When I told my long ago college history professor that I wanted to write a paper on Women in the Civil War, she said I should focus on a tiny segment such as, she joked, the role of the petticoat. Did I know that southern women saved young slaves by hiding them under their petticoats? I could become an authority on one minor aspect of the war, she waxed on: write papers, give lectures. I imagined focusing my entire life on women’s petticoats, my brain slowly shrinking to a hunk of cotton lace. Whereas I wanted to know about women’s lives: their loves, their losses.
And if I was going to write about these passions I didn’t want to put them in academic papers. I wanted to write poems, stories and novels. Even so, my creative writing prof advised me to choose one genre. “Look at Shakespeare,” she said. “His sonnets are superb, but it’s the plays we read and act out over and over. So choose!” After I handed in a 100-page thesis on the novels of Virginia Woolf for my senior thesis, I decided I wanted to be a poet. But the derivative Shakespearean sonnet I wrote for one English teacher literally burned up as he underlined my archaic metaphors with his sizzling cigarette. So much for poems, I thought.
Two years after graduation I went with my new husband to teach in a boys’ school where the headmaster wouldn’t let me teach English because it was a “man’s subject.” So I began a feminist novel, featuring a faculty wife who slowly anesthetizes herself with sherry. It won a scholarship to Bread Loaf Writers Conference where I lived across the hall from poet Anne Sexton. She had just left a mental institution where she crafted slippers to bring her back “to reality,” and had written her first collection of poems: To Bedlam and Partway Back. Since I had four kids by then, I related to the idea of bedlam. My novel, alas, came out with a cover depicting a hairy hand pulling aside a diaphanous shower curtain. The agent had renamed it The Losing. And so it was.
I earned an MA in French and taught for a time, then returned to Vermont with my man to live in a decrepit house sans plumbing or electricity. To help earn a living I ran a craft shop in our barn and began a lifetime habit of early morning writing–our children learned to bleed outside the door. I was still trying to write Woolfian novels where the action is largely inside the head. “We’re looking for something more commercial,” the agents would say, and I knew it was time to try another genre.
I took up journalism: articles for numerous journals and newspapers. I picked up true stories from local characters like octogenarian Charlie, who did carpentry for us at a dollar and a beer an hour. I learned a lot from old Charlie, who spilled out wild domestic and wartime tales. I penned a nonfiction book about friends, family, tourists who had wandered into my craft shop. My daughter and I explored the creative processes of 30 craftspersons for another book in which we tried to make each interview tell a story and reveal character. For like writers, these artists forgo benefits and pensions, and spin webs out of themselves.
I found myself turning some of my nonfiction characters into short stories, as in “The Batik Room,” published in Redbook; batik offers meaningful metaphors the way one posits layer upon layer of color. A succession of potters, weavers, basketmakers found their way into my fiction, both mainstream and mystery. A few stories landed in high paying magazines like Woman’s World and Seventeen, but most appeared in small journals such as American Literary Review. My husband would say, “Why are you spending your time on stories that don’t pay?” I could work more profitably mowing the lawn, he suggested. I couldn’t seem to explain that I was finally feeling good about my work, and could call myself a writer. I was learning, even from the outpouring of rejection slips.
Then when my daughter Catharine invited 12 girls for a slumber party on a night my husband and I were out of town, she drew 200 girls and boys, who pretty much wrecked the house. I wrote her into a YA novel, Down The Strings, as a sort of punishment, and discovered the joys of writing for children. I’ve since done four books for kids.
Divorced after thirty years of marriage, I went to Poughkeepsie, New York to teach in a liberal arts college. Feeling a pariah, I couldn’t write anything longer than a poem. I took on the persona of Fay, a gutsy, resilient kind of older woman, and felt I was writing from the gut. I was lucky to get 100 poems in the lit mags and in two small press chapbooks. One was in the voice of 18th-century Mary Wollstonecraft whom I admired for her courage in the face of adverse criticism. I found deep satifaction in completing those poems. Maybe this is what success is–simply finishing something: a poem, painting, or piece of music.
So I was writing in Fay’s voice, Wollstonecraft’s voice, and in many other voices because a novel was gestating in my head. But this time I wanted to write it in multiple viewpoints. After reading about a vicious assault on two local farmers, I began a novel about a single mother dairy farmer and found myself writing in yet another genre. Mystery. I hadn’t read a mystery since Nancy Drew, but here I was, with no plot in mind other than that assault and some voices whispering in my ears. The “voice” was that of an amateur sleuth, wanting to bring order back into her world. I poured years of living into a series for St Martin’s. Writing a novel is for me like writing a poem: I build the poem to climax, but don’t know what it’s about until halfway through. For Stolen Honey, the only book I was asked to outline ahead, I had to write the whole book in order to do the outline!
I discovered that I could frequently recycle my research. When I felt a lump in my breast, I wrote a poem called “Apple Doctor’ that morphed into how to write a poem: “Now we talk endings / the way a poem / comes like love / to climax…”‘ I’ve turned my kids’ novels into plays for a Vermont children’s theatre. Both Fay and Wollstonecraft pushed their way out of poems and into novels. The anthology At Grandmother’s Table includes an essay about my Scottish granny who was so nearsighted that she once poured a whole box of turtle food into her turkey stuffing. I had to include a recipe, but Granny only noted ingredients like “a handful of flour, a dash of salt.”
But the way she threw in dashes and pinches makes me think of the way I write, in a sort of trial-and-error process: a pinch of humor here, a handful of quirky characters there–a dab of darkness. And somehow the work comes out–far from perfect–but for the most part edible, readable. I’m not an authority on any one subject, like the role of petticoats in the Civil War. And when people ask what kind of writing I do, I can only say, “Well, whatever comes to mind–and loving it. Writing across the genres, despite the failures that come along, keeps the brain robust (if not the pocketbook). And it keeps me out of the psychiatrist’s office.
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