Old Writers Never Die. They Just...
Rather than give up a love affair with words, old writers, with decades of footprints in the book trade, simply change genres, refurbish stories, and stay delightfully crazy.
My falling in love with storytelling happened at nap time in my grandmother’s bed. It was some time in the year of 1949. She fell asleep in the midst of reading a story. I did not, and poked her with my elbow to get her voice going again, a voice honed on decades of reading the Bible aloud, with its old-world rhythms. Since my grandmother seemed to worry that I would be the first female in our family to go to prison, she dropped me off each Sunday in her church’s Children’s Class. There, I heard Bible stories that were older even than my grandmother, a realization that led me to my first profound thought: if stories could last so long, they must be something we need. Like air, food and water—or a good purse.
“I called writing the magic of silent language.”
I decided then I wanted to be a storyteller. I saw each sentence as the fingerprint of a particular mind left on what started out as a blank page. I aimed for that—not just to last, but to have the chance to burrow down into the soul of a reader where my existence might influence another life. I called writing the magic of silent language. I could write words I could not even pronounce. To me, it was becoming a link in a chain of existence, one mind to another. And at the age of eight, I turned in a novel to my third-grade teacher written totally in dialogue about a dog who wished to sing. A dog whose mother could not even shut up. Now after more than fifty years of the writing life, here’s what I can tell you:
1. If you are in high school, and on a Saturday morning, find you’d rather stay in your room and write something, than meet your friends at the just-opened hamburger fast food joint (in my case, Krystals), nor join them at the bowling alley—where an all-night birthday party has allowed parents to say, "Yes, you can be there, because you won’t be driving around getting into some kind of embarrassing trouble"—you’re a writer.
“This is your signal that gobs of sweat, as well as the agony and the ecstasy of carving a perfect sentence, lies in wait for you.”
2. In college, if the revered professor of creative writing allows you into his class, then introduces you to famed visiting writers, such as, in my case, Eudora Welty and Robert Penn Warren, you can assume you have the write stuff. Then, if in loose moments, you hear your professor make comments that seem to come from his jealous streak, you can assume you definitely have promise and have entered that dangerous phase, in which Old Hemingway cautioned, saying something similar to "having promise is like syrup. Some won’t pour." This is your signal that gobs of sweat, as well as the agony and the ecstasy of carving a perfect sentence, lies in wait for you.
3. If you are so curious about the life of another person, that you will sit down next to a stranger and strike up a conversation, then keep them in your memory, along with the way the lines in their face curve when they speak, the way their fingers move, the sound of their voice, and the way you preserve them with genuine affection, then you have the makings of a toolbox.
4. When the publisher of your first novel loves your New York Times Review, and also the reviewer for the Chicago Tribune says he can’t get your characters out of his mind, and yet your publisher fires you, explaining that your work “does not sell,” and “your work is too much like so and so, and seems to have no reason for being…” you go out and buy a new typewriter and eventually a computer to write your next novel anyway, not only because you have faith in yourself, but also because you can’t shut off the valve of words that flow from your first love affair. Well then, you are a writer with grit.
“...you know you have an obsession with what you have told yourself you were meant to do.”
5. When you discover that your basic temperament has no patience for performing in public. If you hate, like the dickens, to be the center of attention, but bite your lip and learn to do it anyway and develop media skills, honing a hidden talent for sparring with commercial radio hosts, and prepare witty remarks for almost everyone, you know you have an obsession with what you have told yourself you were meant to do.
“...being an author who teaches can unveil the best part of yourself: the one who is kind and generous, humble and in awe of another’s imagination.”
6. If you are asked—and you surely will be, after publishing something—to be part of a writing faculty to teach aspiring writers, you will discover that being published is no license to stomp on someone else’s work. There is not ever permission to snip away at someone’s dream. When you feel a reverence for the passion that has called an aspiring writer to write, you realize being an author who teaches can unveil the best part of yourself: the one who is kind and generous, humble and in awe of another’s imagination.
“And you know you have finally reached nirvana, that bus stop where there is freedom from pain and worry and you have made peace with the disturbing desire that set you on this path in first place.”
7. And then, if you are lucky enough to live long, as I have, you will have desk drawers full of unpublished work, and your university can ask for your papers, so that one day, some young scholar might discover that your love affair could be worth studying for a graduate degree, and you begin seeing how you can switch from writing novels to essays, to nonfiction, to children’s books, to... And a wise voice whispers, skip poetry; poets suffer enough. And you know you have finally reached nirvana, that bus stop where there is freedom from pain and worry and you have made peace with the disturbing desire that set you on this path in first place.
8. It is then that you can give thanks for what pushed you to a life dedicated to the love of words and the power of story. You have not watered down your ideals, your passion, your jaw-gapping reverence in the presence of a well-written sentence from a questing mind. And when those qualities are recognized by a good agent who becomes a business friend and supporter, well... you can write your own rock song about getting satisfaction from sticking it out in a love affair that caught you young and would not let you go, so that, by then, you grasp the final truth… You have become the story.
Shelley Fraser Mickle grew up in a small cotton town in Arkansas, graduated from the University of Mississippi and studied writing at the Harvard Extension School and Wellesley College. Her first novel, The Queen of October, was a New York Times Notable Book and a Library Journal top 10 book of l989. Her second novel, Replacing Dad, won a Friends of American Writers Award and was made into a CBS/Hallmark Channel movie starring Mary McDonnell, academy award nominee for her role in Dances with Wolves. Shelley's latest novel The Occupation of Eliza Goode, researched and written over seven years, illuminates women's history, featuring a camp-follower prostitute during the Civil War as she transforms herself from prostitute to laundress to nurse to officer's wife. Her forthcoming book is Borrowing Life: The Story of the First Successful Organ Transplant, weaving history into a story of significance—one of the most valuable scientific discoveries in the 20th century—where two Nobel Prizes were awarded to American surgeon Joe Murray and British zoologist Peter Medawar for this science, distributed by Penguin Random House.