Suzan-Lori Parks '85 Comes Home to MHC

Posted: March 7, 2007

On Monday morning, March 5, the day after the College's final performance of Week 16 of 365 Days/365 Plays, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks '85 sat on the edge of the stage in Rooke Theatre and chatted with a group of students, faculty, and staff. Dressed in black motorcycle boots, black pants, olive-green short skirt, and black T-shirt with "THEATRE" printed on the front in bold white letters, she looked more like a student than a Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" recipient.

She smiled bashfully and wound her fingers through her nearly waist-long dreadlocks, as Leah Glasser, dean of first-year students and lecturer in English, described what it was like to have Parks as a student in her English classes back in 1981. "When she handed me her first paper she said, 'You know I can't write. I love to write, but my high school teacher said that I can't write.' And I remember the size of her eyes about doubling when I told her that was nonsense, and made her read something she wrote out loud so that she could hear the power of her own words. And as soon as she started listening, really listening, to language, things took off." Glasser told the group about meeting Parks's parents and telling them, "Your daughter is going to become a writer." "I had no doubt that she would prove me right," Glasser said. Turning to Parks, she said, "It was very exciting to have intersected with you at that stage of your life."

As always, Parks gave generously of her brief time on campus. After watching the performance Sunday afternoon, she answered questions and praised the production. "I've been all over to see these plays performed, and you did a great job!" That evening, following an introduction by President Joanne V. Creighton, she spoke to an enthusiastic crowd in Rooke Theatre for nearly two hours, fielding questions with her inimitable humor and candor about her career, her writing process, and her creative inspiration.

Asked how the 365 Project came into being, she said that one day back in November 2002, she got the idea to write a play every day for a year. "So I wrote the first one and called it 'Start Here.' On the second day, I panicked." Laughter, she explained, is a necessary ingredient in Parks's work. "When I get an idea, if I don't laugh, I don't write it. That's the hook. Sometimes it's a dumb joke--a silly, ludicrous thing." She also talked about her frequent literary references, including Shakespeare and Faulkner. "I love them," she said. "It's like having a party." She offered advice to writers trying to open themselves to inspiration: "Give the bouncer who controls the door to your creative mind the year off," she said. "When you're writing you need to say 'yes' to all your ideas. Later on, you can wield the sword of discrimination."

Parks also shared her memories about being a student at Mount Holyoke. "I started out as a chemistry major. But I was dying in the lab. So I went into Mrs. Glasser's English class. We read Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, I didn't understand it here," she said pointing to her head, "but I got it here," she said, pointing to her heart. "Mrs. Glasser and Virginia Woolf helped me get myself together. I realized that this was what I wanted to do." She talked about taking a creative writing class with James Baldwin at Hampshire College, who suggested that she try her hand at playwriting. She added that she never considered going to graduate school. "I had such a good time at Mount Holyoke with you guys (she gestured to some of her former professors in the audience, including Glasser and English professor John Lemly) and Mr. Baldwin. How could I top that?"

The Monday morning occasion in Rooke was an informal discussion with students about the craft of writing. When asked how she creates characters, she advised, "Host your character in your body. Get off your behind and allow yourself to be that person. What does that person want?" She was both encouraging and realistic about what it takes to be a writer. "Keep writing, and know that difficulty is part of the journey," she said. She cautioned them not to share their artistic aspirations with naysayers and other harsh critics who might try to dissuade them from becoming writers. "They haven't earned the right to know your dreams," she said. Throughout the discussion she returned to the subject of writing process and the quirky question of discipline. "It's not this kind of discipline," she said, making her body ramrod straight and scowling. "It's more like a trellis, a framework for what you're creating." She said that in her experience as a long-distance runner and a practitioner of karate and yoga, she has discovered that "in form there is freedom. Slow down to go faster."

Parks has a Hindu aphorism (one of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali) tattooed twice, bracelet-like, around her left wrist and forearm. She explained that their message is, basically, " 'Go with the flow.' It's hard, though. It's not just lying on your back and floating down the river."

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Suzan-Lori Parks '85 to Visit MHC March 4

365 Days/365 Plays