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03/25/93

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Terry McMillan to teach writing class

STANFORD -- Terry McMillan, whose third novel, Waiting to Exhale, has been on the New York Times best sellers' list for 37 weeks, will teach a writing class at Stanford spring quarter.

The class, "Writing Fiction: A Writer's Workshop," will be offered through the Program in African and Afro-American Studies. Enrollment will be limited to 20, and prospective students will be asked to submit a five-page writing sample and a one-page letter explaining why they want to take the class.

English Professor Horace Porter, the program's director, calls McMillan a "powerful storyteller." The workshop, Porter said, will offer students "a chance to see firsthand a writer at an initial high point in her career, when one of her novels has become extremely successful."

According to a story in the New York Times, the paperback rights to Waiting to Exhale were recently sold for $2.64 million, one of the highest prices ever paid for a reprint. A major studio is negotiating for the film rights, the Times said.

Porter is familiar with McMillan's work, and taught her second novel, Disappearing Acts, in his course last spring on "20th- Century Afro-American Fiction."

Last year, Porter went to hear McMillan give a reading at a Palo Alto bookstore, hoping to speak to her afterward about the possibility of her teaching at Stanford. However, he said, the crowd was so large and the line of fans waiting to have their books autographed was so long that he was unable to approach her.

Porter later learned that history Professor Kennell Jackson had been corresponding with McMillan and had invited her to speak at Branner Hall, where he is a resident fellow.

At Jackson's invitation, Porter introduced McMillan when she spoke at Branner in January. Talking with her before the program, he asked her if she would consider teaching a class at Stanford. McMillan, who taught most recently at the University of Arizona, where she held a tenured post, said she missed the classroom. But, she told Porter, she would be devoting full time during the summer and fall to getting started on her next book.

"How about spring?" Porter asked, and eventually McMillan agreed.

Porter said that when he brought the course proposal to Ewart Thomas, dean of humanities and sciences, Thomas (who turned out to be another McMillan admirer) was "very supportive."

In an introduction to Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction (1990), which she edited, McMillan writes: "As a child, I didn't know that African American people wrote books. I grew up in a small town in northern Michigan, where the only books I came across were the Bible and required reading for school. I did not read for pleasure, and it wasn't until I was 16 when I got a job shelving books at the public library that I got lost in a book. It was a biography of Louisa May Alcott. . . . I related to Louisa because she had to help support her family at a young age, which was what I was doing at the library."

In college, McMillan writes, she enrolled in an Afro- American literature class and was introduced to Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Ann Petry and Richard Wright, among others.

"To discover that our lives held as much significance and importance as our white counterparts was more than gratifying, it was exhilarating. Not only had we lived diverse, interesting, provocative and relentless lives, but during, through and as a result of all these painful experiences, some folks had taken the time to write it down."

Although it did not occur to her while she was in college that she might one day be a writer, McMillan continues, she began writing poems, some of which were published in campus newspapers.

Gradually, "writing became an outlet for my dissatisfactions, distaste, and my way of trying to make sense of what I saw happening around me. It was my way of trying to fix what I thought was broken. It later became the only way to explore personally what I didn't understand."

It took her a long time, McMillan writes, "to realize that writing was not something you aspired to, it was something you did because you had to."

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