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English professor's memoir captures her life, work in essays

by Colin Poitras - September 22, 2008

As a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of English and the University’s first Aetna Chair of Writing, Lynn Z. Bloom has been a pioneer in the field of composition studies for more than 20 years.

So it’s no surprise that Bloom’s first autobiographical work – The Seven Deadly Virtues and Other Lively Essays – Coming of Age as a Writer, Teacher, Risk Taker, (University of South Carolina Press, 2008) – celebrates her iconoclastic style.

Bloom’s memoir is a compilation of 15 colorful essays – some 18 years in the making – that describe her trials as a chronic nonconformist and female scholar; her Christian parents’ vehement opposition to her marrying a man of Jewish descent; and her life as a teacher, wife, mother, and grandmother.

Her warm personal tales are laced with humorous, insightful, and often inspirational accounts of the risks and rewards she encountered as an artist living and writing on the edge.

Whether writing about picking blueberries in New England; coping with FBI wiretaps while authoring the first biography of famed pediatrician and peace activist Dr. Benjamin Spock; or her experience as an adjunct professor working with a desk next to a cat litter box, Bloom doesn’t miss an opportunity to enlighten, instruct, and entertain.

A master essayist known for her lively and provocative writing style, Bloom believes the traditional structures surrounding academic expression – her seven deadly virtues – stifle personal creativity and subvert the mission of education.

She pleads with her students and readers to avoid the traps inherent in the “deadly virtues” of duty, rationality, conformity, efficiency, order, economy, and punctuality so often affiliated with academic prose.

“I am not out to supplant virtue with vice, though that is always tempting,” Bloom writes in the book’s introduction, “but to propose, in essay after essay, an alternative set of lively virtues to replace the deadly.

“Duty and helpfulness have their place, though I have busted up more than one romance and quit more than one job over issues of servility, sexism, and second-class citizenship,” Bloom continues in the book’s opening lines. “I would augment these with anger and defiance.”

Her other “alternate” virtues are honesty, risk-taking, independence of mind and spirit, originality, rigor, energy, and having fun.

“One of the things that I would like people to take away from the book is to feel that they can take risks,” Bloom says. “In my mind, I am always taking risks. I don’t think you ever grow intellectually if you don’t take risks. … If I had done what my professors had told me to do, I wouldn’t have had a very good time. I might have gotten a job, but it wouldn’t have been original and I wouldn’t have been happy.”

Taking risks does not mean being irresponsible, however, Bloom says. She is both serious and disciplined about her work.

One of her specialties is creative nonfiction – an art that requires great skill in developing the traditional narrative writing styles of plot, dialogue, character development, and tension within the confines of hard and true fact, she says.

“I learned to write from Dr. Seuss, which means writing ought to be fun,” Bloom says.

Lynn Bloom, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of English and Aetna Chair of Writing, in her office.
Lynn Bloom, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of English and Aetna Chair of Writing, in her office. Photo by Frank Dahlmeyer

“And I learned from Dr. (William) Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, which means writing ought to be clear.

“I also learned from Dr. Spock,” she adds. “His point was that if you don’t write clearly, someone could die. If you don’t write clearly, your idea could die; you could cause some horrendous misunderstanding.”

Once challenged for her innovative essay style, Bloom says she is now being called upon to write personal essays for academic journals looking to diversify.

“I find that heartening, because it validates a lot of what I’ve been trying to do with routine academic submissions for the past 20 years,” she says.

The author of 28 books and more than 150 articles, Bloom is preparing to release four more publications in the coming year. One of them, The Essay Canon, is about the evolutionary history of the essay, its rise and fall and recent resurrection as a distinguished literary art form. She has been working on it for 14 years. She is also working on a book about the rhetoric of food writing.

Lynn Bloom is married to Martin Bloom, professor emeritus of social work. They have two sons, Bard and Laird, and three grandchildren.

Bloom’s other works include: Doctor Spock: Biography of a Conservative Radical, Composition Studies as a Creative Art, and Writers without Borders. Her essay “(Im) Patient” was named a Notable American Essay of 2005 in Best American Essays (Houghton Mifflin, 2006).

Bloom will read from her book at the UConn Co-op on Oct. 1 at 4 p.m.

Listen to Lynn Bloom talk about the "seven deadly virtures" in creative writing. Click on the play button to activate the built-in player; or click on the "Listen" link to download and/or play in your PC's audio player.

  • Listen | Lynn Bloom discusses her "seven deadly virtues" in creative writing and the message she would like people to take awayfrom reading The Seven Deadly Virtues and Other Lively Essays.
  • Listen | Lynn Bloom defines creative non-fiction and discusses the difficulties in balancing facts and personal interpretations in writing creative non-ficiton.
  • Listen | Lynn Bloom discusses the resurgence of the essay as a literary art form.
  • Listen | Lynn Bloom discusses her personal struggles getting published and the obstacles she faced as an early female scholar in higher education.
  • Listen | Lynn Bloom talks about how students may benefit from the book and provides some tips on writing quality essays. 
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