Learning How to Fight

by Laura van den Berg ’05  |  illustration by Marcelo Cipis

Illustration by Marcelo Cipis

In 2003, I had never heard of Richard Ford. I was a student in the Hamilton Holt School and enrolled in a fiction workshop with Professor Philip F. Deaver.

One evening, Dr. Deaver let us know that Ford would soon be visiting Rollins. He told us about Ford’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Independence Day, and encouraged us to attend the master class and reading.

I had never been to a reading and didn’t know what a master class was—and I was frankly worried it would be a little boring. However, I was just starting to write seriously and I had heard of the Pulitzer Prize. Maybe I’ll check it out, I thought.

I hadn’t met many authors, and I assumed Ford would be like a movie star, glamorous and sophisticated. I had seen photos of Truman Capote tuxedoed and masked in the Plaza Hotel, in honor of his infamous Black and White Ball. Weren’t all authors like that?

That afternoon, I was surprised to see an unassuming middle-aged man take a seat at the front of the audience. Ford talked to us about being from Jackson, Mississippi, and he took our questions.

Later that evening, Ford read “Privacy,” a short story from his collection A Multitude of Sins. After “Privacy,” he turned to a novel excerpt from the then-unpublished Lay of the Land. Each line in “Privacy” had been controlled and taut, but within the excerpt, the sentences turned wild and sprawling. I noted the different choices in technique, the effects they created.

That wasn’t all I noticed. On stage in the Bush Auditorium, a curious transformation occurred. Once he was reading his work, inhabiting the voices of his characters, Ford did exude a specialness, a light. With the language of fiction, he commanded our attention.

While his genius on the page was evident, it was his human ordinariness that made the biggest impression. Prior to Ford’s visit, I assumed that authors grew up surrounded by artists, lived in New York City, and attended Ivy League schools. I thought a certain pedigree was required. But Richard Ford was from the South, like me, and he attended college at Michigan State—not Harvard or Yale. He had not waited for the world to give him permission to be a writer. He had chosen his path, and day after day, he had fought for it.

That night, I decided that I could fight too.

After I graduated from Rollins, I moved to Boston to attend the MFA program at Emerson College. My thesis, a story collection titled What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, evolved into my first book and was published in 2009. My second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth, was published this year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

When summarized, my path to publication sounds seamless, but at times the struggle to persist has been intense. I have left out all of the times that I doubted my ability to finish the project at hand. I have left out the sea of rejections. I have left out the nights spent worrying about employment and finances and time. These challenges are not unique to me; the struggle is a constant—a necessary constant—in every writer’s story. Our will to fight is always being tested in one way or another.

Now I am charged with students of my own, and I tell them that if they want to write, the only pedigree they need is desire, the will to keep fighting.

Laura van den Berg ’05 is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize and has published stories in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008 and Best New American Voices 2010. She teaches creative writing at George Washington University and will be at Rollins February 19 and 20 as part of Winter With the Writers.