Writer Claire Messud delivers William Gifford Lecture

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On the evening of Nov. 2, novelist and essay writer Claire Messud delivered the 2021 William Gifford Lecture in Sander’s Spitzer’s Auditorium. Messud’s novels include “The Emperor’s Children,” a New York Times Best Book of the Year in 2006; “The Woman Upstairs” (2013); and “The Burning Girl” (2017), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in fiction. 

This was Messud’s first in-person event since the pandemic started. She read from the title essay of her most recent book, “Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write.” After the reading, Professor of English Heesok Chang commented that he had, “[N]ever followed someone so clearly who read so fast.” He said that because of the way Messud wrote and how she delivered the essay: like a carefully constructed monologue, deep in the gears of the narrator’s private literary evocations, a long glass of frozen childhood memories and strawberry love evoked through writing. 

For instance, she read, “When my mother, in old age, began to lose her memory and her lucidity, she sometimes spoke in poetry … I asked her what she was thinking. With a wry and wistful smile, she answered, ‘Shards of memory, and new worlds discovered.” Messud continued, “This beautiful postcard from across the abyss, from the incommunicable private island of her later experience, stays with me in each day. What is our hope for the experience of literature, if not to share this?”

A member of the audience asked Messud what it was like to see her mother fade away. She answered, “The lessons from that time in my life are wonderful. Hard, but wonderful.” Everything Messud thought that made her mother herself, her memory and wit, may have faded, but her spirit remained the same, and that was most important. “People say stories with happy endings are fake,” she said, “But I don’t think that’s true. There are worse things than death.”

The musicality of Messud’s reading felt like a happy note in a grievous song that is the demise of someone you love. A lesson on how to never surrender to loss and instead have the courage to enjoy what you still have. It brought to mind Louise Glück’s famous line from “Averno” (2006), “Death cannot harm me/ more than you have harmed me,/ my beloved life.” As Messud read aloud, “Each of us is constructed, like a magpie’s nest, from there as much as from our childhood experiences and our temperament and our loves and losses.” The hardest parts of our lives can feel like we are grasping at clouds, but Messud reminds us that writing can mean control, or at least what gives us the strength to live on with our wounds. There is something to say about getting older, being 18 or 85 in 2021 and knowing about the emptiness of loss and the craziness of the world outside. Yet we still cruise along, feeling lucky and not yet entirely alone, measuring our fragmented lives through writing, enjoying the mysteries of art.

In the Q&A portion of the talk, the theme of resilience continued. Messud read from a novella of hers that, 20 years ago, a publisher rejected because there wasn’t enough plot, she explained. Now, it’s sold in Australia and all of the proceeds support wildlife rescue. When asked how she dealt with this rejection and then summoned the nerve to publish her novella anyways, she said something that resonated with many student-writers in the room: Sometimes getting negative feedback on an aspect of work is precisely what gives you the clarity of vision to love what you’ve created. Sometimes, you don’t know your own opinion until someone else disagrees with you. Learning and maturing as a writer is about rewriting and taking notes from others, but it is also about learning to trust yourself. “For example,” Messud remarked, “If Dostoevsky submitted ‘Notes from Underground’ to a workshop, some of that feedback would say it’s a disaster.” 

At one point, a student asked Messud how she creates dialogue, and she likened it to drawing hands—a task that calls for focus and deliberation, but requires the end product to be lifelike. The lecture struck a chord with the audience, the process of writing sped up then slowed down—showing us how dynamic and dramatic it all really is. Kathleen Brawley ’25 told me she liked Messud’s emphasis on individuality and that what she said about her mother made her tear up. Laura Darling ’24 told me her favorite part was the Q&A at the end, saying:  “I thought the ending, when she talked about learning to trust yourself, learning when to take people’s feedback and when not was really helpful to hear…and I’m sure everyone can be like ‘I’m excited to get to the point, as a writer, when I can trust myself.” Professor of English Tracy O’Neill agreed with this sentiment. She told me, “[T]he most useful takeaway for a young writer would be hearing about Messud’s criticism and her resolution to resell it.” Chair of the English Department Wendy Graham added, “And for the wombats 20 years later!”

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