When President Meredith Woo launched the College’s centers of excellence, she knew they would need talented and dedicated leaders. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that she tapped longtime faculty member Carrie Brown as director of the Center for Creativity, Design and the Arts.
Brown grew up in New England, but because of her father’s job, she also spent some of her childhood in England and Hong Kong. She attended Brown University as an undergraduate and completed her Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Virginia.
She’s now lived at Sweet Briar longer than she’s lived anywhere else, and her work as a novelist is rooted on the College’s campus. She worked as a journalist for many years but began seriously writing fiction when her husband — John Gregory Brown, director of Sweet Briar’s English and creative writing program — accepted a job at Sweet Briar in 1994. Brown published her first novel, “Rose’s Garden,” four years later.
Though her first novel didn’t appear until 1998, she actually wrote her first fiction in middle school, when she and her classmates were given an assignment (“Not a very imaginative one, I might add,” she says) to record the events of their daily lives in a journal. “My daily life was pretty dull,” Brown admits, “and before long I began to make things up in order to liven up my entries. This made the assignment far more entertaining for me, but my anecdotes grew increasingly dramatic, and eventually my parents were called in to school, and my imaginative excesses were discovered. Now everyone in my family thinks that’s a funny story, which I suppose it is — I made up some pretty outlandish stuff — but in some ways, even though I’d always loved books, it was also my first serious taste of the pleasure of invention. I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since.”
That long-ago assignment may have seemed boring to the young Brown, but she seems to have taken the idea to heart, perhaps helped along by some advice Henry James once gave to an aspiring writer, and which she cherishes: “Try to be one on whom nothing is lost.” Now, daily life often provides the inspiration for her writing. For example, the idea for “The Stargazer’s Sister” came while she was listening to a radio program about 19th-century astronomer William Herschel and his sister, Caroline, who was not only his assistant, but also made some of her own important astronomical discoveries. Although it took several years to write the novel after hearing the story, “I could never shake the sense that there was something extraordinary there,” she says. She’s also inspired by the ordinary people she sees in the world going about their everyday lives. “You never know what gifts the world is going to give you, if you’re looking out for them.”
Of course, Brown is more than an accomplished novelist. She’s also a teacher. For her, though, the two aren’t in conflict. In fact, she says, “I often feel like my teaching feeds my writing. I’m most awake then to all the resonances of language, and to the many things I love about fiction, when I’m trying to transmit them to my students.” She acknowledges, however, the difficulty in finding enough hours in a day to do all the things that are important to her. Her advice to students and other aspiring writers? “There are things that sometimes are just more important than writing: caring for a child or a parent or a friend in need, cooking a meal for friends, taking a long walk, dispatching one’s duties to a job other than one’s creative work,” Brown says. “Sometimes you just have to live your life and trust that the writing and the time for it will come.”
She enjoys the opportunities she has to work one-on-one with students at Sweet Briar. Through her teaching, she’s had the satisfaction of getting to know some amazing young women as writers, thinkers and people, and to watch their writing and understanding develop over the course of a semester. “There’s almost nothing quite as wonderful in the classroom as watching a student discover a writer she loves, or to suddenly ‘get’ a story or poem that might have eluded her a year before,” Brown says. “The experience of watching students carry what they’ve learned forward into further study and then into the world, and to have that kind of ongoing intellectual relationship with them, is perhaps my favorite part about teaching writing at Sweet Briar.”
The sense of community that is an essential part of her classroom is a thread that winds through Brown’s entire Sweet Briar experience. She and her husband have raised three children on campus — all of them now grown — and she’s grateful for the community her children had at Sweet Briar. Their family benefited, not just from the students, many of whom served as babysitters over the years, but also from the faculty and staff at the College. “It’s been a supportive place to pursue our work as writers, just isolated enough from the world to give us the space and quiet a writer needs, but close enough to keep us in touch with the broader literary world,” she says. “We’ve always felt lucky to have colleagues we like and admire, many of whom we’ve now known for nearly a quarter century.”
It’s a community that is nurturing, but also dynamic, and it stretches far beyond the borders of Amherst County into the extended world of alumnae artists who have made some part of their life at Sweet Briar. She says her favorite memories of the College are of the gatherings they’ve hosted at their house when a writer visits. “It might be a mild fall evening or one in spring, when the dogwoods are in bloom,” she says. “There will be tables and chairs set up on the lawn, and white tablecloths, and flowers on the tables, and candlelight, and good food and drink and conversation, with students and faculty and our guests mingling together. Soon we’ll leave the dishes and the fireflies beginning to blink in the field and walk up to campus for a reading.” There have been many such gatherings over the years, she says, and each time, their guests remark about how lucky the Browns are to live and work in such a place. She agrees.
She’s excited about what lies ahead for Sweet Briar. “With the establishment of our centers, the re-envisioning of the College’s core curriculum and an increased focus on educating women who are meaningfully equipped and devoted to being innovative, ambitious and compassionate leaders in today’s world, I think we’re embarking on a deeply important chapter for the College.”
Brown is the author of seven acclaimed novels, most recently “The Stargazer’s Sister,” which won the Library of Virginia’s 2017 People’s Choice Award — and a collection of short stories. She has won many awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, the Barnes and Noble Discover Award, the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for work by an American woman writer, the Great Lakes Book Award and, twice, the Library of Virginia Award for fiction. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in many journals, including Tin House, The Southern Review, One Story, Glimmer Train, The Georgia Review and The Oxford American.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2018 Alumnae Magazine.