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In April of 1843, Sophia Hawthorne scratched the phrase "Man's accidents are God's purposes" into a window of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Concord, Mass. home, which frequently hosted Hawthorne, her writer husband Nathaniel, Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott.

Writer Susan Cheever '65, the Concord group's biographer, told a nearly full Smith Buonanno 106 Wednesday night how she has come to embody the phrase, recounting her meandering path from College Hill to a distinguished career as a novelist, biographer and memoirist.

In telling her story, she shared her beliefs about the importance of her craft, ethics and the writing process.

Cheever's work spans a wide range of subjects, including her late father (author John Cheever), the "genius cluster" of the great Concord authors and Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson.

After joking that the room in which she stood used to be a women's gymnasium that held many unpleasant memories for her, Cheever explained the ethos of her profession. "Writing is not what you do in your spare time," she said. "Writing is what you do, and everything else is spare time."

Cheever was the first lecturer in the four-part "Great Brown NonfictionWriters Lecture Series," run by the Nonfiction Writing Program in the Department of English. Since 2005, the Program, previously known as the Expository Writing Program, has brought four lecturers to campus every other year to "represent all the forms" taught in the program, said Elizabeth Taylor MA'84 PhD'89, a senior lecturer in English who organized Wednesday night's event. Past lecturers have included writers of science narratives, political memoirs and lyric essays.

This year, Cheever kicked off the series with her lecture, "The Art of Literary Memoir and Biography." Cheever brought up the notion of fateful accidents again in discussing her most recent work, "American Bloomsbury." A visit to Concord in her early teens was the first trip she remembered taking with her father, and she would later encounter the Concord group of writers again when she studied transcendental literature as an American civilization concentrator at Brown. She was told that the great work of this era was produced "in five years," and her subsequent research revealed to her that it was also "written in three houses."

Though much had been written about authors such as Thoreau and Emerson, she said "no one had put the women in." In what she considered a fateful action after a number of chance encounters, Cheever decided she "would write the gossip version of transcendentalism," she said.

Her audience included students, faculty and members of the greater Rhode Island community, from a wide range of writing backgrounds. Matt Weinstock '10, a literary arts concentrator considering biography as a career, said he "thought it was a deeply satisfying lecture." He questioned Cheever about the "wooing process" a biographer uses to get people to let her write about them.

The question evoked stories from Cheever of biographers approaching her and her family to write about her famous father, John Cheever. As a writer who has been on both sides of the biographer's process, "she has a unique perspective," Weinstock said.

The lengthy question period elicited more details about Cheever's writing process and the surrounding ethical issues.

Asked how she decided what to include in her work, Cheever explained that in writing memoirs, she first decided on a message and then chose details "that illustrated the point."

"What actually happens is of no importance," she said. "It's all an illustration for what you're trying to get across."

The message of her current work, a biography of Alcott, is about being "a woman in this world." While the message and the tone of her writing change with each piece, Cheever emphasized the "embedded" nature of one's own writing style.

"Our writing is like our DNA," she said. "Whether it's good or bad, it's ours, in a way very few things are."

Asked how liberal she has been in what she includes in her books, Cheever said, "I've become more reckless with my own story. … If I can't tell these stories now, when
will I be able to tell them?" She added, "I've become less reckless with other people's feelings, especially my children."

Cheever's comments about the ethics of the biographer and memoirist reached a climax when an audience member said one of her students wanted to publish a memoir as fiction to avoid backlash from the people about whom she
wrote. When the audience member asked, "What would you say to her?"

Cheever immediately said she'd respond, "You're crazy."

"I feel quite strongly that fiction is not the right way to defend yourself … against the problem of hurting people's feelings," Cheever said, adding that she would urge the young writer to "have the courage to tell (her) story."

This answer coincided with many of the themes of Cheever's lecture. She urged her audience to ignore critics' claims that the memoirist is "self-indulgent" and society's claim that writing is just a hobby.

"Nothing is more important than being a writer," she said. "I think the memoir is the novel of the 21st century."


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