The subject of graduates entering the world always reminds me of the great English comedy The Belles of St. Trinians, a movie about a very unorthodox private girls’ school that by the way comes the closest to duplicating a Goddard residence as anything I’ve ever seen. There’s a great moment when the headmistress, played by the actor Alastair Sim in drag, simpers to a visiting parent: “Most schools try to prepare their students for the world. Here at St. Trinian’s, we try to prepare the world for our students.” I’m thinking of some of you graduates as I say this.
That’s going to be the subject of my talk today—not how to prepare the world for you, although that might not be a bad idea, but rather that literary world of the arts and publishing you’re going to seek entry to. More precisely, I want to talk about all the things that can happen, and fail to happen, during your quest, and how your writing practice can support you over all the years that these things happen or fail to happen.
First of all, I think it’s important to understand that literary world from the inside rather than the outside. From the outside you see a glittering array of famous authors racking up awards and movie deals or, for you poets, a poet who wins a prize of $500 or, better, a poet who manages to land a teaching job that isn’t at a community college. So you look at this world from the outside and you think to yourself: “Well, all that fame and fortune is probably not going to happen to me (even as another little voice inside you says, “Yes it will! Yes it will!”—we all think this way), but—you go on— my expectation is to have a literary career that includes published books or produced movie scripts or poetry chapbooks and the recognition that goes along with it. Once I break in, the years of rejection and humiliation will be behind me.”
So your final expectation is that gaining this spot in the sun, as you conceive it, will be a fulfilling but most of all a happy experience. Before moving on to more important subjects , I want to dash that last expectation right away. Climbing the literary ladder, if it should happen to you, will not be a happy experience. There will always be not just a few, but untold thousands higher on the ladder than you. Even if you are at the peak of commercial success, you will get no respect from the serious literary world. If you are a literary writer, no one has ever heard of you. If you are a literary writer who happens to win the Nobel Prize and you are honest with yourself, you will not sleep easy at night because you know in your heart this prize always goes to the second tier of internationally recognized writers—not the true greats like Marcel Proust and Vladimir Nabokov.
So here’s something to remember: At every rung of the literary ladder, as you stare at the muddy soles of those above you (they probably won’t kick you, but neither are they likely to reach down and lend a helping hand), you will also find ample opportunity for rejection and humiliation. Something is always being given to you and snatched away away at the same time. Personal example: I won a prize for my last book, but I also got a review in the Times of London Higher Education Supplement that asked the question, “Is Harvard University Press off its rocker?” (My wonderful editor thought it would make a great blurb for the paperback, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.) In other words, the pluses and the minuses have an eerie way of canceling each other out.
So let’s go back to the bottom of the ladder and examine the supposed worst case scenario: What if you show talent, discipline, and perseverance in putting yourself forward in your art—and nothing happens? What if, barring self-publication, you never get published at all? This is a possibility I don’t think any of us can quite bear to entertain, even though the statistical likelihood of its happening is very high.
To explore this question of what happens when your great expectations in the literary world remain largely unfulfilled by the end of your life, I want to put forward the example of my late mother, Mildred Nelson, a dedicated writer from her early twenties straight through to her death at age 87 ten years ago January. She wrote seven novels in all, a great deal of light verse, and a wonderful children’s story set in ancient China. Three of the novels did get published, though not until long after she had written them and not at the level of publishing she had wished for. She also published much of the poetry. But no one in the entire literary world outside her agent knew who my mother was. She had no writing friends, no literary community, no evaluation or even acknowledgment of her work.
What did she have? She had the writer’s life.
What was the nature of my mother’s writing life? Coming from a generation of middle-class women who did not take jobs outside the home, she worked alone at her desk, every day, with unshowy discipline. She had grown up in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in the rural Ozarks, married her high school sweetheart my father, and with him left the South to embark on a peripatetic cross-country life. During my childhood the family lived on an old schooner in the backwaters of the Florida panhandle, where the schools were so poor my mother homeschooled me and my brother using the books and manuals of an old-fashioned correspondence course. The schooner was docked across from a boatyard on a spit of land where the wheelhouse from an old paddle-wheel steamboat had somehow gotten dumped. Our lessons took up mornings; afternoons my mother repaired to the wheelhouse with strict instructions from this very gentle person not to interrupt her for any reason. And there she wrote her novels, every day. What a romantic detail that would have made for the dust jacket of the hardcover book, for the interviewer from the New York Times. But no one outside her family ever knew about it.
What the homeschooling meant for me was that my mother the writer literally taught her daughter how to read and write, the result being that I acquired a five-star education and atrocious handwriting (all my advisees should be very grateful I finally switched to electronic marking on your packets). Along with instruction in history, math, and literature, however, deep unspoken expectations were communicated. Though I secretly wanted to be an archeologist, I entered my teens with the sure knowledge I was going to be a writer, and a famous one, because my mother always assured me I was going to succeed where she had failed. And all the while, in the many many places we lived as I was growing up, the manila envelopes went out regularly in the mail and the return envelopes, creased from their initial journey inside the bigger envelopes, came back just as regularly with the form rejection slips inside.
But after I went off to college, something wonderful happened: my mother’s novels started getting published. She updated the World War II novel about the Los Angeles defense industry (in which my father had been involved), which had first borne the terrific title Those Who Weren’t Shot and published it, 25 years later, with the less terrific title A Taste of Power, in a lowbrow paperback edition with a matching lowbrow cover. Mangrove Island, a searing domestic drama set in Florida, came out next as the plain-jane The Island. I remember back on the boat, as she was writing and revising it, being hired for a penny a page to scrape the embedded page numbers off the onionskin typing paper (Eaton’s Corrasable Bond it was) with a razor, completely cringing at the sex scenes (I was about 8 or 9 then). Her last published novel was The Dark Stone, a Gothic (yes, a Gothic) whose main character she told me was based on me and I will just say here it was for that very reason I could never bring myself to read it—because there’s a whole syndrome around being the child of a writer, about which more shortly. Her fine children’s novella, The Girl, the Bird, and the Secret, about a young girl in 13th-century Sung China who wants to become a painter, never saw the light of day because times had changed and no one wanted to publish a Chinese story by a non-Chinese writer.
Meanwhile, to please my mother I was already mirroring her efforts by typing out, when I was 10, my first novel, a Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys inspired mystery, on her Remington manual typewriter, then short stories through my teens. In my teens I began, too, sending out those manila envelopes and getting the creased ones back.
My mother wholeheartedly supported my efforts good and bad, and thanks to her I possess an inner core of resilience that to this day meets even the nastiest review or rejection—after the requisite 72 hours of pain and outrage—with the comeback, “Screw you, my mother thinks I’m the greatest!”—a wonderful gift she gave me, truly. So it was a source of great wonder to me, when my book on writer’s block (writer’s block is a not uncommon outcome when you have a mother who expects so much of you), when this book came out, that people took exception to my statement about encountering adverse criticism—“If anyone except your mother comments on your work”—these people were all, “My mother is the last person I’d expect to say something good about my writing!” I was shocked, shocked to the core to realize my experience was not a universal one.
This kind of unqualified support, as I’ve already indicated, has its down side. I will leave it to you to unpack the complex ambivalence of having your mother say to you, about a literary contest, “Let’s both enter it. You can win first prize and I’ll take second!” So perhaps it was not very surprising that round about my 23rd birthday I broke out of my traces, dropped out of graduate school in English lit and ran away to Hawaii. I spent the next ten years swinging from the vines and indulging in other 60s-style activities along with, may I say, briefly attending graduate school in archeology and discovering it wasn’t at all the right profession for me. Not until I turned 30 did the truly revolutionary thought enter my mind: I could be a writer even though it was what my mother always wanted! And that was the moment my own writer’s life truly began.
To return to my mother: She was lucky to find an agent early on who stuck with her despite the tiny sums she earned him and all the other works that failed to sell. But she never met the man in person, never went to New York in her life, never participated in a literary community of any sort. She just sat at her desk writing her novels and sending out those endless manila envelopes that kept coming right back.
My mother was not as sophisticated a person as her sister-in-law and best friend, Lucile. My father’s sister Lucile had better literary taste than my mother and was maybe even a little smarter. She moved to Boston and married a scientist who became CEO of an international company. She sent us sophisticated presents for Christmas, including once a Chinese Go game that was too hard for my brother and me because we only knew how to play Checkers. My aunt Lucile also had literary ambitions, but in terms of writing she just never got down to it, even though she had the title of her novel all picked out. “How I wish I could just live in a Greenwich Village garret and write,” she used to tell me in her house in Lexington, Mass. But she already had a place to write, a nice one, she just didn’t do it. Her younger sister also wanted to write. My aunt Margaret, a fey unworldly woman who always reminded me of a Tennessee Williams character, left her husband to pursue a literary career in London. She lived in modest circumstances in Southall with an Indian man who supported her (male financial support was considered a necessity by that generation of women who lacked independent means). My aunt Marty did write, and she wrote pretty well, but like the ethereal creature she was, she never put herself forward sufficiently to get published.
My mother got down to it. And she put herself forward, in her own quiet way, with quite a bit more determination than her sisters-in-laws, and she got published. But, as I’ve said, even climbing that first rung doesn’t bring unqualified happiness. In a twinkling of an eye those three paperbacks had appeared and disappeared on the wire racks at the local Rexall drugstore. My mother never received a single review and at her death left more novels unpublished than published. Like my cousin Lorca, Aunt Marty’s daughter, I have been left with a stack of manuscripts. Those manuscripts sit in both our closets radiating exactly the same gentle but insistent reproach their creators used to do.
My mother’s writing practice continued unabated until New Year’s Day, 2003, when she fell and broke her hip and entered the hospital never to return. By the time I arrived at her bedside the next afternoon, the woman before me was barely recognizable. Her facial features had shifted mysteriously and her mind was elsewhere because she had made up her mind to die. In the three weeks that followed we were still able to have a few conversations, among others, about the writing life, hers and mine. My mother expressed her regret about what she considered to be her lack of success in her writing career. She had always wanted to be recognized and even in her twenties had picked out the photo she wanted used on the book jacket of her first novel—if you want to come up and look at it later you can see how beautiful she was—that she never got to use because none of her books ever had jackets.
During the last three days of my mother’s life—and I’m not quite sure what prompted me to do this— I brought in her novels and displayed them side by side at the foot of her bed. The effect on all the hospital personnel, from doctors and nurses to aides and technicians, was dramatic. “You wrote these books!” everyone cried. Nobody cared they were 1970s paperbacks with tacky covers—here was a real author in their midst! And my modest, self-effacing mother, already halfway down the road to a very different reality, just beamed. She basked in their admiration. For those last three days she was the famous author she wanted and deserved to be, and it was beautiful.
So I’ll just say to you, Goddard grads, if it should turn out at the end of the line that you have failed to acquire any of the outer rewards you hoped for and have “only” the writer’s life to show for it, you should still consider yourself a lucky person indeed. A life devoted to the practice of writing and the pursuit of mastery is a righteous life. In the end—it’s all you need.
And don’t forget, finally, if you do manage to scramble up a rung or two on that ladder, what a writer much higher up on it than I am once told me: “Your books don’t cry at your funeral.”
Thank you and Godspeed.