Wally Lamb is the author of four New York Times best-selling novels: Wishin’ and Hopin’, The Hour I First Believed, I Know This Much is True, and She’s Come Undone. Lamb also edited Couldn’t Keep It to Myself and I’ll Fly Away, two volumes of essays from students in his writing workshop at York Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in Connecticut, where he has been a volunteer writing instructor for the past fourteen years. He was in the ninth year of his twenty-five year career as a high school English teacher when he began to write fiction in 1981.
In this talk from the 2015 Seminar, Wally Lamb reads his essay, “A Case of Joni,” in which Joni Mitchell’s song “The Magdalene Laundries” is used as an entry point into a discussion on the complexities of compassion. In direct, accessible language, Lamb details the selection of his first novel, She’s Come Undone, for Oprah’s Book Club and his subsequent decision to give back through teaching writing at York Correctional Institution. Lamb’s path to becoming a writer, his work in the prison, and his relationship to Joni Mitchell’s songs are weaved into a cohesive and inspirational message—“work hard and be nice.”
Much of “A Case of Joni” focuses on Lamb’s work with Nicole Pierce, a prisoner who died of cervical cancer while incarcerated. Without citing her offenses, Lamb paints a portrait of a fun, origami-loving “California blond” who despite her past, sought refuge in writing, ultimately becoming a person who is more than just her crimes. “If I had taught the prison students a thing or two about writing,” Lamb says during the recording, “they had taught me things that I hadn’t known about life.”
Referencing John Edgar Wideman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and even The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Lamb calls upon all people, everywhere, to act with kindness and mercy. “We are enormously charitable,” he states during the talk, “but stubbornly unforgiving.”
Following the reading, Lamb speaks on the potential limits of compassion in a ten-minute question-and-answer session.
From KWLS 2015: How The Light Gets In.