On Wednesday, June 26, the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and the Vineyard Haven library presented “The Writing Life, Public and Private,” a conversation with Rose Styron, Phillip Weinstein, and Alexander Weinstein. These renowned writers discussed the power that creative writing has on transforming public life, political policy, and the private lives of the writers themselves.
Rose Styron is a poet, journalist, and human rights activist. Her volumes of poetry include “Fierce Day,” “By Vineyard Light,” “Thieves’ Afternoons,” and “From Summer to Summer.”
Philip Weinstein is Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor Emeritus at Swarthmore College. He is the author of eight books of literary criticism devoted to modern fiction, often with special attention to the work of William Faulkner.
Alexander Weinstein is the director of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing (MVICW). He is the author of the collection “Children of the New World,” and his fiction and interviews have appeared in “Rolling Stone,” “World Literature Today,” “Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2017,” and “Best American Experimental Writing 2018.”
Philip Weinstein set the stage for the conversation by saying that creative writing is a precious activity, but it’s under attack now by forces such as Twitter that “deliver the oversimplified punch” but without the nuance which can lead to truth.
A lively discussion unfolded over the next 90 minutes about what it means to be a writer, how writers balance their public and private lives, and how writing is shaped by politics.
Rose Styron knows firsthand about the influence of politics on writing. She headed PEN’s Freedom to Write Committee, where she advocated for and helped Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Graham Greene to obtain visas because “our government feared their voices would influence us — wrongly.”
Styron told an anecdote about her relationship with García Márquez, whom she referred to as Gabo.
She and García Márquez met in early 1974 when the two were in Chile covering the Pinochet coup for the magazine Ramparts. They went on to become friends, and in 1994, she invited García Márquez, Fuentes, and others to a dinner party she and her husband Bill Styron were hosting at their home in Vineyard Haven. Prior to the dinner party, Styron and first lady Hillary Clinton went to a beautiful spot up-Island overlooking Nomans Land island. “Suddenly the silence was broken by sirens,” Styron said, “and there appeared Bill Clinton and his Secret Service escorts. President Clinton, wearing golf attire, got out and waved. He said, Just finished playing golf with Vernon Jordan, and his security people told him where his wife was.” He then said to Styron that he heard a rumor that García Márquez was coming to visit, and would Rose invite him and Hillary to dinner? He said García Márquez was daughter Chelsea’s favorite author.
The scene now shifts to the Styron’s dinner party. Fourteen people were gathered around the table, and García Márquez asked the group to disclose what author or book most inspired them.
“Clinton got up, pushed his chair back and announced that Faulkner was his longtime favorite,” Styron said. “Clinton then walked around our long table three or four times reciting Benjy’s monologue from ‘The Sound and the Fury’ word for word.”
Philip Weinstein was interested in another variation on the theme of politics and literature intersecting, specifically the controversy that arose when Bill Styron wrote “Confessions of Nat Turner.” “Bill Styron in 1967 took the remarkable chance as a white Southerner,” Weinstein said, “of speaking in the voice of Nat Turner [an African American slave].”
When the book was first published, people were saying that it was the next great American novel. “But within a year,” Weinstein said, “the book ran into a firestorm of very intelligent and sensitive writers, black intellectuals who thought that Styron was profoundly out of place in taking Nat Turner’s voice.”
“James Baldwin stayed with us at the time,” Rose Styron said, “and he encouraged Bill to write ‘Nat Turner’ in the first person. He [Bill Styron] kept saying this isn’t a history, it’s a meditation on history. He was very hurt by the outcry.”
“There’s no way I’d write from a black or nonwhite perspective,” Alexander Weinstein said. “It’s programed in our current culture that you simply do not write across gender lines or sexual orientation lines. I once wrote from a female perspective, but I realized that there are enough men speaking over women in the world, and I didn’t want to be another.”
“When I’m working in essay form, there’s a sense that you’re supposed to stay in your own lane,” Philip Weinstein said. Weinstein draws on his personal experiences, without it being the story of his life — he draws on what he’s learned.
“If Hillary Clinton writes about her personal experiences, it will be a best seller because it’s Hillary Clinton,” Weinstein said.
The conversation concluded on a question asked by Alexander Weinstein of the other two panelists: “Why is it that we do this thing that we do; why have we devoted our lives to this?”
Rose Styron wittily answered, “As you age, It’s better than being onstage and trying to talk.”
Philip Weinstein said, “I do it because that’s how I most make sense of myself … to find out [who I am], I have to go to writing; the reverse for me is my own fake news.”
“To understand life, it’s words that I need,” Styron said.
“Writing is like approaching some oracle, some mythical cave,” Alexander Weinstein said, “and hoping that what comes through is going to be very meaningful.”