Award winning fiction writer Alice McDermott greeted the freshman class at Fordham College at Lincoln Center with a simple message on Aug. 27:
Have a plan for your life ready, but be prepared to ditch it if you have to.
McDermott, the Richard A. Macksey Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University, spoke at the Lincoln Center campus about her novel Charming Billy (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1997), which was required summer reading for Lincoln Center’s incoming Class of 2017.
Many of the same lessons that helped her craft Charming Billy, which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1998, are applicable to life in general.
“You’ve heard, I’m sure, all your life, ‘You do this, you take these AP courses, you study this, and then you do this, you do that, and you have your path well defined,’” she said.
“Understand, too, that life is a creative act from beginning to end, and that allowing the unexpected—having the courage to walk on air against your better judgments—and pursuing something that you didn’t plan to pursue but is calling you…these are the things creative artists deal with.”
McDermott, whose son is a junior at Fordham, counseled students not to become discouraged when writer’s block sets in.
Creative writing is like an incantation, and just as you learn language through the community around you, your voice comes through in writing. One’s language, she noted, is as marked as one’s fingerprint.
“The moments in the composition of the book where you don’t know where you’re going, don’t know where your own words are going to take you, don’t know where your story is, and you’re not even sure what the next scene or sentence is, those are the best moments in the creative process,” she said.
“They’re scary as hell, you’re very difficult to live with, and you look depressed, but actually it’s the most thrilling part, because that’s where discovery is.”
The process of writing Charming Billy was a challenge, she said, because she wanted to bring to life a person who was not a stereotype per se, but who is the reason there is a stereotype—of a loveable, caring, romantic, expansive, generous, alcoholic who’s drinking himself to death.
“The more I wrote, the more I realized an individual like this can live his life and survive not because of any wherewithal he has, but because of the community who loves him,” she said.
Ultimately, the one thing that makes fiction writing unique is language. Interesting stories, be they bizarre, tragic, or happy, can be found by the bucket every day via the news, she said.
“Its not just the story; it’s the things that go on within the sentence as well,” she said.
“It’s the way the language puts things together and describes things, and makes you see things. Not the way a journalist says, ‘This is the what it looks like out on 60th street,’ but [the way]you see something that you thought looked like this, but, when you hear it, you see something different.”