Some claim that to become a worthy writer, you have to be an avid reader. Of course, not all readers enjoy writing, but my journey to become a writer began with becoming an enthusiastic reader when I was a child. With that said, I never set out to become a writer, but I easily became enthralled by words and narrative, by the story that imaginatively transports us to unfamiliar but captivating worlds.
Looking back, I recall three pivotal moments that led to my fascination with words and story. The first involved poetry. When I was a grade-school child, I was lucky enough to live next door to a woman who became my surrogate mother. Her name was Marie McGeorge Davis, and she was a 1933 graduate of Wellesley College. Until that time, I had never known anyone who was a college graduate. My parents were both hard-scrabble adults; one the orphaned daughter of Eastern European immigrants, the other abandoned as a child who nevertheless became a resilient self-made man. Neither had a substantive education. So, Marie Davis, later known as Mama Davis, befriended me and led me into the literary world by reading poetry to me. She’d invite me over for tea and then she would read from her copy of 101 Famous Poems, a volume of which she gave me for my First Communion in 1961. One time, she read Poe’s “The Bells” with great dramatic flair, and I was completely mesmerized by the words and the ways in which the language mimicked the ringing of bells. I knew then that I wanted to be like Mama Davis who also loved words and the way they were combined to enchant the reader.
The next pivotal moment was also engendered by a neighbor, an older girl named Susie, who lent me her copy of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Up until that time, probably around fourth grade, I’d read and re-read my children’s poetry books my real mother bought me, filled with colorful illustrations of fairies under toadstools and flying away on the backs of dragon flies, but I also read in school tiny stories that we read silently at our own pace. I liked reading and setting my own goals and I quickly moved from one unit to another. I might have also read Winnie the Pooh or other children’s books, but I don’t really recall. But I do remember The Secret Garden and its atmospheric suspense and the need to uncover the mystery at Misslethwaite Manor. The petulant, spoiled, orphaned Mary Lennox, who arrived in England from India meeting the crippled child Colin. The antics of the “common” and adventurous boy Dickon. And I especially remember the setting of late-nineteenth-century England (which I’m sure eventually led me to be the Anglophile that I became). This was definitely an unfamiliar world, but I wanted to enter that secret garden and be changed by it in the way that Mary Lennox was.
The third moment in my transformation into becoming a reader was buying a book at our annual book fair at my Catholic school. The cafeteria tables had been regrouped and turned into book display tables and all of the books were colorful and beautiful hardbacks standing tall on book pedestals. Copies of children’s illustrated classics, like Treasure Island, Black Beauty, and Grimm’s Fairytales sat proudly on the tables waiting to be picked up and perused. But my attention was riveted on Little Women about which I knew nothing, but I liked the title because I’m sure I was interested in some day growing up and becoming a woman and I thought that this book might teach me how.
At any rate, I ordered my copy and eagerly and impatiently waited the many weeks before I received it and then as soon as I opened the package, I took my book to my room, shut the door, and entered the land of Little Women, the world of sisters and compassionate Marmie surviving during the tumultuous and terrifying Civil War. Little did I know that one of the characters would become a role model for me and other girls (in fact, in my grad school feminist theory course, the majority of us most admired this character) – Jo March was the little woman who was most the attractive, for Jo jumped fences and didn’t want to marry her neighbor Laurie; she wanted to be a writer.
Reading Alcott’s novel in fifth grade eventually led me in junior high and beyond to other notable characters, female and male: Jane Eyre, Cathy Earnshaw, Dorothea Brooke, Anna Karenina, Heathcliff, Oliver Twist, Don Quixote, Jean Valjean, and many other complex characters and narratives. In retrospect, I’m grateful to Marie Davis, Susie, and the good sisters of my Catholic school who valued reading and made it possible for their students to become enthralled by words and narrative, and characters who demonstrated the many ways to become a woman (or a man) and more importantly imperfect human beings with complex and conflicting desires and goals.
How did you become an eager reader? Which moments stand out in your childhood?
As a writer-scholar, who used to be a scholar-writer (there is a difference), I’ve long admired Antonia Susan Byatt, the author of innumerable works, including the Booker-Prize Winning novel Possession, but also Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge In Their Time, what the Sunday Times calls “a subtle and scholarly work.” Her work fascinates me. It’s both erudite and accessible, especially if you’re an avid reader who enjoys literary allusions. Her brilliance is sometimes on the level of a Victorian realist writer like George Eliot, who, despite claiming she was not a storyteller, was able to convey the intricacies and foibles of humans, while also poking fun at our human condition. But Byatt is also able to write contemporary fairy tales that read like originals and write poetry as if she were a Victorian poet or Scheherazade-like fantasies about a sexy djinn who loves an aging female scholar. But that’s just her fiction. Her scholarly writing doesn’t read like scholarship at all. It doesn’t obfuscate or practice “dissertationeese”; it’s eloquent, knowledgeable, and illuminating.
Having said that I admire Byatt’s work, I confess that I fail to be her. I lack her brilliance and her subtlety. I can’t write Victorian poetry and try as I might I have yet to write a satisfying fairy tale and no djinn has granted me three wishes to enhance my writing. Even so, my scholarship has been deemed readable and accessible, erudite even and for that I’m grateful. Yet it’s the scholarship, where I’ve most succeeded as a writer, that I’ve abandoned or, at least moved on from. But it’s the scholarship that has led recently to my fiction-writing and so, in a sense, I’ve modeled myself after Byatt who also turned from scholarship to creative writing.
Sixteen years my senior, Byatt studied at Cambridge and taught at University College London for over a decade before she became a novelist. Likewise, I spent many years teaching at a university (albeit a Midwestern American one) before I returned to my fledgling creative writing, something that I practiced while in graduate school.
Although I greatly enjoyed writing the scholarly books and articles that I wrote over a thirty-year career, works that allowed me to argue a point of view based on extensive research, such writing did not allow me, as Raphael says in Paradise Lost, to “dream of other worlds.” Fiction does allow me to dream. It allows me to think of what the 18th-Century British feminist and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft and her husband, the political philosopher William Godwin might have been thinking as Mary lay dying, as I did in my first historical fiction novel, VINDICATED: A NOVEL OF MARY SHELLEY. Or to wonder whether Christina Rossetti’s erotic poem, “Goblin Market,” is about her sister-in-law Lizzie Siddal, the painter-poet-model, as I do in my forthcoming novel, THE ROSSETTI DIARIES. Or to write in the voice of a lonely, mentally addled frequenter of strangers’ funerals, as I do in my short story “Birdie” or to write a novel that juxtaposes Percy Shelley’s idealistic politics with the sufferings of an Irish heroine, as I do in my novel-in-progress, NO COWARD’S SOUL HAVE I. Fiction allows me to exercise imagination and not merely write about the work of other writers, even though writing about the work of other writers, like Byatt, greatly benefited me intellectually and creatively, for in writing about her work, my own imagination was piqued.
So, even though I tried and failed to be as brilliant and accessible as A.S. Byatt, I’m grateful for the ways in which she taught me to try to emulate her and other literary icons. I’ll continue to try, and I’ll continue to fail.
In this blog, I’ll write more about the writers who inspire me to try to become a writer. I’ll also attempt to inspire you to tell your own stories, for we all have a story to tell, even if we invent other characters to convey our inner worlds.
Hello, fellow readers and writers!
I assume that you’re reading this because you’ve either read a story, essay, or novel that I’ve written or are thinking of doing so. Or maybe you just wonder who these people are who call themselves writers and why in the world do they try to write something that another person might enjoy, laugh at, learn from, or be enlightened by?
Let me assure you that writers are a lot like everyone else. Like you, we study and go to work; we sometimes give birth to and raise children; we make dinner, do laundry, vacuum up dog hair (daily for me!), watch TV, read our favorite books, worry about Ukraine, attend plays and concerts, play sports and instruments, sing our hearts out, fall in and out of love; we argue with and make up with our loved ones; we ponder and fail to comprehend the meaning of life; we daydream about other lives and lifetimes. We do all of that, but we also sit our bums in the chair and daydream on paper or at the computer keyboard.
The question is why. Why do we subject ourselves to trying to communicate an idea or concept? Why do we attempt to fabricate a world that others can also possibly envision or experience? Why do we write an essay, story, or novel and then send that piece of writing into the cosmos and wait sometimes for months or years to see if anyone thinks it’s worth reading? Sounds foolish, doesn’t it?
Speaking for myself, I’d have to venture a guess as to why I foolishly sit my bum in that chair and write. My guess is that I write for multiple reasons. Sometimes I write just to find out what I actually think. To discover what’s going on in my brain. Other times I write because it’s a challenge. Can I free write based on a prompt about riding to Las Vegas on the back of a Harley? What about the challenge of writing a story based on an image of a woman who resembles a bird and attends strangers’ funerals or an essay about a fragile white-haired woman who walks with two canes past my house every day? Sometimes I write to remember and honor a family member, to tell their story because they’ve lost their ability to tell their own story. Sometimes I’m compelled to write a novel because I’m haunted by what writer Emma Donoghue calls a “scrap of history” -- about the fact that the brilliant and influential 18th-Century feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft died of a retained placenta after giving birth to the baby who would become Mary Shelley. And the unbelievable fact that the attending physicians brought in puppies to nurse Mary Wollstonecraft’s breasts in order to release the toxic afterbirth. I wanted to imagine what she may have been thinking or feeling as she lay dying. Sometimes I just write in a journal in order to not be alone mulling things over in my eccentric and busy brain.
Even if we aren’t storytellers, I believe that we all have a story to tell. In her epic poem Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning suggests that we create our better selves through writing. So, finally, perhaps I write to conceive and give birth to my better self. I don’t know. I guess I’ll have to write in order to find out.