I didn’t mean to start taking notes at the April 8 HomeWord Bound event, but as Lauren Kessler, one of the featured authors, started talking about the writing life, I couldn’t help myself. My notebook slid out of my purse, a pen flew into my hand, and my dessert plate disappeared just as she was displaying what she wears to work–a pair of fabulous striped flannel pants.
Kessler’s an Oregon writer, author of My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, A Daughter, A Journey Through the Thicket of Adolescence. She and her daughter Lizzie blog jointly here. Kessler’s other published books include Dancing With Rose (titled Finding Life in the Land of Alzheimer’s in paperback), Stubborn Twig, Clever Girl and The Happy Bottom Riding Club, among others. Her journalism work has appeared in many top-tier national magazines. She’s also the editor of Etude, a literary nonfiction magazine at the University of Oregon.
Kessler started off her speech by listing components of the fantasy writing life that non-writers, or those hopeful about publishing their own work someday, imagine:
* Exotic travel
* Fawning editors who wine and dine you
* Literary parties in prewar apartments on the Upper West Side
* Guest spots on national TV (hopefully leading to hobnobbing with Antonio Banderas)
* A National Book Award call
* A Facebook fan page you don’t create yourself
* Fat royalty checks
Then Kessler, in equally good humor, debunked those mythic imaginings and talked about her own experiences as a narrative nonfiction writer. The “exotic travel” she took for My Teenage Werewolf research, for instance, included the 5-minute commute to a public middle school to study tween and teen culture, the mall, and Campfire Girls camp.
Although she hasn’t gotten a National Book Award call, she talked about the joy of being contacted by the Oregon Library Association when that group chose Stubbon Twig (an Oregon Book Award winner) for the state to read in 2009 as part of Oregon’s sesquicentennial events.
Kessler followed her pithy observations with a definition of narrative nonfiction. She explained it’s storytelling with characters, plot, a narrative arc and dialogue. Addressing how the form’s reputation has been tarnished in recent years, she emphasized that her work is about “real people who said the things I said they said.”
One of her favorite questions, Kessler said, is when people ask why she writes.
“I write because I’m intensely curious about everything,” she explained. “Writing funds that curiosity and gives legitimacy to my nosiness.”
Isn’t that a spot-on definition of why so many of us write? Even fiction writers are driven, at least in part, by curiosity and the “what-ifs” floating around in our brains.
Kessler concluded her presentation by addressing her desire to learn about subcultures and to give them a voice by writing about them. That’s why, she said, she spent 18 months in the back of middle school classrooms, at the mall and learning to play Halo for My Teenage Werewolf. In the past decade, Kessler has written about exotic plant smugglers, assisted suicide, a whorehouse and shooting wild turkeys, among other fascinating topics.
“I want–and I need–to learn about these worlds,” she said, “and I need readers to see what I see and learn what I learned.”
A great mission statement, isn’t that? Now that I’ve heard her speak, I’m looking forward to getting to know Kessler’s work, one book at a time. To read more about her take on the craft of writing, go check out her essays.