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Ruth Ozeki.
When I first sat down on the hard polished wood of a Chapel pew last Thursday evening, I was almost entirely unfamiliar with Ruth Ozeki. Through an earlier Google search, I learned about her impressive work as a novelist; otherwise, I was a blank slate. But by the time I stood up from the pew some 90 minutes later, this was no longer the case. I, like everyone else in attendance at this year’s Tolles Lecture, was treated to rich and engaging comments from a remarkably impressive speaker.

“By describing her wider creative process, she provided us with a sense of how disjointed and unpredictable novel writing tends to be: material is discarded and reworked, pushed aside and revisited, forgotten and recalled — and ultimately presented in a form quite different from its earliest conception.”

Ozeki spoke at length about voices: internal voices, voices from beyond, inanimate voices, inherent voices, voices of mourning and remembrance, voices of insuppressible, burgeoning expression, voices of comfort and terror … the list is lengthy. I suppose this is a logical focus for a writer, but I found Ozeki’s angle particularly refreshing for its unequivocal validation of all the voices one might encounter, regardless of their origins. Framing the world around us as an abundance of voices, both audible and out of reach, Ozeki reaffirmed the potential delights of the mundane, prompting everyone to look around at least once and train an ear to the potential whispers of shoes, pews, or backpacks. 

In the process of contextualizing her most recent novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness, Ozeki located moments of inspiration in her life experiences, demonstrating how writers might retrospectively identify compelling and significant artistic content within the stores of their memories. By describing her wider creative process, she provided us with a sense of how disjointed and unpredictable novel writing tends to be: material is discarded and reworked, pushed aside and revisited, forgotten and recalled — and ultimately presented in a form quite different from its earliest conception. 

 Ruth Ozeki speaks with a student
Ruth Ozeki speaks with students at a reception following the lecture. Photo: Alya MacDonald ’25

The writers in attendance would have taken heart, I think, with the advice Ozeki shared about her own writing and creativity. What I gathered, above all, from these points was the irreducible importance of listening and paying attention, of always being prepared to recognize moments either brimming with significance already, or else budding with the potential to do so. Her lecture focused more on the seeds and impetuses for writing than on the writing itself, an orientation I found both creatively empowering — that is, in its suggestion that anyone can produce meaningful work provided they are attentive enough — and more generally applicable as encouraging a more perceptive mode of living. 

Ruth Ozeki reception
Photo: Alya MacDonald ’25

Events like the Tolles Lecture are, I think, valuable for both writers and non-writers alike. The accomplished artists that visit offer, as Ozeki did, advice that invariably transcends the purview of creative writing alone. In situating and reflecting on their work, they cannot help but share profound and accessible insights — such is the deeply personal character of creation. The high attendance and enthusiasm I witnessed Thursday night indicate that these appealing qualities are not lost on the College community, and I can now only look forward to reading Ozeki’s work for myself. 

The Winton Tolles Lecture Series was established in 1991 by members of the Class of 1951 in memory of Winton Tolles, Class of 1928 and former dean of the College from 1947 to 1972. The Fund provides support to bring to the campus distinguished writers in the fields of literature, journalism and theatre to lecture and meet with students.

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