Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Tom Chiarella

There's been a steady stream of writers at Butler recently. Tom Chiarella held an intimate talk with us MFA's a few weeks ago. Chiarella's penned a few books but is probably most famous for his magazine writing: Esquire, The New Yorker, O: The Oprah Magazine and more. He's done a lot of golf writing, and was sited by Sports as "the best golf writer you never heard of."
Chiarella's talk was titled something like "MFA Stands for Mother F@cking Artist," which provocative enough to pull me out of my house on a Wednesday night in February. Chiarella's funny, honest, forthright, stream of consciousness speaking took us on a wild ride, as he recounted the path he took to become a writer, and the role of MFA programs in the newly upturned writing world. There was the gem of a story about how Anne Beattie advised him to submit to The New Yorker. He did, although it took him 23 tries to get a piece accepted there. And how Margaret Atwood put down all writing efforts but fiction. Still, Chiarella continued writing essays and publishing in magazines.
Chiarella, nothing if not earnest, ended with a semi-question, wondering out loud if his words gave us something of value. The message I walked away with was that today's writing world blurs boundaries and genres and eschews labels. And that if one wants to have his or her work read, and have others respond to it -- which was what Chiarella decided he wanted many years ago -- one must be dogged, be prepared to struggle, persevere and do whatever it takes.
There's something to be learned by anyone willing to share their own experiences. Tom's talk could be summed up as "write what you love, get your work out in the world any way you can, and never give up," and that's a valuable lesson, if ever there was one. But I'd never want to condense Tom's talk to those few points. The sweet and hilarious journey that Tom took us on to get to this advise stays with me still.

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