Fiction Writing, Like Jazz, Relies on Improvisation


Geoff Becker on storytelling

By Laura Meader
Photography by Nora Sturges

Geoff Becker '80Geoff Becker ’80 came to Colby planning to major in music, but his interests in jazz and rock didn’t mesh with Colby’s music program at the time. Lucky for fiction readers he turned his attention to writing.

Becker began writing during a Jan Plan, eventually becoming an English major with poet Ira Sadoff, Colby’s Arthur Jeremiah Roberts Professor of Literature, as his mentor. Now an associate professor of English at Towson University, Becker has published two collections of short stories and two novels and gathered an impressive list of awards including the Pushcart Prize and an NEA Literary Fellowship.

His path to a writing career wasn’t direct. After Colby Becker returned to music, playing in New York City clubs and in Europe as a street musician. A few years later, not knowing what to do with his life, he signed up for writing workshops, got the bug, and left New York for the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. An M.F.A. soon followed.

Becker likens writing to jazz and tells his students not to “over-determine creative work.” Writing fiction is improvisational, he says, and writers should be open to having their characters surprise them. “I think people are most interesting at the moments when they become self aware,” he said, describing his pleasure in seeing characters move toward an “epiphanic moment.”

Becker is a master at making up stories. He got plenty of fodder running blues jams in various cities and was also inspired by his travels in Italy. “I’m always looking at other people and wondering who they might be,” he said. His research involves simply talking to people, constructing characters, and projecting himself into the world he’s invented. Becker’s empathy stems from his belief that people have a lot in common. Situations change, but there’s an “emotional truth that’s always there for everybody.”

“It’s a gamble whenever you start writing about something, or someone, who is not like yourself,” Becker said. “But I think those are gambles worth taking. And as a writer you learn more—it’s a more interesting space to go into.”
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