My wife and I went to the National Book Festival on the National Mall on Saturday. This being the sixth such festival since I arrived in D.C., I have to wonder why it never occurred to me to go in previous years. As I writer, I found it an inspiring experience and one that reminded me once again why I write.
It's too easy to get lost, sometimes, in the minutia of queries and agents and e-readers and whatnot. I can't argue that sort of stuff isn't important - vital, I suppose - if you want to actually get published rather than write a bunch of manuscripts that sit on your hard drive. But ultimately - for me, at least - writing is about questions, themes, and ideas (if it wasn't ultimately about these, I wouldn't be inspired to write), and this reminded me of that.
Of course, all of literature is represented at the Book Festival, so even if you don't feel as heavy about it as the Lt., there's plenty to see and hear. (You can see the full listing here.)
The first thing my wife and I did was to go hear the "bad boy of contemporary American literature," Jonathan Franzen, speak. Despite his standoffishness, he was witty and sharp, has keen insights (one might even say he is disarmingly insightful, an aspect of his work that not everyone considers an asset) and clearly has thought a lot about things. His main message was that a writer needs to work hard, to dig deep, to push the boundaries further and further all the time. (All of the talks, from this year and recent years, are or will soon be archived on the Library of Congress website.)
He answered audience questions and then gamely signed books for nearly an hour and a half, dispatching the line with ruthless efficiency (though people were still waiting when he finally had enough and stopped signing, personally I'd thought he'd been very giving). As we got close to him in the line, Jonathan Safran Foer (whose books I haven't read, and whose own signing line that afternoon would rival Franzen's) came by to say hello, which I thought was pretty cool.
Next we saw Orhan Pamuk speak. I'd read Snow and so figured I'd done my due diligence with this Nobel Prize-winning author from Turkey, but his hour-long Q&A inspired me to read more work by him. In particular, I was struck by his answers to political questions. He drew a contrast between himself and true political dissident writers...and part of his reason for doing so (besides being honest), I think, was because that is not where his true artistic interests lie. Certainly he eschews simple, single-layered explanations and answers. With writing itself, he stressed how much of it is simple patience, persistence, and workmanship, as opposed to inspiration and "genius".
After Pamuk, we went to try to get a book signed by Allegra Goodman. There was a bit of confusion, as she wasn't there, and the best story we got from Festival staff was that she wasn't signing because it was the Jewish Sabbath (a problem one would think they might have foreseen in advance). We weren't sure if she'd be speaking as scheduled, or was even at the event. Luckily, she was indeed there, and we got to hear her speak.
Goodman was dynamic and effervescent, speaking about her current work and also about her process. Once again I got the strong sense of a writer driven by questions. For example, she talked about wanting to know what drives the lust for objects that so many collectors evince (a question that strikes fairly close to home for me, given certain of my family members, but one I never would have articulated so clearly).
We ended the day by listening to Harold Varmus, a Nobel Prize-winning cancer researcher who also has run the National Institutes of Health. I was impressed by his humility and his broad-mindedness. His book, which is sort of a mish-mash of his experiences (I mean that in a good way) that grew out of a lecture series he gave, is all about building bridges between disparate disciplines and professional cultures. For example, not only is he a scientist who moved into the policy arena, but he was also an student of literature before going into biomedical science, and C.P. Snow's "two cultures" plays in his work.
Honestly, I felt hyper-stimulated by all this. But it really also served to remind me of what is important. I said to my wife after we got home that when I was 16 I wanted to be a writer, and despite all the intervening years and my idiosyncratic career pursuits during that time, that is still what I want. I wasn't just reminding her of what she already knows; I was reminding myself.
I leave you with a line from Orhan Pamuk's Nobel speech: "A writer talks of things that everyone knows but does not know they know."