Posts Tagged ‘Lenoir-Rhyne Visiting Writers Series’

Colson Whitehead / Madeline Whitehead

Colson Whitehead grew up listening to the Donna Summer version. Others of you know the Richard Harris version, he said, and some of you have no idea what I’m talking about. And then for anyone in the audience who belonged to the last group—who may have said, “Huh?” when he started talking about “MacArthur Park”—he held his tablet up to the mic so everyone in P.E. Monroe auditorium could hear the Disco Queen sing: “MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark/ All the sweet, green icing flowing down/ Someone left the cake out in the rain/ I don’t think that I can take it’ ‘Cause it took so long to bake it/ And I’ll never have that recipe again.”

And then as Donna Summer, began to cry, “Oh no!,” Whitehead joined in, losing himself for a moment in song. He had the audience then, at “Oh no!,” if his self-effacing humor hadn’t already won them over. What’s not to love about a writer who says, “I usually spend my Thursday nights in my apartment weeping over my regrets, so this is a nice change of pace”?

Whitehead’s remarks began with a false start, as writing often does. But his false introduction was intentional: “I was born a poor black child. I remember the days, sittin’ on the porch with my family, singin’ and dancin’ down in Mississippi,” riffing on Steve Martin’s opening scene of The Jerk. After that, Whitehead turned to the real beginning.

I wasn’t one of those writers who spent time indoors because I was a sickly child, he said. (Marcel Proust comes to mind.) He was just a kid who liked to stay inside and watch The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits and read comic books. I wanted to be a writer because you didn’t have to go out, he said. As a teenager he wanted to write the black Salem’s Lot or the black The Stand. He wanted to write the black-anything Stephen King, he said, until later he read literary fiction and was drawn to the stylings of the modernists, noting in particular the magic realism of Gabriel García Márquez.

After college, while working as a TV writer for The Village Voice, Whitehead penned his first novel: the later-in-life adventures of a former child star, a Gary Colemanesque character. That novel was never published. He received rejection after rejection, which brought him back to “MacArthur Park.”

The song was an enigma, he said, until he realized that it was an investigation of the author’s journey. Why, he asked, did you leave my cake out in the rain, Alfred A. Knopf? Why did you leave my cake out in the rain, Houghton Mifflin? “I don’t think that I can take it/ ‘Cause it took so long to bake it/ And I’ll never have that recipe again.”

Rejection after rejection—or layer after layer of soggy cake—led Whitehead to rethink his decision to become a writer. He considered other professions, but he didn’t seemed well-suited to any of them—surgeon, for instance. Surgeries can last for more than twenty hours. What if you have to go to the bathroom? he asked.

And then there was the matter of the minuscule audience. A literary novel might sell 5,000 copies, and if there’s ten readers for each copy, that’s still only 50,000 readers in a world with a population of over seven billion. So if you’re a writer of literary fiction, “you aren’t the gnat in the butt of the elephant,” he said. “You’re a microbe in the gnat in the butt of the elephant.” Colson Whitehead kept writing anyway, realizing that he had no choice—that’s who he was—so he started over.

Seventeen years ago, he got the idea to create a fictional antebellum America where the Underground Railroad wasn’t a metaphor, but the literal railroad he imagined as a child. He didn’t think that he was up to the task then, but three years ago he decided to give it a try.  That try became The Underground Railroad, which has now received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal for Fiction, the heartland Prize, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Though he’s become one of the most celebrated novelists of his generation, as a writer Whitehead still finds himself filled with uncertainty.

Near the end of the Q&A session that followed his talk, a woman asked what is was like for him, that stay-inside, work-at-home guy, to be the public figure that he has now become. He answered that it’s very different from being a writer and having all these doubts . . . is this paragraph too long? It’s a very lovely thing.


Whitehead, Colson. “An Evening with Colson Whitehead.” LR Visiting Writers Series. 14 Sept. 2017, P.E. Monroe Auditorium, Lenoir Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.

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Sarah Vowell / Bennett Miller

Sarah Vowell / Bennett Miller

Thursday night at Lenoir-Rhyne, Sarah Vowell spoke of herself as a writer who takes her readers on a trip with her. Seeing Vowell interviewed on stage was a similar journey, one that led the audience from her childhood in Montana to her most recent book, Lafayette in the Somewhat Unites States (2015), with digressions along the way on Charlies Angels, the Trail of Tears, Louis Armstrong, The Incredibles, and Paul Gauguin.

When interviewer Mike Collins asked Vowell about her work on This American Life, she spoke of her writing process, noting that although the stories she wrote sounded casual, there wasn’t one from her twelve-year stint on the show (1996-2008) that underwent fewer than sixty-four revisions. Vowell recalled that Ira Glass, producer and host of the show, chided her for her repeated tangents–what she calls shenanigans–reminding her again and again of the need for brevity in radio. Paring her writing for the airwaves taught Vowell that she was better suited to writing books because they gave her room for shenanigans, citing her detour through the Oneida Community in Assassination Vacation.

In response to an audience member’s question about her writing process, Vowell said that it begins while she is travelling. Vowell explained that she takes “voluminous notes” on index cards. Later, when she returns home, she puts the cards on her living room floor and the process of organizing her research begins. The image of Vowell sitting cross-legged in her living room, placing cards on the floor in front of her as if she’s playing Solitaire, reminds me of her earlier remarks about radio, how each of those casual-sounding pieces she wrote was the product of sixty-four or more drafts. The meandering narratives of her books have a casual quality as well, but they’re the product of a highly organized process.

Vowell is one of the featured authors in the Visiting Writers Series as well as the author of this year’s Campus Read, Assassination Vacation. Her interview with WFAE’s Mike Collins was recorded for later broadcast on Charlotte Talks.

Work Cited

Vowell, Sarah. Visiting Writers Series Interview by Mike Collins. 27 Oct. 2016, P.E. Monroe Auditorium, Lenoir-Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.

Marlon James / macalester.edu

Marlon James / macalester.edu

Only a few hours after the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize for literature, novelist Marlon James, recipient of the 2015 Man Booker prize, took the stage at Lenoir-Rhyne’s Belk Centrum and said that he was “very excited” about Bob Dylan’s win. James questioned whether the people who opposed the choice of Dylan had heard much of his music. Many ancient epics were written to be sung, James observed, and he challenged the audience to “listen to ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’” and “tell me it’s not literature.”

Turning from Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize to his own writing, James—one of the featured authors in Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers Series—said that the first sentence that he wrote of his third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), was now on page 458 and joked that the 680-plus page novel was actually an 800-page book, but he reduced the font and narrowed the margins.

James said that he had begun by writing a novel about a really sloppy hit man who was also in love, but around page fifty he ran into a dead end. After creating additional characters and running into more dead ends, James concluded that he was writing a string of failed novellas. Then he had a Eureka moment: He reread William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), narrated by fifteen characters, and realized that he was writing about the failed dream of the Jamaican 1960s, and that one voice alone could not tell the story. James also credited James McEllroy’s novel American Tabloid (1995) as a major influence on the writing of A Brief History of Seven Killings.

Among the excerpts James read from the novel include ones featuring the ghost of the dead Jamaican politician Arthur Jennings and immigrant Dorcas Palmer—whose name isn’t really Dorcas Palmer—who works a series of no-questions-asked jobs as a care giver in New York. They are the branches of the novel, James said, noting the book began with them rather than the trunk—though it may seem like the opposite, that the book began with Marley at the center.

James noted that one of the difficulties of writing about Marley was that by the time of the 1976 assassination attempt, Marley was already a literary device of sorts. For me growing up, James noted, he was a series of news reports: Marley is on tour, Marley has been shot, Marley has cancer . . . .

To guide him as he wrote around the dying man at the center of his novel, Marlon James turned to the classic Esquire magazine story “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” (1966), a profile that Gay Talese had been assigned to write as an interview with Frank Sinatra, but the singer refused to talk to him. Talese’s solution to the problem was to talk to everyone around Sinatra. Similarly, instead of moving in close, James’s narrators circle Marley in his last days.

In response to an audience member’s questions about knowing when you’ve finished revising, James said that he knows early on in the process when he’s done, but that it takes him four or five months to admit it. James said that A Brief History of Seven Killings doesn’t end with a flourish or with a profound statement about the human condition; it doesn’t end as much as it stops. He kept working on the book until a voice in his head told him, you finished four months ago.

One of the problems with writing stories, James said, is that we start too early and end too late. James recounted that once while submitting copies of the manuscript of his first novel, John Crow’s Devil, that he was short on paper and money, so he sent out a copy without the first and the last twenty pages. The agent who read it, James said, didn’t say that it started too late or ended too early.

Reflecting on James’s observations about writing—beginning with his opening remarks about Bob Dylan—brings to mind the role of music in his own writing, starting with the lines from Captain Beefheart’s “Dachau Blues,” lyrics that serve as the epigraph for his debut novel, John Crows’ Devil. Those song lyrics are some of the first words we see in the book, but it’s likely that neither those words nor the words of the chapter that they introduce are the first ones he put on the page, evidenced by the fact that the first sentence he wrote for A Brief History of Seven Killings appears on page 458.

Beginnings and endings are difficult, Marlon James reminds us, though in the case of these words about his Thursday-night presentation, I knew from the start that I would begin with his opening remarks on Bob Dylan. (How I would begin was another matter altogether, and so was where and how I would end.) Of A Brief History of Seven Killings, James said that the novel doesn’t end as much as it stops. Taking a cue from him, I will stop here, reflecting on the insight that his remarks shed on his first novel—one that my students and I studied earlier this semester—one that begins with the chapter “The End” and ends with the chapter “The Beginning.”

Work Cited

James, Marlon. “An Evening with Marlon James.” Visiting Writers Series, 13 Oct. 2016, Belk Centrum, Lenoir-Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.

 

 

Readings for English 131, Fall 2016

Marlon James, speaking at Lenoir-Rhyne last Thursday: “Listen to ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ and tell me it’s not literature.”

And from Rob Sheffield’s Rolling Stone feature:

The best argument for Dylan’s Nobel Prize comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, even though he died a century before Shot of Love. His 1850 essay ‘Shakespeare; or the Poet,’ from the book Representative Men, works as a cheat sheet to Dylan. For Emerson, Shakespeare’s greatness was to exploit the freedoms of a disreputable format, the theater: ‘Shakespeare, in common with his comrades, esteemed the mass of old plays, waste stock, in which any experiment could be freely tried. Had the prestige which hedges about a modern tragedy existed, nothing could have been done. The rude warm blood of the living England circulated in the play, as in street-ballads.’

This is a key point–Shakespeare was a writer/actor/manager hustling in the commercial theater racket for live crowds. He didn’t publish his plays–didn’t even keep written copies. Once it was onstage, he was on to the next one. (After his death, his friends had to cobble the First Folio together, mostly from working scripts, hence the deplorable state of his texts.) Low prestige meant constant forward motion. The theater was becoming a national passion, ‘but not a whit less considerable, because it was cheap.’ He aimed his poetry at the groundlings: ‘It must even go into the world’s history, that the best poet led an obscure and profane life, using his genius for the public amusement.’

Dylan didn’t write many books either–his songs came out of that same ‘rude warm blood.’

Works Cited

James, Marlon. “An Evening with Marlon James.” Visiting Writers Series, 13 Oct. 2016, Belk Centrum, Lenoir-Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.

Sheffield, Rob. “Why Bob Dylan Deserves His Nobel Prize.”  Rolling Stone, 13 Oct. 2016,          http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/why-bob-dylan-deserves-his-nobel-prize-w444799

Friday morning when Paul Muldoon spoke to students in Belk Centrum—as one of the featured authors in Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers Series—he addressed the appeal of poetry, the importance of reading masters of the craft, the teaching of poetry, and his own writing process.

paul-muldoon

Paul Muldoon / visitingwriters.lr.edu

Local poet and Adjunct Professor Scott Owens, who interviewed Muldoon, began by asking the question, “Why write poetry?” In response, Muldoon noted one of his favorite observations about poetry, from W. B. Yeats: A man dabbles in verses, and they become his life. Muldoon recalled how he first wrote a poem as a teenager. Rather than composing the weekly essay, he decided to write a poem because it was shorter, and it seemed easier. The following Monday the teacher asked him to read it to the class. The act of reading his words aloud to his peers felt wonderful to him, and he was hooked. I have a very primitive view of how the brain works, he said. We are happy when we see connections being made in the world. Poetry is about that, about finding the likeness in unlike things.

In response, Owens commented on Muldoon’s penchant for analogies, mentioning his recent poem “Catamaran,” in which he likens sperm whales to the two-hulled boat of the title. That comparison reminded me of the gliding movement of the snail that Muldoon likens to a hovercraft in his early poem “Hedgehog,” which my students and I read as a prelude to his visit.

When Owens asked if he preferred James Joyce or W. B. Yeats, Muldoon replied that he admired both of them. I fear that this will sound presumptuous, he added, but sometimes when I read Yeats, I say to myself, I could do this. But Joyce, never. That would never cross my mind. Joyce is a mystery.

Owens observed that he could see the influence of both Joyce and Yeats in Muldoon’s work, to which Muldoon replied: As an Irish writer, there’s no point in pretending that they aren’t there. He added that it’s essential to study the masters, to see what (John) Donne has done or what (Emily) Dickinson has done. And if you’re going to write big stanzaic poems, you need to study Yeats.

Muldoon, who has taught at both Oxford and Princeton, noted that as a professor he has to believe—as all teachers of writing have to believe—that we can learn to do what other writers have done. The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet said that when goes to the bookstore and sees a book on how to write a poem, he buys it. If he is working on a poem and it seems to be taking on the form of a sestina, he looks up the rhyme scheme of a sestina—because he isn’t crazy, Muldoon said. No sane person keeps that rhyme scheme in his head, he added.

In response to a question about how his power of observation plays a role in his poetry, Muldoon said that writing poetry means looking hard at the world; “description will take you a long way down the road.” He added, sometimes I tell my students not to get hung up on writing a poem. Think of your writing as a documentary.

When an audience member asked, “Who’s in charge, the poet or the poem?” Muldoon said the poem, adding that many things that happen in his poems come from a passive, ignorant, or innocent mode. I want to come out of the poem that has asked to be written, he said. There’s no decent analogy for that. Muldoon’s follow-up statement, “I never know what I’m doing,” echoed the sentiments of Lamott, who sat on the same stage in the same chair a week earlier. In the chapter “Shitty First Drafts” in Lamott’s Bird by Bird, she observes that “[v]ery few writers really know what they’re doing until they’ve done it.”

Muldoon spoke of the importance of fumbling around in your writing, saying that when you’re writing—whether it’s a poem or an essay or something else—it only becomes interesting when you come up with an idea that you didn’t expect to have.

Near the end of Muldoon’s talk, a student asked him whether a poem can be about the subject on the page or whether it always signifies something else. Muldoon replied that a poem could be about what’s on the page, adding that the question brought to mind one of the problems with the way that poetry is often taught. The problem is that sometimes we’ll look at the duck on the pond and say that the duck on the pond is really the British Empire. Well, sometimes it’s the duck on the pond. Sometimes the poet is just writing about the duck.

Now having listened to Muldoon, I imagine that my method of teaching his poem “Hedgehog” is similar to the way he asks his own students to study poems. Rather than presenting an interpretation, I asked students to look closely at the poem—the way that poets, in Muldoon’s words, look hard at the world, because “description will take you a long way”—and consider why he may have chosen to render the hedgehog as we see it, in the last stanza, as a “god” (17) with a “crown of thorns” (18).

Work Cited

Muldoon, Paul. “Hedgehog.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2016.

 

Anne Lamott / visitingwriters.lr.edu

Anne Lamott / visitingwriters.lr.edu

As a lead-in to Anne Lamott’s appearance on campus—as one of the featured authors in Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers Series—my students and I read and discussed the chapter “Shitty First Drafts” from Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life (1994). It’s a chapter that I’ve read with my students several times throughout my years of teaching, one I should probably assign every semester because it offers some of the most valuable advice about writing and life that I’ve read.

Lamott advises her readers to give themselves permission to write awful—or as she puts it, “shitty”—first drafts because they’re an essential part of the process. Later in the chapter, she refers to the first draft as the child’s draft, “where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place.” That’s the same way that I, and many other writers and teachers, envision freewriting. When my students and I freewrite in our journals, I tell them to keep writing even when they think that they have nothing to say, because eventually they will have something to say. And until then, it’s okay to write over and over I have nothing to say, or blah, blah, blah. In Lamott’s words:

[T]here may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would have never gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go—but there way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.

I wasn’t able to see Lamott when she spoke Thursday night at P. E. Monroe auditorium. (While she was there, I was standing on another stage a mile or so away, wearing a nun’s habit and screaming at monks—but that’s another story.) I was, however, able to attend her Friday-morning talk in Belk Centrum, where she told the students not to get bogged down in trying to please people—that they shouldn’t aim to write what they think other people will like but instead write to express their own truth.

Professor Kathy Ivey interviewing Anne Lamott / visitingwriters.lr.edu

Professor Kathy Ivey interviewing Anne Lamott / visitingwriters.lr.edu

In response to an audience member’s question about outlining, Lamott replied no, she doesn’t write outlines but plans her work on oversized sheets of graph paper on which draws large circles like lily pads for her ideas. She said she loves paper and pencils and pens, adding that she steals pens and actually stole one the night before from the Hickory Public Library.

Lamott told the audience: You don’t need to know more than you know, but you start somewhere—an idea that echoes the first line of the second paragraph of “Shitty First Drafts”: “Very few writers really know what they’re doing until they’ve done it.” She recommended reading The Paris Review interviews, especially the ones with novelists, because they show us how the writers got their work done.

In response to a question about the unfathomable questions—such as why do awful things happen to good people?—Lamott said that the most offensive thing that you can do is offer an answer that you could put on a bumper sticker. The way not to be, Lamott said, is to have little answers to unfathomable questions. Instead she said she responds by saying, read more poetry, and I will, too. And I’ll stay if you want me to, and maybe tomorrow we’ll go buy some make-up or go on a field trip . . . .

After a student said that she identified with Lamott because she, too, was a liberal and a Christian, Lamott simply said: “It’s very hard to be the things you are.”

Lamott added that if you’re pretending to be someone you aren’t because you’re addicted to people-pleasing, then you’re never going to be able to be yourself. She concluded with these words: I hope my writing gives you the confidence to be who you are—to be yourself, not someone focused primarily on loyalty to family or country but someone with a passionate commitment to yourself.

Both her words on the page and on the stage Friday morning have led me toward that self-assurance, and I hope that they have led my students there as well.

Works Cited

Lamott, Anne. Visiting Writers Series Interview by Kathy Ivey. Lenoir-Rhyne U. 8 Apr. 2016.

—. “Shitty First Drafts.” College of Arts & Sciences Writing, Rhetoric & Digital Studies. U of Kentucky, n.d. PDF. 6 Apr. 2016.

 

 

Garrison Keillor / visitingwriters.lr.edu

Garrison Keillor / visitingwriters.lr.edu

In Garrison Keillor’s recent Op-Ed column in The Washington Post, he responds to U.S. citizens who say they’ll flee the country if Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump wins the election. Keillor recommends that prospective ex-patriots stay home instead. According to Keillor, if you truly want to escape Trump, you shouldn’t travel abroad, where suddenly you’ll be “hauling a knapsack of nationality.” As evidence to support his claim, Keillor recounts the years he spent in Europe during the George W. Bush era when, as Keillor describes it, “foreigners hear[d] your voice and it’s like you’re wearing a big fat A around your neck.” In contrast, he notes that no one broached the subject of W with him when he stayed in Houston in 2006 and 2007.

In the first line of his column, Keillor calls Trump “the Great White Snapper,” a moniker he repeats four times with slight variations–“the Great Turtle” (paragraph two), “the Big Snapper” (paragraph four), “the Snapper” (paragraph four), and “the Great White Turtle” (paragraph six), making that combative creature the column’s prevailing image.

Keillor’s depiction of Trump as a snapping turtle was one of our points of discussion when my students and I read his column in class last Wednesday. Though I had planned to have my students study a piece of Keillor’s writing as a prelude to his appearance on Thursday–as one of the featured authors in Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers Series–I had no idea when I was constructing the syllabus that Trump would descend onto campus–or that his rally would be followed by an Op-Ed column by Keillor before his own scheduled appearance at L-R. The Op-Ed offered a valuable opportunity that I couldn’t have planned: one that let us look at one high-profile campus visitor’s remarks about another, one who had stood on the same stage only two weeks earlier.

Though our study of Keillor’s column was an exercise in rhetorical analysis, not in politics, it proved difficult–and appropriately so–to separate the two as we considered Trump as “the Great White Snapper.”

Work Cited

Keillor, Garrison. “Think Moving Abroad will Save You from Trump? Think Again.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 16 Mar. 2016. Web. 30 March 2016.