Author Lorene Cary on the Writing Life
Author Lorene Cary on the Writing Life

On Sept. 29, Lorene Cary, a senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania, visited Hotchkiss, where she attended several English classes and spoke to lower mids in Walker Auditorium about the challenges of being a writer and her experience as a student at St. Paul's.

Cary grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia. In 1972, she was one of a few African American female students to attend St. Paul's, where she attended boarding school for two years. She went on to earn an undergraduate degree and her MA from the University of Pennsylvania in 1978. After being awarded a Thouron Fellowship, she studied at Sussex University in the UK, where she received an MA in Victorian literature.

In 1991, she published Black Ice, a memoir about her experiences as an African American female student at St. Paul's. She went on to publish three more books, and has written script for videos, worked in publishing for several magazines, and founded Art Sanctuary, a nonprofit that showcases the work of young minority artists.

At Hotchkiss, she visited English Instructor Rachel Myers's class, where she listened to seniors read their own pieces in a workshop.

"Beyond captivating students and faculty members alike through her voice and her words, Professor Lorene Cary showed us, as a community, what it means to engage and to empathize with one another," said Tyler Gardner, head of the English department and instructor in English.

In the classroom, "she memorized every student's name; she recalled every student's question or comment; and she modeled teaching, learning, and listening at their finest. In her own words, we must all work to find and share in this undercurrent of humanity that exists beyond our daily to-do lists. Needless to say, we will remember this visit for years to come," he added.

In her presentation in Walker, Cary fielded questions about her own writing. She tapped into an experience she had at a high school in Philadelphia where a student pressed her to explain how a writer gets discovered.

"I thought of the day I mailed 40 queries to publishers for my first mystery novel. But that image wasn't enough, I wanted those students to envision me as a hungry young writer," she said.

To get their attention, she climbed up on the side of the bleachers, rattled the metal supports and shouted, "Read me! Read me!, Publish me! Publish me!"

"No one will discover you," she said. "You have to make them see you, hear you, and reach you."

As a student at St. Paul's, Cary was very driven, but the demands she placed upon herself to be a model minority student left her feeling isolated at times. "That experience was in my life in a big way," said Cary, who returned to St. Paul's in 1982 to teach for several years, and later served as a trustee.

While the boarding school culture has changed since she attended St. Paul's, students today face a similar pressure to succeed as she did.

"You've got this great education that is jacking you up to constantly do better," she said.

"At St. Paul's, I was always rushing along so fast that that I was not enjoying that exquisite sense of consciousness of life that I felt in nature."

"But then I'd be walking across campus, and there'd be a miraculous moment — just the sound of chickadee echoing, echoing, echoing — and I was brought back into my body, back into awe of life that I had lost when I had been trying to figure out how to do better on the next thing."

Black Ice, she said, is about that sense of awe — of being present in the moment.