In March, Nobles hosted acclaimed author Ilyon Woo for a discussion about her latest book, Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey From Slavery to Freedom, an American love story about Ellen and William Craft, a courageous couple who pose as master and slave in a heroic escape from slavery. The novel was named one of the New York Times’ “10 Best Books of 2023” and Best Book of the Year by The New Yorker, Smithsonian Magazine, Oprah Daily, and more.

Rather than beginning her talk with a history lesson, Woo unassumingly leveled with students, faculty, and staff, sharing the unexpected catalyst that led to her success: failure. “I’m going to start off with a confession,” began Woo. “I nearly got a D in history when I was a sophomore at a school very much like yours. The bane of my existence in history was the DBQ (document-based question).” The rows of upperclassmen in Lawrence Auditorium began to pulse with the laughter that comes with shared experience. “I found the idea of formulating historical arguments overwhelming. While I loved stories about history, I had no idea how to look at all of these different texts and make a quick decision about what it all means.” Even years later, when writing an early draft of Master Slave Husband Wife, Woo found writing about historical events arduous, but her curiosity around the fascinating narrative of the Crafts’ courageous journey to emancipation catapulted her into an expedition of her own.

In the winter of 1848, described by Woo as “a time of worldwide revolutions,” with Ellen disguised as a white man and William posing as “his” slave, the Crafts left Georgia and set off for Philadelphia. Despite many terrifying moments, the couple pulled off their perilous plan. Their worries did not end with their arrival in the North, however, as the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 resulted in droves of slave hunters traveling north. By then, the Crafts were well-known activists who frequently spoke in public, and their freedom remained in jeopardy.

As much as Woo’s talk was about the Crafts’ story and her experience writing that narrative, it was also about what she called “the behind-the-scenes mess” of the process and “an epic case of failure from which this book finally sprang.” Woo’s thesis advisor gave her critical advice: “Don’t let the details get in the way of the story.” Advice she initially failed to follow. When she handed her editor an early iteration of her book, it was sent back with a six-page letter calling the work “a scholarly tomb.” She was to toss everything, start over, and find a way to begin the story with its ending, rather than writing chronologically.

Woo was perplexed at the thought of writing the past and present simultaneously, until she recalled her music lessons from childhood. When she wanted to play a “wildly racing piece,”her mother told her to find a way to feel the music on her own. Years later, Woo’s teacher said the same thing—to not think so much about the individual notes but to feel where they converge. “As I stopped focusing on the individual notes and felt the rhythm of that convergence, I got it,” she said. “I had a ‘eureka’ moment when I realized that it’s the same thing with writing.”

“The very qualities that made me so bad at DBQs when I was in high school, my indecisiveness—my inability to grab a single line, articulate an all-encompassing viewpoint, and do this with a timer—are actually what has made my present work possible…I use document fragments to answer historical questions, but I am doing this in my own way. So I want to invite you to consider, what is your Achilles heel, your flaw? Take a moment and think about something either you or someone around you has identified as a weakness. I was told I was ‘too sensitive, indecisive.’ To ‘just hurry up, decide, it doesn’t need to be perfect.’ Now let me encourage you to flip that negative tendency upside down and look at it another way. What’s the flip side of being too sensitive? Being nuanced? The flip side of being indecisive? Being able to imagine multiple points of view. So I suggest this exercise as a way of seeing how it is possible that the very qualities that you might be struggling with right now may also contain your greatest strength..”

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