How to Win a Pulitzer

Last week, interviewer extraordinaire Terry Gross of WHYY Philadelphia interviewed author Elizabeth Strout, who won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 2009 for her novel Olive Kitteridge, the basis for an HBO miniseries. Her latest work is My Name Is Lucy Barton. You can access both the audio and text versions of the interview here. Elizabeth_Strout_2015

I loved hearing the exchange between Gross and Strout. Both of their voices are strong and soothing, and both use words carefully, clearly, gracefully. Two of Strout’s comments align nicely with the values of this blog, so I share them here.

Reflecting on her miserable 6 months as a lawyer, a career she chose for its security in contrast to that of a struggling writer, she responds to Gross’s comment that her failure might have been a good thing:

“That’s right. That’s right. Because, you know, we like to do things that we’re good at. I mean, it makes us feel better, and I was just absolutely terrible.”

Olive_Kitteridge_posterYes, we like to do things we’re good at. Strout hated being a lawyer because she was bad at it. She loves being a writer because she’s good at it. As teachers, we can’t make all our students good at the subjects we teach. However, we can work to find ways to allow as many students as possible to feel that they are good at some aspect of those subjects. Never underestimate the power of the smallest encouraging word or gesture. Keep thinking of ways to allow as many students as possible to experience success, to own something of value, which is one of our primary pleasures in learning.

Later, Strout offered some great advice on how to make a challenge achievable, another of our primary pleasures in learning. Gross asked how she was able to juggle writing with her jobs as a community college teacher and parent of a young child.

“Right. I had to become very disciplined…But I would sit down – I remember for many years I had a rule. Three hours for three pages. And I write by hand. So I really just meant three pages of notebooks – notebook pages filled. And I was always able to do the three pages.”

So many of our students struggle with time management, as do I. Strout’s rule sounded a lot like Nike’s “Just Do It.” Challenges 15eb8e60-9a9d-0133-f215-0e8e20b91aa1become achievable when we and our students discipline ourselves and commit to the work. It doesn’t sound all that pleasurable, but the results certainly are.

And now I have a new author to add to my “want to read” list.




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