Laura Matter opens up about her year off


Abhi Sharma

Books HD

Laura Matter, English faculty member, has taken a year off from teaching to work on a book she is writing. Information is accurate to October 2015.


What will the book be about?

I’m writing a biography of a man named Charles Fisk (1925-1983). He worked on the Manhattan Project when he was just out of high school, but a few years after the war, he gave up physics to become a pipe organ builder. He established himself as a pre-eminent master of that craft, and sort of a cult figure in the organ world…Fisk’s story provides a powerful lens through which to consider broader questions about the nature of creativity and spirituality, and how to live a meaningful life.


Why are you writing your book?

It starts with inspiration. I first heard about Fisk when I was an undergrad at Stanford. I was taking organ lessons, and the very first organ I ever played happened to be [was] the last one Fisk ever built. My organ teacher told me the very abbreviated version of his life story—Manhattan Project scientist drops out of Stanford PhD program to become apprentice organ builder, later dies while building the instrument at which we now sit—and something about it resonated with me. I was totally unsure what I wanted to do with my own life, and I was therefore rather susceptible to being impressed by this guy who took decisive action and leapt out of the academic hamster wheel, leaving a discipline he didn’t love, to do something audacious and creative.


What part of the writing process are you at currently?

I am still in the thick of the research.


What made you decide to take a year off work to focus on your book?

Trying to be a good teacher and a good mother and a good writer all at once was more than I could handle. I know I have some super-human colleagues like Mr. Ovitt and Mr. Nash who have completed books while teaching, and others like Dr. Knapp and Ms. Rosewater who are working as both writers and teachers, even now. I have so much respect for all of them. But I also knew it would take me decades just to get through the research process (by which time, half the people I need to interview would be dead) if I just tried to squeeze in a few hours a week.


Is there anything you will miss during your leave?

I miss being with students who make me think by demanding a clear and honest account of things, and who teach me things all the time. I even miss the kinetic energy of teenagers who sometimes accidentally crack classroom windows, in their abundant enthusiasm. I miss drinking coffee each day with my colleagues, and the sometimes ridiculous and sometimes erudite conversation that comes with it. Also, I really miss the dining hall, salt or no salt. (Is the salt back this year?) I hate making my lunch.


Will you be returning to the Academy after the year ends?

Yes, I’ll be back in August 2016.  I’m looking forward to it.  But can we make a deal? Can we not start every conversation that first week by asking, “How’s the book?” I appreciate the interest. Really I do. But it’s hard to be called upon to give an account, again and again, about a work in progress. When it’s published (knock on wood), I’ll be sure to let you know.