In Memory of Denise Gess (1952-2009)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Denise was a visiting professor during my MFA tenure in Wilmington. We had our disagreements (like whether or not Sophie's Choice lived up to its reputation), but we also agreed on other things - the novella is an amazing form and Francine Prose is amazing in it. I've kept this e-mail from her for more than 7 years. It's her response to me after I complained of harsh criticism from another professor, who referred to my writing as a donut: pretty on the outside, empty on the inside.

"[He] wants you to get fierce. If he tells you you have a donut, show him it's a jelly donut, not a donut with a hole. Beautiful, shimmery on the outside and thick, rich, oozing with flavor, color, substance on the inside. He wants you to dig in and prove him wrong. So get to work; you can do it!!!!!"

I just found out from a friend that Denise passed away over the weekend after a battle with cancer. I thought of this e-mail in an instant and the picture of us at The Pilot House where we dined the night before she left; the rickety antique table she gave me when she departed; the odd fluorescent-lit room where she taught Forms of Fiction to a class with a left-of-center dynamic; and Firestorm at Peshtigo, the book she worked on during her visiting semester. I expect 7 years from now, 17 years from now, if I hear Denise Gess, I will still think "donut" first.

May she rest in peace.


Angela said...

I think we all left that year with mixed feelings, but no one could deny her humor and passion and the lessons she taught. I more remember the first semester where all of us were new, including Denise, and she made us feel... important, somehow. Like each of our projects were really worth it. May you rest in peace, Denise.

Cue said...

Well said, Ash and Angela! I couldn't agree more. I'm sad to hear this, but her memory certainly lives on through her work and her influence. -AQ

Anonymous said...

RIP Denise. She was a riot. She was a writer. She was good to me, too. Nice elegy, Ashley.



ashley said...

For anyone who hasn't had a chance to read it, here's Paul Lisicky's eulogy to Denise. A lovely, heartfelt tribute.

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