A women’s group here in Billings, one dedicated to education and scholarship, invited me to speak at their gathering this week. Here’s what I had to say:
My name is Craig Lancaster, and I’m a proud resident of Billings—it will be 10 years this June—and an active member of the community that groups like yours seek to strengthen. So I would like to say, first, thank you for inviting me here today, and second, thank you for all of your efforts toward bolstering education. As I tell you a bit about myself and my work, I hope you’ll see that we have many interests in common.
Thanks to my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, being used in lesson plans here in Billings, I get invited a fair amount to talk in high school classrooms. When I open things up for questions, invariably this one pops up: How did you decide to write novels? And this is always a hard thing to answer, because I think the person asking it hopes that I’ll be able to identify one key mentor or one galvanizing moment that set me in this direction, and that’s simply not the case. Who I am—professionally and personally and psychologically—is the sum of my experiences and influences, along with dashes of such untamed things as serendipity and loss. Every time I write a novel, and I’ve published five now, I mine experiences, conversations, things I’ve pondered, losses I’ve suffered, my imagination. I couldn’t tell you in what proportions or how it all comes together. Indeed, it’s always a surprise when it does work. And when it doesn’t—when some idea I had simply doesn’t have the legs to blossom into a fully realized story—I’m usually not terribly upset. If anything, I’m baffled that failure to materialize doesn’t occur more often.
So this is what I say to the student who asks me the question, in a less artful way because I’m answering off the cuff rather than reading from prepared remarks. And then I add this next little bit, because I think it’s important:
I grew up in a house that had shelves, and on those shelves sat books. And I had parents who read those books, and who encouraged me to read any book I could get my hands on. From the time I was born until I could take over the chore myself, I was read to. I was shown things. I was taught how to do anything that interested me, and if something interested me that my parents couldn’t teach, they could find someone who could handle the job. Perhaps my DNA is arranged in a way that made me naturally curious, but the safer bet would be that my parents’ nurturing encouraged and rewarded boundless fascination. And I can think of no better basis for an engaged life, let alone a career as a novelist, than that.
That, my friends, is education where the rubber meets the road. It has nothing to do with getting up, eating your breakfast and carrying your books off to school. It’s being geared toward lifelong learning. There’s not a day that I fail to be thankful for having the parents I did, who pointed at the horizons and told me I could chase any of them.
In my mid-40s, while still being buoyantly grateful for all of that, I’ve also had a hard reckoning with how privileged I’ve been. I was born into a middle-class, educated family that was able to pass those benefits on to me. I’ve never wondered where my next meal is coming from—obviously!—and never dealt in any serious way with poverty. I was born white and male, which in this country is pretty much two-thirds of the cultural trifecta. None of this requires my apology or guilt, but it does command my attention to the fact that I’ve had a relatively easy go of it. When I moved into adulthood, I did so with an education, career prospects and a built-in support system, and thus my inevitable failures have been mostly fleeting and easily recovered and learned from.
When I think about education today, I wonder about and worry for those who start from a disadvantaged place. Our history as a nation tells us that education is the great leveler and the most reliable means of movement from one economic class to another. So how do we get access to education for those who need it most, those who didn’t grow up surrounded by books, who aren’t sure what they’re eating later today, whose families don’t support their dreams—indeed, those who might not have families at all, or who might not even see in their lives a reason to dream? When I was a child, I took a big bite out of the public education that my community provided. My time in college was spent in an era when I didn’t have to mortgage my future earnings to attend a university. I don’t have the expertise to advise anyone on how to improve education and expand opportunity; I’m not in that arena, fighting that good fight. My participation is at the resident level. I vote for school levies. When an English teacher here in town asks me to come talk to her kids, I do it. Because you either support the culture you wish to live in or you don’t. There’s no in-between.
My interest in this isn’t purely civic-minded, mind you. There’s a lot of selfishness involved. I write books as my primary source of income. I hope to write more, and I hope to see them published and read. And while I have artistic notions about what I do, I also have purely financial ones. A diminished reading public would, at some juncture, translate into a diminished appetite for what I do, and I would have to find something else.
So, please, allow me to say something on behalf of what I do and why I do it. From the earliest age I can remember, writing was something I knew I wanted to do, in some form or another. I’d be loath to call myself a natural—the more I do this, the more I see my flaws rather than my strengths—but the orderliness of words and sentences and paragraphs always made intuitive sense to me. The rhythms of language, the inexplicable ways of American English spelling—these things enchanted me.
As I grew up and moved outside my comfort zones—other cities, other states, other friends—I began to see the power of stories. This happened first as a journalist, where I took seriously Finley Peter Dunne’s observation that newspapers “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” In my late thirties, I embarked on my career as a novelist, where I try to capture everyday people in crisis or transition, where the suggestion of future change is perhaps more important than the actual demonstration of it. Destinations bore me. Journeys, on the other hand, thrill me. And what I learned from writing fiction is that I could take my own questions and hesitations—whether about relationships or the better manner of living or God or anything else—and work them out on the page. That other people could then read those words and find their own stories or provoke their own questions. This is powerful stuff. And it has happened, fundamentally, not because I write, but because I read. Because I’ve always read, or always had someone who read to me. That’s where it started. That’s where I find fuel even today. And it’s where I’ll replenish myself tomorrow.
*—thanks, and perhaps apologies, to Blur.