You know him now. He has a Pulitzer Prize. Two, actually. His books continue to find themselves on bestsellers lists, and one of them was selected to Oprah’s Book Club.
Back in the spring of 2013, I had never heard of Colson Whitehead. One afternoon I found myself in the small auditorium at the University of Michigan where novelist Peter Ho Davies taught my English course.
I was only weeks from graduating with a communications degree, too far down the road to add English as a second major, but with a passion for reading and writing. I knew squeezing in an extra class would be beneficial. While most of my fellow seniors were taking single-credit mini-courses about dinosaurs and film history, I was reading a novel per week, interrogating the role that time plays in various narrative structures.
For years I had spent my free time jotting story ideas on loose leaf paper or pecking away at my computer. Reading and writing were two completely separate ideas in my mind — while I had been writing stories since I was a young child, I hadn’t read my first book cover-to-cover for pleasure until the start of college. But then once I did, I was captivated.
Writing and reading became compulsions for me, and so I spent as much time doing both as I possibly could. Someday, I told myself, I would write a novel. But that dream felt like it resided in a faraway, intangible future as college graduation approached.
On this particular day, we were set to discuss the week’s reading, a book called Zone One, a literary-zombie hybrid novel written by an author named Colson Whitehead. A quiet student, I was social distancing (before it was cool) somewhere near the back of the room when Davies entered, escorting a Black man with exaggerated dreadlocks and a short-sleeve plaid button-down. I recognized him, not from years of fandom, but from my Internet searches for class. It was Whitehead.
He had come to Ann Arbor to do a reading of Zone One on campus. While he had time, he agreed to come speak with my class about his most recent book and his writing career. I cannot say for certain what I expected to hear from Whitehead; I barely knew of him at the time. But it was impossible to ignore how clearly intelligent and well-spoken he was. It didn’t take very long to learn why.
Leaning casually against the table next to the podium, he spoke a little about his background. We learned that he had grown up in New York City and attended Harvard. It showed. He did not downplay this privilege; rather, he embraced it for the opportunities it gave him to make a difference with his writing, something he has now indisputably done with his books The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys. To that point, Time Magazine deemed him “America’s Storyteller” on the cover of a July 2019 issue.
Like many writers, he told about his early years trying to get discovered and his struggles. But then another incredible opportunity arrived in the form of a MacArthur Fellowship, often referred to as a “Genius Grant.” This allowed him not only to dedicate himself to writing full-time, but also provided him with the means to do it in the place he loved most and felt most inspired: New York City.
There were so many questions I wanted to ask him. Namely, I wanted to know what every aspiring writer wants to ask of one who has found success: What advice can you share? One of my classmates beat me to it.
Whitehead told us that writing a novel was a grueling process, one that you would have to be crazy to attempt, even crazier to attempt it for a second time. Of course, Zone One was his fifth novel.
But then he offered some real advice. He explained that you needed to find your unique writing voice. His way of doing this, which he recommended, was to emulate your favorite authors. Write the way they wrote. That can teach you structure and flow and vocabulary. Most importantly, it will offer you insight into their writing voice. From there, you can work on developing your own style.
I thought about that for a while. It made perfect sense. I did that my entire life in sports, replicating Derek Jeter’s batting stance or Tracy McGrady’s jump shot. Of course that would work with writing, too.
That evening, I walked across campus to one of the museums, made my way into the basement and found a seat in the back of the dark and mostly flat auditorium. I listened to Whitehead speak to the full audience. He had charisma on stage. He had confidence. Most importantly, he had passion for his work.
When I got home, I went into my basement bedroom and thought more about what Whitehead had said. Then I took out a small journal and began writing what would become my first novel.
Crazy didn’t scare me.
Featured photo from Wikimedia Commons.