Staring out at an assembly of bright-faced Grinnellians, Verlyn Klinkenborg announced: “The way you’ve been taught writing is wrong.” A few people flinched.
“Forget about the rules and the writing myths,” he continued. “All you can do is jump in and start thrashing around.”
He gave the room a reassuring smile: “Don’t worry, you’ll learn what you need to know.”
A nonfiction writer and member of The New York Times editorial board, Klinkenborg was one of seven authors who spoke on campus this semester as part of the English department’s Writers@Grinnell series. This spring, visiting authors used their unique styles to examine a diverse set of themes, engaging with ideas about feminism, race and miscegenation, genocide, and environmentalism.
Introduced as “the nation’s official lightning rod,” U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey explored her own identity as a biracial woman before turning her eye on colonial Casta paintings, depictions that tried to classify mixed-race children. “The boy is a palimpsest of paint — layer of color,” Trethewey read liltingly. “History rendering him that right shade of in-between.”
While Randa Jarrar’s humorous fiction got young writers laughing and Andrew Sean Greer’s fiction brought students into a world hued by magic, The Nation’s Katha Pollitt got Grinnellians thinking, asking in her lecture on feminism, “Have we achieved it? Are men and women equal yet?!”
Environmental activist and writer Rick Bass emphasized words in the service of a message. Walking the trails at Conard Environmental Research Area, Bass discussed the importance of understanding a place for its unique ecology, culture, and beauty — and the extreme importance of maintaining natural landscapes against the human threat.
In her new book about the Cambodian genocide during the Vietnam War, Madeleine Thien also touched upon human destruction. “Where is the self buried?” Thien asked as she investigated the tales of survivors and refugees, focusing on the dynamics of identity. “Is any part of us incorruptible, the absolute center of who we are?”
For young writers, the Writers@Grinnell series is a window into the possible — a moment in which to see what can be done with language, what diverse styles and themes can be explored, what singular characters can be elucidated.
“Almost everyone is afraid of writing,” Klinkenborg told his audience. Afraid to fail, afraid to break the rules, afraid to write the wrong thing. To this, Klinkenborg had only one thing to say: “Don’t be.”