The invitation to speak at my alma mater’s upcoming literary festival came inexplicably. In fact, it didn’t seem to make any sense at all. While once upon a time I had been a successful journalist, writing investigative stories and features for national magazines, I hadn’t published a thing in ten years. And while I had spent the past decade working hard as ever, raising three children and completing a draft of my first novel, I didn’t (yet) have anything to show for my efforts, not from a “Lean In” perspective anyway. Did they want me for my money?
“Are you joking?” said my husband. “Just make sure you’re on a good panel.”
A good panel.
Details were hard to come by. The whole thing was kind of in flux. It was the festival’s inaugural year. The organizers were hoping to get a professor from the Creative Writing department to join me. If they could. The name of a well-known literary critic whose work I deeply admired was mentioned, and try as I might to suppress them, fairy-tale scenarios began running through my mind. The critic and I would become close friends, realize we shared identical literary taste. He would help me find a publisher for my novel. He would give me a rave review!
And then a few weeks later, in a passel of e-mails, the critic’s name was rescinded just as casually as it had been floated, replaced instead with that of a writer. This wasn’t a step down, to be sure. If anything, it was a step up. The writer was famous! But trouble was I knew her, and so knew — or thought I knew – much more than enough.
During my senior year in college, the writer had arrived on campus to great fanfare, and that spring, buoyant with the confidence of having been accepted to every Creative Writing class I’d ever applied for, I applied to take hers. But while all my other professors had ever asked for was a writing sample, she asked for a description of a tree, a request I found absurd and so took to be metaphoric, writing instead about a man whose son had died in a car crash and who was commemorating his son’s life by planting an entire forest of trees, a unique and ingenious interpretation, I was sure. But as my letter of rejection, complete with a handscrawled note about my inability to follow directions, made clear, the writer had simply meant what she’d said and said what she’d meant. So what if I had grown up in Queens and couldn’t tell a sycamore from an oak? Sure I might find her as maddeningly exacting as The Mad Hatter, but was it her fault I’d proven myself to be as foolish an ingénue as Alice?
Later that spring, the writer and I crossed paths once more, when me and another student, a friend who was well-connected in the film world, were seated alongside her at a year-end student-faculty dinner. The writer and my friend got along famously, all but ignoring me, until dessert when my friend, either out of pity or kindness, attempted to open the conversation out to include me, telling the writer I had just completed a creative thesis about family secrets.
“Family secrets? What’s your family secret?” she said, turning her big eyes on me like klieg lights from under her cloche hat. I hemmed. I hawed. It wasn’t something I had told hardly anyone. Even my friend sitting beside me didn’t know. But the writer, not unlike the investigative reporter I would one day become, was relentless, repeating the question every which way she could, staring me down, not letting me go, until at last, feeling I had no choice, I made the great reveal.
“That’s it?” she said. “That’s your family secret?”
I turned beet red, muttered some random half-hearted excuse and fled. It was one thing to know I was Alice. Quite another to be told it to my face.
“Don’t let her be mean to you,” cautioned my husband, as I sat hunched over my computer the night before I left for the festival, frantically typing up a novel-length document filled with blow by blow instructions as to where my children needed to be when, with whom and why, while I was gone. I vowed to do my stalwart best, promising that if the writer were mean I would casually mention how if I were to die tomorrow, I’d at least die happy having prioritized my family over my career. So what if it wasn’t true? It was good justification for the path I’d followed, and more importantly, was meant to rankle, as I knew that the writer had become divorced in recent years and that her latest novel, which was about the dissolution of a marriage, had been roundly panned as bad thinly veiled fiction.
And then, on a cold, windy day, the panel began lukewarmly enough, the questions tepid, the writer still in a cloche hat all these years later, politely deferring to me from underneath it even though I, at one and the same time, was, of course, deferring to her. And then finally, from out of a sea of pie-in-the-sky, How-do-you recommend-I-land-my-first-Pulitzer-before-I’m-thirty sort of anal, Ivy League questions, a young woman asked us a doozy. “When you’re writing, how do you decide what to leave out, what should be left out?” The writer looked at me. I looked at her. And then she looked back at me again. It was an excellent question, one I had struggled with time and again as a reporter, and I answered it truthfully, revealing an anecdote about Jon Corzine being sloppily drunk one night while he was still CEO of Goldman Sachs, an anecdote I had chosen to exclude from the profile I had written about him back in 2000, in advance of his run for U.S. Senate from New Jersey. At the time, I hadn’t wanted to bias my readers against him, I explained, I hadn’t wanted to destroy his shot and besides, I’d had no idea if bad behavior was typical for him. (Though, of course, the scandals that later followed him, not least of which was his implosion of a large commodities firm, might imply poor judgment was.)
“You did the moral thing,” said the writer. “You did exactly what you should have done. But in fiction you have no such obligation. In fiction the only obligation’s to the truth.”
And all of a sudden we were like real co-panelists, people put together for a reason, chiming in, enriching each other’s comments.
“There was just a piece about this in the paper over the weekend,” I ventured, “an essay about what happens when novelists write about real people, particularly their families and–”
“That was about me!” interjected the writer. “That windbag didn’t use my name but she was criticizing me! That bit about the adolescent children? First off,” she scoffed, “my children are in their twenties now and. . . . ” And there she went, proceeding to talk about the very thing I had originally thought I might want to push her to talk about, only I’d had no idea that a few lines of the essay I had referenced had been about her, and now I liked her, and felt a world of sympathy.
“When my children were small oh the things I did for them!” she said. “I would light a fire, so they would have a fire to eat breakfast in front of. I would warm their clothes.”
“You warmed their clothes?” I thought I was a good mother, though not being a morning person, I barely even gave my children their breakfast.
“And I remember how it pained me not to watch them but I had to write,” she said. “I needed to write. And so I would sit in a little room off the kitchen when they were small and watch the woman who watched them. And then when I was older I would get them off to the school bus. I would sit in my little room for hours and nothing would happen. And then a half hour before I had to go and meet their bus, suddenly everything would come. And I would be late. Always late. And for this I’ve never been forgiven. To this day!”
I knew just what she meant. The most productive time of day was always right before it was time to get my kids, no matter what time was the pickup, the best thoughts always coming when there was too little time, or even no time at all.
“Men write about their divorces and their romantic lives and it’s wonderful fiction,” she said. “Philip Roth, John Updike. A woman does it and it’s the most awful thing in the world.”
After that the conversation continued in a freer, more productive vein. One student ventured that her mother had left her for long stretches to go off and mountaineer some of the highest peaks in the world. Students asked about how we supported ourselves, how we had gotten our first assigments, and finally, how we shared our work with others before publication. Once again I turned to the writer, and once again she turned to me. I did the best that I could, giving an honest, if somewhat equivocating, response, saying that while I had to be true to myself I did think that when multiple readers had the same comments about what was working, or not working, in a piece, they were usually right.
And then She Who no Longer Seemed the Mad Hatter weighed in, saying that she revised for no one and that her work had to be honest to her and her alone. She didn’t edit herself in writing, nor did she, as it was now abundantly clear, edit herself in speech. It was a brave, high standard, one which could surely piss off many as once upon a time it had deeply pissed off me.
But not today, dear reader. I had gotten to be her student at last. This here’s my truth and it’s unvarnished.