Campus Reading author inspires students with authenticity and humor at 17th annual Lawson Lecture

As part of this semester’s Vanderbilt Visions programming, Kevin Wilson, BA’00, the author of Now is Not the Time to Panic, this year’s Campus Reading, shared his experiences as a Vanderbilt student in the mid-1990s with more than 1,000 current  first-year students on Sept. 10. Wilson’s talk in Langford Auditorium was the 17th annual Lawson Lecture.

Wilson began by confessing that he arrived on campus as a first-year student having skipped summer orientation and without registering for any classes. Although his story sounds like the stuff of recurring stress dreams, it was the real-life start to his undergraduate education. Wilson shared the many ways that his time at Vanderbilt ultimately served as a foundation for his life and career. Wilson is a New York Times best-selling author, the recipient of the Alex Award from the American Library Association and the Shirley Jackson Award, and an associate professor of English and creative writing at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.

Sharing personal stories about his struggles, disabilities and discoveries, Wilson encouraged the students to avoid letting temporary setbacks derail their undergraduate journeys. Encountering obstacles and constraints is human, Wilson said, and he noted how in his life and in his writing he has focused on identifying constraints to human potential and reimagining what is possible. Wilson told the students the path toward finding a career doesn’t have to be straight, intentional or even very smooth.

First-year student Leonor Liu said Wilson “was very relatable, both because he went to Vanderbilt and due to his lack of formality,” adding that the lecture helped her “put her own experience here into perspective.”

“We chose Now is Not the Time to Panic for the 2023–24 Campus Reading because of its focus on belonging, a central concern for anyone joining a new community,” said Melissa Gresalfi, dean of residential colleges and residential education and of The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons. “Professor Wilson’s remarks about his own life and about his book brought to life the ways that Vanderbilt University, and students’ experiences in their classes and small groups like Vanderbilt Visions, can really be the difference between walking away from a challenge and sticking with it. He shared how having a community, feeling seen and known and finding connection are the mortar that holds together the bricks of academic coursework.”

Wilson also described how mentorship from his Vanderbilt professors Tony Earley, Samuel Milton Fleming Professor and professor of English, and Marc Schoenfield, professor of English, gave him purpose and helped him find his way to the beauty and power of words. Nearly 25 years after graduating from Vanderbilt, Wilson’s words have filled six novels and numerous essays.

“The best thing I did for Kevin was to stay out of his way,” said Earley after the lecture. “I still vividly remember reading a story that he wrote as a sophomore—about a guy who worked at the Scrabble factory—and realizing he was a genius. I’m sure I learned a lot more from him than he did from me.”

Wilson’s candor was on full display during his talk, as he revealed his writing process and the deeply personal origins of Now is Not the Time to Panic’s central motif: the seemingly non-sensical phrase “The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers, we are the new fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.” That sentence was crafted by a close friend while Wilson was an undergraduate, and it still serves as a personal mantra that he recites daily. Wilson said it centers him and reminds him of his beloved and now-deceased friend who coined the phrase.

Wilson also relayed his mischievous side as a student at Vanderbilt. As a student worker, he was responsible for transcribing an entire human resources manual for a division at the university. Wilson revealed that he surreptitiously typed the phrase that would become the core of his book somewhere in the text of the online manual. It remained there for years, available for all to see. Wilson noted, with a hint of sadness, that the manual has since been taken down, but his phrase lives on in his best-selling novel. The phrase has taken on a life of its own in art works and other formats and has even been uttered on NBC’s Today Show.

Kevin Wilson signs books after the Lawson Lecture. Photo credit: Vanderbilt University

“Professor Wilson connected with the students in a profound way. The candor with which he told stories of his college experience deeply resonated with students,” said Tiffiny Tung, vice provost for undergraduate education. “I also appreciated how he linked his writings to other authors. That was a wonderful way to show students how authors can spark ideas in each other and ignite inspiration. This is what I hope for among our Vanderbilt students—that reading novels and the stories of others’ experiences inspires them.”

The annual Lawson Lecture is named in honor of the Rev. James Lawson, a renowned civil rights activist, professor, theoretician and pastor. Lawson served as a Distinguished Professor at Vanderbilt from 2006 to 2009, donated his papers to Vanderbilt’s Jean and Alexander Heard Libraries in 2013, and in 2022, the College of Arts and Science and the Divinity School opened the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements. While the Lawson Lecture is open to the entire Vanderbilt community, it is targeted to new undergraduate students.

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