Wednesday, November 16, 2011

An Hour with John Edgar Wideman

When John Edgar Wideman (PEN/Faulkner award winner twice, MacArthur "Genius" award, Rhodes Scholar and more) speaks, you listen, because Wideman speaks with the eloquence and sparkle of his writing, and if you are a writer, you don't want to stop reading. I scribbled down a few moments of wit and wisdom from a conversation he had with my Literature Seminar this Fall--

In response to a scene of a woman walking into a lake, holding a sickly baby in her arms, from The Cattle Killing -- “A lot of ladies disappear into lakes in literature, in folklore...a lot of ladies disappear in life...I didn’t have to dream that up, it dreamed me.”

Wideman holds the imagination in high prestige, and rages against its obstacles. Speak your mind, he says, and more importantly, write it. As he says of his writing process, he tries to "midwife the imagination...” since “there are many windows in the house of fiction” and “stories don’t exist until they’re told.”

When Wideman was 13 years old and commented that high-priced foods in a store window were ‘exorbitant,’ the white woman standing behind him was floored.  But everyone is entitled to all language and vocabulary, even if certain individuals do not expect it.  “The language belongs to me, all of it...”  Characters do not speak a certain way--a "black" way or a "white" way, and authors should not be expected to think or write a certain way.  Bringing it back to his earlier point, “race is a stunting of the imagination.”

He pauses, making a critical observation about the gaps between words.  If you spoke too soon after another person had spoken, he remembers from a book he has read, it was a sign of disrespect.  As if you didn’t need to take a moment to think about what the other person had said before you responded.  “Don’t fill the space, feel the silence.”  Rhythm is the “modulation, the relationship to silence.” Writing plays with rhythm and movement, it follows a meter, and writers must remember that “time speaks” (ticks, static on an old recording, an old video), and also “never speaks.”

Another thought: writing should be as much of a challenge and an experience to the reader as it is to the writer.  Reading is “like meeting another mind...if I don’t have industrious writers, I’m in trouble.”

And my favorite, when asked how much of himself he puts into his work: “If I was absolutely certain of who I am, then I wouldn’t mind being accused of autobiography.”

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