Go to content, skip over navigation


More Pages

Go to content, skip over visible header bar
Home News Features Arts & Entertainment Sports OpinionAbout Contact Advertise

Note about Unsupported Devices:

You seem to be browsing on a screen size, browser, or device that this website cannot support. Some things might look and act a little weird.

Anthony Doerr shines light on navigating life post-graduation

April 12, 2024

Kaya Patel

Welcome back to Turning Point! In case you are new here, we interview Bowdoin alumni and Mainers about the experiences that shaped their twenties and share their stories with Bowdoin students.

This week, we sat down with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anthony Doerr ’95, whose works include “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” “The Shell Collector” and “All the Light We Cannot See” (which was recently made into a Netflix series). In conversation, he was remarkably warm, wise, goofy and expansive as he described navigating his twenties post-Bowdoin.

C+E: Can you tell us about your upbringing and how it shaped your college choice and career path?

AD: Being a writer wasn’t a career that you could say out loud. That’d be like saying I’m gonna be an astronaut or a blue whale. I grew up in Cleveland, and nature was a big part of my life. My mom was a science teacher, and she was always helping me and my brothers translate the natural world into language. She had a two-week spring break, and we would drive to Florida every year. And I just fell in love with the ocean so much. I loved marine biology, and my mom found a camp on Mount Desert Island. I remember being able to go to such a cool oceanography camp was such a privilege…. And I remember mostly just thinking [Bowdoin’s] by the ocean, and they have early decision, so all I had to do was one application. There are so many silly reasons kids pick colleges: [For me because it was] by the ocean, and I love Maine. I was writing stories secretly, junior and senior year, but it wasn’t like, “I’m going to Bowdoin because of the literary tradition.”

C+E: Tell us a little bit about your time at Bowdoin. What were you involved in on campus/what was your major?

AD: I loved it. I played rugby…. That gave me a great sense of community. And those [rugby] trips were great—unlike you guys—we were without phones. The rugby away games really helped me get a feel that first of all, there’s a lot of nature and this is a cool thing. We’d go jump off bridges in Harpswell. There’s all this access to the ocean that I started to fall in love with.

I was so grateful you got to wait a little while before specializing. You don’t have to decide when you’re 17. I remember I made an appointment with the assistant dean to try to convince her that I didn’t have to major in one subject, and I could just take tons of electives—like the major of being a generalist. I have in some ways built a life where I’ve been allowed to do that. I used to be interested in the sciences, I’ve kind of let my curiosities guide me in a way that maybe a doctor couldn’t. I think we get to be learning all the time. I did major in history and minored in English. History was a way for me to keep writing without having to announce to the department that I wanted to be a writer. There was a poetry class, and you had to write poems to get in, and I’d never written a poem. So I wrote a couple and didn’t get into the class. I just wanted to write prose.

C+E: What was your first job out of college?

AD: Yeah, are you guys seeing friends like, “Oh, I’ve got an internship with JP Morgan?” I had so much insecurity about that. I thought I wanted to try this writing thing but couldn’t really say that out loud. And then senior spring, kids are wearing suits to interviews. It just fills you with insecurity. I went to work in a fish-packing plant with three other Bowdoin buddies. We drove from Maine all the way to Alaska. [Then] a Bowdoin friend and I went to New Zealand for that second year; we worked on farms, and I started to really read and write a lot—there was no streaming or smartphones or anything. That was a really great apprenticeship because whatever books I brought, I read really closely because they were the only books I had with me. I applied to graduate schools after that year, from New Zealand, via airmail. It was mostly a way to have something to tell my parents, to be honest. I was really, really grateful that I had to just work [before going to graduate school]: farm work and work at the fish packing plant. Sometimes, I end up working with students right out of school, and they’ve gone right into a master’s program, and sometimes they’re just a little less in touch with having a real job.

C+E: What led to your decision to go back to school for your MFA?

AD: I don’t want to bum you guys out. It was just a different time though, because people read a lot of paper magazines. So that was a much clearer path. I got started publishing short stories too, but also writing some journalism for magazines. They’d pay me to read and write about books, and I got a little bit of money. That’d pay like, three grand. It’s not like you were rich, but you were seeing your name and getting paid for your work, which was great. You’re scrambling all the time, but you have total freedom. But yeah, that’s kind of how I got my way up. And I think that that still exists. It’s a slightly different path because that work is online. You can get paid for reading fiction online and publishing online. There are plenty of agents out there looking for the next young writer coming up, and they’re reading that stuff. When I read, I was paying attention to who represented those writers and publishers’ writers. Often nowadays, there’s an “Oscar speech” at the end of every book. I started paying attention to who those people were thanking, who those writers are thanking and usually identifying agents who might represent me.

C+E: How would you describe your twenties in a few words?

AD: Fun, super fun. Your memory tends to erase some of the anxiety. I felt really free. I had tons of energy to try different things and was so excited being in graduate school.

C+E: What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?

AD: I would say don’t be so anxious about jumping into a “job” right away. There’s even more pressure on you guys. You have the rest of your life to work. Your classmates are going to go into these jobs, and they’re going to be working 80 hours. And if you don’t take a breath, and think, “What is capitalism pushing me towards here? What are the rewards I’m supposed to be reaping?” which are usually material rewards. The next thing you know, you’re gonna blink, and you’re going to be 40 or 45. And you only get one trip through this life, only one pair of knees and hips. When you’re 20, you can just go do anything. Go to Greenland, go across the Arctic because [those things are] a little harder when you have a mortgage. Take your time before you commit, and [remember] you can always reinvent your life. Try new stuff.

C+E: Would you do anything differently if you could go back in time?

AD: Definitely would go pat myself on the back when my friends were going to their insurance interviews and say, “It’s okay. It’s gonna work out. Keep reading Aldous Huxley, or whatever you’re toting around.”

I think you have to go through those journeys. In some ways, I’m glad I had that anxiety. The one thing that maybe I should emphasize is that the funnel is pretty narrow in terms of how many people who want to go into the arts can actually make a living, and some of that just comes from grit—also maybe a little bit of just working harder than other classmates in grad school.

Sometimes you have to say, “I’m just gonna give myself space and dream.” And sometimes it’s time to work. Give yourself space, be kind to yourself and also push yourself. Those are things I’m still dealing with everyday.

C+E: Was there a turning point for you during college/your twenties?

AD: Getting rejected from that poetry class at Bowdoin was a turning point in that I was like, “I’ll show them!” It’s kind of a competitive release. I also got rejected from a lot of graduate schools. So sometimes those setbacks are actually motivating, even though they’re kind of devastating for the first hour or two.


Before submitting a comment, please review our comment policy. Some key points from the policy:

  • No hate speech, profanity, disrespectful or threatening comments.
  • No personal attacks on reporters.
  • Comments must be under 200 words.
  • You are strongly encouraged to use a real name or identifier ("Class of '92").
  • Any comments made with an email address that does not belong to you will get removed.

Leave a Reply

Any comments that do not follow the policy will not be published.

0/200 words