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LectureHop: Hilton Als on Nonfiction Dialogues

Bwog’s Twin Truth Hunters, Alex Avvocato and Eynon, braved the swarm of soon-to-be-homeless graduate students to bring you an inter-generational campus character.

The first impression of Hilton Als is surprisingly snuggly given that he’s a survivor of both the dicey starving artist New York of yesteryear and the cutthroat world of glossy magazines. The current theater critic at The New Yorker, profiler extrordinare, and Columbia dropout put MFA students at ease by responding to his lengthy introduction with a flippant, “None of it’s true!” This remark provoked the first laugh of many during the relaxed discussion about nonfiction, family, and Als’s own experiences as a writer.

Als announced to the audience that he had just turned in his second novel to the printer (his first was The Women in 1996), and this quickly led to a discussion about nonfiction and memoir as a medium, and the contrast between finite magazine pieces and novel writing. After detailing notable experiences profiling the likes of Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin, Als delved into the subject that most interested his soon-to-be job hunting listeners—his own career trajectory.

With a good nature, Als outlined his biography: telling fibs as a child, his years at Columbia (where, “you could smoke anywhere,” apparently), the ever-stereotyped apartment in Brooklyn, and many other serendipitous and sometimes misguided encounters that shaped his career (he turned down Vogue on purpose, and The New Yorker on accident). It soon became clear, however, that the real focus of his advice was on his philosophy of writing itself.

The reason he originally hated writing will likely resonate all too well with students here: “you never know if you’re saying the right thing.” Als reflected on his own struggle by non-sarcastically commenting that, “in 1990 I was trying to write a sentence…20 years later I’m still trying.” Although this could have been interpreted as artistic hyperbole, it became obvious that the statement was no exaggeration when he read from two of his pieces—each one an enormous run-on. Stumbling over the occasional word, he recited them as if the words could barely keep up with his stream of consciousness. Perhaps because it still did not quite fit with his internal image.

After fielding questions from the audience, but before concluding the event, Als attempted to explain his own success in terms of his “knowledge of Hilton as a character [and] knowing who you are as the author.” His most successful pieces, he argued, were composed when he was able to both write from the “I sensibility” and immerse himself in the behaviors of his subject. This process has taken him on many adventures, and into the throes of many hangovers. Ultimately, however, the work and the research seems to led back to Hilton Als himself.

headshot via The New Yorker

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