Elinor Lipman: Fiction Writing is Creative Lying

2013_1105_Chattman_Writers' Workshop_Elinor Lipman at podiumSixteen years ago, authors Madeleine Blais P’00, ’04 and Elinor Lipman P’00 combined forces to create the Writers’ Workshop Series, a long-running lecture series that invites fiction and non-fiction writers, playwrights, journalists, and poets to speak to students and to the general public.

On Monday, November 5, Ms. Blais introduced her fellow co-founder by first listing several of the renowned authors that had visited the Williston Northampton School since the series began in 1998: Wally Lamb, Arthur Golden, Anita Shreve, Tracy Kidder, and Nikky Finney, among others.

“There are two things all of these authors have in common,” Ms. Blais said. “They are all performing at the top of their game… And they’re all personal friends of Elinor’s, who she talked into coming to talk to you.”

For her part, Ms. Lipman said the creation of the series was thanks to her co-founder, Ms. Blais.

“She gives me too much credit,” Ms. Lipman said. “Maddy was the one who came up with the Writers’ Workshop Series.”

In a nod to the longevity of the series, Ms. Lipman, author of 10 acclaimed novels, including The View from Penthouse B, Then She Found Me, and The Inn at Lake Devine, offered advice for writers that she had gathered from editors, fellow authors, and from working with writing students.

“Fiction writing is lying,” Ms. Lipman said. “You have to know when to lie, when to depart from real life.”

2013_1105_Chattman_Writers' Workshop_Elinor Lipman with studentsShe also advised writers to “prepare to write badly” so as to not be paralyzed by the first sentences, and that starting something new could often help when it came to revising an existing work. If a writer came to the end of the third chapter of her new novel and found herself at a full stop, that was not an indication of writers’ block, she said.

“It’s not you, it’s the work,” Ms. Lipman said. “Maybe you need to add a character or change the narrator.”

Names were especially important in the writing process. If a character was a babysitter in 1965, she couldn’t be named Gladys or Edna, any more than a high school graduate in 1925 would be named Kimberly. It was not until she changed the main character’s name to “Isabel,” that Ms. Lipman said she found the main character in Isabel’s Bed.

Such close attention to detail had made Ms. Lipman less generous when it came to reading books, she said, adding that she always paid close attention to the storytelling.

“I’m a less patient reader,” she said. “I want to feel that it’s not a book I’m reading, but a life I’m living.”

The final speaker in the 2013 series will be Mary Jo Salter on Monday, November 11 at 7:00 p.m. in the Dodge Room, Reed Campus Center. Ms. Salter was educated at Harvard and Cambridge, and taught at Mount Holyoke College for many years. In addition to her six previous poetry collections, she is the author of a children’s book, The Moon Comes Home, and a co-editor of The Norton Anthology of Poetry. She is the Krieger-Eisenhower Professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore.

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