Reflecting on Searching for Amylu Mike Fink (Professor, Literary Arts and Studies)

I had a perfect student in a long-ago freshman composition course that I created when my part-time status as a professor turned into a full-time, six-decade career. Her name was Amylu and she “got it” when I tried to imitate the Foundation Studies assignments, but with words by pencil instead of brush or charcoal. I called my required section “Drawing with Words.” Amylu proved that this experimental approach suited artists.

In 1965, Amylu drove, with her mother and a sketchbook, to an off-season beach, walked along the waveline … and vanished! Months later, her body washed ashore, identifiable only through her teeth. Fast forward fifty years. I got a call from Amylu's junior high school friend, John, who invited me to lunch. Shortly after Amy’s death, I had written a eulogy to her special genius in the aptly named school newspaper, Blockprint. John had come across it while working on a memoir about Amy’s life and their juvenile “romance.” His book, Searching for Amylu, is a brilliant, poetic, philosophical, and astonishing achievement, an obsessive masterpiece of existential experimentation. Underlying the text is the unanswered circumstances of Amylu’s death. Was it indeed a suicide, or maybe a murder, or perhaps an accident due to a rock? Was it a mood swing? The complexity of John’s search for meaning makes every word a valuable clue as well as an intricate artistic design. I couldn't put it down, and dwelt on every syllable.

In Searching for Amylu, John incorporates photos with memoir. He writes about a sketch that Amylu had given him, now lost, and it is through the book that he grows to be satisfied with the story of it, because the sketch itself is gone. After years of research, he explores the destinies of Amylu’s brother, her mother, her father, her classmates and, through me, her teacher. One of the assignments I gave in that long-ago freshman class was to write about a room but with a unifying mood, not using conventional factual measurements. Amylu’s essay was printed in that Blockprint newspaper. After finding it in the college archive, John inserts that column into his book, to analyze the reason for her demise.

John’s strange masterpiece is innovative, but is ultimately never anything but a devoted and honest account. It is both a biography and an autobiography. Searching for Amylu has influenced my own pedagogy, and reminded me that nothing printed or drawn ever vanishes entirely. To quote some wisdom from John embedded within the book, “Everything is a dream and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.”

Searching for Amylu may be ordered from the publisher here.

Teaching at RISD since 1957, Mike Fink is currently creating courses on journalism, movie history, birds in books, and the Jewish narrative. He is the author of the handbook Drawing with Words, which includes papers composed by students like Amylu Danzer.