Jill Lepore offered plenty of insight into her writing approach and career when she visited Bryn Mawr College on Oct. 26, 2017, in her appearance as the 2017 Emily Balch Speaker.
The Balch Seminars introduce all first-year Bryn Mawr students to complex and wide-ranging issues through intensive reading, writing, and active discussion. The Speaker Series brings together the entire class for a conversation with a prominent author.
Lepore spoke to members of the class of 2021 about her work as a Harvard professor, New Yorker staff writer, and New York Times bestselling author. She read select passages from her works and talked about her personal history and how she got into writing.
When Lepore was 18, she said, her family did not have enough money to pay for her college tuition, so she joined the ROTC to get a scholarship. She entered Tufts University, where she began as a math major and student athlete.
While in her first year at Tufts, she received a letter that she had written to her future self when she was 14 years old. She described the letter as "scathing"; the 14-year-old Lepore criticized her college-aged self for not following her dreams or doing what she truly wanted to do.
Lepore responded by re-evaluating her priorities, becoming an English major, and quitting field hockey and eventually the ROTC. Receiving this letter from her past self also piqued her interested in the subject that would shape her career: history.
"To write history is to make an argument by telling a story about dead people," Lepore told the audience. "History is the art of making an argument about the past by telling a story accountable to evidence."
Wanting to learn more about writing and history, Lepore got a job as a secretary at Harvard University and snuck into classes on her breaks. She moved on to graduate school, received an M.A. in American Culture in 1990 from the University of Michigan, and a Ph.D. in American Studies in 1995 from Yale University.
Lepore described for the audience her strategy when writing argumentative essays. If you already know the answer to the question you're posing, she argued, you won't have the energy to find evidence to support it because you aren't personally curious. Instead, she said, writers should approach topics that they are genuinely curious about and try to answer burning questions. As an example, Lepore explained the impetus for "Baby Food," her 2009 article in The New Yorker about the history of the breast pump. What sparked her interest in this topic was when she was at a conference and retreated into a women's restroom to use a breast pump as she was lactating at the time. When she entered the restroom, she was surprised to find six other women lined up in a row, all using breast pumps. The sight of them called images of cows to her mind rather than mothers.
Lepore asked herself: "What the hell? How did we get here?" Since she was genuinely curious about how the use of the breast pump had come about, let alone how it had become so widespread, Lepore was able to keep herself far more invested in the research for the article than if she had chosen a question she already knew the answer to.
During the question-and-answer session, a student asked about Lepore's research for her 2013 work Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, a biography about Benjamin Franklin's sister. Lepore replied that it was difficult to research the life of Jane Franklin because while much of history is revealed through letters, at the time of Jane Franklin's life, women were not traditionally taught to write, so she did not keep a diary or other records of her life and the letters that she did send were not saved.
Another student asked about where Lepore found the bravery to write her New Yorker essay "The Prodigal Daughter," which is about the death of her mother and Lepore's regrets involving that relationship. Her mother was the one who had urged her to write a biography of Jane Franklin and Lepore kept putting it off, so it wasn't published until after her mother passed away. The essay, published in 2013, addresses Lepore's guilt over postponing the book as well as discussing her process of mourning her mother's death. Lepore responded that as a member of the Catholic church, she was used to confessionals and saw the writing of the essay as a public confession of her guilt.
When asked by another student how she felt about working at The New Yorker, Lepore responded that she loves working there and is always somewhat scared that she will be fired for writing something controversial. She also said that The New Yorker is very good at raising up women in journalism. She said that if she were working for any other newspaper or magazine, she would likely be forced to write stories about women's issues and would have to fit the "angry feminist" stereotype. Instead, she said, The New Yorker has treated Lepore the same as her male counterparts and has put her in charge of important tasks such as the coverage of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in 2016.
Following the Q&A session, students were invited to College Great Hall for a traditional dessert reception and a book signing. At the reception, which was Wonder Woman-themed in honor of Lepore's 2014 book The Secret History of Wonder Woman, students got the opportunity to engage with Lepore and ask her more questions.
In recent years, the Balch Speaker Series has featured award-winning novelist and essayist Zadie Smith; novelist and MacArthur "Genius" Fellow Karen Russell; and graphic novelist Alison Bechdel.