"I write because it makes me feel most alive."
Comparative Media Studies / Writing
Helen Elaine Lee grew up in Detroit in a home where storytelling, jokes, and a general reverence for the power of language held sway. Her father George, a trial lawyer who attended Harvard Law School in the 1940s, expressed a love of words in his work, his wit, and his table-side yarns.
The Power of Books
Her mother Dorothy—a professor of comparative literature and the first black woman to receive a PhD in the subject from Harvard—often recited and performed poetry for her daughter. "Books were like a religion," recalls Lee, "and I still feel that way."
"I write because it makes me feel most alive and it seems a powerful way to participate in the world. Books have borne me through every difficult and important moment in my life."
From Law to Letters
Lee's journey towards the writer's life took her first through Harvard Law School. After graduating in 1985, she worked for nine years as an attorney, while writing on the side, honing her craft. "I felt passionate about writing," she says, "and I had to find my voice."
"Writing is hard because you have to confront yourself and face difficult emotional territory. It doesn't abide by a formula—there are no right and wrong answers. There's something frightening about that, because of what might arise, but it's also totally exhilarating and freeing."
Lee feels a similar enthusiasm for teaching. "When you see you are expanding somebody's notions of their own possibilities, or ways of looking at the world—that's very exciting."
Helen Elaine Lee's books are The Serpent's Gift (Athenaeum), and Water Marked (Scribner). She has completed the manuscript for a new book, Life Without, about the lives of inmates in American prisons. In addition to teaching writing at MIT, Lee serves on the Board of PEN New England, the oldest human rights organization in the world, and directs its Prison Creative Writing Program, which she helped to establish.