Meet Professor Steven Lewis
By Kristen Yard, student, Center for Distance Learning
July 6, 2012
I emailed Professor Steve Lewis for the first time in December 2010, after my mentor and I decided I should switch my concentration to creative writing. She said, “Oh you’ll just love Steve Lewis. He’s a great guy.”
Still unsure that I truly belonged in the writing world, I typed and deleted for half an hour before finally submitting an email asking for his advice on what classes I should take. His first words to me calmed my nerves and set the stage for our two-year run. “I’d be happy to work with you. A nice way to start the conversation about powerful writing is with a study I like to call ‘The Art of the Memoir.’”
Note that he could have said ‘a nice way to start the term,’ or ‘your degree plan.’ But no—Lewis referred to our working together on my dream of becoming a published author as a ‘conversation about powerful writing.’ That conversation has turned into four straight semesters of studying under one of my favorite teachers in life, so far. As I began to draw my degree to a close, I knew I had to have one last lesson with him, so I asked if he would teach one of my final classes this semester before I graduate in June, to which he said “yes.”
When I think of handing in my concluding assignment to Professor Lewis I get choked up. I don’t know how normal that is, but there were times (and still are) when I thought I was a no-good hack and he championed my cause, sharing an article he had written when he felt the same way about his own writing. He encouraged me to not give up, and helped me to believe that I was indeed meant for this writing gig.
How do you thank someone for two years of cheerleading, nurturing instruction and inspiration?
I thought of Bill Moyers who had been so inspired by Joseph Campbell’s teachings that they collaborated on the book, “The Power of Myth,” essentially an interview. Borrowing from that idea on a smaller scale, I decided to interview a man who motivated me to push myself to be the best writer I can be. Hopefully, another student on the fence about writing will read this article and decide to send Professor Lewis an email as I did one cold, winter afternoon.
Professor Steve Lewis holds an M.A. in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (1971). He also earned an M.S. in public health education from Russell Sage College in 1981.
Lewis joined the SUNY Empire State College faculty in 1979 and was an adjunct instructor until 1984. He went on to become a member of Empire State College’s associate faculty from 1984-1990. His journey as a mentor began in 1990, and he continues in this role today in addition to teaching at both Empire State College’s Hudson Valley Newburgh unit and the Sarah Lawrence College Writing Institute.
When asked to describe his duties, Lewis takes the same approach that he does while teaching—offering a lighthearted response that both informs and amuses. Lewis states that he is not only an instructor, but also, “a doorman, navigator, trail guide, academic wingman, father, confessor, shoulder, kick-in-the-butt, and, while at the now defunct Highland unit, occasional plumber, carpenter, recycler and Wal-Mart-type-greeter.”
Teaching individuals to write is not an easy task, but Professor Lewis makes it appear as though it is. In an article published in Empire State College’s All About Mentoring magazine, Lewis admits that this took some time to master.
“For the last 10 years, while maintaining the fiction of myself as a teacher, I have come to see mentoring at Empire State College as akin to being a well-rewarded doorman (minus the fancy epaulets and the stripes down the sides of the trousers). I open doors with a smile for seekers who want to rub elbows with thinkers and artists of every kind. I introduce each one around by name. I offer them comfortable chairs—or an arm if they prefer to walk around the grounds. I listen intently to each one’s stories and offer stories of my own in return. I ask a lot of questions and deflect, as best I can, the ones that come back at me. I hail a cab and tip my hat when they’re ready to move on.”
One of the first courses I took with Professor Lewis involved a project in which we, the students, were to critique his work. A published professor sought the opinions of his students. Needless to say that got my attention and encouraged me to trust him and his advice. If someone with more experience than his students could open himself to their input, I knew there would be many things I would learn from him.
A family man, Lewis claims that he finds inspiration for his writing in his wife, seven children, 16 grandchildren and “the truth; the human dilemma; the great and humbling journey of life.” This personality trait permeates his teaching style, which is more like conversing with an old friend than with someone standing at a podium and lecturing. He truly cares about his students and is enthusiastic about helping them achieve their artistic goals, whatever they may be.
When asked to share a piece of advice regarding academia and the writing life, Lewis responds, “To be a true student you have to be a teacher at heart; to be a teacher you have to have the soul of a student. But to be a writer you need only to be willing, as Gene Fowler wrote, to ‘sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.’”
Professor Steve Lewis is a man who truly lives by his words. He claims that he has never won any award worth mentioning, but says he is proud of the accomplishment of being, “a mentor—in one capacity or another—much of my adult life. Nothing more, nothing less.”
From family members he has influenced (who have, in turn, embarked on careers in writing) to countless students like me who have been charmed into learning while enjoying his company so much that we might not have noticed how our skills have grown due to his guiding hand, his mark has been left. Professor Lewis may have few conventional awards, but he leaves behind a trail of words in numerous publications, and encourages students who might have given up on writing otherwise. What greater legacy is there?
While I doubt if I’ll ever be ready for him to hail that cab for me, I know that the time must come. Through saved emails, his printed comments on my work and fond memories of our time together, Steve Lewis’ influence will forever haunt my writing—but he will be a welcomed specter.