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The Scarlet & Black

Writers@Grinnell welcomes Jerald Walker

Walkers+most+recent+book+is+titled+How+To+Make+A+Slave+and+Other+Essays.+Photo+Contributed+by+Grinnell+College.
Walker’s most recent book is titled “How To Make A Slave and Other Essays.” Photo Contributed by Grinnell College.

After attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and living in Iowa for nearly 10 years, Jerald Walker was hopeful to stay in the state and applied for a job at Grinnell College. Unfortunately, he was not awarded the position and is now a professor of creative writing at Emerson College. Walker returned to Grinnell on Wednesday, April 13, many years later, after an invitation to give a reading as part the college’s Writers@Grinnell series. 

He has now published three books, had five pieces featured in America’s Best Essays, won the 2011 PEN New England/L.L. Winship Award for Nonfiction and was recently awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. When asked what it felt like to be invited back after all these years, he chuckled and said, “It feels like I told you so! But I won’t say that.” 

As Writers@Grinnell director Dean Bakopolous is on sabbatical, disabilities scholar and English professor Ralph Savarese is serving as interim director and invited Walker to be a part of the series. 

Talent is, believe it or not, pretty common. There are a lot of people who are talented, but not a lot of people who are patient.  -Jerald Walker

“Walker, who was born in a Chicago housing project, who dropped out of high school and plunged into drugs and eventually found his way to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a job as a professor, summons the essayist craft, including prodigious humor, to rethink race in America. He’s one of the funniest and most biting writers I know,” said Savarese. 

Due to concerns about traveling during the pandemic, the reading was conducted over virtually. Walker read two essays from his most recent book, “How to Make a Slave.” He started with “Dragon Slayers,” a piece about his experience learning to write about race and his own experiences at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. 

“It is about Professor James Allen McPherson, the longtime faculty member at the Writers’ Workshop, before he passed away a few years ago. He was a giant in that program. Many students are indebted to him for the guidance and mentorship he provided. I completely credit him with redirecting the course of my writing career. Had I stayed on the course I was on before I met McPherson, I wouldn’t be here right now. I don’t think I would have published anything. So my writing life is, in part, responsible to the work that McPherson did to steer me straight,” Walker said. 

Walker also debuted a reading of a more personal piece on race and fatherhood, saying that he had never performed it in public as he had never read to the end of the essay without tears. He finished reading the piece, took a deep breath and told the audience that he was doing okay. 

Walker uses a multitude of techniques to inform his powerful and innovative essays. One of these techniques is humor, although Walker clarified that this was not a technique that he started with, but rather one that he cultivated out of necessity. 

“I did not start out trying to be funny on the page. My number one goal was to be sad and depressing and angry. And that was no fun. And I decided after a while that I didn’t want to write that stuff, and then [readers] don’t want to read that stuff. And so, if I can write about complicated, difficult subjects as I do, and yet find a way for people to ease into it, and maybe not be overwhelmed by it — if humor is the vehicle for it, then by golly, I’m going to write it as far and as much as I can,” said Walker 

Walker grew up on Chicago’s South Side and did not come to writing until much later in life, when a professor of his in undergrad noted his immense talent and suggested that he should pursue writing professionally. He originally started his career writing fiction, but after fifteen years of minimal success, Walker wrote his first nonfiction piece after his wife’s suggestion and found instant acclaim. He attributes his success as a writer to something very simple: hard work. 

“When I was a student in undergrad, and even when I became a grad student, I knew a lot of writers who were talented but just hadn’t figured out the craft. And some people, because they never figured out the craft, stopped too soon, so never became successful writers. It’s a matter of sticking with it. Talent is, believe it or not, pretty common. There are a lot of people who are talented, but not a lot of people who are patient,” said Walker. 

“The difference between writers who make it and those who don’t is often a matter of patience. Who’s going to stick with it? Who’s going to keep trying? Who’s going to accept the failures as part of the process and keep doing that over and over and over again?” 

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About the Contributor
Millie Peck, Opinions Editor
Millie is a fourth-year English and psychology double major. Despite stewing on a witty bio for the better half of a year, she has failed to think of anything good, so will instead just lean into the fact that she is living the liberal arts dream: sharing a rainbow polka-dot house with seven roommates and a cat. peckcami@grinnell.edu  
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