Deborah Eisenberg 11/04/09: An evening with a genius

Report by Jenny Douglass:

Until this past Wednesday, when I thought of Deborah Eisenberg I pictured the photo on the back of Twilight of the Superheroes: a woman with rigid facial features looking at something unseen by the camera, her expression calm, her demeanor austere, and her thoughts transfixed in the wrinkles of a new story– a person whose intellect and presence would be nothing short of intimidating.

Eisenberg has written four collections of short stories since 1986 and has been the recipient of the Rea Award for the Short Story, a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was recently awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (otherwise known as a “genius grant”).

On Wednesday, Eisenberg read from “Some Other, Better Otto”, which appears in Twilight of the Superheroes (2006), to an audience crowded into the common room of Cudd Hall. Since that evening, when I think of her I think of the richness of her expressions.

As she read from her story, she raised eyebrows into deep, sympathetic angles. The words she spoke were deliberate and full, as though they had taken shape deep within her rather than simply in her mouth. When different characters spoke, her voice took on nuances with such fluidity that it was clear she had become entirely intimate with the complexities of each character. At times, her whole body would be compelled by a character’s mood and tendons would push from her neck in frustration or her shoulders would slouch in disappointment. At the end of her reading, while the audience applauded, she bobbed her head gently up and down and a smile of genuine gratitude spread across her face.

These rich and genuine expressions should come as no surprise from someone who, in the words of the MacArthur Foundation, “continues to produce elegant explorations of the human psyche in tales of increasing complexity, fluency, and moral depth.”

Following her reading, Eisenberg opened the floor to questions, adding,  “I’m willing to answer anything at all.” Many of the questions she was asked centered on her writing process and all of her answers invariably commented on the subconscious, organic nature of writing. When developing characters, she explained that uses no methods. Instead, she said, “I use my eyes and ears, let them say what they have to say, and try not to block them.” And when asked why she writes stories a certain way, Eisenberg smiles, looks up at the ceiling with her hands in the air and says, “I honestly have no idea. It just seemed right.”

In a recent interview, Eisenberg responded to being a genius with “Uh, I’m not”. But what emerged from the questions and answers was the feeling that she in fact has an exceptional ability to acutely perceive and represent the human condition. Yet rather than estrange or intimidate, Eisenberg left the audience full of creative writing students with inspiration from her own life. When asked where she was when she was our [college-student] age, she said bluntly, “Well, I was sort of in the gutter.”

Having not started writing until she was thirty, she remembered feeling “utterly useless” and that “everyone was miles ahead of [her]”. She continued, “If you find [writing fiction] hard going, don’t be frustrated and don’t think necessarily you’re unequipped to do it. It is unbelievably painstaking and takes a lot of patience.” She said she would have given up if she hadn’t been living with a fellow writer, Wallace Shawn, who explained to her, “Everyone writes like a five-legged pig at first.”

This was the first event in our new Writer’s Writer Series. The next is a reading by Edmund White on Monday, February 1st.

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Filed under Creative Writing Fund, Events, Visiting writers

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