An important question has stuck with me throughout Anne Greene’s “Distinguished Writers/New Voices” course: What do you actually say to writers you admire when they come to speak? Anne Greene requires her students to attend the Russell House lecture series as well as smaller Q&A sessions with visiting writers in the afternoons. In most instances, we read a piece by the visiting author. At Russell House, the writer reads to a large audience; though I rarely, if ever, raise my hand during the Q&A that follows, others always do. However, I find myself struggling with what to do when the writer comes to our writing class, and it’s up to us to keep the dialogue going. In this smaller group, I have the unique opportunity to personally engage with the writer and ask the questions I am most interested in. I just need to think of a question…
Professor Greene always lets us know when a specific author is coming, which helps me prepare for the class’s Q&A. When reading an author’s book for the first time, I find that marking interesting passages or actively considering what I want to learn more about proves incredibly helpful in preparation for the Q&A. It helps to have marks in my book, something to refer back to, when the author is waiting patiently at the front of the room for hands to raise. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any inscriptions or questions prepared for Dinaw Mengestu when he came to speak to our class. We had just finished reading The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, a beautiful and complex work that I thoroughly enjoyed. Yet, despite the class’s obvious interest in Mengestu during our class discussion the day before, everyone was surprisingly shy at the Q&A.
Having the explicit attention of an author is an incredible experience with the potential for true insight into and reflection on your own writing. However, if the class remains shy, then the author is unable to share any of his or her experiences. This is why having a few general questions up your sleeve can be very helpful. Consider what interests you most about writing in general. In my case, I am always interested to hear about an individual writer’s editing process. If you can’t isolate a specific aspect of writing that interests you, or even begin to decide what interests you, here are some other handy questions that apply in almost all situations and tend to garner stimulating responses:
Which authors heavily influenced you?
Describe your typical day of writing.
What do you fear the most in regards to your writing?
How do you create your characters?
What got you interested in writing?
How do you pick your subjects?
I find that thinking beforehand about what most distinguishes the voice of a specific author can help tailor these simple questions. In regards to Mengestu, I am fascinated by the tone of his work and the way he describes his characters. Thus, I asked a question about the detached style of his novel and why he chose this strategy. Mengestu explained that he felt this strategy enabled him to express emotion with more subtlety.
The most important point to keep in mind is that visiting authors want to talk with you. There are no stupid questions. They are willing to talk about everything and anything in regards to with their work, their process, and their own life stories. They’re just waiting for you to ask. So next time you’re in a big auditorium—or a small classroom—and no one is asking anything, remember that the author on stage waiting in silence feels just as uncomfortable as you do. The Q&A’s that follow readings offer a rare opportunity to talk with an individual in detail about his or her creative process, which is otherwise a very solitary pursuit. Use this opportunity to learn and reflect on your own work—put the poor writer to ease and ask a question!
-By Grace Ross ’12