Aspen Summer Words: David Lipsky
June 21, 2016
If You Go …
What: ‘Getting Crafty’ panel, presented by Aspen Summer Words
Who: Antonya Nelson, David Lipsky
Where: Maroon Room, The Gant
When: Tuesday, June 21, 4 p.m.
Tickets: Sold out
What: ‘The Take Away’ panel, presented by Aspen Summer Words
Who: Antonya Nelson, Dean Bakopoulos, Ann Hood, Maria Semple, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Alissa Nutting, George Hodgman, David Lipsky, Darin Strauss
Where: Maroon Room, The Gant
When: Thursday, June 23, 4 p.m.
Tickets: Sold out
David Lipsky has taken a genre-agnostic approach to writing. The author, who is teaching a memoir workshop this week at Aspen Summer Words, broke out as a short-story writer among the conspicuously young literary brat pack of the 1980s, published a novel, wrote pop culture and celebrity profiles at Rolling Stone through the 1990s, and spent four years at West Point following a class of cadets for his immersive, award-winning 2003 book "Absolutely American."
For his 2010 memoir/extended interview "Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself," he dug out old tapes from five days he spent with David Foster Wallace on a Rolling Stone assignment in 1996. Last year director James Ponsoldt adapted the book into the film "The End of the Tour," with Jesse Eisenberg playing Lipsky and Jason Segel as Wallace.
Next up: a cultural history of global warming called "The Parrot and the Igloo."
Lipsky, who also teaches creative writing at New York University, talks about writing as a craft with little difference between fiction or nonfiction, journalism or memoir — he compares the process of writing to furniture-making, compares reading as a writer to a football team breaking down game tape. Asked about what he wanted to get done with his students here in the next week, Lipsky recalled a lesson from the officers at West Point.
"They said, 'It's a different kind of teaching in the military, because you're teaching your next generation of peers — people who, if all goes well, will be working next to you, and working in a particularity intimate way," he recalled. "Writing is that way, too. … The great thing the officers said at West Point was, 'You know you've done your job well when you don't have to be there.'"
That's his overarching goal as a teacher, whether it's in a weeklong workshop like Aspen Summer Words or a two-year-long program like his graduate students at NYU: to help them develop tools to astutely evaluate their work on their own and to break down writing by others in a way that improves their skill and understanding of the craft.
The film adaptation of "Although of Course" and having a slice of his life made into an acclaimed feature hasn't much changed his profile on campus, Lipsky said.
"It's mostly just, 'Hey, you don't look like Jesse Eisenberg,'" he said with a laugh.
He was pleased with how "The End of the Tour" turned out, he said, and with his experience advising filmmakers during the production and talking to audiences about Wallace and his work in the process. Lipsky recalled a group at a screening in Palm Springs International Film Festival last summer as exemplary of his experience advocating for Wallace's work to audiences.
"Their menu of fiction might be a little bit more Tom Clancy-ish," he said. "But they were fascinated by the way David Wallace's words came off on screen, and people were asking me which stories of his were great, what was the best thing to pick up."
In conversation and in panels like the two Lipsky will sit on this week at the literary festival, he seems to have a memorized quote ready for any occasion: Ian Frazier on the dangers reporting a story for too long, Zadie Smith on the importance of taking time away from a manuscript in the editing process.
Ponsoldt said his first conversation with Lipsky about adapting "Although of Course" stretched for four hours and ranged across every topic under the sun, and led him toward making the film he did.
"I realized very quickly that he's great at asking questions and listening, like any great journalist, but he also has an encyclopedic knowledge of almost everything," Ponsoldt told The Aspen Times last year. "It helped me understand the dynamic of what was going on between him and Wallace."
Lipsky is currently on the tail end of writing his global warming book, which has been in progress for the past six years.
"It's a very disturbing but also a very funny story about how we've gotten from when people first understood that by producing carbon dioxide we might change the weather, to knowing that for about half a century and not doing anything," he said. "It's one of the most bleakly funny stories I know."