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Chabon Stresses Importance of Writer's Beginnings, Creative Process in Tolles Lecture


Hamilton welcomed Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, for the Winton Tolles lecture. In addition to Kavalier and Clay, Chabon is also the author of numerous novels, as well as two collections of short stories, A Model World and Other Stories and Werewolves In Their Youth. Chabon’s presentation at Hamilton was a reading with commentary, touching on a number of his works, as well as the broader topics of the creative process and the importance of a writer’s beginnings.

The concept of beginnings was central to Chabon’s message. “I’m thinking about the whole idea of beginnings, not only about how your story began, but about how you begin your stories,” he opened, continuing on to fondly remember his own youth in Columbia, Maryland. “It’s where I grew up, and it’s where I became a writer.” When Chabon’s family moved to Columbia, the town had just begun its construction and was undergoing constant expansion. This proved to be a formative environment for Chabon, who recalled “...to play in the half built houses, to ride your bike to the interzone between the real city and the city that only existed on paper... it was like growing up in a novel as it was being written.”

Chabon recalled being approached by The Washington Post to write a short story about summertime in Maryland. Having moved away after high school, he naturally decided to set the story during the period in which he had resided in Columbia, but was unsure of how to approach the writing itself. Then, he said, he made a mistake “which I’ve made a thousand times before and will make a thousand times again: I grabbed at a random memory, opened a file, and began to write.” The problem, however, and one which Chabon insisted upon the relevance of to tomorrow’s writers, was that memories are not stories, that stories are defined by the reasons behind them, by cause and effect. Despite this error, Chabon found success after visiting upon several memories from his childhood, remarking “You know, I sat down and started writing, and lo-and-behold there was a story there, and I was telling it.”

That sentiment was repeated after the lecture was opened up to questions, with one student asking how best to achieve fully fleshed-out characters as Chabon does. Chabon’s answer was that the only way to become fully immersed in one’s text is just to sit down and write every day. However, far from being a prescription for aspiring writers, he warned against diving too deeply at an early age into the actual functions of writing daily, saying “I think that at your … age though, you shouldn’t be writing every day, you should be out, you should be doing things and experiencing things and writing about them later.”

When asked about the balance of “creative genius and financial success,” Chabon quickly quipped “I don’t think you can have too much of either of those things,” before answering, “Take Hollywood, for instance. You go into Hollywood now knowing that commercial success is the only thing that matters. If you go into something where it’s market driven to that extent, you should go in assuming that you should learn as much about it as you can and get as good at it as you can, and worry about your creative vision once you’re good at it.”

However, literary fiction presents a different landscape to Chabon. “...With writing fiction, most of the time your financial success isn't really within your powers to control.” If you have people begging you to be creative, and are financially successful, Chabon argues, then you have a lot for which to be thankful.

By this metric, Michael Chabon is doing exceptionally well for himself. The final question of the night regarded Chabon’s recent writing credit on Mark Ronson’s 2015 album Uptown Special, a top-10 Billboard hit and both a major critical and financial success. Chabon recalled being contacted personally by Ronson, who was recently quoted in a New York Times blog post as saying that “(The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) was the first time I ever cried while reading a book.”

“I always wanted to write lyrics, but I never thought in a million years that anyone would want me to write for them,” Chabon remarked. “You know, I wrote for a band in college, but I couldn’t sing or play an instrument,” he laughed, “I was the expendable one.” Summing up his experience with Ronson, “It’s definitely something that I would like to do again, and hopefully I’ll keep learning and it will be even better next time.”

With eight novels published to date, two collections of short stories, two essay collections and a number of notable contributions to the works of others, Michael Chabon does not appear to be slowing down. One might reasonably wonder how he could push forward to create new content with such an immense volume of work already published, with so many ideas already spent.

In light of such a question it seems only fitting to respond with one of Chabon’s own lines - “Look, there are no new ideas, they have all been done before. But sometimes you know, or at least you hope, that you can take a new spin on something, that you can do it in a way that hasn’t been done,” finishing with his trademark wit, “sometimes you have to look at yourself and say ‘dude, you’re a walking cliché.’”

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