University of Vermont

University Communications

Author Anne Fadiman Advises First-Years on Writing, Cross-Cultural Collaboration

Anne Fadiman at UVM's Ira Allen Chapel
"The more you learn, the less arrogant you become," author Anne Fadiman told an audience at UVM's Ira Allen Chapel. "If it ever goes in the other direction, you have some thinking to do." (Photo: Sally McCay)

“Embarrassment,” says Anne Fadiman, “is a very motivating emotion.” It’s the reason, she admitted to an audience at UVM Tuesday evening, that her book — the 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award-winner The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down — came to be.

Her first article-form incarnation of the story — which details the clash between the medical community and a refugee family from Laos over the treatment of a toddler with severe epilepsy — was rejected by the New Yorker. But Fadiman, depressed at the thought of telling the family and doctors that all the time she’d spent with them was now a waste, was too embarrassed to break that news.

“I couldn’t say that one sentence. So I wrote a 300-page book instead,” she said. “It was so much easier.”

While the Ira Allen audience included a cross-section of the campus and local community, Fadiman said her words were meant primarily for the first-years, for whom her book was chosen as this year’s Summer Read selection. It’s a program that introduces the incoming class to “the kind of intellectual, cultural and social discourse,” President Tom Sullivan said in his introductory remarks, “that we are used to at the University of Vermont.”

“Like the characters in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,” Fadiman told first-years, “you are newly arrived immigrants who have recently left your comfortable home territory, and you’ve plunged into a new and unfamiliar culture. I wish you confidence and joy as you negotiate all of college’s cross-cultural bumps.”

But like her own story, theirs will also include failures, she assured them, some even here at UVM. “The whole world will look dark, but you’d be amazed at how often things turn out OK in the end.”
Her hour-long lecture and the wide-ranging Q&A session that followed covered the book’s impact on the medical profession, its impact on Fadiman's own family life, her continued relationship with the Lee family, thoughts on how to navigate cross-cultural relationships successfully and plenty of writing advice, too.

On writing, Fadiman recommended to students: “Divide your work into tiny little sub tasks — and sub, sub, sub, sub, sub tasks.” Relish the sense of satisfaction that comes with checking completed tasks off your list.

Inspired by Vermont, she also turned to the maple syrup making process for an apt analogy for the importance of revising. When making maple syrup, she explained, “if you don’t keep boiling enough, you end up not with delicious concentrated syrup, but with sugar water. And I think that’s what writing is like, too. When I was in college, I started everything too late. I didn’t revise enough, and I ended up with sugar water because I hadn’t given myself time to boil enough.”

Lisa Schnell, dean of the Honors College, who moderated the Q&A, asked Fadiman what advice she had for students who will study or work with Burlington’s refugee population.

“Studying somebody sounds as if you’re pinning that refugee under a microscope and kind of looking through and maybe dissecting it,” Fadiman said. “‘Working with’ has a collaborative feel. Perhaps even an underpinning of gratitude. ‘Wouldn’t I be lucky if I could learn something about your fascinating culture if you were kind enough to let me in?’ And that second attitude,” she said, “is the one that I hope you will have.”

Keeping this openness to other cultures, and accepting our views aren’t the center of the universe, is one of the challenges of the contemporary world, Fadiman said. It struck her as she attended the funeral of the central figure of her book, Lia, who died in 2012.

“Just as I had so many times when Lia was five and six years old,” Fadiman said, “I found myself the only white person in a room full of Hmong, and as I pondered the gift that immersion in another culture had given me, I thought about the fear and xenophobia of the post-9/11 world. As we move through our lives in college and afterward in the wider world, I think our task has to be to resist the knee-jerk responses that make us so afraid of the other — whoever it may be.”