University of Vermont

Academic Ceremonies - Commencement

Honorary Degree Recipient

Denise Shekerjian
Doctor of Letters

Denise Shekerjian“Which came first: the restless mind or the writing life?” Denise Shekerjian of Charlotte, Vt. asks on her blog, Soul of a Word. “For this writer anyway,” she tells her readers, “it was a mind like a swollen river that cascades with a ceaseless vengeance down a steep and rocky decline. It refused to settle down and behave already. And it remains ever so.” That restless mind has led Shekerjian on a quest to get inside the creative process—and to share her insights with others. She is the author of Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born, a book based on interviews with 40 MacArthur Foundation fellows (winners of the “genius” prize). For that book, she spoke with accomplished people across the spectrum—including paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, poet John Ashbery, and filmmaker John Sayles—looking for the common elements at the root of creativity, whatever the discipline.

According to a review in the New York Times, if some of the findings were predictable (don’t be afraid to take risks), others were less so, like the ability to have a good time. The book was championed early by Guy Kawasaki of Mac fame, which helped boost it into something of a cult classic in the field. Shekerjian’s intriguing exploration of what it takes to find and sustain the creative impulse caught the attention of a Huffington Post blogger, for example, who wrote about the book last year, more than 20 years after it was published.

Shekerjian came to writing as a second career and learned her art through trial and error. Her preoccupation with process is a theme that runs throughout her blog. After earning her bachelor’s degree in history from Middlebury College, she received a J.D. in law from Michigan State and a L.L.M. in criminal justice from New York University School of Law. Shekerjian pursued a career briefly in human rights and later as a trial attorney in Manhattan—criminal defense, federal court, high-profile cases. She drew upon these experiences for her book, Competent Counsel, a nonfiction account of working with lawyers. The law remains an abiding interest for her, but she prefers the writing life to the courthouse when it comes to telling the whole story.

In addition to commercial work undertaken early her career, and later, her literary work, she started SoulofaWord.com in 2009, a place where she intimately explores the writing life, covering in her weekly entries topics spanning from the practical—how to write a query letter—to the personal and inspirational. “Looking for your beating heart?” Shekerjian asks readers in one post. “Seek the doing.”

The author of many essays and short stories, Shekerjian has twice been nominated for a Puschcart Prize. She has received a New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship, a Graybar American History Prize and a Marshall Fellowship in Civil Liberties. Her first novel, The Color of Heaven, is currently under review. A new nonfiction work drawn from her blog is under development.

Last modified January 27 2012 10:23 AM

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