SSU professor has the ‘write’ stuff
By JOELLE BURNETTE
ROHNERT PARK CORRESPONDENT
Jonah Raskin marked his 70th birthday by retiring from Sonoma State University, where he had been a journalism teacher for 30 years. But with 20 books of his own, writing is the thing wherein you’ll capture the essence of this campus king.
Raskin traces the roots of his writing to growing up in New York with parents who were avid readers. From them he learned the joy of reading and losing himself in stories.
“I identified with the characters I read about, and from an early age, I admired writers. They could create these whole worlds with words,” he said.
The poetry of one of his favorite writers, Walt Whitman, carried Raskin’s mind on imaginative journeys, inspiring him to sound his own “barbaric yawp” and create his future. Whitman founded The Long Islander newspaper, where Raskin had his first taste of journalism, and had lived down the street from Raskin’s childhood home in Long Island.
“Very early on, I learned the journalists who experienced the subject they wrote about had something the readers really wanted,” he said.
A high school football star, Raskin wrote sports stories for the local paper after playing in the games, carrying the readers on an adventure beyond scores and naming the victorious. “I was in the huddle. I was in the locker room at half time. I knew what went on behind the scenes.”
After graduating, he wasted no time tossing plans to play professionally for the New York Giants, and created a life as a college professor.
“The appeal of seeing what I could do with my mind got to be more interesting and appealing than what I could do out on the football field,” he said.
Eventually, Raskin visited his parents, who had relocated to Sonoma County, and then stayed, starting a new chapter in his life in 1976 when he began applying for teaching positions at SSU. Until he was hired five years later, he found work with the federal census, in construction in Rohnert Park and freelancing as a journalist. He also began writing books.
Once at SSU, he taught in the English Department and the First Year Experience program, then chaired the Communications Studies Department for 16 years. He also wrote book reviews for the Press Democrat while publishing his own poetry and non-fiction.
It was during a 2008 interview about his book on Jack London that he said London “was at war with himself.” Looking back on his own career, Raskin identified. “I’ve had conflicts. I’ve been pulled in different directions.”
The internal conflict of a writer, he said, is balancing that life with a 9-to-5 job. A few years ago he stretched that balance while collecting material to write “Field Days: A Year of Farming.” Although the schedule was grueling, (rise at 5:30 a.m. to work on local farms, then off to SSU to teach before heading out to farmers markets), Raskin described this book as his most pleasurable to write.
“It’s not a bad thing, or harmful, to be at war with yourself because I think I’ve learned a lot about how to write by teaching writing,” he said. He believes his classroom success came from the real-world experience he brought.
In teaching and writing, Raskin said he tries to follow the advice of Doris Lessing, another of his favorite writers and his long-time mentor since he first met her in 1969. He was teaching English Literature in New York when he first interviewed this Nobel Prize winner for literature during her first visit to the United States.
“It can be helpful to see yourself as other people see you,” is the lesson of humility Lessing offered. “She’s a very innovative storyteller, and she’s very honest. She taught me that if you can’t write honestly about yourself, you can’t write honestly about other people.”
Looking to the future, Raskin said, “I will be a journalist and write as long as I can hold a pen or sit at a keyboard. It’s part of who I am and what I love to do.” His latest book, “Rock and Roll Women: Portraits of a Generation” is being published in February by McCaa Books in Santa Rosa, and he’s already working on new projects to tackle in his “retirement,” including a new book on American literature.
Raskin said he has no regrets from his 30 SSU years, except to add, “I would have given higher grades.”