“She was fierce and feisty. Quick to laugh, she told the truth, even when it wasn’t nice, and she stood for something. I learned so much by just being around her. Deeply devoted to her family, her community, her work and her morals, she was a woman of character. She never believed that being an artist gave you an excuse to be something less than your best.”
— Tift Merritt
“I would never send out a novel that wasn’t ready.”
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In fall 2003, Doris Betts told me to wait. Have patience. Keep writing.
I was not happy to get that email. My idol and writing teacher had just told me my precious baby wasn’t ready for the world.
She’d seen the first 50-some pages and asked me to read a portion aloud to our Elizabeth Daniels Squire Writers-in-Residence class. She told everyone to listen to the voice. I felt like a straight-A gal. In our private conference, she mentioned sharing my manuscript with her agent someday.
It wasn’t long before I decided the “someday” ought to be “right now.” The hubris. But I wrote her after that summer with an eager and naive, “Hey, I’m going to finish this first draft soon, so I thought I might take you up on your offer…” It never crossed my mind what I was asking of our modern-day Flannery O’Connor, Guggenheim Fellow and winner of the Southern Book Award, author of nine novels and three story collections–to send my meandering, 800-page, first-draft manuscript to her agent.
Doris’ one-liner came with no soft-pedaling, honeyed words. I don’t think there was a salutation or closing. I reeled for a while, but eventually, I saw, and now I see, every day. My agent, Sarah Heller, is currently putting me through the same paces. All these times Sarah has asked, “What is the story?” I didn’t realize the question held the echo of Doris. Every time I cut a flowery phrase, I hear the joke we shared in Doris’ class, led by writer Peggy Millin: Please let us not be too writerly.
Our Peacenik group (so named for our residency at Peace College and some of our group’s opposition to the Iraq War) adored the force that was Doris. Class was full of challenge and wit and laughter. We arrived a tribe that first day we met, thanks to Doris inaugurating a flood of emails long before. She read pages early and got us talking. So when I received that striking email from her, the closed door to my overblown aspirations, it was part of a long conversation that often struck casual and familiar notes. Doris treated her students with honesty and respect.
It’s no surprise that in 2006 Doris graciously agreed to be a guest author in my Duke TIP Short Fiction Workshop with middle and high school students. We read The Astronomer and Other Stories. She joined my students’ online chat and with her wit and quick typing, held her own with frenetic teen spirits and gave them her best.
I’ll never forget our private conference about my manuscript. That novel has a young woman, Daria, searching too hard for love and acceptance in the wrong places. “Daria wants to f—,” Doris commented with a grin.
That same forthrightness leaps from one of my favorite of her short stories, “Still Life with Fruit” (1970). A young mother about to give birth for the first time meditates through a haze of drugs on the odd, detached, and imprisoned way women are made to labor and give birth. Her comments on the attending Catholic nuns, Christ on the cross over the bed, and memories of sex with her husband, are unabashed, amusing, and frightening. By the time the baby arrives–stolen from her to be disinfected and swaddled–the woman returns to her body, slowly, groggily, as the joy and sorrow of this birth overwhelms. As critic William Peden writes, “I don’t know many writers with as much controlled power, with such ability to recognize the significant in the commonplace and to depict it with such tough, naked, unadorned simplicity.”
I think another way to say this is, Doris saw the sacred everywhere.
That summer we discussed my Catholicism, and she said she always was curious about the faith. To ever convert would hurt her mother too much, she said. Later I sent her Caryll Houselander’s The Reed of God. Another time she mentioned the way I portrayed the high school setting in my novel. “I’m writing a novel about a teacher,” she said, and noted how she felt she hadn’t quite grasped the essence of a school setting yet. To think she was talking shop with me like this tells me she was a lifelong learner and always up for a new insight.
My writing colleagues Dave and Bob wrote Doris beautiful and fitting tributes. Dave remembers all the wisdom of her lectures; I remember my fascination with one particular point she made. “All writing is scene or summary,” I recall Doris saying. This idea fascinated me so much I studied stories to find the echo of her words, and followed my own personal MFA of blog posts to understand how both elements work (“Make it Fascinating” and “Make it Fascinating, Part 2“).
The week with Doris renewed my faith in writing. That summer I picked up a novel that had languished since 1994 and attacked it with vigor. I knew suddenly that I was not only a teacher of writing; I was a writer, too. I had a voice, and I had something to say.
It doesn’t matter that particular novel sits on a shelf now, awaiting resurrection. It doesn’t know its purpose yet. It’s not ready.
In my new novel, when the teen protagonist loses her idol, Michael Jackson, she observes: “His leaving this world rocked mine. His sacrifice cleansed my soul. Call me Crazytown, call me Wacky Wendy–really, please do. MJ’s passing has got me understanding what really matters.”
No one will call me crazy as I say Doris’ passing has put all this striving into perspective. Our loss of her has left me grateful I could meet such a woman, receive her gifts, and become more of the artist I am meant to be.