Local blogger reveals his ‘double life’



By Jim Vorel

For the past several years, readers of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the Internet branch of University alum Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s publishing house, have been able to keep up with the whimsical world of higher education presented by “Oronte Churm.” His column, “Dispatches from Adjunct Faculty at a Large State University,” satires the world of an untenured lecturer in a large idwestern university’s English department.

For any University faculty, administration or students who may have read Churm’s columns and found them to be eerily similar to the goings-on at U of I, a clear explanation has arisen. “Oronte Churm” has removed his literary mask and was revealed to be none other than English Department lecturer John Griswold.

Griswold, who has been teaching creative writing and literature to undergrads at the University for the past eight years, said he decided to use a pen name when he started writing at McSweeney’s because he wanted to keep his humorous column separate from his other literary aspirations.

“Of course, there was also some concern in that I was writing about my own job and surroundings, and I’m not on the tenure track,” Griswold said. “But 90 percent of the reasoning behind the pen name was still that I wanted to keep my humor writing separate from my other writing.”

Griswold’s other writing has manifested itself as a manuscript for a novel for which he is currently exploring routes of publication. Griswold said he would also like to collect the writings he did as Oronte Churm, as well as similar writings, into a sort of collection.

“I realized when I was writing the ‘Dispatches from Adjunct Faculty’ columns that they were sort of part of a more ambitious overall project,” Griswold said. “Part memoir, part analysis of a culture. I usually call it my anatomy of being a teacher, father, writer, son and husband. That is, a whole education of a life.”

Only Griswold’s wife and a collection of colleagues were ever aware of his literary double life. He began to consider dropping the pseudonym when he decided the creative nonfiction he was writing would be well-suited for eventual publication together. Griswold was paid to blog for a year at another Web site as Oronte Churm, and when the contract ended, it seemed like the right time for Griswold to reveal himself before renewing it. He simultaneously revealed his name in his “Dispatches” column, did an interview at www.litpark.com about coming out as Churm and wrote a column about using a pen name in the modern age that referenced Churm.

“I’ve been describing it as a sort of a three-ring Churm circus,” said Griswold, who added that Churm is a distillation of one part of himself. “Churm is not a fictional character, he’s definitely me, but he can be things that I’m not, also. People sometimes describe Churm as charming. I’m not charming.”

Griswold said, though, that the response to his unveiling has been very positive.

“People have been very kind, and the people who did not know have been wishing me well and congratulating me,” he said.

Mike Madonick is the program director of Creative Writing at the University and a colleague of Griswold’s. He said that he was privy to Oronte Churm’s true identity since near the beginning of Griswold’s columns, and that Griswold occasionally consulted him about writing them.

“He’s an exceptionally good writer, very talented,” Madonick said. “I’m hoping that the columns will help him get his novel off the ground. I think these articles open up a lot of doors, because the pieces get people talking. And Oronte Churm is only one aspect of the fine writer he is.”

When asked if he was Griswold’s superior, Madonick jokingly replied, “I suppose I am, but in relation to his writing abilities, I am not his superior.”

Lori Garner, a fellow “adjunct faculty” and lecturer in the English Department, said she suspected that Griswold was Churm after reading the columns.

“When I started to read the dispatches, I recognized bits of stories and details that kept drawing me back to John,” Garner said. “When I asked him about it, he said he hadn’t ever read McSweeney’s before but that it sounded interesting.”

Garner happened to see Griswold a few days after he revealed that he was the author of the pieces and was finally able to vindicate her initial suspicions.

“I told him I knew it was him all along,” she said.

For more information on John Griswold and Oronte Churm, check Griswold’s column at McSweeney’s at http://McSweeneys.net/links/adjunctfaculty. Griswold’s blog, hosted by Inside Higher Ed., can also be viewed at http://InsideHigherEd.com/churm.