On Nov. 8 at 8 p.m. in the Villard Room, I listened to Jeffrey Eugenides, winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, read selected pieces from his past work such as “Bronze” and an excerpt from “Middlesex” and speak eloquently on the process of writing. I had not previously read any of his novels, which only makes the fact that I found his words truly riveting all the more inspiring.
Invited on behalf of the Alex Krieger ’95 Memorial Lecture series, Eugenides walked into the room and the audience erupted into applause. He sat down in an armchair on the stage, across from Amitava Kumar, Professor of English on the Helen D. Lockwood Chair. This set up, lacking the traditional “stand-up in front of a microphone” concept, allowed for what I thought was an exceptional mood: equal parts comfort and intrigue. I felt as if I was invited into the living room of one of the most distinguished 21st century writers, and that I was also getting a glimpse into the most authentic parts of him.
With apt humor and a smile, Eugenides began the conversation by poking fun at the photo that was advertised to Vassar students regarding his visit. This was not the only time he displayed humor to the group; several times throughout the next 90 minutes he laughed at not remembering writing certain pieces he went on to read. He also indulged the audience in a story about naming a character after a woman he once had a crush on.
He then introduced listeners to two metaphors that I found extremely novel. The first involved a nuclear submarine, as Eugeneides claimed, “A novelist is like a nuclear submarine.” Referring to the way a submarine innately functions, popping up and down every so often with long gaps of invisibility, Eugenides illustrated the ways he feels being a novelist has affected his life. He expanded this metaphor by saying that when he pokes up too soon as a novelist, he often gets detected too early. I had never thought of the fragility inherent in being a novelist, and this metaphor seemed to interest my friends as much as me, as it was one of the first things we talked about afterwards. Next, he employed a simile to explain what his biggest advice to young writers would be: “Write as if you were writing a letter to your smartest friend.” As someone who has had the privilege of hearing many authors and poets give advice, I was particularly in awe of how helpful and tangible this string of guidance felt. Writing a letter is intrinsic in expressing vulnerabilities, while writing to a smart friend conveys a sense of thoughtfulness that must be present in writing.
With the evening coming to a close, one of the most important messages Eugenides brought with him was in response to a student’s question. When asked how much he writes about his own life, he went on to say that he writes directly from the way he felt about things rather than what actually happened. Emotion is the crux of writing, and he spoke of how he often tries to translate real past emotions into the fictive elements of his characters’ lives.
As I exited Main that night, presumably alongside a room full of other prose lovers, I felt a sense of sincerity and awe that I hadn’t in a long time. It can be easy to view the writing process as something inherently tricky and ever-perplexing, but hearing Eugenides speak flooded the room with what I could only begin to describe as writer’s hope. I immediately went back to Davi, carrying a copy of his 1993 novel “The Virgin Suicides,” and began writing.