Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Dangerous Joy of Pagan Kennedy

On January 30, Pagan Kennedy will return to The Writer's Center for the first time in 28 years. She will be one of two special readers at our 33rd birthday celebration (the other is Carolyn Forche). I wrote this piece for the winter issue of The Carousel and I thought I'd post it during the off week between Christmas and New Year's (when The Writer's Center is closed).

When she was a student at Holton Arms high school in the late 1970s, Pagan Kennedy says she was a little “weird.” She was a voracious reader with a curious intellect, the kind that makes others either envious or afraid. After her first year of college, in 1981, she decided she’d enroll in a fiction writing workshop at The Writer’s Center.

The decision would have a tremendous impact on her life.

“I went into college thinking I was going to work with animals,” she says, “but the teacher was very supportive. He made us tell stories out loud, and that gave me the confidence to see myself as a writer.”

The story she told during the class was about farming slugs in Argentina. “There were these giant slugs that had to be farmed by Slug Boys,” she remembers. “The slime was used as super glue.” The story proved extremely valuable to her development as a writer. “I now had this story and I started to tell it to friends. Writing suddenly wasn’t this thing you did in school.”

Though she doesn’t remember the name of the workshop leader, she remembers the feel of the workshop. “It was part of the effervescence of the 70s hippy community: a hands-on crafty empowerment movement that writing was a part of. It wasn’t just about going on to becoming a professional writer. It was community based and small, not ambitious in the American way. That appealed to me.” And when the workshop was over, the instructor ran out to the parking lot after the final class and told her to keep writing.

She did. During the 1980s, she became the Queen of ‘zines by publishing a string of small chapbook-like editions that explored the crazy ephemera of modern life during the Reagan-era from a young woman’s point of view. She credits her experience at The Writer’s Center with those early efforts; the focus on craft and the focus on telling a good story well, no matter the size of the audience—these were the driving forces behind the ‘zines. Though she’d never imagined she’d make a career of writing, those small ‘zines drew national attention. Among the many who noticed was a young Bethesda Chevy Chase high school student, Andrew Gifford, who in 1999 went on to found his own publishing company—the Santa Fe Writers Project.

“Pagan Kennedy’s early work was inspirational to me,” Gifford says. “Not only did it drive me to create my own ‘zine, but her quirky, journalistic approach influenced the voice of the publishing company I started in high school—the prototype of the one I run now. I looked for the weird, the off-beat, the experimental writers. I still do.”

In 2006, Gifford approached Kennedy and asked if she was interested in publishing a book with him. The result was a collection of nonfiction essays called The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories, a collection of essays about the kind of rugged American individualist that appeals to Kennedy: people trying to make the country and the world a better place.

Much like Kennedy herself. With a successful writing career including ten novels (and a short-listing for the prestigious Orange Prize), award-winning nonfiction books, and now a teaching gig at Dartmouth College behind her, she looks back fondly at her short time at The Writer’s Center.

“I was such a weird kid,” she recalls. “But that workshop was when I realized my weirdness could be a plus instead of a minus. I could share my weird world with people.”


Pagan Kennedy is the author of ten books in a variety of genres- from cultural history to biography to the novel. A regular contributor to the Boston Globe, she has published articles in dozens of magazines and newspapers, including several sections of The New York Times. A biography titled Black Livingstone made the New York Times Notable list and earned Massachusetts Book Award honors. Her most recent novel, Confessions of a Memory Eater, was featured in Entertainment Weekly as an "EW pick." Another novel, Spinsters, was short-listed for the Orange Prize. She also has been the recipient of a Barnes and Noble Discover Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, and a Smithsonian Fellowship for science writing. Visit her online at

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