Although she described her early experience performing stand up at comedy club through a course at the New School as taking two years off her life, Pulitzer Prize winning author Elizabeth Strout learned, ”People laugh when something is true.” Strout applies this insight into her penetrating novels that uncover the quirky and comical in life’s dark moments.
Addressing the students, faculty and staff as KO’s 34th Baird Symposium author at today's assembly, Strout read an excerpt from her novel, Amy and Isabelle, which explores the sometimes tense and tenuous relationship between a mother and daughter. Describing Isabelle as “an uptight New Englander”, Strout said Isabelle changes as a person throughout the novel to become a more accepting individual. She noted, “As people age, they become either bitter or bigger. It will happen, and you don’t know sitting here now who it’s going to happen to. That is the mystery of who we are.”
Since the beginning of the school year all of the students have read one of Strout’s work, while the symposium class did a deep dive into her entire oeuvre. At the assembly, students asked Strout about her motivation and process as a writer. Strout explained that very little of her writing is a conscious choice and that she writes what makes for good drama, including sex. “I’m interested in what people don’t want to talk about. My job as a writer is to record the human experience so the reader won’t feel alone, so that they know other people have the same thoughts, too.”
Writing scenes first by long hand, Strout arranges the vignettes on her oversized desk before she commits them on the computer. Each time she begins a new work, Strout experiences a “flicker of anxiety” and uses that emotion and transposes it to a character so there is a sense of urgency in the writing. An admitted perfectionist only in her work, Strout rewrites constantly, always trying to improve her practice to achieve “a higher version of the sentence”. She notes, “I’ll do it forever until it’s right for me.” She retains her writing until it’s nearly complete and then hands the draft to the one reader who has read her work for the past 34 years. Protective of her work, Strout admits that she relies mostly on her own opinions about her piece. After submitting the work to her agent and editor, she said she will listen politely to their critique but, “I don’t like them messing with my work.”
Encouraged by her mother who “wanted to be a writer but never was", Strout began writing when she was a child, prompted by the many empty notebooks her mother gave to her. She waitressed for several years while trying to publish her writing and enrolled in law school as a back up plan intending to write at night. “I got a job in legal services and realized that I would be an awful lawyer. So I went for writing with my whole heart.”
Over these two days, Strout will continue to workshop with the students in symposium class and will join in a special reception this evening.