Talking to teachers at St. John’s College, Santa Fe
I have special respect for teachers because I finally had to admit, a few years ago, that I can’t do it… at least not directly.
I started writing when I was about eight years old, out of that feeling of strangeness, of not belonging, you probably recognize in some of your students, and even in yourself.
Jonathan Swift wrote, “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others,” which brings great discomfort, especially in today’s rigid academic setting…
Today I want to talk to you about how I started out as a writer, and what books changed my life as a writer and as a woman.
I published my first novel a couple of years after I graduated from college, then two more collections of short stories and then a long silence while I was raising my three sons—a silence Adrienne Rich describes in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence—the facts of motherhood that are often obscured by a cloud of sentimentality.
I was writing stories during those years, and publishing them in the women’s magazines that at the time put serious fiction in between recipes and advice about make-up. That period is gone. And so those stories are lost. And I was hardly reading at all.
I remember my lost stories, and they show that the themes we teach with our lives and our writings are few and specific.
One theme which crops up when we teach is… hypocrisy. Young people before they learn what they shouldn’t talk or write about sometimes talk or write about hypocrisy even if they don’t know the word. So many of our experiences as children and young adults don’t fit what we are told about the world…
I wrote a lot about hypocrisy, early on, especially in a story called “The Wedding”—in which the ceremony, a beautiful ceremony in a beautiful garden, is disrupted by a relative who insists on making a toast to the groom’s discarded and forgotten first wife and their children.
As I grew older and learned more as a writer and a woman, I came to know the writers who are deservedly called great—William Faulkner among them.
His novela, As I Lay Dying is one of the books that changed my life. It lays out in great and precise detail a family funeral where the corpse, the mother, is the last thing her children or her husband want to think about: the horrors of her life and death are shrouded until her youngest son, in the barn, blurts out the truth to his sister: “He kilt her. She never done nothing to him, and he kilt her.”
“Hush,” his sister says.
Fortunately as I got older I also learned how to laugh and we all know that without laughter we can’t learn or teach anything.
Flannery O’Connor got me there, and all of her novels and short stories have changed my life.
Hers is a savage laughter, frightening to some, which may be why she is often neglected:
Her short novel, The Violent Bear It Away, starts with a quote from Matthew’s Gospel, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.”
It also begins with a sort of funeral: “Francis Marion Tarmater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a negro named Buford Munson who had come to get a jug filled had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting…”
Note the astonishing vigor and fearlessness of O’Connor’s prose: this is what makes writing work, for teachers and for students. Also note the shamelessness. This is not about mourning. She addresses the dead uncle as “it.”
Since O’Connor was, and remains, my great teacher, I’ve tried to ratchet myself up to this level of vigor and fearlessness.
Our great mentors never let us wholly succeed but they do keep us trying!
The contemporary writer who approaches O’Connors’ vigor and fearelessness is Sherman Alexie who gave a reading here a few weeks ago.
In his collection Ten Little Indians a young woman named Corliss goes looking for an Indian poet whose work she admires and finds an old, fat, drunk Indian and is terribly disappointed.
That humor and vigor and fearlessness is what we expect and have a right to expect in fiction that is worth reading and worth teaching.
It’s much easier to write about disillusionment than it is to write and teach about idealism like Corliss’.
I haven’t dared to try it much, but in my of my newer collections, Transgressions, a story “The One True Place” makes that attempt…
Finally, one of the most important, and most difficult topics for a writer is… teaching. Most of us teach at one time or another, more or less successfully or unsuccessfully, and I think we learn to admire those like you who do it as a career.
One of the teacher’s dilemmas is central to Willa Cather’s great novel, The Professor’s House, so relevant here because his one prize pupil, Tom Outland, on a cowboying summer job discovers Mesa Verde. Tom tells his university professor: “I wish I could tell you what I saw there, just as I saw it, on that first morning, through a veil of lightly falling snow. Far up above me, a thousand feet up set in a great cavern in the face of a cliff, I saw a little city of stone, asleep…”
The professor—who is only called “the Professor”—realizes that Tom has betrayed his discovery by selling Mesa Verde’s pottery and other artifacts to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington (where they are to this day…).
The Professor also begins to sense before the end of this short novel that he has betrayed his initial enthusiasm for teaching.
“The fall term of the semester opened, and now the Professor went to his lectures instead of to the lake [where he had gone during his summer vacation]… he supposed he did his work, he heard no complaints from his assistants, and the students seemed interested. He found, however, that he wasn’t willing to take the trouble to learn the names of the several hundred new students. It wasn’t worth while. He felt that his relations with them would be of short duration…”
Something similar happens in a story of mine called “Apricots,” from my collection, Transgressions. This story is reprinted in my newest collection, Mending: New and Selected Stories.
Caroline, a middle-aged college professor, has an apricot tree in her backyard here in Santa Fe. One spring it produces more fruit than she can cope with, so she asks one of her students, Charles, to help her make apricot jam. As they work together, Charles tells her why her class failed: she never got to know her students’ names.
I hope some of these writers, including me, inspire you to salt our work into your own work—to use what we write for inspiration and delight.