Visting essayist speaks to young writers
By LEAH VAHJEN
Essayist Elena Passarello brought with her an intimate energy, a unique accent, a dynamic reading performance, a multitude of jokes and some extremely sound advice for the large population of aspiring young writers of the University of Mary Washington during her visit last week.
On Oct. 16, the English, Linguistics and Communication department’s usual ‘Thursday Poems’ function was commandeered by the non-fiction genre. The chipper Passarello performed readings from her book “Let Me Clear My Throat,” followed by a short Q&A with students in Combs 139.
The event began with Colin Rafferty, professor of creative writing, introducing the guest speaker. Rafferty’s students had recently read Passarello’s collection of essays entitled “Let Me Clear My Throat,” yet both students and non-students alike showed up in abundance to meet and listen to the author.
Passarello described her book as a collection of 15 essays broken up by “interstitial monologues.” She stated that while her essays predominantly feature others as the subject, they were all still written by her and therefore a product of her own voice. For this reason, she strategically placed these short monologues in between her essays to break up her own voice.
That magical voice came to life in an extremely satisfying way when Passarello read two pieces from her collection. The first was one of these shorter monologues called “The Contestant” and the second was the essay entitled “The Wilhelm Scream.”
Even when speaking as someone else, her voice carried as warm, familiar and attention grabbing, truly revealing her background as a 10-year working actress.
When asked about her journey with writing Passarello replied that by the time her career as an actress began to fizzle out, she was “sick of being told where to stand and what to do,” which helped lead her toward the decision to head to graduate school to be a writer.
“In writing, nobody tells you what to do,” she said.
Passarello audibly hashed out the pros and cons of her decision, mentioning that she finds herself completely alone in her job as a writer and misses using her body, but can eat what she wants and earnestly enjoys the autonomy and world-creation that writing provides her.
When asked what advice she had for young writers, like the many at UMW, Passarello said the most cliché but true advice is to read in abundance. She added that it is also very helpful to take notes, and that she wishes she had experienced “a more writerly relationship with how [she] read” over the years.
Without missing a beat, Passarello also provided an extremely compelling argument as to why a taco would win in a fight against a grilled cheese when asked by a student.
On Oct. 17, Creative Writing: Non-fiction students also had the pleasure of attending two fifty minute Q&A sessions with Passarello in room 28 of the 1201 William St. mansion. Here, she provided even more advice and insight accumulated throughout her careers as an actress, author and graduate school professor.
Passarello advised students to find their own doorway into expression and learn about how they personally interact with the world. She noted that it is important to embrace the opportunity of your piece of work changing along the way. She also helped students learn how to better prepare for writing, telling them to “lay the groundwork of [their] own fascination.”
Passarello also talked briefly about an upcoming project she is working on that features a collection of essays about famous animals.
Copies of “Let Me Clear My Throat” are available in the UMW bookstore.