Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Doerr passes on lessons as Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference keynote
The role of the keynote speaker at the annual Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference can range from Rotary Club toastmaster to Marine Boot Camp drill instructor — “All right, you maggots, get out there and write.” Sometimes it turns into stand-up comedy, like the time Amy Tan read from the Cliff Notes edition of her novel, “The Joy Luck Club”
In a first for the opening talk, last Friday, June 8, at Land’s End Resort, writer Anthony Doerr did a slideshow talk titled “Once is Never: Some Thoughts on the Importance of Artistic Failure in Six Parts.” Doerr didn’t really need the slides, but it added some visual spark to his presentation.
A writer’s experience with failure begins in childhood, and Doerr started with an anecdote about trying to make a Halloween costume at age 7 for a neighborhood contest.
He grew up in a household where his mother made her own peanut butter and grew her own sprouts.
In the Doerr family, one did not wear store-bought costumes.
That would indicate “a certain level of indolence and underachievement and perhaps even an instance of bad parenting,” he said.
So he made his own, a poster board concoction of a knight in shining armor.
“In my mind I was cloaked in armor. I was invincible. I was the Black Knight,” Doerr said.
It rained while he was out trick-or-treating, and when Doerr got to the costume party, “I had little more than a mushy mass of black pulp on my shoulders,” he said.
At the contest, he got a pat on the back for “most original.”
“I had no idea what ‘most original’ meant,” he said. “My mom tried to explain it to me and said, ‘You know, unusual, different, inventive.’ I said my costume was terrible and she said my costume was not terrible. I said it was the worst one by far. She said it was beautiful.”
To show how writers seem obsessed by failure and their fears of inadequacy, Doerr flashed a series of slides with quotes. Similar to high school commencement speakers, Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference keynote presenters tend to pepper their talks with quotes like a fussy waiter who won’t stop turning the grinder over a salad. For example:
Gustave Flaubert: “I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within.”
Dana Spiotta: “For a novel to be successful, there has to be something failed inside it.”
Doerr’s best known work is “All the Light We Cannot See,” which he described as “Two braided narratives, 10 years of work, three trips to Europe, Lord knows how many afternoons of doubt.”
Set in World War II, part of the novel follows a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and her father who flee Paris and take refuge in the Breton Coast town of Saint-Malo.
Doerr spoke of an entire afternoon working on a three-sentence paragraph that shows Marie-Laure and her father at the train station waiting to get out of Paris as the Germans advance. The paragraph has phrases like “suitcases clang,” “a conductor’s whistle blows,” “sweat prickles the top of Marie-Laure’s scalp” and “hundreds of wet umbrellas pressed against the station gates.”
But in 1940s France did suitcases clang? Doerr asked himself. Does sweat prickle on the top of the head? Is “prickle” the right word? Did the station have tiles? Would French conductors have whistles and were they even called conductors? And did it rain that day in Paris?
“Maybe like an idiot I don’t know any of this because let’s face it I’m a donut eating monk head sitting in a basement in Idaho making this stuff up,” Doerr said.
After working on that one paragraph for two hours, Doerr whittled it down to one sentence: “Marie-Laure tries to calm her nerves.”
“I reconciled myself to another professional failure — by my estimate, failure number 45,000,” he said.
To work off his anxiety after that tortured revision, Doerr went to the Boise, Idaho, YMCA to work out.
He saw a woman next to him reading an e-book and snuck a look at the prose: “I gasped for breath … I sit bolt upright. Shocked. Wow,” words written by E.L. James in the erotic mega bestseller, “50 Shades of Gray.”
“I had a miniature existential crisis,” he said. “Why I wonder could E.L. James get away with letting a character ‘gasp for breath’ when she doesn’t need the two words for breath, for when we gasp what we clearly gasp for is breath? The answers, it turns out, have everything to do with my mother and that suit of armor I wore home in the rain.”
To illustrate how a skilled reader doesn’t read every single letter and actually might miss a few, Doerr enlisted the help of Homer poet Erin Coughlin Hollowell. He had her read a paragraph where the letters in the middle of words had been garbled. She figured it out. Why can she do that? Doerr asked.
“She doesn’t need to parse the individual letters in the word,” he said. “This is how our brains work. Often we see things and assume they are they way they are without taking the time to necessarily look at them.”
That also works for words like “of.” Doerr showed a slide with a paragraph and asked people to count the f’s. Most everyone missed the “f” in three uses of “of.”
“The eye glides and the brain makes the assumptions,” he said. “Clichés we see so often become familiar to us like the pairings of the letters ‘o’ and ‘f.’”
Writers use clichés because “we’re afraid of becoming obtuse,” he said, “… We’re afraid to fail. We don’t have time or the skill to invent new grammar, so we use the grammar people who have gone before us use.”
The writers who bust up grammar sometimes don’t do so well, Doerr said, like James Joyce. His collection, “Dubliners,” got rejected 22 times, and when it was first published, sold 370 copies, 120 to Joyce.
“Unfortunately there are very few commiserative moms in charge of the literary marketplace ready to hand out prizes for ‘most original,’” he said. “Most of the books that are truly original, that try to invent a new kind of grammar entirely, hover at the edge of culture for years before they’re either championed by someone influential or they vanish.”
Doerr questioned the idea of success and intrinsic yard marks used to measure it, like celebrity and awards and how many people showed up at an inauguration — a bit ironic considering he won the Pulitzer Prize and obscure writers don’t get invited to be keynote speakers.
“Are we setting ourselves up to be our best selves?” he asked. “What if it should be desirable to make the stuff you want to make? … Not to make it when you’re sure your first few attempts will be lousy, but just to make stuff for making it, for the sake of the work itself?”
Writers should have fun and play, he said. Maybe they should take “these unreliable things called words … and arrange them in ways that brings you pleasure,” he said
After that costume contest, Doerr said he decided his mother didn’t know what she was talking about.
“For years I thought to be original was to fail,” he said. “Now as a working writer who sits at a keyboard every morning, I have to remind myself every day that it is OK to accept failure, that language is only an arbitrary system of symbols and semblances, that languages live alongside living people.”
In human endeavors there’s a rift “between what we can imagine and what we can execute,” Doerr said. “The important thing is to embrace that breech.”
After 35 years, Doerr said he came to understand the wisdom of his mother.
“The beauty is not in the result but in the attempt,” he said.
In his peroration, Doerr urged the writers at the conference to go forth and write — and maybe fail.
“I hope that this weekend as we listen and learn and laugh and write in this long summer, that we will come away willing to take a black mess of poster board and walk around with it in the rain,” he said.
Reach Michael Armstrong at email@example.com.
A Facebook login using a real name is required for commenting. Respectful and constructive comments are welcomed. Abusers will be blocked and reported to Facebook.