Living Writers: Colson Whitehead

Betsy Bloom

Living Writer Colson Whitehead’s lecture, someone inquired, “Did you ever con­sider becoming a comedian?” Good question. Throughout his speech, Whitehead received the kind of laughs you would expect at a com­edy club in New York City, not an auditorium in Persson Hall. There were even a few people wiping tears from their eyes.

Suffice it to say, Whitehead, who was the first author to appear in this year’s installment of the Living Writers program, was an overwhelming success. At 4:25 p.m., the Persson Hall audito­rium was already packed to the gills – after all the seats were full, students and professors alike stood shoulder to shoulder to listen from the back. A girl whispered to her friend, “Last year, I just came for the free food. Now I’m actually here to listen to the lecture.” I’m sure she wasn’t dis­appointed. Though the warm pretzels were deli­cious, it was Whitehead’s hilarious and insightful words that truly stole the show.

He began with a biography, covering ev­erything from his youthful desire to be a sickly child (“Instead I was just antisocial”) to his col­lege years, where he discovered his passion for writing (“I considered myself a writer, but never actually wrote anything. I just wore black and smoked cigarettes”) to the failure of his first nov­el (“It was a coming of age story about a Gary Coleman-esque child actor. I have no idea why it didn’t get picked up”). After discussing his own background, he offered up a top ten list of tips for writers, reading from his recent essay “How to Write and the Art of Writing: Writers Write About Writing.” (Of particular interest was Number Eight: It’s Secret). Finally, White­head read a witty and insightful excerpt from Sag Harbor, one of his most celebrated works and the first Living Writers novel of the term.

The Living Writers program at Colgate began 30 years ago as the brainchild of author Frederick Busch. True to its name, the program brings ten celebrated authors to campus each fall, allowing students, faculty and staff the opportunity to in­teract and engage with writers that are currently shaping the face of literature. Students at Col­gate may enroll in the Living Writers course, co-taught by Associate Professor of English Jennifer Brice and Thomas A. Bartlett Chair and Profes­sor of English Jane Pinchin, in which they read novels by the featured authors, meet with them in the classroom and attend their lectures (usually a book signing is thrown in the mix, too).

Since its inception, the Living Writers pro­gram has evolved and adapted. This year, mem­bers of the Colgate community have the oppor­tunity to participate in the program regardless of geographic location; an interactive online course (also led by professors Pinchin and Brice) is being offered to parents and alumni. The popularity of the course has been astounding, with spaces com­pletely filled in just one week. The lucky partici­pants who managed to obtain a spot are studying four of the featured texts – Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor, Andrea Barrett’s The Air We Breathe, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. They will be able to attend the lectures via webcam (where they may also pose questions), participate in sev­eral online book discussions and contribute to a course blog. As if this weren’t enough, partici­pants in the course are also encouraged to attend a dinner with Michael Cunningham in Hamil­ton on November 3, as well as an event in New York City where they will be able to interact with faculty and meet their fellow “classmates.”

With a successful start to the program and exciting new adjustments, Colgate’s newest Liv­ing Writers installment is off to a great start. Colson Whitehead will certainly be a tough act to follow, but I’m sure this week’s Twilight of the Superheroes author Deborah Eisenberg is up to the challenge – especially if she follows rule Number Eight, whatever that is.

Contact Betsy Bloom at [email protected]