Jerry Spinelli ’63 on writing a good story, learning hard lessons, and Commencement

Newbery-prize winning author Jerry Spinelli ’63 has one goal when he writes: tell a good story.

He doesn’t set out to address themes like homelessness and racial tensions that are depicted in Maniac Magee, or messages about nonconformity and individualism represented in Stargirl, or even the moral dilemmas and deep issues confronted by adolescents found in Wringer.

Instead, he focuses on telling the best story he can, and to make it one he cares about deeply.

“I hadn’t even thought about the word homelessness when I wrote Maniac Magee. For me, it was about a kid who was longing for an address, not this newspaper headline issue of what we call homelessness,” Spinelli said. “I write the best story I can, and I hope what people take away from it is a good story. The themes are a byproduct.”

That’s why, when Daisy Sullivan ’19 reached out to Spinelli about speaking at Commencement after rereading her favorite novel, Crash, he was deeply flattered.

“I love it when adults tell me they like my stories, and I was happy to get that review from Daisy,” Spinelli said.

It took Spinelli a long time to refine his rules for storytelling; while he knew from the age of 16 that he wanted to be a writer, his first novel wasn’t published until 25 years later. In that time, he wrote four novels that—as he puts it—“collected a mountain of rejection slips that could paper the walls of the room I’m sitting in."

Even in the 1960s, Gettysburg College provided students with a wide array of co-curriculars for students to explore and develop their interests. For Spinelli, he declared a major in English and recalls with great fondness a semester spent writing 17 different papers. Among these were papers for creative writing courses with English Prof. and renowned author of Address Unknown, Katherine Kressmann Taylor. He was also an editor for The Mercury and a sports editor for The Gettysburgian, publishing a regular column that he used to secure two post-graduate writing jobs after his graduation.

After graduation, he completed a master’s degree in writing at Johns Hopkins University, served in the Naval Air Reserve, and found a job with commercial and industrial magazine producer Chilton that allowed him to continue to earn an income while writing full-time, and let him focus on his creative writing during his lunch hours, evenings, and weekends.

He learned a lot of hard lessons along the way, too.

“I didn’t start out doing the things I would advise others to do,” Spinelli explained. “I didn’t write a novel and autopsy it and tear it apart and find out what makes it tick. I didn’t go to writer’s workshops or read books about developing a plot.

“During those years, there was not a time when I did not doubt myself, when I did not have to challenge myself to keep going,” Spinelli continued. “I thought every book that was rejected was a failure, but looking back I can see that, in fact, I was teaching myself how to write so when I got to book number five, I finally got it and was one my way.”

Now, he enjoys the opportunity to share what he’s learned and return his expertise to the Gettysburg College community, joining with many faculty, administrators, and alumni who want to prepare students for success and transformative action. He served on an advisory committee for the College’s magazine for a number of years and also served as a visiting instructor in creative writing in the late ’90s.

“At the time, I was working on my book Milkweed, and I had maybe 20 students in the class. I took advantage of the opportunity to share the hard-earned lessons I had learned,” Spinelli said.

“There’s a hundred things any writer could offer by way of advice, so I like to boil it down to my golden rule: write what you care about. There’s a cliché about writing what you know about, and my golden rule is a spin-off of that. If you write what you care about, it’s coming from your heart. That offers you the best chance of touching the reader’s heart, which you might say is the ultimate goal of a writer.”

Spinelli has also donated his collection of manuscripts and related materials to the College’s Musselman Library’s Special Collections and College Archives, where students are able to access and learn from them.

Spinelli will speak at the College’s 184th Commencement ceremony on May 19, 2019. While he hopes to give graduates a different perspective from which to view their graduation, he is also aware that their accomplishments are part and parcel of the celebration that day.

“I don’t wish to take the spotlight off the graduates, but I am also aware that there are two accomplishments to celebrate: everything the students have accomplished to reach their graduation, and everything Janet has accomplished in her tenure,” Spinelli said.

“The fact that everybody calls her Janet or JMR tells you something about how warmly regarded she is by the students she presides over. I’m sorry that it’s coming to an end because she’s been my personal favorite president.”

While he doesn’t want to give away too much about his remarks, Spinelli does plan to pull from some of his personal experiences. And as he reflects on his life, there are a few things that stand out: hard work, resilience, and luck.

“To this day, I pinch myself that I am able to make a nice living writing stories and writing fiction, because it doesn’t happen often,” Spinelli said. “Lucky is a word I use a lot.”

By Kasey Varner ’14

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