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If you’ve ever wanted to write a novel, there’s something Colum McCann, Jessica Soffer ’07 and Blanche Boyd want you to know.
You can do it.
Now don’t get too excited, because when the three acclaimed authors took the floor Nov. 20 at Connecticut College’s Daniel Klagsbrun Symposium on Creative Arts and Moral Vision, they spent much of the time talking about pain. The pain of finding the right words, sitting for a day at the keyboard without writing a thing, struggling to tie disparate threads together, confronting their own fears.
“When I finish a novel, I’m always afraid I’m going to be found out,” said McCann, a Guggenheim fellow who won the 2009 National Book Award for “Let the Great World Spin.” His most recent novel, “TransAtlantic,” was published last year. “People think that once you’ve written one or two books you know how to do it. No.”
Soffer’s first book, “Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots,” was published to widespread acclaim in 2013, six years after she graduated from Connecticut College. She met McCann when she enrolled in the MFA program at Hunter College in New York. He teaches there and is Soffer’s mentor.
Boyd, the Weller Professor of English and Writer-in-Residence at Connecticut College, taught Soffer as an undergrad. Boyd also was Soffer’s senior thesis adviser.
The symposium was created in 1989 as a living memorial to Daniel Klagsbrun ’86. The generosity of his parents, Emilie and Herbert Klagsbrun, has brought an amazing array of authors to campus over the years. They include Saul Bellow, Adrienne Rich, Elie Wiesel, Amy Tan, Hannah Tinti ’94, E.L. Doctorow, Art Spiegelman and David Sedaris.
Much of the discussion this year was about learning how to write. That is where the pain starts.
McCann said he tells new students, “I’m very sorry but I’m not going to be able to teach you a damn thing.”
Soffer responded that it was helpful to hear him think through a story out loud. “You can lead a student to a place where they have some of the tools and can write something useful,” she said.
“I just create a little greenhouse,” McCann answered. “You prune. You feed. You create the environment.” Teachers need to be sympathetic to the student’s struggles and unlock something in them, he said.
To build confidence in her students, Boyd brings a sack of books to their first class. In it are the writings of her previous students. “This is the syllabus. This means you can do this,” she says as she drops the heavy sack on a table. “You have to teach yourself to write. I’m just a coach.”
Lots of people have talent, Boyd said. The question is who is stubborn enough to get through the writing process.
McCann advises students not to write about what they know, but to write about what they want to know and let their curiosity drive them forward. “Let it go. Become other,” he said.
Soffer’s advice? Write what hurts. And write when you feel the pain, especially when you’re young. Later it’s harder to feel it, she said. “Write and cry. Write and laugh. Feel it,” she said.
You have to live with the characters and do research to make them authentic, Boyd said. “If you don’t care about them, no one will,” she said.
McCann uses details to create characters that come alive. You want people to think you are God as the writer because you know so much about their lives, he said. “You find the one detail that fools people into thinking you know everything else. The devil is in the details but God is too.”
Novels are hard to write. They take a lot of stamina – years to complete – compared to short stories, McCann said. But short stories have to be perfect as an art form while a novel can roam a bit.
“It’s so amazing to inhabit a novel for a long time, to feel like you’re living with these people,” Soffer said. She said the best compliment is when someone tells her they miss her characters after finishing one of her pieces.
Soffer advised against beginning a novel with a topic like the morality of war. It doesn’t work that way. McCann said things often just work themselves out as you write. “In the beginning, I have a vague idea of what the end will be, and I have no idea of how I’m going to get there,” he said.
Boyd agreed. “I feel like a mole, digging underground,” she said. You poke your head up. “Where are we now?” And then again later, “I think I’m done. Maybe.”
When asked if he tries to be moral in his writing, McCann said morality is important to him. “But I’m not here to moralize, to be didactic. I’m there to paint a picture,” he said. He said writers who moralize tend to be sentimental. “I’m full of sentiment. But I don’t want to be accused of being sentimental,” he said.
McCann said he generally avoids taking on young students just out of college, as he wants them to live a bit before they start honing their writing. But when McCann read Soffer’s work, he knew he wanted to work with her. “The words popped off the page. They burned,” he said.
Soffer said the best advice she ever got was that writing is in the editing. “You just have to go at it again and again,” she said. “The biggest gifts you get in life are the moments when it works.”
“It’s hard work,” McCann agreed. The best writers make it look easy. But it never is.