Writing a Strong Man: Professor and Playwright Talks About Writing and "The Strong Man"

Published on 06 July 2018

St. Louis College of Pharmacy is committed to providing students with an education and community that cultivates the whole student. With a curriculum rooted in an interdisciplinary liberal arts approach, students have the opportunity to explore and develop their interests in the humanities and arts to encourage a well-rounded education and experience. The faculty at the College not only encourage students to follow their creative passions but also lead by example.   

Eric Robinson, M.F.A., assistant professor of history at the College, may consider himself an amateur, but his body of work suggests otherwise. He is the author of the novel, "Skip Macalester," and the collection of short stories, "The Day Rider and Other Stories." Robinson has received three Pushcart Prize nominations and, in 2005, received the Illinois Arts Council Literary Award for his essay "Notes from a Janitor's Closet." Along with his literary works, Robinson has had several of his plays produced around the country, including "Mother's Day" and "Spades."

"The Strong Man," the latest play from Robinson was originally written to be a companion piece to his 2015 short play "Spades." But Robinson quickly realized the piece was growing into something more.

"It’s interesting when you start to write something — how often times, what you begin writing is not what you end up writing,” Robinson said. "In 'Spades,' Wallace Thurman comes to grips with the end of his life and the realization that no one will remember him. Victor, the protagonist in 'The Strong Man,' takes that realization one step further. Diagnosed with a disease likened to ALS, Victor is confronted with a question. When one’s life comes toward an end, does one make the final decision?"

After a very successful production of "The Strong Man" in New York, as part of the Downtown Urban Arts Festival, Robinson provided insight into how "The Strong Man" came to be, his writing process and the importance of doing what you love.

Where did the inspiration for “The Strong Man” come from?

My avocational interests include genealogy. That is probably the most telling. My great-grandfather came from South Carolina. He was the son of slaves. In the 1890s, he went to Illinois and met my great-grandmother. The Robinsons were very much Midwestern people, and they had a rule – you didn’t tell the Robinsons you were going south. Even when my father, who was a baseball player, almost signed with the St. Louis Cardinals – my grandfather wouldn’t allow it.

For the longest time, I would read my great-grandfather’s obituary that said he was from Honey Pass, South Carolina. I wondered where Honey Pass was. It was not until two years ago that I heard of a young man playing minor league baseball in St. Louis from a place named Honea, South Carolina. If you were going to ask me what interested me about this story, it was that it talked about the people that, frankly, my great-grandparents had left. It’s more genealogy than anything.

How do you create your characters?

To make sure I hear a character correctly, I write out their resume, and I get down to the details. How many children do they have? What type of food do they like? Where would they go if they had a day off? When I create characters this way, they take on a three-dimensional quality.

Years ago, I would write out characters' family trees. What I loved about those characters is that they thought about how their family members associated with each other — the interactions they had, how they treated each other, what they did last Christmas.

When "The Strong Man" debuted in New York, the characters were what the audience responded to most. The characters were fully realized, and the actors and the crowd loved them.

Are you ever surprised by your writing?

I think you're always surprised by what you write. If you knew how it was going to end, why would you write it? Characters take on positions and images and ideas that are independent of the writer. They are living, breathing, independent creatures. When you are writing them one way, you may think, "Well this is not quite what I had intended, but this is where I am going. I will go with that." And it is always fascinating to have that type of discovery.

What advice do you have for future health care providers that also have a passion for writing?

I think I would have hated earning a living as a writer because then I wouldn’t have loved it. One of the best things to be is an amateur because an amateur is doing things that they love simply because they love it. Be an amateur. You always want to do something you love in life, because if you don’t – life ain't worth living.

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