Creativity: The Paper Behind the Process

Selections from the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library
January 31, 2004

 

Novelist Anne Tyler '61 calls her work a set of lies: "You set out to tell an untrue story, and you try to make it believable, even to yourself. Which calls for details; any good lie does." If that is the case, then Duke is home to fifteen intricately spun, novel-length lies crafted by Tyler, each with its own handwritten manuscript, typed drafts, and galley proofs, as well as published editions in various foreign languages. Rounding out the collection known as the Anne Tyler Papers are professional correspondence, literary reviews, and manuscripts of short stories.

At Duke, Tyler studied writing under Reynolds Price '55, who recognized her talent and introduced her to his own literary agent.

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Tyler says she does not do outside research for her books but rather the "inner" research of getting to know her characters. In a 1989 letter to freelance writer Phyllis Rowe Willrich, Tyler explained, "About starting a book: Generally I begin with the characters, and, often, with characters in a very specific scene that unaccountably presents itself in my mind."

As a prewriting exercise for her 1974 novel, Celestial Navigation, she sketched out her characters' boarding house (at right), labeled their bedrooms, and established a timeline of their major life events, acquainting herself with them even before they took form on the page.

To a researcher, these diagrams and notes offer valuable clues to the author's creative process. Equally revealing are Tyler's drafts, written in longhand--always with the same style pen on unlined paper.

Once questioned about this ritual, she responded, "Since I really seem to [write] by ear, if I'm typing I can't hear as well."

The Anne Tyler Papers are one of several literary collections by alumni authors in the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. Other collections include the papers of James Applewhite '58, A.M. '60, Ph.D. '69; Fred Chappell '61, A.M. '64; Josephine Humphreys '67, Hon. '94; Peggy Payne '70; Reynolds Price; and William Styron '47, Hon. '68.