Earlier this month, I was one of eleven collected students and staff who gathered to see writer Davy Rothbart speak at DePaul’s John T. Richardson Library, doing what everyone does while at a university sponsored event: unabashedly eating free food and pocketing cold bottles of water.
You never know what to expect with visiting authors, but the mental picture I usually have in my head is that of a stern visage in a crisp suit whose very presence seems to say, “I am incredibly and ridiculously successful, as you will never be. Give up and go major in accounting IMMEDIATELY.”
But when Davy Rothbart himself appeared, my first (and admittedly nerdy) impression was that of a contemporary traveling bard. He bustled in with an oversized, army green roller suitcase that almost dwarfed our visiting author and immediately began pulling out of its hulking depths cardboard cutouts of his new book and various merchandise as his introduction was given. He had an easy, goofy smile framed by a chinstrap beard, a short but thick silver rope of chain around his neck, and a brown patterned page-boy hat.
Far from the detached and pompous figure of my imagination, Davy wore an oversized basketball jersey from a team I’ve never heard of and seemed like a perpetual twenty year-old: energized, optimistic, and in-love with his place in the world. He was introduced as “the kind of writer… that makes you wonder what you’ve been doing with your free time,” and it’s easy to see why. His long list of job titles includes Chicago Bulls ticket scalper, contributor to NPR’s This American Life, documentarian, magazine creator and editor, and of course, author.
Well, all of that clearly conditioned Rothbart to be comfortable in front of a crowd, and his whole presentation felt more like a friendly chat in a coffee-house than an event backed by an academic institution. He talked about his life, his relationships, his time in Chicago (where he roomed with a member of the band Rise Against, which apparently had its first gig at DePaul—who knew?), all the while happily espousing his belief in DIY art. He read two essays from his newest book, My Heart Is An Idiot, definitively proving that college students and Shakespeare lovers are not the only ones who have no idea what they’re doing in the arena of love.
Rothbart’s unapologetically honest accounts should serve as a reminder to those of us majoring in English that literature, or any form of art, need not be the product of LSD-induced fantasy (not to say anything against Lewis Carroll), but that our own life experiences can be fuel enough for our pens. His latest work embodies that first adage of writing hammered into us so long ago: write what you know.
In addition to his own writing, Rothbart shared with us one of his long-term projects, Found Magazine, an annual publication that prints found lists, letters, cards, post-its, and other bits of strangers’ lives sent in from people all over the country. He referred to everyone who sent in a piece as a friend and recounted for us not only some of his favorite found items, but stories people told him about how they were discovered. His words held such a sense of community, and he was speaking about practically the entire nation!
I’m sorry, majority of the English department, but you guys really missed out last Thursday night. I left the library that evening feeling incredibly inspired and comforted in the knowledge that passion for creative literature not only exists outside the hallowed halls of academia, it thrives, and I know I wasn’t the only one. Davy Rothbart was an excellent visiting writer to include early on in the academic year, and he’s set the bar very high for those who will follow (though I’m sure I’ll fall equally in love with all of them when the time comes).
Do yourselves a favor—check out FoundMagazine.com, My Heart Is An Idiot, Rothbart’s collection of short stories entitled The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas, and his upcoming documentary, Medora. At the very least, find him on Twitter at @DavyRothbart.
And next time there’s an awesome visiting writer giving away free wisdom on campus, come on over to the library…
…if not for the free wisdom, then at least for the free food.