At 25, Ann Patchett hit a pro­fes­sional road­block. She had thrived in col­lege, she said, and become a teacher at a small school. But within a few years she had found her­self living with her par­ents and working as a wait­ress at TGI Friday’s.

As she bun­dled sil­ver­ware, how­ever, and mar­ried ketchup bot­tles, she began sketching the out­line of a story in her imag­i­na­tion, keeping in mind the goal she had set for her­self as a kid: becoming a writer.

I knew that writing a short story wasn’t going to get me out of this trouble,” Patchett explained. “That’s when I knew I was going to write a novel.”

Patchett dis­cussed her rise from wait­ress to famous nov­elist with mem­bers of the incoming freshman class on Tuesday evening in Matthews Arena. The event was part of the university’s First Pages pro­gram, which requires freshmen—and encour­ages fac­ulty, staff and upperclassmen—to read a chal­lenging book that high­lights crit­ical ques­tions facing today’s students.

This year, some 2,800 freshmen were asked to read Patchett’s “State of Wonder,” which tells the story of phar­ma­ceu­tical researcher Dr. Marina Singh, who sets off into the jungle to find the remains of a col­league who recently died under some­what mys­te­rious circumstances.

First Pages com­mittee chair Mau­reen Kelleher, director of the Uni­ver­sity Honors Pro­gram, praised Patchett’s best­selling novel as “a con­tem­po­rary ‘Heart of Darkness.’”

All of this takes place where memory, magic, mys­teries and med­i­cine coin­cide,” Kelleher said, adding that the novel depicts strong female char­ac­ters working on global issues.

Before her talk in Matthews Arena, Patchett was the guest of honor at an inti­mate dinner with stu­dents and fac­ulty. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Ear­lier this year, Patchett was named one of Time magazine’s most influ­en­tial people, in part because she opened an inde­pen­dent book­store in Nashville, Tenn., becoming an impromptu spokes­woman for local book­stores in the age of Amazon.

In a lively talk full of humorous asides, Patchett told stu­dents that becoming a strong writer in any dis­ci­pline requires ded­i­ca­tion and an ability to for­give your­self for making mistakes.

When people struggle with writing, they say some­thing that is insanely untrue: They say they have writer’s block,” Patchett said. “That is untrue. Today is the last day you have writer’s block. Doctor’s don’t get doctor’s block, math­e­mati­cians don’t get math block, polit­ical sci­en­tists don’t get pol­i­tics block.”

She added, “You have to prac­tice your craft to get good at writing.”

Patchett also urged Northeastern’s 115th entering class to take risks in col­lege, a lesson she learned first­hand. After thriving in the same Catholic school for 12 years, she chose to take only classes she knew she could ace.

I made straight As and I was an idiot,” Patchett said. “I didn’t push myself. Take a class that you are afraid you’re going to fail.”

As a writer, Patchett takes risks for the sake of get­ting it right in her novels. She wit­nessed a C-​​section first­hand, for example, but fainted near the end of the pro­ce­dure; met with a mil­i­tary expert who infected vol­un­teers with malaria to test vac­cines; and trav­eled through the Amazon with a pro­fes­sional snake han­dler who sug­gested one of her char­ac­ters kill a mas­sive snake with a machete.

And people think nov­el­ists don’t do any­thing,” Patchett joked. “We cer­tainly get out there and do things.”

Patchett joins an elite group of authors who have par­tic­i­pated in the First Pages pro­gram, including Atul Gawande, Dave Eggers and Tracy Kidder.