Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Forging Her Own Path


In 1982, in honor of her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, Mom wrote an essay titled Emro Farm, named for the property that had been in her mother’s family for over 100 years, and which her parents had spent their working lives taking care of. She typed up the text on her electric typewriter, aligned horizontally and double-sided so it could be run off easily on a copier. Light blue cardstock adorned with a neighbor’s line drawing of the farm comprised the cover. A couple of other line drawings, one of the house, one of the local Quaker Meetinghouse, augmented the text. I have it in my head that she did all the copying herself, standing at the college library Xerox machine with a bagful of quarters; this isn’t entirely out of the realm of the possible; the only thing making it unlikely would be Mom’s unwillingness to monopolize the machine that long. When I look at the pamphlets now, I realize they’re too uniform to have been made by hand. I’m pretty sure the library was involved though; they probably had a machine for making small pamphlets like this. It probably cost a pittance to run off a few dozen copies; it’s even possible Dad would have had a faculty discount. The document was meant to be shared only with family members, maybe some of her parents’ close friends. Mom’s insistence on a shoestring budget just made sense when one considered the deep-seated frugality of both the creator and the intended audience. In 1991, following the deaths of both her parents, Mom revisited the document, adding essays and poems that examined their respective legacies, and their influence on her.

Mom had been writing for years at this point. Once all three of her children were in school full time, she set up an office in a corner of the master bedroom and five days a week, from 8 am until noon, she would sit and compose on her typewriter. In 1985, with one child in grad school, another in college, Mom turned the smallest bedroom in the house into her office. At age 49, for the first time in her life, she had a room entirely to herself.

She had some success with essays, short stories and poems seeing publication. All her rejection letters ended up on a lethal-looking spike that sat on her desk. From her I learned that even rejection letters had a hierarchy. At the bottom was the form letter; next up came the form letter with a handwritten signature. Up from that was the form letter with a handwritten note at the bottom, and best of all, almost as good as an acceptance letter, was the completely handwritten note, usually saying something like ‘we can’t take this at this time, but please keep submitting.” This perspective served me well as an actor. One is probably going to hear ‘no’ more often than ‘yes,’ so one has to make one’s peace with that.

Her family members were enthusiastic in their support of her writing, none more so than Dad.  He pushed Mom to treat her work as a legitimate business, insisting, for example, that she file business taxes each year, even as the business consistently ran at a loss. Mom hated receiving gifts, but in an attempt to throw her pleading children some kind of bone, she would request postage stamps for her submissions. She claimed to love getting stamps; “they make me feel rich,” This drove Dad crazy; “that isn’t a gift,” he’d squawk, “that’s a business expense!” We kids would try to strike a middle ground, getting Mom rolls of first-class mail postage, but refusing to treat them as anything more than a stocking stuffer at Christmas, and an afterthought on birthdays.

Mom loved mysteries, and ended up writing two of them; these manuscripts landed her a fancy New York agent, Jean Naggar, but ultimately Ms. Naggar’s clout and influence proved unable to land a publisher. Eventually she and Mom parted ways, and Mom abandoned the manuscripts.

Over the years she had written several short stories loosely based on the lives of ancestors, relatives, and her own childhood. A handful of them were published in various magazines and journals. With the death of both her parents, Mom told me she felt a sudden opening up in her writing. A freedom she hadn’t even realized she was lacking now allowed her to tell new stories. Partly as a result of this, all the fictionalized memoir and family history was cobbled together into a single narrative which she titled Silent Friends: a Quaker Quilt.

The title was, to some extent, Mom’s self-effacing claim that the book wasn’t a novel, per se, but a loosely connected series of short stories, the word ‘quilt’ suggesting the process of sewing disparate pieces together. Having previously read all the short stories, I probably approached the book with this expectation as well. Certainly, I was sure there would be no surprises in it for me. But Mom sold herself short. Somehow the whole ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. I’ve never quite pinned down how she achieved this. Maybe it’s partly by making the farm itself a character. Her disclaimer at the beginning reads, “The land is itself; the characters are products of my imagination.” Maybe the effect comes from making all the characters members of a single family. Whatever it is, the effect was striking, and subsequent re-readings have been rewarding.

In 1992 the book was published by a small operation based in Illinois called Stormline Press. Their masthead stated that they were especially interested in stories of rural and small-town life. Mom was ‘paid’ in copies, and gave most of them away to friends, family members, and loved ones, all with personal inscriptions. My copy says “To Patrick, who sees me clearly, and loves me anyway.” In the copy she gave to my boyfriend at the time, she wrote, “For Kevin, to help you understand your noisy friend Patrick.” A quick Google search reminds me that The Midwest Book Review gave it a short, but positive review. Mom received enthusiastic responses from many of her readers, and word-of-mouth was largely positive. Her family members were all ecstatic, none more so than Dad. There came a point where he began campaigning for a second printing to be run. He mentioned several times that Stormline should be contacted, and encouraged her to do so. Each time he brought it up, however, Mom would shoot him down, often with some heat, and typically end by firmly extracting a promise from him that he wouldn’t take any action without her express permission. I was never clear on what was going on here, nor where the heat was coming from exactly. I know Stormline wasn’t a vanity press; Mom would have no more paid to have her book published than she would have grown feathers. If her pride hadn’t stopped her, her self-described cheapskate ways would have. Maybe she knew the Press hadn’t yet recouped its expenses.  But it’s also just possible that Mom’s lifelong struggle with depression, was at play here. She couldn’t put herself forward like that; it had been hard enough to submit the book in the first place; making demands of any kind was simply too agonizing to contemplate.

In 1998, Mom created a document similar to the Emro Farm pamphlet—same layout, same dimensions, even the same blue cardstock for the cover—though this time the text was a collection of her poems. She titled it The Lamb’s War, words carefully stenciled onto the master; multiple images of a lamb, created, if memory serves, by drawing around a cookie cutter, gambol across the cover. The lamb directly under the title has been filled in with dark ink. Mom often referred to herself as the black sheep of her family.

Dad had appreciated the handmade quality of Emro Farm, understanding its goals were modest, but The Lamb’s War irked him. He felt Mom was showing a lack of respect for her work. “Hell, the lamb looks like it was done with a potato stamp!” In 2000 she would make yet another pamphlet, this one a collection of her essays honoring a simple life, the title—A Perfect Day—once again carefully stenciled by hand on the master, the text once again created with her electric typewriter. The audience for these pamphlets was a bit wider; Mom had several hundred printed up, and she would give them away to anyone she thought might appreciate them. No money was ever accepted for them.

I regularly reread favorite books. Sometimes it’s the emotional equivalent of comfort food; the world is too much for me, and I need soothing. But even when that is the goal, the story will often still surprise me. New insights into the book, or my own thinking, will spring up. Sometimes it feels like the insight is just a flowering of a seed planted by the book previously, but just as often, the discovery feels like some bedrock aspect of my personality, independent of the book, is now being revealed clearly by the text for the first time. I have this experience regularly with books written by people I’ve never met. Imagine how much more potent it is when it happens with your mother’s writing.

I understand Dad’s objection, that these collections, almost ostentatiously cheap in their appearance, suggested Mom was undervaluing her own work. But I also think a case could be made that Mom was taking control of her work, and its dissemination, in a way that gave her a greater sense of autonomy. No longer content to wait for some journal or publishing house to impart ‘legitimacy’ to her work, while still avoiding the stigma and subterfuge of a vanity press, she simply made her own books. Fiercely Luddite when it came to computers, she may have been finding her own way to do what the internet is now allowing many writers to do: self-publish. There was no pretense, no inflated claims. All the things Dad did, with the best of intentions, to encourage Mom to treat her work as a legitimate business—file taxes, even if they show a loss, ask the Press to run a second printing, treat stamps like an business expense, not a gift—maybe all that activated Mom’s deep-seated imposter syndrome. Even giving herself a room of her own had come with emotional landmines. She felt guilty for depriving her eldest child of a home base during breaks from grad school, and wondered (in an essay) if she’d been as willing to take the step if the child had been a son rather than a daughter. All that insistence that she treat herself like a real writer, maybe instead of conferring legitimacy, it had paralyzed her. Perhaps after achieving what is so often treated as the pinnacle of success for a writer, publication of a novel, she found that nothing had really changed. She felt no magic transformation into a real writer. If my analysis is right, then I wonder if these slim pamphlets gave her a way of sidestepping the whole struggle. Here’s my work. Read it if you want. It will cost you nothing but a little of your time. In this light, these pamphlets were akin to her home repairs, done with bits and pieces of things she found in the garage or basement. The results were often clunky and inelegant, but they usually got the job done, at no cost.

In her later years, Mom stopped writing for the most part, stopped putting in her office hours. I, and I suspect others, routinely urged her to get back into the habit. When I fell in love with The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, I gave Mom a copy of the book. I hoped she’d appreciate the practicality of the exercises, without being too put off by the New Age spirituality (something I had more stomach for at the time, myself), but I don’t think it worked. On one occasion when I took Mom to task for a comment she made dismissing herself as a writer, she responded, “it took me 25 years to write one, 108-page novel!” Even if this were true (as I mentioned, other pieces saw publication through traditional channels), it was a heartbreaking way to view the book.

Ultimately, I fear she felt dejected by the fact that her professional life never turned a profit. She frequently referred to things she would do ‘once my ship comes in.’ Replacing all the windows, reinsulating the house, any number of tasks were mentioned as things that would happen once her ‘ship came in.’ Sad how many of them seemed to be purely practical, unromantic homeowning issues, things Dad would have seen no reason to put off, if it were only up to him. Sadder still was the way that she, a life-long anti-materialist, nonetheless seemed to think money, or the lack of it, was a measure of her success. Whatever she thought that ‘ship’ would be, she never believed it arrived.  

When used books became available online, Mom asked Mary, Dad, and her friend Becky to buy up any copies they came across, as long as they didn’t spend too much money (Mom still steadfastly refused to go online herself). She had run through her author’s copies, and wanted to be able to give books to interested parties again. Buying up used copies came with some emotional risks; more than one of them showed up with one of Mom’s handwritten inscriptions, clearly revealing which friend had chosen to sell or give away the book, but this didn’t bother her as much as I would have expected (or as much as it would have bothered me, perhaps). Maybe she was confident enough in the books merits not to take it personally if someone, even a friend, had decided to pass the book along.

The title essay of A Perfect Day describes a day spent building bookshelves and making jam in and around her normal daily activities of dog walking, cooking, reading and listening to NPR; writing isn’t mentioned, though of course one has to recognize it’s implicit in the essay’s existence. I derive a great deal of comfort from that. I fear her lifelong struggle with depression (mostly untreated because, she insisted, people of her generation 'just didn't do that') may have led her to dismiss her accomplishments. But her pamphlets give me some hope that maybe, at least some of the time, she was happy to forge her own path. Maybe she decided to stop pursuing traditional publication, or mainstream success, finding instead her own ways to tell her stories. 


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