Tonight, award-winning writer Jesmyn Ward, visiting Seattle from Mississippi, is speaking at Benaroya Hall downtown. Local students and teachers got the chance to hear from her this morning at Chief Sealth International High School. The report is courtesy of Sealth faculty member Katie Hubert, who also shared the student-made photograph above:
Jesmyn Ward, two-time National Book Award winner, fielded questions from an assembled group of about 150 students and their teachers.
Ward, a first-generation college graduate, spoke of her youthful self’s academic drive and the encouragement she received from her parents. They wanted her to study “practical subjects” as an undergrad, but, “I didn’t feel the love, you know, when I was studying other subjects. And so, even though I thought I was disappointing my parents, I decided I would study what I love. That’s why I majored in English.”
She said her intention following graduation was to take a couple of years off, then, “take the LSAT, and do something smart with my life.” But life had other plans. “Six months after I graduated from college, my brother died. He was 19 years old, and he was coming home from work, and he was hit from behind by a drunk driver.”
“It was at that moment that everything changed for me. All these concerns I had about what people expected of me because I’d gone to college, all of a sudden those things didn’t matter any more.” She realized she didn’t have “infinite time.”
“Anyhow, I asked myself, if you die tomorrow, or next week, what did you do with your life that would give it meaning, and the immediate response was, writing. I want to write stories.”
She answered questions from students ranging from her favorite authors (James Baldwin and William Faulkner), books she found influential (As I Lay Dying and Their Eyes Were Watching God), and whether her life or formal education were more influential. (Her formal education.) She described her writing process (she doesn’t use an outline), how to combat writer’s block (do an exercise such as having two characters meet at a coffee shop), and how to end a chapter (make sure there’s tension).
Ward won her first National Book Award in 2011 for her second novel “Salvage the Bones,” and her second one in 2017 for “Sing, Unburied, Sing”; she is the first woman to win two NBAs for fiction. She also received a MacArthur “Genius Grant” last year.