Suzan-Lori Parks speaks to students, offers a million suggestions for success

Izzy Schellenger || Staff Writer 

In this week’s Common Hour, Suzan-Lori Parks spoke about the importance of improving both the world and yourself through creativity and art. Parks is a highly acclaimed author, playwright, actor, and musician.

Parks is the first African American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 2002 for her Broadway show, “Topdog/Underdog.” She was named one of Time’s top “100 Innovators for the Fresh New Wave,” and she was the 2015 Mueller Fellowship recipient. Parks’ Common Hourspeech was performance based, and she walked up to stage with her guitar in hand.

Parks said the purpose of her talk was to present the audience with a million suggestions on how to succeed through the form of speech, sound, and gestures.

P1030196In order to bring life to these suggestions, she structured her speech around a chronology of her life and career, intertwining side-bars into her lecture with pieces of advice. She began her speech by describing the experience of winning the Pulitzer Prize and how humbling the moment was for her, for it made her question who she was before that moment and what path she was making for people to follow in her footsteps.

She emphasized that her accomplishments and countless awards did not come without a struggle, describing herself as “blessed, but not without stress.”

The many suggestions that she gave in her lecture were centered around ideals of hard work, kindness, optimism, spirituality, and selflessness that she believed assisted her in becoming the accomplished woman she is today.

Her desire to be a writer started in the fourth grade, when she began to write her first novel after only having read three novels herself. In high school, she told her Advanced Placement English teacher that she wanted to be a writer, but was discouraged because her teacher told her she was a bad speller, and consequently could not be a proficient writer.

Her back-up plan was to become a scientist, which she soon realized was not a career path she would enjoy.

Because she had strayed from her desired path of becoming a writer, she temporarily forgot about her love of literature. It was not until she was forced to take an English class at Mount Holyoke College that she was reminded of her true passion.

“Entertain all your far-out ideas, [allow them to] flower in you life,” Parks said.

By stifling these ideas, Parks said, people will be destined to travel down a path they will not truly enjoy.

Her second suggestion stemmed from her belief that sometimes a well-meaning and respected person will provide advice that does not go in accordance with what the recipient believes would be best for him. Instead of being tempted to agree, Parks recommended, learn how to graciously reject the advice.

Parks also stresses in the importance of learning how to listen to one’s inner voice. Through the consideration of one’s own interests and feelings, Parks believes people can create their own happiness and success.

According to Parks, once someone has embraced their interests, they will be excited to wake up in the morning and recommit towards their goals because they enjoy their work. She reminded the audience that there is “no cruise control in real life,” and that one must always work hard to accomplish their goals.

In 2006, Parks implemented a playwright project where she wrote 365 plays in 365 days, and this project was reproduced in over 700 theaters worldwide.

Another one of Parks’ suggestions is to practice radical inclusion, where people learn to accept and include others who they might not have strong or positive feelings toward. Parks said that by stepping out of your comfort zone, you will be living an open-minded and enhanced life where you are accepting to new people, new ideas, and new experiences.

In college, Parks was accepted into a highly selective creative-writing class taught by American novelist James Baldwin. Because of Parks’ theatricality in the class, Baldwin recommended that Parks should consider writing for the theater. While first skeptical of this idea because of the notorious reputation of the theater majors she knew, Parks ultimately took Baldwin’s advice, and has never looked back.

Parks emphasized that we must present the best of ourselves to the rest of the world so that we set an exceptional example for anyone who strives to follow in our footsteps.

By working hard, being kind and confident, helping others, and listening to our own interests and desires, Parks believes that everyone can improve the world. She concluded with her one-millionth suggestion: “Enjoy the trip.”

Sophomore Izzy Schellenger is a staff writer. Her email is ischelle@fandm.edu.

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