John Grogan is no stranger to success. His first book, Marley and Me, spent 76 weeks on the bestseller list, including 23 at number one. It inspired the 2008 film starring Jennifer Anniston and Owen Wilson that grossed over $242 million worldwide at the box office, and it spawned a series of children’s books about a family and their beloved dog.
When the time came to write his second memoir, The Longest Trip Home (2008), Grogan turned to Linderman Library for a change of scenery and a quiet place to focus.
“I just love the environment at Lehigh,” says Grogan, who lives in Emmaus with his family. “It’s really conducive to creative writing.”
Grogan is back on campus this spring as an adjunct professor in the department of journalism and communication. He is teaching a writing course called Memoir and Me: First-Person Non-Fiction Narratives. In the course, his students read first-person narratives and keep a journal.
The idea for teaching the course came about after conversations with department chair Jack Lule. Grogan’s connections to the university, residence in the Lehigh Valley, and his experiences lecturing at writing conferences made teaching a class a natural next step.
“I get a lot of energy from talking about writing and working with students,” he says.
A blend of creativity and discipline
Grogan’s course focuses on the details of writing memoirs and personal narratives. He encourages students to draw out the “human side” of their subjects. This kind of writing, he says, is unique in that it combines the strict discipline of reporting with the subtle nuances of creative writing. It’s the sort of writing that made Marley and Me an international success.
“I like how he describes what the average journalist or writer does,” says Ben Hulac ’13, one of 16 students taking Grogan’s class. “He says writing is part art and part craft and discipline. I think that’s spot on.”
Grogan was introduced to the kind of writing he presents to his students when he took a course in literary journalism in graduate school at Ohio State University. His stint as editor-in-chief of Organic Gardening magazine and his work as a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer helped prepare him for writing memoirs.
Over time, he learned that the more honest and personal he made his columns, the more positive the public response was. He says writers who let their guard down, are unafraid to make mistakes, and avoid trying to please everyone, are the most successful.
“At one point I was writing three columns a week. It forces you to think hard and start self-examining moments in your life. You accept the fact that not all of them are going to be your best work, but you hope that your body of work over time is strong,” he says.
“I had a lot of great teachers, and I hope to be able to give my students a glimmer of that. I really enjoy helping them improve their work.”
Photos by Christa Neu