I have been a writer for well over half a century and a teacher of writing for almost as long.
When did I first realize that writing was my calling? I was thirteen years old, rummaging through the bookcases in my parents’ house for something new to read, when I found a paperback titled “A Pocket Book of Short Stories.” I opened it to Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case,” which was like nothing I had ever read before: a story that presented the reader immediately with a protagonist who was genuinely unlikeable–yet I found myself empathizing with his torment, if not his actions. The use of color fascinated me: repeated references to yellow, blue, and red. I was drawn in by the descriptions of Paul himself and of his own tendency to self-dramatization (my mother often told me to “stop overdramatizing everything”). The contrasts between Paul’s “real” life and the dream life he made real, however temporarily, were compelling as well. And then the ending, the drily dispassionate note that “Paul dropped back into the immense design of things.” It floored me.
Somebody wrote this. This was something made, designed and crafted, like a chair or a house or a cake. A person could do this. Could I?
I read on. Dorothy Parker’s “Big Blonde” showed me another unlikeable but somehow appealing character, whose shallowness, vanity, and downright stupidity are nonetheless poor justifications for the tragedy of her life. Moving aimlessly from one “protector” to the next, using Scotch as an anodyne, Hazel suffers especially from other people’s insistence that she remain a cheerful “good sport.”
Even as a thirteen-year-old, I had known something similar: when I was bullied at school for my height (I was already six feet tall) or the glasses that made it possible for me not to walk into doors or trees or lampposts or other people, when kids teased me because I was new in the neighborhood ( I went to seven grammar schools), when I felt that I was doomed to be forever friendless and said so, I was admonished to be grateful for my blessings, to put a smile on my face and hold my head up and ignore the bullies and the teasers.
I felt for Paul and for Hazel Morse, though I did not find them appealing as people, and as I read and re-read these two stories, I began to wonder how a writer could do that. I took the first step toward becoming a writer of fiction as I tried to figure out how characters and their stories were fitted together out of the raw materials each writer brought to her task. What were these materials? Well, words, of course, but more than that. How did the writer know what words to use and how to make them say what was there but not discernible anywhere on the surface of the words?
It was a happy accident that, at this particular point in my development, I encountered two astonishing works by two writers who happened to be women. Up to that point, with the exception of Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Mitchell, I had read almost no fiction by women. I’d read most of Dickens and all of Stevenson and Dumas pere et fils; I’d read Verne’s extraordinary voyages and works by Cervantes and Swift and Thackeray and Homer, but no women. At that time, I don’t think this was something I had consciously taken note of, but now, having read these two short stories, I thought: what else is out there that I have not found yet? Who are the other women who write fiction?
I found it. Them. I found Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” a bildungsroman fully as powerful and tender as anything by Thomas Wolfe (whose work I also devoured). I found Isak Dinesen and Olive Schreiner, Sigrid Undset and Doris Lessing, Elizabeth Goudge and Rumer Godden, Marcia Davenport and Flannery O’Connor and Katherine Mansfield and Katherine Anne Porter. I found Willa Cather again, this time in “Neighbour Rosicky,” the story of a Czech famer in Nebraska, a story that is really a novel in brief, told with such graceful economy and pertinent detail that it encompasses Anton Rosicky’s life and world, leaving nothing essential out. (I have learned much from Cather over the years, mostly from studying her short fiction.)
I didn’t give up on the fellows, of course. Somerset Maugham and Anton Chekov, Ring Lardner and de Maupassant, Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy, Saki and O. Henry. Hemingway I admired more for his short fiction, as I did Faulkner. I read Mackinlay Kantor with attention, especially “Andersonville,” the greatest Civi War novel ever. And the sci fi giants of the golden age and their successors: Ray Bradbury, Robert E. Heinlein, Poul Andersen, Robert Silverberg, Robert Bloch, Frank Herbert, C. M. Kornbluth, Harlan Ellison, Lester del Rey, Charles Beaumont, and the rest. And the writers of the American midcentury whose work was so influential: Updike, Cheever, Roth. It would be another twenty years before I found Mary McCarthy and Mary Gordon, Ursula LeGuin and Joanna Russ.
I found also much to learn from Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey and Ngaio Marsh, as well as John D. MacDonald and James M. Cain. To examine the writing of a good mystery story is fully as educational a process as the exegesis of a Shakespeare play or a passage from Genesis.
Speaking of Genesis, I am indebted as a writer also to the Hebrew Bible. I encountered those stories first in Sunday School, retold and explicated for their theological worth When I came to read them for myself as story, I discovered how remarkable these characters and their situations are: love, hate, lust, jealousy, betrayal; redemption swirl through these books. The people in them are recognizable across the millennia: Abraham, caught between a jealous wife and his obligations to his concubine Hagar, mother of his firstborn son–and his obedience to his God; Jacob the smooth and sly, escaping the rage of his betrayed brother only to be tricked in turn by his uncle Laban; Joseph, spoiled son of an indulgent father, bringing upon himself his brothers’ jealous revenge. And the women: Sarah the jealous, Hagar the desperate, Rebekah who helps her favorite son steal his twin’s birthright, Leah and Rachel, the unwanted wife and the one who was wanted perhaps too much.
All of these stories and more have formed and informed me and my writing: Andersen’s fairy tales and Andrew Lang’s colored fairy books; Howard Pyle’s retellings of King Arthur and Robin Hood; Tolkien’s Middle-Earth; Greek and Roman and Norse myth; Dickens’s cast of thousands; Steinbeck; Faulkner; Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright and James Baldwin. Everything I read up to the age of seventeen (and, of course, since, but in a different way) has become part of me as a person and a writer, for good or ill. I am enmeshed in a web of words and images, emotions and ideas that others have spun and from which I took, over fifty years ago, the idea that I could do the same.
I could go on like this for ages, but I will stop here for now. The writer is forever indebted to her predecessors, of course. I hope to keep on acknowledging my debt and those to whom I owe continued homage.
In terms of my formal training:
B.A. (English and History), Excelsior College of SUNY
MFA in Writing, Vermont College of Fine Arts
From 1980 through 2017, I worked as a tutor in writing and the social sciences at Norwich University in Northfield, VT. I continue to teach in the Department of English and Communications at Norwich, as I have done since 1987. (I have also taught English and Humanities courses at the Community College of Vermont.) In these pages, I hope to share some of what I have learned about the twin crafts of writing and teaching about writing–and some other interests and (pre)occupations.
Personal data: I live in a log cabin two miles up a dirt road in Vermont, with my husband, a musician and sound engineer/ inventor; our very-mixed-breed rescue dog, Lena; and our two cats, Peaches and Herb; plus eleven guitars and lots and lots of books.
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