Comma Splices & Writer's Block

Dr. Sandra M. Doe: MA English & MSU Denver Professor of English

By Hayes Madsen

From small and tenacious to full grown and holding its own, MSU Denver has gone from a little state college to a fully accredited university and Sandra Doe has seen it all.

In 1965, Doe started at what was then Metropolitan State College as a part-time instructor. It was difficult at first. With payday only once every three months, she’d borrow her salary from the bank and then repay the loan from quarter to quarter.

“We were on quarters then, and I’d borrow for the next quarter and then get paid and pay the bank back. Then the year after that I was taken on as an instructor full time. I had three classes, and I taught comp,” Doe said.

At first it was just a job that she juggled while raising children, though Doe says her two daughters may have been cranky about it.

"They know all the names of all my colleagues because I spoke of them. They'll say 'she was always at work,’” Doe said.

Doe was hired on while still completing her master’s at the University of Denver, somehow juggling teaching and going to school at the same time. While poetry and literature were always something she could do, it was a surprise to her that she became a teacher.

"It took me awhile to notice I had a career. I spent, like, 11 years as an assistant professor because no one told me I had to advance myself and promote myself,” Doe said.

Doe was assigned to the creative writing wing of the English Department, where she implemented a writing center and pilot program for incoming freshmen. Her inspiration from these programs stemmed from a six-month study she did at the University of Iowa with some of the greatest writers and minds in composition.

"My parents were from Iowa City. They both graduated from the University of Iowa, and the University of Iowa is a great mecca for writers. If you're going to be a writer, you bow down to the university and the writing workshops there,” Doe said.

With momentum from her groundbreaking education, Doe has also implemented inspirational techniques in her classes, the first of which is free writing. Another she has always used, called “Taking Stock,” asks students to plug whatever they’ve done into a sentence that starts with “I have ...” This exercise gives students an easy approach to a sometimes-daunting task: meeting their classmates.

“It's a study in parallel structure. The student gets to say what they've done over the years, whether that’s 'I have dipped my toes in two oceans' or 'I have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.' They get to tell their tales, their travels, and religious experiences, love affairs and loves lost. It works very well for people to articulate just who they are," Doe said.

While sometimes terrifying, Doe loves the diverse student body that MSU Denver brings. Some of these students stand out in her mind even years after they’ve left her class, including one by the name of Matt Dillon, who survived the Bataan Death March in World War II. A wealth of experiences and individuality helps to enrich the classroom experience.

"I love how you can get people with grand experience in class. I love the individuation of people that come to school, even though they're a little nervous about who these other people are; they kind of know who they are,” Doe said.

Doe has witnessed writing struggles as diverse as the students, but grammar is the biggest one. Comma splices and the like just never seem to stick, no matter what she tries. Even so, Doe will always continue her efforts, remembering what she has learned from her students about humility.

"I've tried to teach grammar, and when I first started, people knew a lot more about grammar than I did. So I got humbled that way. I've had hard times, but ain’t nothing compared to those people's hard times," Doe said.

One thing Doe doesn’t think is possible is writers struggling for inspiration. She doesn’t believe in writer’s block. As long as you write about something, you’ll find what’s inside you and a way to express it.

“If you start writing brain to paper, you put wet ink on the paper, you start with a blank slate and start filling it up with words, an idea will break through,” Doe said, “You can’t write about nothing; you have to write about something. Writing about something will reveal what is in your heart, mind and soul,” Doe said.

Doe has a Dean’s Grant to do “50 poems for 50 years.” The funding has allowed her to travel all over the world and experience different cultures and ideas, from Egypt to Denmark. Consequently, globe-trotting has become the primary inspiration for her work. Traveling to England to see a mock-up of Shakespeare's house, Anne Hathaway’s gardens, and sometimes many plays in a single day have been invaluable experiences.

On these trips she writes journal entries as tribute, filled with pieces of memories she turns into assignments. Doe’s favorite poem may be “Where I’m From,” a template poem that was published in a volume by the Denver Woman's Press Club. “I have a very strong Czech-American heritage, so I wrote that poem and it came out pretty good,” Doe said.

Doe has been writing poems and stories since junior high, and feels that it takes a lot of courage to be a writer. She recommends putting a hood on what she calls “The Editor Bird.”

In addition to her lifetime work as a poet and teacher, Doe has been invested in writing and researching a book called “Searching for Ray Boynton.”

It’s about her great uncle Ray. She began researching it in 1976, taking sabbatical leave at MSU Denver after being diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoing a mastectomy and chemotherapy.

“I didn’t reckon on the residual effect of chemotherapy. I didn’t reckon on being away from my family, and just having my two little girls and my sister. I didn’t know anything about California art, and I had to learn how to propel myself around the (San Francisco) Bay area,” Doe said.

Boynton was a famous artist in California during the early 1900s and was a huge part of the art scene there. He worked with talent like Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham during his period, and even painted many of the murals on the inside of Coit Tower in San Francisco. Although the book is about Boynton and his milieu, the story is just as much about Doe.

“It’s also the story of me, college professor with breast cancer and looking after her great uncle and all of the artists he hung out with. I guess I’m trying to get glow,” Doe said.

Sandra Doe has seen MSU Denver grow and change along with its unique student body. She has many projects in the works, from her work on Boynton to collections of poems, but she plans on being here for the foreseeable future. Her students are what keep her around, and as long as they’re here she says she will be too.

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