiterated, “You will thank yourselves that you did something that goes deep, that defines your life, something that comes from you, worth doing.”

“He spoke about famous books as if they were old friends who had taught him valuable lessons throughout his life.”

Afterward, English teacher John Rearick P’10, ’14 said, “I was so impressed by Mr. McElroy’s talk because it was filled with erudition AND kindness. He spoke about famous books as if they were old friends who had taught him valuable lessons throughout his life. He covered such a wide range of famous writers — Melville, Proust, and so many others. I was worried that his talk might go over the heads of the students, but the students really picked up on McElroy’s humanity and his encouraging tone. ‘That was a great talk,’ one junior said to me, ‘It was filled with really helpful advice about life.’”

Joseph McElroy ’47 with students
Joseph McElroy connecting with students.
Watch the video of the event featuring Joseph McElroy ’47