A Visit From Just Another Human

By Lukas Jennings

Photo credit: Gordon M. Grant

There’s something inherently exhilarating about meeting someone famous. They don’t need to be a household name, but as long as a Google search on them yields more than a link to a personal Facebook, you feel a certain sense of pride. This is what I felt when I was asked to attend a Q&A with the novelist Colson Whitehead—that I was cool enough to be in his presence.

It’s hard for me to imagine these people doing everyday human actions or having similar thoughts as us common folk. Before the Q&A, Whitehead asked a friend and me where the restroom was. Just imagine: well-known authors use the restroom, too! That day, however, reminded me that humans are just humans, no matter what a Google search tells you. Still, Colson Whitehead seems to be one rock star of a human.

The Q&A went by swiftly, with some of us twenty or so students asking the author questions about his work, his writing process, or the publishing world, while others sat back and soaked in Whitehead’s unassuming candor. After a semester and a half of listening to my fellow students discuss the biases against “genre fiction” in publishing, it was refreshing to hear an established author’s take on the matter. Whitehead, who has written extensively about the influence of B-movies and science fiction on his own work, told us not to get hung up on what box our writing fits in. He mentioned that One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of the twentieth century’s most respected pieces of writing, and it is considered magical realism, but that genre stems directly from fantasy. “Beloved is about a ghost,” he said. “It’s horror, but no one calls it that because it’s by Toni Morrison.” Whitehead said that genre writing can be a perfect avenue to mirror real-world conflicts, after which I could sense the relief of a handful of writers in the room, validated by his encouragement to write what they want to write.

Having been searching for the gumption to revise my stories for my senior project, I was looking forward to hearing what advice Whitehead could impart on his process of revision—surely a repeatedly-published author would know all the right tricks. It turns out that even sixteen years after his first novel was published, Whitehead still hasn’t mastered the art of revision. He assured us that it becomes easier the more you write, that bad habits become clearer as your skills develop. To drive the point home, he offered an anecdote about a student’s story he’d recently critiqued. It was a typical break-up tale filled with hackneyed dialogue, and he cut two-thirds of it in his editing. Then, a week later, he sent an essay he’d been working on to his editor, who cut two-thirds of that. “It never ends,” Whitehead concluded, showing us that even the most respected authors need time and dedication to perfect their work. When asked what to do when a writer gets stuck, Whitehead simply said to wait—walk around the block, take a shower, or read something you like. It could take one day or six months to pass that block, but Whitehead said he’s never worried about how long it will take him: “I know it’ll get done eventually.”

When Whitehead gave his lecture a few hours later, he embodied a new persona. He clearly had the humor of a writer; you could tell he took time to nurture his jokes and practice their deliveries. Early on in the lecture, he mentioned the song “MacArthur Park” and proceeded to play it into the microphone from his iPad. He stared deadpan into the back of the recital hall, only breaking his stance once to make a trickling motion with his fingers—all the sweet, green icing flowing down.

This was not the direct, down-to-earth Colson Whitehead we had met in the Q&A, and yet it didn’t feel false. As writers, we craft a precise persona and a distinct voice in our work; Whitehead’s performance was no different. Instead of making him look like a phony, the Colson Whitehead presented during the lecture made it clear how genuine he had been with a smaller audience hours earlier. His exaggerated self made him seem more human.

By the end of the day, I could picture Colson Whitehead writing his jokes in room, remarking to himself how clever he was, the way I secretly do when I write sometimes. I could imagine him receiving his essay from his editor, pen marks more prominent than Whitehead’s own words, and feeling the slight sense of defeat before pushing forward, the way I’ve felt after a tiring workshop. As cool as they may seem, writers and artists of any medium have some of the same habits as the rest of us. They feel the same feelings, think the same thoughts, and yes, they use the same restrooms.

The best part about this understanding is the realization that if these humans can make it big, I can too. And when Whitehead concluded his lecture by reading another author’s comedic essay on “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”—my favorite poem, which I have had memorized since eleventh grade, which I once scribed in silver ink on the back of my laptop—I thought that maybe I am cool enough to fit in with him.

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