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Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Suzan-Lori Parks, discusses the writing craft while visiting Willamette University Nov. 15 and 16.Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Suzan-Lori Parks, discusses the writing craft while visiting Willamette University Nov. 15 and 16.

Parks talks with Theatre students as part of Willamette's Atkinson Lecture Series.Parks talks with Theatre students as part of Willamette's Atkinson Lecture Series.

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Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright shares writing tips with undergraduates

Never rest on your laurels. Listen to your gut, and above all else, act now.

These are just a few words of advice from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who delivered a public talk and met with Theatre students this week as part of Willamette University’s Atkinson Lecture Series.

Through the series, internationally prominent authors, leaders, artists and journalists are brought to campus twice a year.

“You have everything you need,” Parks told the audience in Smith Auditorium. “You have everything in your life right now to make your art happen.”

Named one of Time magazine’s “100 Innovators for the Next New Wave,” Parks is one of the most acclaimed playwrights in American drama today. She is the first African American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, which she won for the Broadway hit, “Topdog/Underdog.”

She is a 2001 MacArthur Fellow, a winner of the Lila-Wallace Reader’s Digest Award and a professor at New York University. Her first feature-length screenplay, “Girl 6,” was written for Spike Lee, and she’s written screenplays for Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington, Jodi Foster and Oprah Winfrey.

Her current projects include a Ray Charles musical, “Unchain My Heart,” and an adaptation of the classic opera, “Porgy and Bess,” both set to premier on Broadway.

At Willamette, Parks talked about the writing process and the importance of trusting one’s instincts. Early in her own life, she ignored these instincts by majoring in chemistry — all because someone said good spelling skills were needed as an English major.

Luckily, Parks learned to do what’s right for her — including becoming a playwright on the advice of her writing teacher and mentor, James Baldwin.

“Entertain all your far-out ideas. Invite them in. Make them welcome,” she said. “Hopefully, they’ll stay and take root in your lives.”

These words resonated with Joellen Sweeney ’14 and Alex Kimmel ’14, who were among more than 30 undergraduate Theatre students who spent time with Parks Nov. 16. Amazed by the opportunity to meet someone of Parks’ caliber, Sweeney and Kimmel said they were inspired by her story.

“Hearing her talk about playwriting makes me want to write plays,” Sweeney said. “This makes me love college. It makes me believe in college. When are we going to have this opportunity again?”

Kimmel agreed, saying Parks taught her anything is possible.

“She wasn’t thinking of presenting herself as a speaker. It was just her, and it was genuine,” Kimmel said. “She is willing to be a part of the conversation and treat us all as equals. She lifts us up.”

11-17-2011