New Yorker writer shares wisdom on writing, life

Als knew he wanted to be a writer from an early age — when he found it difficult to express himself at dinner, he wrote his thoughts in notebooks.
Als knew he wanted to be a writer from an early age — when he found it difficult to express himself at dinner, he wrote his thoughts in notebooks. Photo by Mariana Lopez-Rosas.

Hilton Als, staff writer and theater critic for The New Yorker, writes what he knows.

Als, the recipient of a 2000 Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing, described his time at The New Yorker, his writing life and his thoughts on the black male experience in a lecture in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Wednesday. In front of an audience of about 40 students, faculty and New Haven and New York City residents, Als read excerpts from his book “Richard Pryor: A Novel,” which explores the life of the African-American stand-up comedian as a comedian, as a critic, and as a black male reacting to what Als portrayed as a white-dominated world during the civil rights movement.

During the talk, Als told Beinecke Library Curator of the Collection of American Literature Louise Bernard that he knew he wanted to be a writer from the age of eight. Coming from a large family of talkative women, Als said he found it difficult to express his opinion at the dinner table, so he wrote his thoughts down in little notebooks after dinner and hid them under his bed.

Those thoughts later provided material for Als’ first full story about his aunt, written when he was still a child. He observed her idiosyncrasies and patterns of behavior and left his musings for his mother to read, who later gave Als written feedback about his work. From then on, Als said he began to view writing as a way of connecting with people, especially his mother.

Als’s work is also grounded in his experience growing up in Brooklyn, New York.

“I don’t really write about things I don’t know,” he said.

But Als said he knows how to write from a different perspective when his subject is another person, as was the case when he wrote the book about Richard Pryor.

“I have to become the person to write about them,” he said. “I have to get enough of their soul.”

After dedicating himself so fully to his writing, Als said he sometimes finds it hard to let editors change his work. He told the audience a story about an editor at The New Yorker who wanted to make a major revision to “A Pryor Love,” the 1999 article that inspired Als’ later book about Pryor. When he refused to make the change, his editor would not publish the piece for a year, Als said.

Two Yale students who attended the talk said they enjoyed Als’ ideas about writing as well as learning about Als himself.

Jordan Rogers ’12 — who had the opportunity to hear Als speak earlier this semester in his Contemporary African American Literature class — said he appreciated the opportunity to hear about Als’ creative process.

“His wit is so sharp and so effortless,” he added.

Madison Moore GRD ’12 agreed.

“It’s great to find a scholar who’s able to keep it real,” he said.

The talk was co-sponsored by the Department of African-American Studies and Calhoun College.

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