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Youth Programs

Anthony Doerr Visits Franklin High School

by Mel Wells

The library at Franklin High School filled quickly on Thursday afternoon with students and teachers buzzing with excitement. Huge, blue-lettered quotes hung on the walls, all by the same author. One said, “Sustained reading is magic, a kind of magic that can be wildly addictive, even dangerous.”

“You chose that one?” noted the author, sounding a little worried. He was wearing a dark blue sweater, reminiscent of the cover of his bestseller and recent Pulitzer Prize-winning book All The Light We Cannot See.

The librarian, Sandra Childs, laughed and replied, “We like edgy.”

After a short introduction, Anthony Doerr took the mic and enthusiastically shared how he came to love books and writing, confessing that he had initially been shy about admitting that he wanted to be an author. “I kept a notebook in high school that my friends called my ‘man diary,’” he said, and students laughed. “It wasn’t a typical journal,” he continued, but his way of documenting the world, especially while traveling. It was through this journaling and reading, he said, that he began building his writing skills.

When asked what his favorite books were, Doerr gave a long list, starting with Kerouac’s On the Road. When he got to Virginia Woolf, he confessed “I wanted to marry her.” Students giggled. “I still go back to her sentences.” He was clearly passionate about the power of books, saying, “I wanted to expand my understanding of what it meant to be human… Reading is an antidote fundamentalism; it teaches you to empathize with other people.”

Another student asked whether he based a villainous character off of a real person. Doerr replied that most of his characters do have aspects of people he has met. “For lack of a better word, I cannibalize parts of people I know,” he said, but noted that none of his characters were wholly reproductions of real people. He also told the story of the inspiration for All the Light We Cannot See, which began with a moment on a subway train. “There was no lightbulb moment,” he said. “There’s a hint of a spark, you add fuel, and lots of the time the fire goes out. Then you try again.”

Doerr talked about his extensive research for the book, which took him ten years to write. When a student asked about writer’s block, he recommended getting outside into nature, reading, or even a good night’s sleep. He also told students that the advice to only “write what you know” is “limiting.” Instead, he advised students to “write toward what you want to know. And if you’re writing about what it means to be human, you already know, because you are human. Surface-level details you can research and create, but just because you haven’t experienced a time or a place doesn’t mean you can’t write about it.” He encouraged students to be creative, whether in writing or visual arts or in any field. “The miracle of humans is that you’ll combine words in a new way and create something that’s never been said.”

Finally, one student asked why Doerr shared his writing. “Not that we’re not happy you did!” she added, blushing, and Doerr laughed.

“I think that ultimately, art-making is an act of optimism. It’s a suggestion that people are not isolated, that people can connect to one another over space and time, over cultures, over race, over religions, and it is one of the oldest things that humans do.” He gave examples of animals creating things that were beautiful, but noted that their primary purpose was survival or attracting a mate. “Like I was suggesting earlier, I really strongly believe that making things and sharing them with other people is a way to combat fundamentalism, hatred, and stereotypes. I think it’s actually imperative.”

He encouraged students to follow their passions, especially their creative impulses, whether in music or art or writing. “Identify that one thing you care about and take that risk when you’re young–find out how much of you is in there. And share that with the world, even if people aren’t clicking ‘like’ on it right away. Keep doing it, because it will keep your soul full.” He finished to thunderous applause.

WITS wants to thank all the students who were such an attentive and engaged audience, their teachers for helping them be well prepared, and especially librarian Sandra Childs for being a fantastic WITS liaison and helping organize this great author visit!

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