February 23, 2009

Cornell Alumni Writers Inspire Students

Print More

Three well-respected alumni authors drove students to delay the start of their weekend on Friday afternoon and gather for a panel discussion in Kauffman Auditorium.
Junot Díaz MFA ’95, Julie Schumacher MFA ’86 and Melissa Bank MFA ’88, three published writers and three graduates of Cornell’s MFA program, offered curious listeners and hopeful writers a look into the world of 21st century fiction writing. At the afternoon panel, they fielded questions from the audience, lending advice to eager minds. Later that evening, they held a reading in Rockefeller Hall, sharing their works before a standing-room-only audience.
Nina Zhang ‘09 attended the panel discussion because she is taking a creative writing class this semester and because she had a question on her mind. She wanted to hear how published, experienced writers know their work will resonate well with people.
Schumacher responded by telling the audience of a letter she had framed. It was written by a young girl who said that reading one of Schumacher’s books “reminds me of myself.” While Schumacher insisted that this sort of resonance is not something a writer necessarily tries to achieve, it is something they would like to accomplish.
“You never really know how art will be received. [You] can try your best, but you don’t really know,” Zhang said.[img_assist|nid=35461|title=The art of writing|desc=Junot Diaz MFA ‘95 reading his work in Schwartz Auditorium of Rockefeller Hall on Friday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Zhang was touching on the response Díaz gave to her question. He said that authors write for a future readership. He reminded the audience that any immediate response to a piece of writing is only fleeting — “applause or silence” after publication are not necessarily indicative of a future reception.
Zhang appreciated the sincere way each of the authors answered not only her question, but the inquires from all the audiencemembers.
When asked about any changes in writing style after graduating from the MFA program, Bank gave the audience a glimpse of what was going on in her head as she wrote pre–and post–graduation from the MFA. During her time at the MFA, “I was desperate for the other writers to think I was a good writer,” she said. Whenever she wrote, she would think to herself whether or not she could see a particular paragraph being published in The New Yorker. She even admitted to trying to imagine some of her writings being typed in The New Yorker font. Bank left the program less obsessed with getting that validation.
Even as a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Díaz told the audience, “I would rather read a page than write a page.” He said that his dreams consisted of him in a bookstore and his nightmares — him behind a desk. While he appreciated the opportunity afforded to him by being in the MFA program at Cornell, he was relieved when it was over because he finally would have time to read.
Schumacher told the audience that she always resorted to paper, because through her writing she could portray an “improved self.” In her family, no one said what was on his mind; no one expressed any emotion. Even to this day, she acknowledged having trouble expressing herself in person. Writing for her was a way of being someone she was not able to be in reality.
While the panelists answered the same questions, they oftentimes had different responses. Bank said for her, writing was like smoking or drinking or any other compulsion. She said it was an “incredible feeling of power,” and that writing allowed her to be so much smarter and funnier than she was in person.
Díaz said that his writing stemmed from a love of reading, but it was not something he felt compelled to do. He described his decision to begin writing with a baseball analogy. He said that if someone loved the game of baseball, eventually he would feel the need to take the leap from the stands and onto the field to start playing it himself.
“Eventually you want to get into the fray,” Díaz said.
Prof. Helena Viramontes, creative writing, recommended to her English 2801 class that they attend the discussion panel and the evening reading later that night.
“Valuable exchanges in the panel include inspiration and practical advise. These three writers did not know their future while they were students here at Cornell, but were all committed to writing,” Viramontes stated in an e-mail. “Now flash forward 20 years, and you have all of them highly successful, not only as writers, but as mentors who inspire and continue to inspire. It was a delight to see them returning to their literary home.”
At the reading, all three authors shared their fiction with the captivated audience, members of which laughed intermittently as the dry-humored works were enjoyed with the crowd. After being introduced by Viramontes and Prof. Stephanie Vaughn, English, the writers took the stage. Vaughn said that the three writers’ works can be unified in their exploration of topics like the “lack of misfortune in life,” the “frail nature of family and the emotional need to restructure family,” and the “generosity of spirit that infiltrates fiction.”