Wednesday, June 24, 2009

An Hour with Judith Thurman

The Auckland Writers & Readers Festival I attended last month was marvellous - too full of excellent content to claim any one experience was the "best".

For me one of the many highlights was hearing Judith Thurman give the 2009 Michael King Memorial Lecture.

The standard of this annual lecture (devoted to discussing the art of biography) is very high. Last year, Hermione Lee gave the lecture and I was also privileged to attend that. What a great opportunity for a New Zealand audience to hear from cutting edge exponents of the biographical endeavour.

Peter Wells (who by the way has newly entered the Blogiverse with his own blog) introduced the elegant, very cool Thurman by revealing she was wearing Yves St Laurent. Thurman elaborated further, and even more impressively to my mind, by divulging that she had acquired the garment at a thrift store.

She then went on to deliver an exquisitely written, interesting and funny lecture, telling us something of her own story: how she came to the place of telling other people's stories.

She was generous with advice and garnered wisdom. I jotted down such pearls as:

"Biography is the art of high-minded betrayal and dirty-minded fidelity."

[She would not write on a living subject]: "The storyteller takes his authority from death." - Walter Benjamin.

[Writing is sometimes] "a line by line combat with self-forgery"

[Describing a Classical Music Radio DJ]: "every vowel comes from a different country"

"The more you care about a subject, the more anxious you are, the stiffer, the more afraid of failure."

Her descriptions of learning to be a NEW YORKER writer were enthralling, both because she so clearly believes it is the best place for a journalist to be, and the high standards demanded of the writer are balanced by what must be the beguiling freedom to excel.

The grammatical perfectionists at the New Yorker did not seem to scare her, and we learnt why when she told us that her mother was a grammarian martinet who had taken it upon herself to punctuate the stream of consciousness in Ulysses.

Thurman took the audience in a hilarious meander through multiple versions of the opening paragraph of dozens of drafts of an (eventually successful) attempt to write a New Yorker essay on the subject of TOFU.

It was an assured exercise from writing class, and refreshing in its self-parody.

Top quality. Congratulations to the AWRF for continuing to supply speakers of such calibre.


Claire Beynon said...

Sounds like a treat, PC. And it's great to see there's another male writer blogging out there. Thanks for the link to Peter's site. L, C

Vanda Symon said...

That was a fabulous talk she gave. It was my first Michael King Memorial lecture, and it was brilliant.