Monday, February 22, 2010

Pen and Podium

Post by NCW Member Darlene Mueller Morse

Alexander McCall Smith. Khaled Hosseini. Wally Lamb. David Wroblewski. Frank McCourt. Amy Tan. Alice Sebold. And the list goes on: David McCullough. Garry Trudeau.Claire Messud. Anna Quindlen. Sue Monk Kidd. Azar Nafisi. Suzan-Lori Parks.

What do these authors have in common? I have seen them all and shaken hands with several. I’ve heard their stories about writing and how their books came to be. I learned firsthand how they agonized about what to include and what to cut. I have been privileged to see that none of these authors looked like anyone out of the ordinary but when they spoke, they proved to be extraordinary by virtue of their writing accomplishments and their words. I saw that they were human but had taken a path not well-traveled.

They are part of the Pen & Podium Series sponsored by The Denver Post and presented at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts on the University of Denver campus. Each season, four major authors come to speak in front of about 900 people who have purchased the lecture series tickets.

Surprisingly, the authors who have written the most serious novels have the best sense of humor. David Wroblewski (The Story of Edgar Sawtelle) had us rolling in the aisles. Of course, Alexander McCall Smith was a gem; he even wore a kilt and showed everyone when asked the question, “How can you write so well from a woman’s point of view?” He said, “You see, I’m wearing a skirt.”

Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran) had so much to say. We were brought to tears from some of her revelations and laughter by others. Her Q&A made us want to send a transcript directly to Washington, DC.

Amy Tan brought her small black dog onto the stage with her and most people had no idea he was there until the end. When Alice Sebold came on stage, she spent the entire time reading from her prepared script. Anna Quindlen is much more suited to be read rather than heard. And, she did not take any Q&A. Nor did she sign any books. J. R. Moehringer made every woman in the audience want to run up and give him a hug. Suzan-Lori Parks not only was a stage writer but a singer and pulled out a guitar and began to belt a few tunes.

Each writer (except for Quindlen) hosted a Q&A after their talk and it was here that we got to see the real person behind the keyboard. Most of these authors, if not all, had a specific purpose in life, a calling one might say. Through their discoveries made during their writing processes, they saw inequalities. Some have gone on to sponsor charities and to work for certain political parties. Wally Lamb teaches writing at a penitentiary for women.

The most recent author I heard was Wally Lamb. He spoke of what had happened in the country since he began his second novel but before it was published. He mentioned 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Katrina and…Sarah Palin. The entire audience erupted in applause.

Khaled Hosseini talked of how his next novel would feature the sacrifices made in Afghanistan by US military personnel. He got mega-applause for that. The audience knew that here was a person with deep understanding about the whys and wherefores of the whole conflict.

Each author I have been privileged to meet and hear has given me new perspective in the writing field. We write to be read. But therein lies a huge responsibility to write something that makes people think. From what I have gathered from these authors is that they initially wrote because they had to; they were compelled to. That fire still burns and is stoked by the response of their previous books. They all have stories to tell.

I wish that I could get a transcript of what these authors shared with us. What wisdom! But, alas, I don’t think that’s in the cards. What I do know is that each of them has given me some invaluable insight that is well worth the cost.

The final author in the current series is Jodi Picoult. I have read several of her novels but on a grander scale, I have graded many high school essays written by students who read her books. She is an example of a writer by whose very words can influence a complete generation of young people. She attacks topics with gusto which are for the most part taboo.

In hearing all these authors speak, I am always inspired to spend that much more time on my own writing pursuits. I am also gratified to be a part of a larger audience who also feels the pull of the authors. And lastly, I am feeling very valuable in the huge scheme of things as a reader and as a writer. What power words have.


Jenny S. said...

I've never attended this lecture series, but reading your post really makes me wish I had! Thanks for sharing the experience, and for your reminder of the power words give us as readers and writers. And speakers and listeners, too.

Name: Luana Krause said...

Great post! Nothing is more inspiring that to see and hear authors speak about their craft. I'm a huge fan of Amy Tan. "The Joy Luck Club" is my favorite. Great movie, too.

Did you know that she is (was?) a member of Stephen King's and Dave Barry's rock band?

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