c/o Isabel Fattal and Patrick Radden Keefe

c/o Isabel Fattal and Patrick Radden Keefe

For the past three years, Associate Professor of the Practice in Letters Charles Barber has spearheaded a writing-oriented speaker series through the College of Letters with the goal of giving students the opportunity to learn from and speak with professionals in the field.

The series first took off in 2020 with a series of nonfiction speakers, including Pulitzer Prize winner William Finnegan, Pulitzer finalists Jennifer Gonnerman and Robert Little, journalist Katha Pollitt, and authors Robert Kolker and Nick Flynn. Last year, the speaker series welcomed writers under the umbrella of poetry and prose, featuring poets and artists Joseph O’Neill, Jeff Hobbs, David Grann, Tim Seibles, and Jennifer S. Cheng. This year, the series takes the theme of “The Vocation of Writing,” focusing on the behind-the-scenes of pursuing a career in the writing world. So far, the COL has hosted investigative journalist and author Patrick Radden Keefe and senior editor for The Atlantic Isabel Fattal ’17.

Barber explained that when deciding who to bring to the University this year, he focused on contemporary writers who could speak to the logistics of their careers for students who may be interested in following similar pathways after graduation. 

“These are all people that are extremely active now and have…had a lot of recent success, recent prominent books, recent awards, [and] recent adaptations into film” Barber said. “It’s a view into contemporary issues in publishing and writing…. What has been helpful is that it’s not traditionally academic where they’re not presenting on a topic, [instead,] they’re presenting on their career. The more pragmatic issues of how do you find a story…what makes a good story, [and] what makes a doable story…. It’s provided a bit of a primer for students about how to actually work in the writing business now.”

Due to the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the series took place on Zoom for the first two years of its existence. This is the first year the series has taken place in person.

“It was a way to have events during the Zoom year, [when] it was entirely virtual,” Barber said. “It was a way to engage people in a way that we could…. Zoom was not my preference, but it was [a step taken out of] desperate measures. What I realized is that we were able to get extraordinarily prominent [authors] who were also sitting around in their living rooms.”

Radden Keefe visited campus on Thursday, Feb. 9 to speak about his best-selling book “Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty,” which focuses on the Sackler family’s history, encompassing the establishment of Purdue Pharma, their contribution to pharmaceutical marketing, and their pivotal involvement in the opioid epidemic. 

Last semester, COL graduate Fattal came to speak about her journalism career, garnering much student interest about her path from the University into the writing world at large. In her presentation, Fattal discussed her career path, how the critical thinking abilities she strengthened at the University have set her apart in the journalism industry, and how to transition from college into the world of professional journalism. She expressed that it was emotional to return to the University and participate in the speaker series because of how impactful her time here was on her.

“It was so special to have the chance to do that at my alma mater, the place where I first learned the skills in critical thinking, reading, and writing that I now use every day,” Fattal wrote in an email to The Argus. “It meant so much to me to give this talk in the COL library, the place where I did so much growing and learning, and to speak surrounded by many of my former professors. It was really emotional in a wonderful way, and I think I was able to connect deeply with the students who came to the talk, because I had quite literally been exactly where they were some years ago.”

Barber, who knew Fattal when she was a student at the University, expressed his satisfaction at having her come back to speak.

“Isabel’s [talk] was extremely well attended and she’s been in touch with people that attended and [it was] very meaningful,” Barber said.

For the second half of the semester, Barber hopes to invite two more speakers, the first of whom will be Sofia Khu ’22, another COL graduate and current editorial assistant at Hachette Book Group. The second speaker will be screenwriter and novelist Joey Hartstone, who is also the showrunner of the Showtime series “Your Honor” starring Bryan Cranston

Even though most of the speakers did not attend the University, many graduated from similar liberal arts colleges and can therefore speak to the usefulness of a liberal arts education when pursuing a career in writing. For example, New York Times bestselling author Grann, who participated in this speaker series last year, spoke about his education at Connecticut College in relation to the work he does as an author.

“Part of the discussion [focus]…was how he’s used his liberal arts education to inform his reporting and…use critical thinking to go beyond the how and the what to the why,” Barber said. “And so that was a particularly successful one…and relevant to undergraduates because he [attended] a very similar institution, Conn. College.”

As this speaker series continues in future years, Barber hopes to further expand the series and continue fostering a community of current students, alumni, and faculty centered around writing on campus.

“There used to be events at Wesleyan for writers where we would have them in the Chapel and there’d be three or four hundred people there,” Barber said. “Historically, James Baldwin appeared in front of hundreds of people here. I’ll be working with the Shapiro Center [for Writing, and] I would like it to get back to [hosting] major event[s] that the campus can organize around.”


Kat Struhar can be reached at kstruhar@wesleyan.edu.

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