Author e.l. Doctorow Shares Secrets of Writing
2011 Thomas J. Volpe Lecture Series Speaker Mixes Wit With Wisdom
Speaking humbly but with stories from decades of successful experiences, author E.L. Doctorow addressed an eager audience of St. Francis College students, faculty and administrators as well as members of the larger St. Francis community, as the latest honored guest of the Thomas J. Volpe Lecture Series on Thursday, February 3. (Watch an SFCTV Story About the Event)
Doctorow mixed in large portions of his life growing up in New York City with a measured dose of writing lessons and his personal processes of creation.
Calling Edgar Allan Poe, the person he was named after, "our greatest bad writer," Doctorow said his first stabs at writing were poor imitations of the eerie authors work; with opening lines like, "The cell was dark and damp."
Doctorow shared that a major point on his path to a writing career was at Bronx High School of Science when he handed in an interview assignment about a worker outside Carnegie Hall. The teacher was so impressed with the piece that Doctorow was forced to admit it was fiction. "It seemed to me so much better to make up that stagedoor man than actually to go through the tedious business of interviewing someone," said Doctorow who added that this was the appeal of writers like Franz Kafka who, "wrote from his imagination about things that weren't verifiable from the everyday real world but they were true."
"Just as in his novels, in person, Mr. Doctorow offered us an enlightening look at his work and the craft of writing," said Mr. Volpe. "He let us backstage in his mind to see for ourselves how he gets from idea to novel, from inspiration to completed work."
The secrets of writing took up a large part of the talk as Doctorow explored; the importance of establishing a point of view for the story, the circular logic of why a writer must write to figure out what he is writing about and the elusive nature of the muse. Taking a step back from all the tips about writing, Doctorow admitted that, "I'm probably giving away too much here.
Doctorow also explained the genesis of two of his more popular works; The Book of Daniel (he tore up the first 150 pages and started again when he found the right way to tell the story, through the voice of the son, Daniel) and Ragtime (as he imagined what life was like outside the walls of his century old house in New Rochelle.)
When asked by an Honors student what he thought about eBooks and their affect on the paperbound novel, Doctorow's answer was filled with affection for the printed word. "The thing that's happening with eBooks makes me think of how disposable words are. You press a button, they're there and you press another button and they're gone. I can imagine, though, that people reading something they like would want to hold on to it. How can you hold on to an eBook?"
Born in the Bronx and currently the Lewis and Loretta Glucksman Chair of English and American Letters at New York University, Doctorow is one of the most highly acclaimed authors in the United States. His novels include The March, City of God, Welcome to Hard Times, Loon Lake, World's Fair, Billy Bathgate, The Waterworks, and, most recently, Homer and Langley. A new collection of short fiction, All the Time in the World, is due out in April of 2011.
Among Mr. Doctorow's honors are the National Book Award, two Pen/Faulkner Awards, three National Book Critics Circle Awards, the Edith Wharton Citation for fiction, the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the presidentially conferred National Humanities Medal. In 2009 he was shortlisted for the International Man Booker Prize for Lifetime Achievement.
Guest speakers of the Volpe Lecture Series offer an international perspective in a variety of fields to the St. Francis College community; from business leaders to world leaders. Past speakers include Salman Rushdie (author), Russell Simmons (Def Jam), Mariane Pearl (wife of slain reporter Daniel Pearl), Paul Rusesabagina (the real Hotel Rwanda hero), Lech Walesa (former President of Poland, Nobel Prize winner) and George Mitchell (former U.S. Senator, Nobel Peace Prize nominee, baseball steroids report).
The lecture series is funded through a generous gift from Thomas J. Volpe, a former Senior Vice President of Financial Operations for The Interpublic Group of Companies, Inc. and Chairman Emeritus of the St. Francis College Board of Trustees.
St. Francis College, founded in 1859 by the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn, is located in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y. Since its founding, the College has pursued its Franciscan mission to provide an affordable, high-quality education to students from New York City's five boroughs and beyond.
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