Tuesday, April 08, 2008

E.L. Doctorow at WNEC

I went to see E.L. Doctorow speak at WNEC (full disclosure, I'm a librarian there). He spoke about religion and writing. His premise was wonderful, if a little esoteric. Some of the highlights included his idea that there are two types of people who believe that if it is written it must be true-- children and fundamentalists. He told a beautiful story about his grandparents and parents following the same path of secular men and religiously Jewish women.
But I personally had two favorite parts. The first was when he was talking about the importance of librarians in the lives of writers. He said that librarians are the keepers of the canon by which a writer lives. And when he was asked about tips for young writers he said (and I'm paraphrasing here) "Read, read widely and voraciously. Read anything you can get your hands on."
I was so thrilled with this piece of advice because I am a reader. I never stop. I finish one book and the next day I start another. Often I have more than one book going at a time. But I truly believe that many people believe that they can have innate talent without doing the work. In our culture we praise 'talent' without expressing the need for hard work. Example: Musicians should just be born that way or be discovered as a child prodigies, but the idea of hours of practice or years of training is distasteful to us. I believe I can tell when a writer is not a reader. They often fail to recognize the history inherent in a certain theme or they mistake an idea that has often been examined in literature as something that is uniquely theirs. I also find that writers who don't read don't know about creating word paintings and don't know how critical it is to choose the right words to connecting with the audience. They can often focus on basic plot function or character introduction to a fault. They can also be clueless about the editing process. All of this seems to be a function of our concept that we all have a story to tell, therefore, we are all writers. Or that if a person has 'promise' then the practice is not as important.

E.L. Doctorow has thrown down a gauntlet for all of us in higher ed. Our students must read. They must read widely and they must read our historically significant writers to understand from where our cultural touchstones have come. I have often railed against the cultural hegemonic 'lists' of our legacy of Western civilization, ala Allan Bloom, in "The Closing of the American Mind". On the other hand, I don't want our students favoring The Simpsons to the exclusion of Shakespeare, or Family Guy instead of Faulkner.

On the down side I felt that Mr. Doctorow was not fully able to answer audience questions. And I am not sure about his idea that a person's religion or culture is not central to their writing. I feel that most of E.L. Doctorow's work is very much tied to his Jewish heritage. Maybe not his religion, but certainly his culture and his frame of reference. Maybe that is only evident to other Jewish people, I don't know. But I do know that if someone references an Easter dinner or Christmas morning. I am not always able to feel if the writing was authentic. But I am able to see the references and the themes of the culture of literature. I get those references because that is my culture. And it is a culture that we all can share. It's not about where you come from, or how you celebrate your holidays. It's about reading.. and reading and reading.

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