Visiting Artist: Sarah Vowell

“I like my main characters to be hugely flawed,” acclaimed author and columnist Sarah Vowell told NOCCA Creative Writing students and guest students from Lusher Charter School on a recent visit. “The truth is so rich” she explained as she shared with students the great disconnects she finds all around her, whether in people or events.

A student began the class by asking Sarah how she got into history writing. The story that changed her life was a drive she and her twin sister took retracing the Trail of Tears. One minute they might be stopping at the gravesite of Cherokee Chief who died as a result of the government’s forced relocation of the tribe from North Carolina to Oklahoma; the next listening to Chuck Berry singing about how glad he was “to be livin’ in the USA”. She wondered which country is true?

As she has worked her way through succeeding books – including The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Assassination Vacation, and The Wordy Shipmates – examining contradictions and the improbable remain Vowell’s central themes. For instance, she realized that Todd Lincoln was connected to the first three presidential assassinations. Hawaii’s royal leaders abolished the island’s religion just weeks before New England missionaries turned up. On his return to the United States 50 years after the revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette picked up a child at a parade and put him on his shoulders; that six-year-old was Walt Whitman. “In fiction, this would sound stupid. Good fiction has to be believable. Good non-fiction seems unbelievable but isn’t.”

Her latest book, The Wordy Shipmates, focuses on who she calls “two of the most flawed but interesting people in history,” Roger Williams and John Winthrop, who attempted to build a “city upon a hill” with the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. “The Puritans were usually seen as one-dimensional stereotypes: stupid and judgmental. But they could be brilliant and judgmental. Their writing is jammed packed with knowledge even if it is just a two-page letter,” she told students as she helped them understand what paths a story may take if you are open to all sides.

Besides helping students understand character dimension, she covered outline, writing and editing processes. “Editing requires that you face up to the fact that there will be wasted work. But everything that’s wrong in my first book, I learned from. Embrace your mistakes. Disappointment can lead you to something better. No one told me that when I was your age.”

Helping aspiring writers learn from the experience of professional writers is one of the reasons Sarah Vowell works with students across the country. “But I’m so impressed by this school and the people who go here,” she told the students at the class’ end. “You have a perspective and discipline that puts you way ahead. It will serve you well. NOCCA is one of my favorite public institutions in the country and you are very lucky to have it in your community. I wish I could have gone here.” We are so glad she visits now.

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