Of all the teachers David Lazar had over the years, one sticks out: the famous short story writer Raymond Carver.
“I remember going up to him after he won the MacArthur — and Ray Carver sort of talked like a Ray Carver character — and saying, ‘Ray, you’ve won this MacArthur, what are you going to do with it?’ ” said Lazar, an essayist and the Week Five Chautauqua Writers’ Center prose writer-in-residence. “He said, ‘Oh, I just went out and bought a green Mercedes.’ ”
He thought about asking Carver why he bought a Mercedes, but instead asked him “Why green?”
“He responded, ‘It’s the color of money,’ ” Lazar said.
At 12:15 p.m. Friday, July 29, on the porch of the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall, Lazar will give his Chautauqua Literary Arts Brown Bag lecture, “The Construction of Self in Nonfiction, or I Forgot to Remember to Forget… Myself, or Persona Grata.”
“My lecture is going to be about persona — the creation of, and play with, persona in the essay form,” he said.
Lazar, who has authored 13 books, said that the creation of a voice in writing is “really crucial” to the process.
“It’s especially crucial in the nonfiction form, where people are writing autobiographically,” he said. “There’s this relationship between the writing self and the self — but they’re not the same thing. There’s so much happening in that gap between the creative self and the lived self. I think it’s an endlessly interesting thing to talk about.”
In his own writing, Lazar said that persona and tonal variety is something he often thinks about, especially when it comes to organizing collections of essays, something he’s well-versed in from authoring the collections I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms, Occasional Desire and The Body of Brooklyn. Ten of Lazar’s essays have been honored as Notable Essays of the Year by Best American Essays.
“My work in prose poems is very much about using alternate personae, some of whom are playful to the point of being fictive,” he said.
Lazar has published two prose poem collections: Who’s Afraid of Helen of Troy?: An Essay on Love and Powder Town.
Among the people Lazar counts as influences on his work are French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, William Hazlitt and James Baldwin.
“Baldwin’s books of essays are really important to me,” he said. “(Baldwin) actually came in and taught one of my classes when I was in college, which was a pretty amazing experience.”
Lazar said his advice to writers, like those taking his week-long Writers’ Center workshop, is to “read. Read widely and strangely.”
“Don’t confine yourself to contemporary literature,” he said. “That’s narrowing the bandwidth of the possible, as far as I’m concerned. Going deeper into the cannon shows you what’s survived, what’s been great, what’s been lasting, what’s been, in fact, thrillingly inventive over the last several hundred years.”