Portrait of Writers as Young Women
For my friend and fellow writer, Julia Gregg, on the occasion of a speaking series
to celebrate the life of her son, J. Zach Gregg (1983-2016)
We are alike, you and I.
I start out happy because I am born in the South. I run, climb trees, roller skate. I have a cat named Cat, and, even though it’s the sixties in Jackson, MS, I am so dreamy I never consider if I’m black or white; boy or a girl; rich or poor. I exist to smell magnolias and eat boiled shrimp and peanuts.
But then (wait for it) my family moves. North.
In the North, I am surrounded by pale children with strange, nasally accents who say that I am a freak because I have a weird accent. Can they even hear themselves? At recess boys flip my skirt up and say “Shorts?” and then run around screaming that I am not wearing shorts under my skirt. Who wears shorts under skirts? I ask, hiding shame. What kind of freak are you? they answer. I begin to wear shorts under my skirts. I try to sound like them, but then, when I realize I have nothing to say, I just stop talking. I become A Quiet Person. Me! A quiet person!
This is what the North does to us.
Because I am twelve and at a bursting point, I start a diary—writing about how much I miss Cat, how much I miss climbing the magnolia trees and eating shrimp and boiled peanuts. I write on sheets of notebook paper strung together with green yarn. Somehow this matters.
In high school, I write my first story. It’s fiction, but it’s all true, and I put everything I know into it . . . everything I hate and fear about high school–cheerleaders, lockers, the boy I like, the SATs, my ridiculous accent, the loneliness of not fitting in. I even put in the bees that have built a nest under my bedroom window, and, quite by accident, I have created my first metaphor. The story wins a prize, astonishing my parents. We didn’t know you could write, they say. I didn’t either. I realize I am happiest sitting at my desk writing in a notebook, eating a peanut butter sandwich. It is not a normal kind of happiness—I’m not laughing, and in these moments, I’m unaware of what the thirteenth century Persian Poet Rumi wrote: The wound is the place where the Light enters you.
I didn’t know it then, but the bees are a metaphor for what appears to be chaos—the ongoing buzz and sting that is living. We can’t always make sense of it, but sometimes we discover the design, the art taking shape from events we live through. Even the painful bits. Especially the painful bits.
We complain about the North, you and I, but we know this: The North is the first thing that hurts us into writing.
We don’t like conflict in our lives, but art lives, thrives on conflict.
And now we have a specialness, a secret we hold close. We can write.
In college, I read about authors because they are who I want to be. The good ones take risks, and are resilient when their efforts don’t pan out. In her essay “Why I Write,” Joan Didion confesses, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” Exactly, I think.
I take a writing class. Our teacher has a habit of throwing our stories out the window and leaving the room. He tells us to write what we know.
I’m eighteen. What do I know? What do any of us know? We know about family. We know about the South. No way would that be interesting to anyone.
I major in Religious Studies. The crazy stories are magical real and way better than anything I could make up.
I get a summer job working as a stringer for a newspaper. My beat is the city council, park openings, and covering the police reports. I get lucky. A high school teacher attacks his coworker. Everybody in the newsroom jokes about it, and, because I’m nineteen, they send me to cover the court hearing. They think that will be funny, too. I dress up in my mother’s suit to look older and head to the courthouse. I sit there all day, listening to the horrifying details of a rape. It is not funny at all. At break, outside in the lobby, the accused high school teacher stands alone at the drinking fountain. I have this one chance. I confront him with questions and get a quote. “We were just having some afternoon fun,” He says. It’s the summer of that song, “Afternoon Delight.”
My story is the lead story in the next day’s paper, and everyone in the newsroom congratulates me. “You stood right in front of him?” an editor asks. All day, I feel like a badass, but I can’t get rid of the creepy feeling, that guy’s smug look, his wet lips, and the fact that I stood face to face with evil.
Are we strong? Brave? Maybe we’re just ambitious. Whatever we are doesn’t even matter. We just want the story.
I move to New York even though I don’t know anybody there, have no connections, and my parents won’t lend me any money to get there or stay there. I have a book full of newspaper clippings. In a job interview at a woman’s magazine, the editor says, “So, you’ve lived in the Midwest, do you think you’re really ready for New York?” I answer, “I’ve lived in the Midwest. I’m SO ready for New York.” For good measure, I say, “This job will be my life.” The editor hates to write. She has to eat a brownie for every paragraph and already she has gained twenty pounds and she’s writing for a woman’s fashion magazine. I agree to write for her, under her name, and I’m hired.
I write seven days a week, not five. The editor loses all her brownie weight and gets featured in a Before and After. Within months, I get my own byline. I’m a machine. I get into the habit of making lists. I learn tricks: Odd numbers sell more copies than even numbers: Surprisingly, seven ways to satisfy your man will sell more copies then ten ways to satisfy your man. Unsurprisingly, blond celebrities on the cover always sell the most copies. I learn how to write How-To articles. I think in the second person.
My best friend Ken gets sick. Right after Ronald Reagan says that AIDS does not exist, Ken is diagnosed with AIDS. He does not want me to visit him, because he doesn’t want me to see him this way. He dies in a hospital room in New Jersey. I weep for weeks, then I am at my desk, writing about him and the regrets of not being there for him. It’s the first article Glamour magazine publishes about AIDS and the article causes an interesting stir.
Are we vampires? I used my best friend’s death to write a popular magazine article. Writing about Ken helped me sort out our friendship. Does this make me a bad person? Selfish?
“Any sorrow is bearable if you make a story out of it or about it.” That’s what Isak Dinesen wrote and it feels terrible, wrong even, to agree with her.
I get a call from an agent who has read my articles. She asks if I’m working on a book. “Of course,” I say. I am not working on a book, but that night I start.
I quit my magazine work and write the book, dedicated to my friend, Ken. I also finish graduate school and The Book gets published. But The World keeps spinning.
The book helps get me a job at the University of Evansville teaching students how they too can write about what they know, though they would much prefer to write about what they don’t know—elves, fairies, dragons and this game called Dungeons and Dragons.
We explain to our students the terms: fantasy, genre fiction, and cliché. We tell them to consider writing what is most important to them. Over and over we say: If you care, I’ll care, and your readers will care.
When we raise our voices in class, we know we’re yelling at ourselves, not our students. Show, don’t tell. Quit explaining everything. Make me care about these characters! Be more specific! The more specific your story is, the more universal. You must BELIEVE. A few believe.
At the end of each term our evaluations come back with remarks like, “She gets easily excited about our stories.” And “She wears too much black.”
A few of our students win awards. They get published. They go on to great schools.
We marry the person who gets us, who’s crazy, but not crazy in exactly the same way as we are, someone who is better with numbers. We have sons, a wonderful life with friends, parties, good food, writing and teaching. We teach our partner to love meals that emerge from a crockpot. We learn to make really, really good margaritas.
We spend Sundays reading student work. Every now and then we get a real story, a homerun, and we get up and do a little jig around the room.
We keep notebooks by the shower, in purses, pockets, backpacks, luggage. Driving in the car sometimes we pull over to write. Sometimes we don’t pull over. Our partners hate this.
Writers write. Present tense. Progressive. We feel like phonies if we’re not writing. But we also know this non-writing time is important too. We learn to listen. We learn to let things come in. We learn to collect.
We live in a kind of la la land of teaching, reading, writing, eating and drinking with friends. We go back and forth from writing to telling others how to write. Our feet don’t quite touch the ground. Sometimes, we stir our coffee with pens and pencils. We get forgetful. During finals week, we forget where we put that stack of graded papers. We hunt all day, then decide to eat ice cream, and there in the freezer, next to the ice cream, we find the stack of graded papers.
And we go on writing even when it seems absurd to do so.
When we tell people we write, they say,
“I wish I had the time for that.”
“I bet that’s relaxing.”
“I made a book once.”
“I’ve been meaning to get around to that.”
“So what does your husband do?”
“How much do you get paid?”
We stop telling people we write.
We write for ourselves and we write for people who read and want to keep on reading. We write because the stories in our heads won’t go away. We write to remember and we write to move on.
“The world doesn’t esteem us very much,” James Dickey told his last class at the University of South Carolina. “But we are masters of a superior secret.” Sometimes we feel that.
If we did not write, we would miss that thing that grips us, that piece of work that we want to lose ourselves in.
In one of the many letters Eudora Welty wrote to her agent, Diarmuid Russell, she said this: “What you look for in the world is not simply for what you want to know, but for more than you want to know, and more than you can know, better than you had wished for, and sometimes something draws you to a discovery and there is no other happiness quite the same.”
But then? Reality seeps into our la la land.
I lose my father. You, your son.
The wound is the place where the Light enters you.
We mourn. The grief seems never-ending. But we don’t dare rush for closure. That doesn’t seem right. We have only this desire to Stay in our moment of grief, not wallowing, but Examining. Contemplating. This feels like the only thing to do. The holy thing to do.
At my father’s funeral, my great aunt tells me it only gets worse. Then, an architect tells me, “It’s a good thing you’re a writer because you will be able to process your grief.” I want to lecture this man: That word, catharsis—Aristotle’s medical purge term—it’s what the audience is supposed to have, not the writer. Being a writer does not make living through pain and grief any easier.
We know this.
But how to return to the living? How to get back to that Wild Sweet Orange Ride you wrote about?
We read. We return to our old friends, like your favorite, John Donne, a man who could actually write well about mothers and children, who will always be connected by golden filament “stretched to airy thinness.” And Eudora Welty who said, “Time is very important to us because it has dealt with us.”
Margaret McMullan is the author of seven award-winning novels, the short story collection Aftermath Lounge, and editor of the anthology, Every Father’s Daughter. Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Southern Accents, The Millions, TriQuarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, Ploughshares, Glamour, and The Sun among other journals and anthologies. She received an NEA fellowship and a Fulbright to research and teach in Hungary for a new book Where the Angels Lived: One Family’s Story of Exile, Loss, and Return. After twenty-five years of teaching, she retired to write full time in Pass Christian, Mississippi, where she lives with her husband, filmmaker Patrick O’Connor.