Last night I went to Bryn Mawr College to hear the playwright and Pulitzer Prize Winner, Suzan-Lori Parks. She was the first African-American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. She received it for her play Topdog/Underdog. She is such an inspirational speaker that I left the auditorium that night thinking: I WANT TO WRITE.
As a poet myself, I found Ms. Parks to be very helpful, because she answered so many of my unanswered questions, in such little time. For example, she started out as a playwright, and her very first production took place at a gas station and three people came, but that night became the most important night of her life. That night she felt she had made it as a playwright. ( She told us later the three people who came to the play were her mom, her dad, and the homeless man in the neighborhood, which still did not phase her. She had an audience who saw her play.) That story taught me, you have to believe in yourself and love yourself if you want to succeed, which Ms. Parks exceptionally did, and now she is a Pulitzer Prize winner, a MacArthur Genius Award winner and a well-known writer.
Also, Ms. Parks told a story of how she found herself. She told the audience about her senior year in high school, when she took an AP English class. Every week her class would have a spelling test, and every week she would fail, because she was not very good speller. At the end of the year, her AP English teacher and she were having a conversation about college. Her teacher asked her what she wanted to major in, and she answered, “I want to major in English Literature, since I love to write”. Then her teacher opened up her grade book and read all of Ms. Parks' spelling test grades and answered, “I don’t think you should major in English, you should major in something you are good at”, and Ms. Parks listened. So, when she entered college ( Mt. Holyoke) she majored in Chemistry. She hated this subject and later switched to English, which was her passion, which led to her encounter with the great writer James Baldwin. This story made me realize you have to listen to yourself and go with your gut, because others can not make your decisions for you or feel your passion.
When Ms. Parks finally switched to English, she took a short story class with James Baldwin. During the class they would read stories out loud and of course Ms. Parks being the drama queen that she is, read her stories with so much enthusiasm, and even stood up from her seat to read them. When Mr. Baldwin could take it no longer, he asked her a simple question: “Have you ever considered the theater, Ms. Parks”? From that moment on, she knew she had found her place. I thought the lesson of this story was important because it shows that sometimes you have to “test the waters” to find out what you really want. She is a wonderful person, an inspirational and entertaining speaker and writer I look forward to reading.
Ms. Parks appeared at Bryn Mawr College as a part of its 2009-2010 Creative Writing Program Reading Series.