Elizabeth Strout Gets to the Truth

For one night in New York City, Elizabeth Strout was a stand-up comedian.

This was back before she wrote My Name is Lucy Barton and Olive Kitteridge. Before she won a Pulitzer and was a bestselling author of novels set in New England.

This was back when Ms. Strout was an unknown Maine writer in Manhattan with a few published stories to her name and a heavy case of writer’s block on her hands.

And Ms. Strout was of the belief that “when you get writer’s block it’s because you’re doing something false.”

There are a billion ways to be false, she says. You can be holding back. Or trying to protect yourself. Or showing off.

And Ms. Strout wanted to cut to the truth. She’d been interested in stand-up comedy and those brick-walled clubs filled with strangers who are only “laughing when they hear something true.”

So, she took a stand-up class to see what would come out of her mouth if she put herself into that brick-walled pressure cooker where she was directly responsible for making people laugh, for truth-telling.

What came out was New England to the bone. Jokes about the difference between her Maine family and her New York in-laws, about growing up in smalltown New England, about being uptight and Puritan.

It worked. The audience laughed. The club manager asked her back. But she declined. She’d unstuck herself, found the truth in her New England bones, and went back to her desk to write it.

Eventually, she came out with her debut novel, Amy and Isabelle, a New England mill town story which landed on bestseller lists. And which Ms. Strout followed with more New England stories, more bestsellers, more honesty.

And the truth of it, she says, was this:

“I only ever get stuck if I am not being honest.”

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