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Wednesday Wonders: Master’s Tea with John Matteson

February 14th, 2018

Happy Valentine’s Day! May you feel loved and loving not only on this day, but all the year long. Enjoy a sweet treat and give out extra hugs today!

Here’s something we positively loved and want to share with you – Paul McCullough, our high school English teacher, will tell you all about it:

How many high school students can say they have studied the craft of writing with a Pulitzer Prize-winning author? And how many of those students can say they have been serenaded by said author, in multiple languages? None that I’ve ever heard of—at least until last week, when Distinguished Professor John Matteson of the City University of New York made his second visit to SLOCA in as many years to sit in on classes, chat with students, and convene a special Tuesday morning Master’s Tea (an advanced writing seminar fueled, yes, by tea and pastries). Eighteen SLOCA high school students and four faculty members gathered from 9 AM to noon in Athens House for this highly convivial occasion.

You might say that Professor Matteson exudes both the prose and the poetry of good teaching. While his writing workshop imparted the fundamentals of lean, muscular, verb-driven sentences, he also inspired our high school students to approach writing as a transformative personal practice. When you work on a piece of writing, Professor Matteson told us, it also works on you. Writing is self-discovery and self-refinement, not just self-expression. The writing process introduces you to yourself, opening a space to become more generous, charitable, and precise in your thinking. Our eighteen students walked away with more than just a master class in the art of good prose; they also walked away with a sense of where and how good prose matters to a good life.

Even when writing in non-dramatic genres like biography or the essay, Professor Matteson instructed us to “find the conflict,” for conflict creates meaning, makes things matter. True to his own advice, Professor Matteson did not hold back from confiding some of the personal struggles he has faced as an author, expressing deep gratitude for the friends and helpers who saw him through. Facing mixed reviews for his first book, which would eventually go on to win the Pulitzer, his young daughter once reminded him, “Dad, you didn’t write the book for the reviewers; you wrote the book because you had something to say that no one else could say in quite the same way.” Indeed, it is often the voices of those who care about us that help us stay true to ourselves. All good teaching aspires to be this voice for another, and for the three days he was on campus, John Matteson modeled exactly that.

Space in the Writing Workshop was limited to eighteen students this time around, but we’re hoping that Professor Matteson will make this a semi-annual visit. Many thanks to the broader SLOCA community members who opened their homes and offered their time to help create an unforgettable week for students and teachers alike, a reminder of the power words have to bring people together, to help us find our way through life’s many conflicts and cares, and to make these days we have with each other matter.

Student comments from the workshop:

"Professor Matteson was a very insightful speaker with a loose, fun energy, and it was easy to enjoy his lecture. He made some specific grammatical points which I thought were interesting and really expressed the delicacy of writing well."

~ Lily Ronda, Sophomore

"It was really neat getting to hear from an accomplished writer who is so passionate about what he does. He was so kind and engaging. I think my favorite part about the workshop was coming away with some tangible tools to improve my writing."

~ Carina Womack, Junior

"John Matteson is an exuberant comedian who doubles as a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. His amazing humor and smile can be topped only by his enlightening speeches on the art of writing. He taught us the many cases of weak verb uses as well as the skill of comfortable writing. He was a joy and a huge edifier and I hope he comes back soon."

~ Jonah Jenkins, Sophomore

Click here for a list of John Matteson's books.

It’s not every day that young writers get a chance to work with a mentor of this caliber. We are so fortunate to have a friend like John Matteson visit, to teach and encourage our students. Thank you, Professor Matteson, for your time and attentiveness – we know you care about our school and vision, and we appreciate you!  Many thanks also to Mr. McCullough, for thoughtfully recounting this special event to share on the blog!