Editor’s note: The Writer’s Workshop series was founded by celebrated authors and Williston parents Madeleine Blais P’00, ’04 and Elinor Lipman P’00 in 1998 as an advanced class for aspiring student writers. As part of the course, which focuses on intense writing and literary criticism, four well-established writers visit campus to give public lectures and offer hands-on instruction with students. The following is the into Ms. Blais gave for author George Colt before his talk on Oct. 7.
It is an honor to welcome the second writer in the 17th year of our Writer’s Workshop Series here at Williston. As many of you know this series was first dreamed up by a fellow writer parent, novelist at Elinor Lipman, and myself. We wanted to do something special for the school and for the students at Williston, but we wanted it to relate to what we love doing in our own lives, writing and supporting other writers. Now this does not mean we didn’t engage in the usual parent volunteer work—how I remember my days as donut mom at the hockey rink—but this idea seemed a better reflection of some aspect of ourselves. When we made the proposal to Denny Griggs, a lovely man at the end of his directorship of the school, he was 100 percent supportive from the get-go, most importantly acceding to our most brazen request that an academic course accompany this series, a workshop for young writers.
As far as I know this is the only course of its kind taught at any independent school in the nation. Plenty of schools teach writing and plenty of schools host guest authors from time to time, but it is rare indeed to build a writing course around a public talk by a visiting writer followed by a visit to the classroom so students who have read his or her work can have a spirited exchange.
Tonight’s author, George Colt, is yet another luminary in our all-star lineup.
He is the author of three books, November of the Soul, The Big House, and Brothers.
An amazing book on a difficult subject, depression and suicide, November of the Soul (the phrase comes from Melville) received great reviews. From the Boston Globe:
“Imagine a book about a forbidden subject at once so matter-of-fact and thorough that it could be the perfect catalo and as sure-footed and moving as a good novel. This is what George Colt has given us.”
His second book, The Big House, was a National Book Award finalist for nonfiction in 2003, as well as a New York Times Notable Book.
“Oh, if only these walls could talk,” guests in the Big House often say. I’ve always felt walls do talk, and the sound they make is sometimes a wail, sometimes a sigh, sometimes a joyous hullabaloo. The wind seems to come not from the outside but from the inside. To me it is the house’s song, a blend of the voices of all the people who have lived here over the last hundred years. Now that we are selling the house, the voices sound more urgent than ever, trying to make themselves heard. As I lie here, Anne sleeping beside me, Susannah in Grandma’s Dressing Room, Henry in the Little Nursery, I wonder: When the house is sold, what will happen to the wind?”
Two years ago, I had the chance to give his third book a rave review in the Chicago Tribune.
“On the subject of one’s brother, one does not equivocate,” and I remember admiring the gruff authority of the sentiment, thinking “How true!” as we used to write in the margins of books back in college.
But as time has gone on, and certainly after reading Brothers, George Colt’s most recent work of nonfiction, the ironclad simplicity of such a statement seems not just reductive, but delusional. If the relationship between brothers is so simple, how did it get to be, after creation and the fall, plot #3 in the Bible? And more germane to this review, how was it that Colt was able to mine the topic to the tune of four hundred and forty eight mesmerizing pages?
Brothers is both a celebration of enduring bond between brothers and a dissection of how powerful, even disabling it can be. He has followed his usual strategy of identifying a big subject (suicide in November of the Soul and the lure of private property in The Big House) and then approaching the topic from an almost dizzying range of perspectives, alternating personal reflection with exhaustive research.
The book won first place the Massachusetts Book Award for excellence in nonfiction.
Tonight, George Colt will talk about what it was like for him as a high school writer (wanting to be a famous poet and wanting to affect a poet’s persona but not as much wanting to write the actual poetry) and how he almost accidentally got into writing non fiction, and how, gradually, he became someone who loved to write–and only then became a real writer. Along the way he says he is likely touch on role models, ethical questions in memoir, how he choose his subjects, and other related and semi-related topics. If we are are lucky, we may even learn how he met his wife who is also part of this year’s series, Anne Fadiman, who will be speaking to you later this semester.
Not, just one of my favorite writers, but also one of my favorite people, George Colt.