Portland, Oregon

Elizabeth Strout

In her lecture “Why I think fiction matters,” Elizabeth Strout explores how reading magnifies our understanding of the human experience. “My point is this: we think we know our neighbors; we really think we know our loved ones, our children, our best friends who share confidences with us. But I think my mother was right: we never really do know. It’s always made me very sad and very frustrated. So, basically, I’ve spent my life being plagued ceaselessly with the question, ‘What does it feel like to be another person?’ And I think fiction is one of the places that we come closest to knowing what it might feel like be another person.”

Elizabeth Strout describes this lecture as “Why I think fiction matters.” She declares that in good fiction, a reader finds “the truest things,” and says that she wants to talk about what that phrase means and why it is important to discover. Strout goes on to describe the human experience as necessarily lonely, and she explains how fiction gives us access to the experiences of others; she believes that in this way, fiction facilitates the compassion necessary for understanding ourselves and others. Throughout this discussion of fiction, Strout provides illustrative and humorous anecdotes about her youth and her development as a writer.

My point is this: we think we know our neighbors; we really think we know our loved ones, our children, our best friends who share confidences with us. But I think my mother was right: we never really do know. It’s always made me very sad and very frustrated. So, basically, I’ve spent my life being plagued ceaselessly with the question, ‘What does it feel like to be another person?’ And I think fiction is one of the places that we come closest to knowing what it might feel like be another person.”

“Fiction is there to let us know we’re not alone. Whatever we’ve thought and felt has probably been thought and felt before.”

“What I try to do when I work is find that sentence that can resonate with the dignity that the human experience deserves, a sentence of muscularity that can hold both the gravity and the felicity of returning us to those more primitive emotions. For me, it means finding the right sound that conveys the combination of truth and compassion.”

“Reading is celebration of the mystery of ourselves.”

Elizabeth Strout was born in Portland, Maine, and grew up in small towns in Maine and New Hampshire. From a young age, she was drawn to writing things down, keeping notebooks that recorded the quotidian details of her days. She was also drawn to books and spent hours of her youth in the local library lingering among the stacks of fiction. During the summer months of her childhood, Strout played outdoors, either with her brother, or, more often, alone, and this is where she developed her deep and abiding love of the physical world: the seaweed covered rocks along the coast of Maine and the woods of New Hampshire with its hidden wildflowers.

During her adolescent years, Strout continued writing avidly, having conceived of herself as a writer from early on. She read biographies of writers and was already studying—on her own—the way American writers, in particular, told their stories. Poetry was something she read and memorized; by the age of sixteen, Strout was sending out stories to magazines. Her first story was published when she was twenty-six.

Strout attended Bates College, graduating with a degree in English in 1977. Two years later, she went to Syracuse University College of Law, where she received a law degree along with a Certificate in Gerontology. She worked briefly for Legal Services before moving to New York City, where she became an adjunct in the English Department of Borough of Manhattan Community College. By this time, Strout was publishing more stories in literary magazines as well as Redbook and Seventeen. Juggling the needs that came with raising a family and her teaching schedule, she found a few hours each day to work on her writing. (source: www.elizabethstrout.com/about/)

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