Tag Archive for: Summer Writing Program

It Tolls for Thee

by Paula Gail Benson

Calhoun Residence Hall

Donne wrote, “No man is an island.” As writers, we often labor in isolation, occasionally
taking our notebooks to coffee shops or book stores to be close to activity. There
may be a gentle musical selection playing in the background or perhaps we’ve
arrived with our own headphones, so we can “control” and “enhance” that aspect
of concentration for the task. Keeping our distance, yet staying close to

we have the opportunity to study writing among our peers, fellow scriveners
seeking to combine words in the most effective ways, we embrace the joy of being
with those who understand what it is like to labor alone. We spend time with
colleagues who face the same lonely struggles, then return to our work with new
resolve and inspiration.

summer, I had the remarkable experience of attending Yale University’s Summer
Writing Program, where small classes of students were paired with incredibly
talented authors for twelve hours of instruction, additional special lectures,
and a private analysis of each student’s submission. I was thrilled to
find myself in a class with six others learning about writing mysteries from the
fabulous Lori Rader-Day. It was truly life-changing.

down the streets to our Yale class room, I could hear the chiming of bells
from the carillon in Harkness tower. What an wonderfully appropriate musical accompaniment
for my ivy league adventure!

Calhoun Residence Hall, where we roomed, I noticed a carved relief of a scholar
in his robes, sitting at his desk, smoking his pipe, apparently concentrating on
his studies while surrounded by stacks of books. With the carillon bells chiming
in the background, I could almost imagine striding across campus in my own cap
and gown, heading to confer with my fellow scholars.

at Oxford. Or maybe Hogwarts.

those bells followed my every footfall.

can be traced back to medieval times when they were used as a means of
notification or alarm system for a town. The instrument, with a keyboard like
an organ, is connected to at least twenty-three bells that are housed in a
belfry. The one at Yale has fifty-four bells, each emblazoned with the words “FOR
GOD, FOR COUNTRY, AND FOR YALE.” Generally, they sound twice a day at Yale, but
we had arrived during the week of the Yale Carillon Guild convention.  

bells became a constant companion. In fact, for two days straight, during our
ENTIRE three-hour class period, the carillon played without ceasing.

times, music can progress from mere accompaniment to severe distraction. That
is exactly what those marvelous bells did. While we sought to discuss the fine
points of characterization, plotting, and revision, the bells pealed forth,
sometimes merrily and other times solemnly, until their sound became
predominant in our heads.

from the incessant ringing, another literary lesson emerged.

As mystery
writers, we couldn’t help but consider how constant noise could manipulate a
mind and drive an intellect to dire circumstances—like murder. I remembered how
Edgar Allan Poe’s guilt-ridden protagonist in “The Tell-Tale Heart” insists
what he hears is not madness: “The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed
– not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things
in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell.”

another look at the scholar on the Calhoun Residence Hall relief, I began to
wonder if he was consumed with his work or with the effort of attempting to
block out the bells. There was something in his expression that I thought might
resemble Poe’s protagonist’s anguish.

So, I
decided that it was good that writers can channel any murderous urges into
prose rather than action. As John Donne says: “Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind, Therefore, send not to know, For whom the bell
tolls, It tolls for thee.
a bad lesson to have learned from a carillon at Yale!