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From Memory to History: Anthony Doerr on writing

As a former journalist, I love facts. As a writer of historical fiction (Tasa’s Song, She Writes Press, May 2016), I get just as excited about historical facts. Like the fact that writing emerged more than 5,000 years ago.

I acquired this, among other insights, last October, when I attended a lecture by Anthony Doerr, Pulitzer Prize winning author of All The Light We Cannot See, a beautifully crafted and compassionate story about World War II. Doerr took the audience on a historical tour of himself as a budding writer, even down to the most granular curiosities that filled his young mind. His accompanying slide presentation frequently provoked audience laughter and delight, whether he showed himself as an awkward six-year-old or exposed us to the microscopic view of an eyebrow. Doerr’s underlying point was that a storyteller reaches for the subjects inherently interesting to him or her. Thus, the writing fact about when this art began.

He later talked about writing and the writing process and I gleaned several jewels here. “Help your reader feel awe through your characters’ thoughts and actions,” rather than telling them something “is awesome.” He discussed how habits melt our ability to see the grandeur of things—miracles like air travel, the speed of light, or the ability of sound waves to travel across long distances. Doerr was, in essence, encouraging us to realize the wonders that exist right in front of us.

To emphasize his point, he quoted Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, who spoke in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech about “the ordinary world” and the “astonishment” of normal life:

“Astonishing” is an epithet concealing a logical trap. We’re astonished, after all, by things that deviate from some well known and universally acknowledged norm, from an obviousness we’ve grown accustomed to. Granted, in daily speech, where we don’t stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like “the ordinary world,” “ordinary life,” “the ordinary course of events.” …But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.

Szmborska was born in 1923, the same year as my parents—one of the worst possible moments to arrive on this planet, particularly in Eastern Europe: As sixteen-year-olds (my mother was also born in Poland), Hitler greeted them with war and Stalin was close behind.

At the close of his masterpiece novel, when Doerr's protagonist, Marie-Laure, has arrived in the present (2014) as an old woman, he writes: “Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world.” So, maybe we write to help us remember. I know that's the reason I wrote Tasa’s Song—to remember the inspirational story of my mother’s childhood. World War II is transitioning, as we speak, from memory to history: soon no one who lived through that war will be with us. All the more reason to compose human stories from the real-life memories that still endure.

Doerr shared that after he finishes a good novel, he realizes “the truth is more complicated than I thought.” He told the audience that fiction can “nudge the world toward goodness.”


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