Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Distilled Brilliance

This is DePauw University's 175th anniversary year, and one of our most distinguished alumni, children's book author Richard Peck, was on campus today to attend a poetry reading given by Prof. Joe Heithaus, who currently holds the Richard Peck chair in creative writing and who has just published an exquisite collection called Poison Sonnets. I was lucky enough to hear Richard Peck's guest lecture in Prof. Martha Rainbolt's children's literature class (this is the class I'm going to have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to teach this coming fall) and then to be part of the small group who joined him for lunch.

For readers of this blog who are not children's literature people, Richard Peck is the Newbery Award-winning author of A Year Down Yonder, as well as many other critically acclaimed and best-selling works; he's also a legendary speaker. As he spoke today, I wrote down almost every sentence as fast as I could.

He is given to extremely authoritative pronouncements, which I always adore in a speaker. I might agree, I might disagree, but at least I'm given something to think about. Richard Peck is also extremely funny. But it's his most brilliant authoritative pronouncements I'm going to share here:

As a writer, "You have to be all your characters. None of them should ever be you."
"A story is a biography of the person the reader would like to be."
"Nobody but a reader ever became a writer."
All of his novels are stories of journeys: "things you could not learn by staying home."
"There is no grade inflation in novels. Characters get only what they deserve."
"You always learn the most from the experiences you would have avoided if you could."
He writes on an electric typewriter, not on a computer, because "I never lost a young reader to an electric typewriter."
On how he does research: "Every book begins in the library in the hope that it will end up there."
If you do historical research, don't read history books, but read periodicals of the time, written "by people who don't know what will happen next."
"A novel is always about someone who cannot go back so must go forward."
His question is never "How long does it have to be?" but "How short can I make it?"

I love this kind of pithy wisdom! The truest thing on this list is "You always learn the most from the experiences you would have avoided if you could." The falsest thing he said I didn't even put on this list, that the greatest novel of the second half of the twentieth century is Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War (which I hate!). The most intriguing thing he said (for me): "A novel is always about someone who cannot go back, so must go forward." I don't know if that is true, but I think it is a helpful way to think about a book as one works on it: have I placed my character in this kind of a situation? would it be helpful if I did?

Richard Peck is also an extremely generous man. I'm little (as an author), and he's big, but he treated me like a peer. He spent most of our lunch conversation wanting to hear from the students at the table about their time at DePauw - their lives, their stories.

Now I have to ponder more on his pronouncements. Have some of my characters been too much "me"? Would all of my pages be improved by cutting twenty words out of each one? (I keep remembering more things I didn't even have time to write down!) Is writing "sitting in an empty room trying to make a blank page speak"?

No comments:

Post a Comment