Like discarded drafts of a story started but never finished, throw away any preconceived notions you may have of Southern Illinois University creative writing professor Pinckney Benedict. The traditional stereotypes don’t work with him. Despite his Ivy League education and his resumé which includes a degree from the renown Iowa Writers’ Workshop; a long list of published works including short stories, a screenplay and a novel as well as studying under the guidance of noted author Joyce Carol Oates, Benedict is not what you expect.
One would expect an author and teacher of his caliber to be found in a posh office, surrounded by bookcases, mementos and leather furniture. Instead, Benedict, his head freshly shaven and wearing a “Lord of the Rings” T-shirt, greets you with a warm smile and handshake as you enter his rather nondescript office on the second floor of SIU’s equally nondescript Faner Hall. There is no high-back leather chair, no bookcases lined with old volumes and very few knick-knacks.
Instead, there is an audio recording area featuring soundproofing material, a commercial microphone and headphones. Nearby, a 3D printer awaits its next assignment and, at the back of the room, a spacious area designed for virtual reality projects.
It’s not the typical English professor’s office, but the 55-year-old Benedict is not your typical English Professor. In fact, he gets creative when it comes to creative writing.
“That’s OK by me,” he said. “Admittedly, what I do, I think is unusual. I think it is a legitimate question: does this stuff belong in a traditional fiction program? Does podcasting fit in? Does VR belong there? My answer is obviously yes.”
Interested in computers and gaming since a teen, Benedict wrote and published what were called text adventures — computerized role-playing games — while a student at Princeton. Ever since, he has realized that good fictional writing is not just for the printed page. It’s that broad approach that he teaches his students: great fiction has lots of outlets.
“I’m teaching people to make good art,” he explained. “It seems to me that someone is going to make great art for podcasts, someone is going to make great art for VR, and someone is going to make great art in gaming, so why shouldn’t it be us?”
Benedict says writing for technology platforms is simply the next frontier for creative writers.
“As the novel was the great narrative form of the 19th century and as cinema was the great narrative form of the 21st century, it seems to me inevitable that some form of immersive technology like virtual reality or augmented reality is going to become the dominant narrative form of the 21st century, so we should be building this into our curriculum and as the senior fiction writer here, I have a chance to do that.”
He says that even though the fiction segment of podcasting is small in comparison, it is a growing outlet for writers, adding that learning to write for podcasting — writing for the ear — is advantageous for students. That’s the reason he started teaching a podcasting class within the English department.
“It is a tool which makes students better writers,” he added, explaining that successful podcasters have a better chance of catching the attention of publishers.
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Benedict already has the attention of publishers. He is an award-winning author. Originally from an Appalachian dairy farm, his works are, almost without exception, set in his native West Virginia.
“The place where I grew up is the place where my imagination stays,” he stated.
Even as his work has ventured into science fiction and even horror, the setting remains the same.
“Even the monster stories are always couched within the area of my interest, West Virginia agricultural communities,” he said.
Benedict adds he never knew of a time when he did not want to be a writer, initially writing tomes longhand on a yellow legal pad and always with dark blue ink. Today, he has transitioned to a computer “because it’s just too convenient” right next to the podcasting and VR gear, which he says is a tremendous tool for writing.
“Virtual reality is a great tool. If you wanted to write about Tokyo, I could put you on the street in Tokyo in a very convincing way,” he explained.
To Benedict, it is all part of immersing readers, regardless of the medium.
“When you say to me fiction, I think storytelling; I don’t think writing on paper, I don’t think typing. If we confine ourselves to the page, we confine ourselves to the 20th century. We don’t want to do that. Our stories should be tellable across the spectrum of technology and time.”
He finds it exciting.
“I fly out of bed in the morning because I’m excited by what my students are doing in podcasting and other venues. I’m seeing young writers learn because they are experiencing their narratives in different ways and we are training them to new heights right here.”