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If you like Suzan-Lori Parks's story, you might also like:
Edward Albee,
Maya Angelou,
Rita Dove,
Athol Fugard,
Ernest J. Gaines,
Whoopi Goldberg,
James Earl Jones,
Audra McDonald,
Trevor Nunn,
Rosa Parks,
Sidney Poitier,
Harold Prince,
Lloyd Richards,
Amy Tan,
Wole Soyinka,
Esperanza Spalding,
Julie Taymor and
Oprah Winfrey

Suzan-Lori Parks can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Suzan-Lori Parks's recommended reading:
D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths

Related Links:
The Show Woman
The Pulitzer Prize
Barclay Agency

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Suzan-Lori Parks
Suzan-Lori Parks
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Suzan-Lori Parks Interview (page: 5 / 7)

Pulitzer Prize for Drama

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  Suzan-Lori Parks

So if you started college studying science, how did you find your way back to writing?

Suzan-Lori Parks: It was in college. I was in the science lab. I think it was chemistry. Chemistry is cool; it just wasn't my thing. Oh God, I was dying. You're wearing the rubber gloves. Everything is rubber, rubber boots. The goggles you have to wear, pouring something. I'm sure real chemistry is much more exciting, but when you start out, you're just pouring this thing into that thing, and you're doing some experiment that's been done a million times before, and it's horrible. I was dying. At Mount Holyoke, as in many universities, we had to take these required classes.

We had to take an English class, and I remember, among the books we read, Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, which I still don't really get. But I got it, like in this way. I was like, "Oh, this is beautiful!" It was beautiful. A woman, and the lighthouse, and "Will we go to the lighthouse? Will we not go? Will the weather be good?" Whatever. I don't know what they're talking about, but it was gorgeous, and I remember when I read that book, I said, "Oh, yeah! I remember who I am!" It reminded me. It helped me "re-member," literally, put my members back on each other. It's as if somebody had given me my hands back, or my eyes back, or my ears back, or my heart back. You remember yourself, and you go, "I remember who I am. I'm the kid who loves myths, and makes up songs about things, and who loves writing." So there I was. I danced out of there, and I've been dancing out ever since.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Is this around the time that you met James Baldwin?

Suzan-Lori Parks Interview Photo
Suzan-Lori Parks: Yes. That's what happens when you allow yourself to be yourself. I think that's the key. I think, for a lot of people coming up these days the news is bad. It's kind of scary. They're told that no matter how hard you work, you won't get a job at a college. They're told all these kinds of things, but you just have to stick to your guns and continue. Continually remember yourself and continually be yourself, and when you continually remind yourself of who you are, all kinds of wonderful things happen. Like gee, you get a little note in the mail from your favorite English teacher, who says, "James Baldwin is going to be teaching a creative writing class. Would you like to apply?" And you think, "James Baldwin! Oh, my gosh." My parents had given me one of his books, it was Go Tell It on the Mountain. I'm in the fourth grade saying, "I want to write. I want to write a novel and stuff." They found out, "Oh, you want to be a writer?" So they gave me a James Baldwin book when I was very small, 1972. Ten years later, we're in 1982...

I'm in college, and get this note in the mail from my favorite English teacher, Mary McHenry: "James Baldwin is going to be teaching a creative writing class. Would you like to apply?" And I thought, "Oh my gosh!" I sent in one of my short stories that I'd been working on ever since I had reminded myself that I wanted to be a writer. I was accepted, and I was one of 15 people. It was very competitive if you'd get in, because he taught in the five college consortium: Mount Holyoke, Smith, Amherst, U. Mass, and Hampshire College. He selected three from each college, so we were 15 folks. So it was kind of intense, 15 folks around the table, and he was at the head of the table and just such a generous and brilliant spirit. I tell folks he taught me how to conduct myself "in the presence of the spirit." He taught me how to conduct myself in the presence of the spirit, meaning the spirit is an honored guest, and you welcome them into your life when they knock on the door. His whole life to me was about that, and he taught me that just by his example, just by sitting at the head of the table.

He didn't teach us any writing tricks. He didn't teach us how to network at social functions. He taught us how to conduct ourselves in the presence of the spirit. He was very generous, a very generous teacher.

That sounds like a great gift.

Suzan-Lori Parks: Yeah. It's all you need. That's all I needed.

Did it have to do with having faith in your voice?

Suzan-Lori Parks: It does have to do with having faith in your voice. It does. Sticking to your guns. Believing in yourself. Realizing that your "self" isn't -- let me see if I can spell it right -- "y-o-u-r, little s, e-l-f. "It's not that. It's "y-o-u-r -- capital S e-l-f. Your Self includes everybody. You're part of the huge universal community at all times, even when you meet somebody you don't like, who isn't like you. I was telling the honor delegates today that the concept of radical inclusion means you have to include even folks you don't like, which is hard. Having faith in your Self, having faith in your own voice, things like working hard. He wasn't just sitting with his feet up on the desk. He was a hard-working writer. Service, the idea of service, the idea of being there for the people. Not just maybe your own people -- you know, African American women under the age of 44. No. Your people are, again, the entire people, entire world.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

You've talked about discipline as something that comes out of a love for yourself. That's an interesting way of looking at it, that it's something you owe yourself.

Suzan-Lori Parks: Right. That's exactly it. It's something you owe your Self, but again, y-o-u-r capital S e-l-f.

You owe your Self, not just your small self, not just, as I often say, "the character that I am playing this round," the character called "Suzan-Lori Parks," the character by the name of Suzan-Lori Parks. I don't owe just Suzan-Lori Parks that. I owe my Self, my great Self, my big Self. This tattoo -- and if anybody speaks Hindi or reads and speaks Sanskrit -- it's from the Yoga Sutra, sutra number 123.The sutra is by Patanjali, and it says, "Ishvara-pranidhanad va," which basically means, "Your life is an offering to God." The big S, your big Self. So it's a love for your big Self, that's what discipline is. It's just a devotion to the greater beautiful thing that allows us all to be here. It sounds a little "woo-woo," but basically, it's manifested in me because I'm a writer. I get up every morning, and I write. I sit. As Paul knows, I sit. I have my notebook. I'm scribbling. "Don't talk to me right now, honey. I'm writing." That's my thing. That's how I manifest it. Someone who runs the hurdles, or a tennis player, would manifest it daily, going out there and hitting balls or whatever they do.

Wasn't it also James Baldwin who steered you towards writing plays? What do you think he saw in you that suggested that?

Suzan-Lori Parks: I'm a ham. I'm such a ham. I can't help it. I'm a ham. So when we sat at this beautiful table, this long table, and all 15 of us, the other writers, they would read their work, and they would read it as I suppose one should read a short story, beautifully voiced, like that, great really. But sometimes I'd get up and act it out, and I did this week after week. Every time it was my turn, I would sort of become a little more animated. I felt that's how it had to be read. It had to be lived. After a couple of weeks, he said, "Ms. Parks, have you ever thought about writing for the theater?" I thought he was telling me, "You're no good. Out of here. Go to the theater," like "Get thee to a nunnery." I didn't know what. I was devastated. But then as I rode home on the bus -- because classes were at Hampshire College, I rode the bus home -- I thought, "Well, maybe I'll start writing for the theater." I knew nothing about theater, nothing. I had seen a play or two, but hadn't taken a theater class at Mount Holyoke or anything like that. So I started writing for the theater, and I'm still writing for the theater today.

Sounds like he was onto something, wasn't he?

Suzan-Lori Parks: That's the interesting thing about these blocks of advice. Sometimes the advice is very well meaning, from a teacher who says, "No way. You should not be a writer." Sometimes the advice is from a very well-meaning teacher who says, "You should try playwriting." You have to know, and knowing yourself and listening to yourself, and developing that practice of listening in to what it is that you want and who you are, it makes you better able to understand and decipher the advice. Some advice jibes with you. Some advice does not jibe with you, and you have to learn to distinguish it, and that's difficult. It's a lifelong practice. Lifelong.

It's not easy. I get a little better at it, hopefully, every day.

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This page last revised on Oct 10, 2007 12:03 EDT
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