Lynna Williams, an associate professor of English and creative writing who helped shape Emory’s Creative Writing Program and was known for her sharp sense of humor and literary wit, died July 29 after a fight with gallbladder cancer, according to a July 29 Creative Writing Program email from Creative Writing Academic Program Coordinator Paula Vitaris. Williams was 66.
Williams had been diagnosed with cancer in March 2017, Vitaris wrote. The professor is survived by her parents, brother and sister-in-law, whom the Wheel could not reach for comment.
Williams earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and worked as a journalist, political speech writer and stand-up comedian in Texas and Minnesota, according to her biography. She went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts in fiction from George Mason University (Va.) before she began her tenure at Emory’s Creative Writing Program in 1990. She began serving as Acting Director of Creative Writing September 1998, and was appointed to her first term as Director in January 1999. She taught creative fiction and nonfiction to undergraduates.
Williams played a key role in the hiring of some notable faculty members, including former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, who will start teaching at Northwestern University (Ill.) in the fall, and Professor of English and Creative Writing Jim Grimsley.
“She really shaped [the Creative Writing Program], and Emory gave her the opportunity to show how visionary and how much of a leader she could be,” said Professor of English Barbara Ladd, a friend of Williams since the two arrived at Emory.
Williams’ colleagues also remember her for her fresh sense of humor.
“She could be so funny without cracking a smile, without giving away that she was trying to be funny,” Ladd said. “She would just say something that would cut to the heart of the humor in the most unexpected situations.”
It’s that humor that made Williams one of the funniest and sharpest literary minds Professor of English William Gruber, who retired but teaches online, has ever met.
“[Williams’] stories were full of basically good-hearted souls who screw up their lives in ways that are stupid and comic and yet deeply moving and even endearing,” Gruber said.
A specialist in fiction and nonfiction writing, Williams made her own small, but meaningful, contribution to the literary world. Her fiction collection, Things Not Seen and Other Stories, was honored as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1992, and five of her stories have been featured on Best American Short Stories’ “100 Other Distinguished Stories” list.
“I wish [the number of her works] had been larger. … But what there was is sterling,” Gruber said.
Grimsley said that he hopes the University will take steps to ensure her unpublished pieces are preserved.
During her time at Emory, Williams increasingly focused on composing essays than short stories, writing several about mental illnesses, according to Ladd. For Williams, it was important “to write honestly about really painful and potentially embarrassing and shameful things,” Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of English Patricia Cahill said.
The Creative Writing professor also carried with her an affinity for politics, and had recalled to Cahill the excitement of hearing The Washington Post land on her doorstep each morning.
“[Williams] said to me that this is such an important moment we are living through and it reminded her of when she lived in Washington D.C. during the Watergate hearings,” Cahill said. “You could just feel how politics were sort of in her blood.”
In 1998, when Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Michael A. Elliott started teaching at Emory, he moved into an office on the same hall as Ladd and Williams.
“[Williams] was a truly generous member of our intellectual community,” Elliott said. “She was one of the people that helped me understand what it means to be a faculty member here at Emory – that made a lasting impact on me.”
And Williams left an indelible mark on the lives of her students, who remember the professor’s compassion and her ability to give pragmatic advice. Caroline Schmidt (17C) and Lauren Abunassar (17C) said that Williams taught them to write and live honestly.
When Williams was in the hospital this past spring, Abunassar brought her a draft of her thesis, which was based on the first essay she had written for Williams’ class. During that visit, Abunassar told Williams that about her acceptance into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a prestigious writing program for which Williams helped her apply. The two celebrated in the hospital room — it was the end of a process they had been through together.
This past June, Schmidt sat with her mentor during her final months in Williams’ Decatur home. Sitting at Williams’ home, the professor and student sipped chocolate milkshakes together, chatting about books and politics.
Schmidt had felt guilty for not completing her thesis defense last semester for medical reasons. They talked about that, too. Williams had invested five semesters in Schmidt as an instructor — she wanted to make her professor proud.
Later, Williams sent Schmidt a message.
“I’ll always be interested in you,” the professor wrote.
CLARIFICATION (8/28/17 at 11:39 p.m.): The article was updated to reflect that Schmidt did not complete her thesis defense for medical reasons.