Colson Whitehead, Take the Gamble, and Let Your Voice be Heard

To be a novelist is to be a gambler. Even if your work is published, it could be poorly reviewed, destined for the remainder book bargain table, and eventually go out of print and disappear altogether. Time is an investment you might not get back, and it could take years of work to learn your craft, find your voice, and shape your manuscript. Before a novelist even starts, they know the odds are against them. They might have family members who discourage them. Want them to take a more assured path, and provide the education to be a doctor or a lawyer. Even if you manage to make a living as a writer, there are still other pressures. If you are successful there’s the pressure of the next book. Will it fare as well, or be a crushing disappointment? If you have an idea, is it the right time for it? Should you wait until you’re older or more experienced? Are you the right person to be telling the story? One writer who has faced all of these struggles is Colson Whitehead.

Born in Manhattan to wealthy parents, he attended private schools, and after graduating from Harvard announced his dream to be a journalist. His parents tried to dissuade him, and didn’t stop telling him to “get a real job” until the publication of his first books. He started his career as a writer for the Village Voice. In the next few years he wrote novels like Sag Harbor, a coming of age story about summertime in the 1980s, Zone One, an apocalyptic zombie thriller, a book of essays, and a memoir about world championship poker, that Whitehead describes as, “Eat, Pray, Love  for depressed shut-ins.” He first got the idea for his major work over 15 years ago, but it took him several years before he felt ready to write Underground Railroad.

The book has been a tremendous success. It was awarded The Pulitzer Price, the National Book award, and chosen as an Oprah Book Club selection, and is being adapted for television. Whitehead is currently on a global book promotion tour, with stops that include Australia, France, China, Norway, Denmark, Italy, and Germany.

“When I had the idea in 2000, it seemed like a good idea, but I didn’t think I could pull it off. I didn’t think I was a good enough writer. I thought if I wrote some more books I might become a better craftsperson and, if I was older, I might be able to bring the maturity of some of those years to the book and do it justice. And so I shied away from it. It was daunting in terms of its structure, and to do the research as deep as it needed to be done, and to deal with the subject with the gravity it deserved, was scary. And then, a couple of years ago, I thought maybe the scary book is the one you’re supposed to be doing.” —Colson Whitehead

The book is a blend of historical fiction and magical realism, set in the Pre-Civil War 1850 that finds its heroine Cora trying to escape a Georgia plantation, on a literal Underground Railroad, a train system with station stops all over America. The railroad isn’t a symbol of comfort, safety, or hope, and Cora never knows where she will end up next, or what dangers she will have to face. The book took extensive research including reading archived transcripts of oral histories of former slaves recorded in the 1930s.

Whitehead is blunt when he discusses his visceral reaction to the dehumanizing, violence and horror of slavery. He said in an interview with the New York Times, “Thinking about the loss of a child, about how my own children would feel if they saw me beaten to death in front of them, made writing this book very different than it would have been if I had tried it when I was 30.”  He felt compelled to write the novel, and is part of a new generation of voices who are free to grapple with the topic, unconstrained by censorship, or the prejudices of audiences that hampered early slave narratives. Of the historical importance of his subject matter he explained to NPR, “Here’s one delusion – that we can escape slavery. We can’t. Its scars will never fade. And to me, like, that’s what the book is really about, how the scars of slavery will never fade.”

Do you have a story inside of you? Something only you can tell? Something you feel a responsibility to record? Not every writer can be as successful as Colson Whitehead. It can be a challenge to create and count on that creation to be something you can also make a living at. You don’t have to make your artistic endeavors your career. That’s what side hustles are for. The creative world is full of writers with day jobs. Franz Kafka worked at an insurance company, imagist poet William Carlos Williams was a doctor, and Jorge Luis Borges was a librarian. Don’t leave your artistic expression trapped inside. Don’t leave a manuscript unwritten, or a canvas unpainted, or a song unsung. Tell your story. Let your version of the world be heard. You never know who will find it, and what ripples will resound. But if you think you are meant to be a professional writer? Learn from people like Colson Whitehead. Execute your intuition and persevere. Don’t be afraid to take a gamble.

Author Bio: Tara Collum

Tara Collum lives in Toronto and grew up in Muskoka. She is the volunteer social media coordinator for the Death Row Support Project @COB_DRSP and co-writes a web serial at She is all about tea, books, mumblecore, music, long walks, and self-improvement. Follow Tara on twitter @99percentsun