Alumni Spotlight: Pamela McCorduck '70

September 09, 2014

The Alumni Spotlight is a place to hear from the School of the Arts alumni community about their journeys as artists and creators.

Pamela McCorduck '70 has published some fifty articles, eleven books, fiction and nonfiction, and her work has been translated into all the major European and Asian languages. She is at work now on a memoir of her life and times with the artificial intelligentsia--she was fortunate enough to be at the birth of scientific artificial intelligence, knew all its major contributors, and wrote an early history of the field, Machines Who Think. AI is in public attention in many ways daily, some of them entertaining, some of them sensational nonsense, some of them sobering. It wasn't always so. Her memoir is called This Could Be Important, because for decades, she used to say "this could be important," as she pulled on the sleeves of intelligent and well-educated people who found the idea preposterous.

Was there a specific faculty member or peer that especially inspired you while at the School of the Arts? If so, who and how?

I was blessed with wonderful instructors in writing, but Hortense Calisher stands out among even those (a close runner-up was the evergreen V. S. Pritchett). Hortense and I began as instructor and student, and then became lifelong friends for forty years until her death. She always claimed she just left me alone to write, but some years after I graduated, I found one of my stories, marked up intensively and astutely by her. I learned from her directly; I learned from her by example. That's why I'm still writing at age 75. Hortense was at her keyboard into her nineties.

How did attending the School of the Arts impact your work and career as an artist?

My two years at the School of the Arts were an incomparable gift. It was the first time I had the glorious opportunity to write, with few other responsibilities. Through School of the Arts connections, I found my first agent, my first publisher, my first self-confidence. Those two years transformed me from hopeful amateur to professional writer. I will never be able to express my gratitude completely.

What were the most pressing social/political issues on the minds of the students when you were here?

The Vietnam War. Columbia had nearly exploded in the spring earlier, but during my first fall at Columbia, the war–and the protests against it—continued. As history has shown, the protestors were right, and the blindfolded political leaders were wrong.

If you could revisit any piece you created during your time at the School of the Arts, which would it be? Why?

I wish I kept better files, and had some of my old stories. I don't.

What was your favorite or most memorable class while at the School of the Arts?

This is a toss-up between Hortense Calisher's seminars and Victor Pritchett's. Each of them knew how to critique constructively, without hurting feelings, how to coax the best out of a young writer.  We also had some great visitors, including Jorge Luis Borges and Robert Penn Warren. This was more a laying-on-of-eyes than an educational experience, but you can receive education many ways.

Read more from the Alumni Spotlight series