Earlier today, I had the chance to see the author of one my favorite novels—I Know This Much is True—at the annual Campus Reads lecture sponsored by Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island.
I was sitting a little too close to the stage, and my neck was already cramping a little as the first two speakers introduced themselves as a professor and as a first-year culinary arts student. My glasses were constantly slipping down my face as I waited for him to appear.
He struck an unimposing figure as he finally strode to the podium. Short, balding, wearing what appears to be tweed (as befitting a long-time high-school English teacher), sporting a very genuine and beneficent smile.
Who is Wally Lamb? Who is Wally Lamb indeed?
Having led a relatively normal life (according to him) and having started his successful fiction-writing career as a middle-aged man (well past the prime of youthful creativity and vigor), Lamb appeared as an unlikely seer into the disturbing aspects of life that often plagued his various damaged characters. But, as a high-school teacher and as a writing workshop leader at a maximum-security women’s prison, perhaps he did have the exposure to the extreme emotions that make for great fiction and that illuminate the dark corners of human existence.
To him, fiction was an avenue to try on other selves and other lives. Fiction was Lamb’s way to understand the “un-me”, the “other”. He said, “I am the “other”, the “other” is I.”
He told us that his novels and stories were born out of the Greek and Roman myths he had loved reading as an adolescent. In many ways, he himself was living a myth through his own books, writing about larger-than-life characters in seemingly impossible situations.
But the myth inherent in his writing can be translated to reality. Lamb offered five of his fundamental approaches to living Life.
1) In both writing and Life, our individual voice is crucial, shaped by each of our unique experiences. Authenticity is strength.
2) Life should be driven by character, which is how one behaves without fear of outside judgment.
3) Learn to love revision, and don’t be afraid of change.
4) Expect surprises despite the most detailed outline.
5) Don’t underestimate comic relief. It’s no laughing matter that laughter matters.