An evening with Colson Whitehead

Learn how a Pulitzer Prize winner does it

Growing up, Colson Whitehead spent hours alone in his room reading comic books and sci-fi novels. ‘I was practically a shut-in,’ he said, and would have loved to be ‘a sickly child’ with an excuse to stay indoors. When he was around 10 or 11 he decided being a writer sounded like a pretty good gig—‘you didn’t have to wear clothes or talk to people and could spend all day making stuff up’. It turned out pretty well for Whitehead but only after years of hard work and rejection.

Our master class studied his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad and were grateful to the John Adams Institute for bringing him to Amsterdam this December. We’ve pulled together some of our key takeaways from that evening here.

  • Give yourself a chance to learn how to write – According to Whitehead his first efforts were pretty awful. ‘Write a crappy story and then the next one will be better,’ he said when asked ‘How do you become a great writer?’
  • Write what scares you, but find a way to make it fun – The material for The Underground Railroad is pretty much as dark as it gets: slavery and all the evils that go with it. Whitehead figured out several ways to make the novel more enjoyable, or at least bearable, for himself as a writer and for his readers:
    • using magic realism – turning the metaphor of the Underground Railroad, the network of people who helped slaves escape, into a literal underground railroad, like a subway, was the key that unlocked the novel for him;
    • creating a main character who was quite different than himself, which gave him some emotional distance from the story (he had originally started out with a male character before ‘finding’ Cora); and
    • finding a good model – from Gulliver’s Travels, Whitehead borrowed the idea of dividing the book into a series of new worlds (the different US states), each with its own set of rules, that characters could explore and would have to learn to negotiate.
  • Learn how to deal with rejection – When Whitehead sent his first stories in to apply for creative writing classes, he was turned down each time. But he kept on writing. His first novel accumulated so many rejection slips he began considering other career paths—pianist, hand model, surgeon. In the end, he stayed the course. ‘It didn’t matter if no one liked what I was doing, I had no choice so I got back to work and it got better.’
1 January 2018

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