Non-fiction writer David Shields shares stories, wisdom, and laughs

By Sam Taggart
Arts and Life Editor

Ending the 50th Anniversary year of the Beck Lecture Series, non-fiction writer, David Shields, graced the Barney-David Board Room with a soft-spoken, yet charming and witty personality this past Wed., April 3.

Introduced by Dr. Margot Singer, Shields was described as a writer with an unique approach – a master of the “hyper-genre” and the “artistic collage” – attempting to blend form and content in a new and devoted way. Continuing her preface with an evident enthusiasm, Singer emphasized Shields’ focus on “discussing the things that matter” in his writing, and, taking the podium with a calm and cool demeanor, the night’s guest speaker took a candid approach elaborating on Singer’s claims.

“I hope I can live up to these justifications,” Shields started, jokingly. He continued by describing his relationship with writing, using a clever and unique analogy: “It’s like a shark,” he said, “it is a process that needs to keep moving, or else it dies.”

Shields made it clear throughout his time at the podium that the writing process is an ever-changing entity – one that must adapt to the time and place of the writer – and, that in today’s fast-paced society, the writer must be willing to adjust their technique and style as the world around them continues to change.

Beginning his career writing fiction, he soon found that he was “bored by the novelistic apparatus,” and, continuing, epitomized his new approach:  “I wanted to resonate about the world, not dramaticize it.”

Shields’ style has been critically-acclaimed, he has appeared on various television shows, and has written multiple national bestsellers, including his two newest pieces, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto and, most recently, How Literature Changed My Life.

Reading a chapter entitled, “Love is a Long, Close Scrutiny,” from this latest book, Shields described a relationship he had in college, and the close connection he formed with his former-lover’s detail-oriented diary. Sneaking into her vacant room to read her journal and to learn what she wanted from a lover, this excerpt reveals the insights – both good and bad – that are a product of reading someone else’s secret manuscripts.

Presenting the romantically detrimental side effects of his sneakiness – the relationship fizzled soon after Shields confessed to reading the diary – he was able to share with his audience a situation unique to his life in the form a perfectly written piece of non-fiction: a narrative of personal insight intertwined with a universal premise.

Taking everyday scenes and shaping them in narrative form, Shields takes pride in noticing the contradictions that make us all seem connected as humans: “I’m interested in being wrong, but in a complex way…I want to expose myself…[and] explore it deeply enough to find something interesting,” he said.

Noting the importance of transforming those awkward moments, those “times that we are broken,” the times that make us undeniably human, he wants to enlighten his readers that these instances are opportunities to learn, reflect, and grow as individuals.

Narrating scenes in his life with a blunt honesty and a self-deprecating wittiness, Shields uses his writing to share his experiences in a way that can affect us universally.

Using sparse prose – and an even drier sense of humor when reading aloud – he does this by weaving mindful reflections into scene with distinctive expertise.

Trying to convey reality within honest, insightful, and genre-defying works, David Shields avoids vanity in a way that most people cannot.

Exuding a well-read and thoughtful demeanor, yet hiding it behind his quiet voice; taking generic prose and spinning it in a new way; balancing on the “thin membrane between life and art,” he has solidified himself as one of the most prolific and well-versed writers of his generation.