Saint Mary's Jan Term a challenging academic experience
By Lou Fancher
Author Roland Merullo in a January Term Speaker Series appearance at Saint Mary's College described the sacrifices a person makes to be a writer -- foregoing money, prestige and occasionally, the approval of parents, peers, and society in general. Often, it requires doing battle with temptation and inner demons.
Merullo has written essays and 20 books, including among others "Revere Beach Boulevard," which made him a finalist for the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Prize, and the Buddha trilogy that begins with "Breakfast with Buddha," selected by Saint Mary's as the "First Year Experience" book.
"The campus deans and directors chose the book for all incoming freshman to read," said New Student and Family Programs director Jennifer Herzog after the presentation. "It's inclusive of everyone and the messages are ones we want students to walk away with when they graduate. Their first weekend on campus, they do workshops and have discussions about its themes."
Merullo was the "closer" of the annual series that brought social justice activist Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou to share his principles and practice of nonviolent civil disobedience; and Saint Mary's professors Emily Hause and Grete Stenersen in a program relating to their Jan Term course, "Death and Dying." The class regularly draws at-capacity enrollment during the four-week, jump-off-your-major Jan Term.
Another course being taught this year by adjunct professor Kristen Schwartz, had students practicing meditation, keeping journals, and exploring Merullo's experiential-style of fiction writing. Prior to the evening program, Merullo visited the class. Schwartz said students were most interested in his spiritual beliefs.
"They asked him questions as if he was a (Buddhist) master, nothing about writing."
Merullo began his off-the-cuff presentation with a confession.
"I'm constitutionally incapable of writing from an outline. The same is true for speaking. I've spoken often, sometimes formal convocation addresses, other times to five people at a library," he said. "The only times I've looked back with regret are the times I wrote down what I wanted to say and read from it. So I decided to get up and just ramble. It comes off more naturally."
Merullo said a character, idea, or even a road trip might generate the skeleton for a book, and described his work as having philosophical issues "buried somewhere in them." Disliking the term "spiritual" because it can be divisive, he said his personal belief system is close to the Buddhist idea of divine presence.
"I still have a lot of Catholic in me," he said about his devout upbringing, "but I feel like (Buddhists) call it a divine intelligence, which takes it out of a human person."
Later, when asked by a student to define god, Merullo said his god is the intelligence that includes everything from when a leaf falls off a branch to the blood that runs through a human body everyday. "I feel it everywhere," he said. "If you touch the world, it vibrates."
But quiet books like one about a stuffy editor who takes a road trip sojourn to North Dakota with a riddle-prone spiritual guru don't always sell over 200,000 copies, result in 19 editions (and counting) and translations in multiple languages.
"I get the most beautiful notes about 'Breakfast with Buddha,'" Merullo said of the book whose manuscript he wrote in just a few weeks.
Make no mistake, Merullo revised the roughly 300-page work for a full year before it was truly finished. After publication, the book sold slowly until the paperback edition was discovered by book clubs.
"Then it caught fire. That really drives sales in fiction," he said.
Like the students who lined up at a microphone to ask where book ideas come from and other questions, curiosity is perhaps Merullo's signature characteristic. He recalls asking a nun at his Catholic elementary school how he could "be perfectly happy in heaven if some of my cousins are burning in hell?" At age 25, having quit the Peace Corps and struggling with depression, he asked himself, "What do you want to do?"
Twelve years later, after deciding to be a writer, his first book published. Decades later, he said, "It's easy to write a book. Writing a good book is a terribly difficult thing to do." Perhaps to soften the harshness, he described himself as lucky and said that by getting closer to a god who is beyond a human image, you see other people as yourself. And then, by living a good life, you see a world reborn.