Professor profile: Danielle Deulen, embracer of difficulty
Dr. Danielle Cadena Deulen has many titles: author, podcaster, mother and associate professor of English at Willamette. However, this is Deulen’s last semester at Willamette before moving to Georgia to teach poetry and start up a creative nonfiction program at Georgia State University. She has a Masters in Fine Arts in poetry from George Mason University and a doctorate in English from the University of Utah, with a specialization in creative nonfiction. She has also authored three books, two in poetry and one in creative nonfiction. In an interview, she talked about how she became a professor, her writing techniques, her revision process and her literary podcast.
When Deulen first started writing, she didn’t realize that it could be intellectually challenging. Upon the realization that writing is, in fact, difficult, she decided to further pursue it. She said, “I took my first creative writing class when I was eight, and I fell in love with the difficulty of it. The first time I recall sitting down to write a poem, I thought how important it was to try to say what I felt, and I felt like it was an impossibility for me to know how.”
Deulen didn’t originally set out to be a teacher. She said, “I don’t think I understood that writing was something I could actually do as a living, and it’s not something I can do for a living, because my books don’t sell well enough, which is true of most writers."
While she was getting her MFA in poetry, she was offered a teaching stipend, which began her pedagogical training. “The challenge of writing led me to the challenge of teaching, and I’ve just been there ever since,” she said.
Her background in poetry has influenced her stylistic techniques in nonfiction. “My foundational training in writing is toward a penchant for compression, descriptions, associative leaps, a lot of the moves that poetry makes,” she said. Her background as a poet has also given her a “penchant for the weird” in her writing.
Lately, she’s been trying to get out of her comfort zone. She said, “I’m trying to bring in more classic, conventional and narrative elements to [my work] as a way to challenge myself, towards something that’s meant for a larger, general audience. I tend to want to go towards the beautiful and obscure.”
In response to classes where she felt she wasn’t being taken seriously, Deulen strove to make her teaching philosophy inclusive to all students, no matter what their taste for form is.
Deulen said: “The aesthetics of the professor were so finite that I wasn’t allowed to explore. [They would say], ‘this is what good work is, and nothing outside of this is good.’ I’m not interested in being the gatekeeper of aesthetics. At the very least, I like to point to my own subjective perception, but just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean somebody else won’t.”
Deulen explained that during revising, when she feels stuck, she reads other people’s books in the hopes of finding a good model for what she’s trying to accomplish. She said: “I’ll know what I’m doing wrong generally. Usually it’s either I’ve become too vague or I’ve become too specific. And what I do in that case to correct myself is I’ll pick up an author that does the opposite of what I’ve been doing. So if I feel like I’m dwelling in minutia and imagery, and I’m not moving forward at all, I’ll read someone who has a really beautifully structured plot.”
Deulen also has a literary podcast that she hosts with her husband after work. The premise is that she reads her husband a poem and they discuss it together. They record at night time in their basement, after they put their kids to sleep. Deulen explained what led to the initiation of the podcast.
“[My husband] and I realized that always the basis of our relationship had been conversation, and because all of our focus had been on our two children, we kind of stopped having conversations. At the end of the night, when we finally get them in bed, we would just brute-force watch Netflix. So, we wanted to collaborate together partly to reconnect.”
What led them to continue their podcast was positive feedback from their audience. Deulen talked about feeling accomplished for giving people “who just don’t feel like they can go out and take an English class anymore” access to something that gives them the same kind of conversations.
“To get so many people writing in to tell us how much they appreciated having something that was both intellectually stimulating and fun, we were really encouraged by that, and also we just had a lot of fun doing it together.”
According to Deulen, her favorite part of the job is: “Just being in the classroom. I love the moment when I get to introduce somebody to a work of literature and I can see that they’re excited about it, and then I get to be excited about it all over again. That’s probably my favorite part of the job, creating an environment in which this shared experience of excitement happens around a beautiful work of art.”