Three Midwives

ELOUISE: I took beginning creative writing from Elouise Bell, who demanded quite a lot. I loved the experience, and decided I would indeed become a writer. I didn’t do particularly well in it (I think I got a B), but I loved the freedom of creating stories. I loved the give-and-take of her class–though I was frankly intimidated by her back then.

I still use some of Elouise’s exercises as I teach my own students. More than her teaching, however, I remember two specific incidents involving Elouise.

First, I remember her talking in the hallway about a National Organization of Woman meeting she had attended. She described Gloria Steinem sitting on the floor, taking notes with a pen and spiral notebook, like she was nobody special. I remember hearing this and thinking, “Are we Mormons allowed to like Gloria Steinem?” Elouise provided a doorway for me not only into writing, but into feminism. She was so secure in herself that the image of her simply being competent and funny told me I could do likewise–a vital thing when I found myself suddenly single after a disastrous first marriage. I wonder if it was Elouise’s image that moved me towards doing exactly what she had done: teaching creative writing, and having the confidence to write stories and essays myself–risking rejection at every juncture, but finding the determination to keep on keeping on. Her very being gave me instruction and permission.

The second image is of her saying to Bruce “May I wish you joy!” before Bruce and I were even engaged. When he explained that we hadn’t actually made a commitment, she said that she had just assumed because of his obvious happiness. There is something in that enthusiastic sentiment which is all Elouise: May I wish you joy! Joy is, in fact, the catalyst for creativity.

So it was unspeakably sweet when Elouise and I met as peers at Sunstone and she spoke affectionately and joyfully to me, acknowledging that I had done some good with my words.

MARY: A few feet away from us was Mary Bradford, former editor of Dialogue who had conditionally accepted my first poem for publication, but suggested revisions. I made revisions quickly and returned the poem to her. She replied, “I’m sorry, but it’s clear you have not cared enough about this poem to work hard on the suggested revisions. If you don’t care about it, then we can’t either.” It was rejected. And the rejection was a great lesson in the energy, love, passion, and tenacity good writing requires.

Mary signed her book of poetry, Purple, to me. She wrote, “I love and admire you.” I almost wept seeing the words. The idea that someone as remarkable as Mary Bradford would express such tender feelings for me was deeply moving. And I will say that I learned the lesson she taught me with that early rejection. I am rarely satisfied with my work now, and would probably revise even my long-ago published material if given the chance. I have never submitted anything since then which hasn’t been thoroughly baked in the fires of my mind.

CHARLOTTE: Finally, there’s Charlotte England. We knew Gene, but many of us didn’t really see the muse behind him–the beautiful woman who could create ice cream and art, and who managed to look angelic at any age. She simply stood and loved. Not only did she love Gene, but she loved every one of his proteges, and continues loving the newcomers who never knew her late husband. Every artist needs someone who loves and believes in them.

Now, I find myself in a position of being the teacher more than the student (though I certainly haven’t stopped learning). I often meet with former students, who want to show me their latest work and get my response. I find this exciting, the generational sharing of creative energy. I love being a midwife to my students’ stories. I love passing the torch, knowing that a little bit of me lives in the light, and that my light carries some of my own mentors’ fire.

Each of these three women has performed essential roles in midwifing my creativity: Simply being an example of competence and possibility; insisting on more than a cursory effort; standing by lovingly, and just believing.

I tell my students that I won’t actually teach them anything–I will merely be a facilitator. I will give them exercises and criticism and will be there as they give birth to good writing. I have had wonderful women in my life who have done exactly that for me. Of course, there have been men as well, but this little tribute is for my midwives.

What teachers do you recall who impacted you, or perhaps started you on a different road than you had planned, or demanded more of you than you demanded of yourself, and set you on a higher road? How are you repaying that as you mentor others?

Comments

  1. My mentor was my college ”Bonehead Engish” teacher. After two weeks, he called to his desk, gave me a copy of a Studs Terkel book. “Study this style, make it your’s, you may make it through college.”
    I was an early ‘mentor’ to my son (maybe then age 8?). I could see he had writing talents (a clear voice) about which I could only dream. But I could at least point this out to him, and maybe the road for such gifts.

  2. Wonderful gift you’re giving to your son.
    Abraham Lincoln: “I am a success today because I had a friend who believed in me and I didn’t have the heart to let him down…”

  3. I remember fondly my 5th-grade teacher who was different than the average teacher; she had a sense for achieving excellence and demanded hard work from us kids. (Some resented her for her tough approach.) But she opened my eyes to the idea that maybe taking this whole school thing seriously would be a good thing. (That, and she insisted on reading aloud to us books that were interesting and slightly above-level, and held us captivated each day.) I had the good fortune of seeing her at my wedding reception and being able to pull her aside and thank her for what she thought was a thankless job.

    I would also add to the list a law school prof who was exacting and demanding, but who was not arrogant. The students respected him for it. Instead of just being sarcastic, this prof had the kindly habit of responding to a student’s correct response, “Yeah, that’s right.” It was a small thing, but it was a great pedagogical tool, and it made us respect him personally even more. I try to use that comment — “yeah, that’s right” — in my own teaching.

  4. I volunteered in the creative writing lab at college. While I never had the director as a classroom instructor, I loved her dearly and would bounce things off of her. At one point, she told me “I can’t imagine anything more fun than sitting around a campfire with you listening to stories. Just put them on paper like you’d put them into words, and you’ll be fantastic.”

    While I know (and knew then) that there’s a big difference between oral storytelling and written word, that was a great piece of advice to get me moving down the right path.

    I learned storytelling from a social studies teacher in junior high. He couldn’t teach his way out of a wet paper bag, got fired from another school district, and kept a ready supply of alcohol in his classroom desk. But, he could tell a captivating story. So, instead of learning US History, we got to hear about what it was like to work for a mortuary, piloting, skiing, selling pharmaceuticals, and how to mix the perfect martini. For the final exam, he’d pull out an old test and read off the multiple choice answers to us, then have us trade papers and correct. But, I think recognizing and telling a good story has served me better than a knowledge of the Teapot Dome scandal might have. Not that he’s excused in any way….

  5. MARGARET:

    A stunning moment, to be breezing through BCC as part of the morning check-in of a variety of sites, and see my own name. And then to read the sweet, kind words from someone with whom I have enjoyed a long connection–a golden moment. Thank you, Margaret!

    One more note about the Gloria Steinem memory: The mental snapshot was taken at the International Women’s Year national conference in Houston–1977, I think. Bella Abzug opened the conference in her smoky voice by saying, “We’re all here.” And we were, women from left, right and center, old, young, all races, poor and affluent, dubious or detemined, on and on. But Steinem got my attention because of what she was doing: She was sitting on the floor because the women she was talking to were mostly in wheelchairs, trying to draft a resolution about rights of the disabled. Steinem didn’t want them to have to look up to talk to her. And anyway, she wasn’t talking. She was listening, taking their comments and hopes and suggestions, and drafting a resolution because she had so much experience in doing that. She just sat at their feet and listened and made notes for their future use.

    AS TO MARGARET YOUNG HERSELF: I don’t know how frank I should be here. I don’t really want to turn the focus to myself, but there’s a point to be made that others may find useful. I hope so anyway.

    This past year, Margaret has been much in my mind. So many of her comments here on BCC and on fMh and elsewhere have been remarkable and deeply thought-provoking, of course. But more than that, there has been a sort of video tape running in my mind, accumulating, filling out the vision of her amazing accomplishments since she was a young creative writing student at BYU. I have asked myself quite a few times: are you envious of Margaret? Is your huge admiration for her tarnished by a bit of green?

    She has done so much so well–teaching, writing AND publishing, breaking ground in chronicling the history of black Americans in the church, raising four children with consummate care and attentiveness, being a leader in the church, speaking out in so many venues for justice and honesty excellence and love. What’s not to envy?

    I keep rummaging around inside myself to see if there is, in this case, that sickly green that interferes with so much of our lives. I’ve not heard many useful talks on envy, but maybe I’ve just not looked in the right places.

    But as for Margaret, I think the answer is no. Envy doesn’t smear itself around my thoughts and feelings for Margaret.
    And I think that mainly has to do with her, rather than with me. Could envy, as such, be a two-way tension? Is there always a pull on both ends of the rope, however subtle on one side?

    What I feel and sense from Margaret Young is free from subtle tugs of that sort. Her love and grace and desire to learn and teach are pretty darned pure. Seeing her at Sunstone–not as much as I had hoped because all her sessions came late Saturday afternoon, and in my case the flesh weakened even as the spirit yearned to attend–seeing her, I felt the rope between us, the tie, was that very Joy she mentioned in the comment above. Joy, in both directions. Oh, I’m glad I went to Sunstone!

  6. Margaret,

    I took creative writing from Susan Ream at BYU. She was a significant bright spot. She looked past my spelling and encouraged me to continue writing. It was my short story project in her class that won in the Meyhew contest that year.

    But the most influential teacher I had was none other than the Bloggernacle’s own Jim Faulconer. I took his Philosophy 110 class in 1981 or 82 and it changed my life. Seriously. Without that class I would be in a very different place right now. I learned to love philosophy and for the first time in my life thought of becoming a professor–it was clear they had a lot of fun. I remember one night I stayed up all night thinking about something he said (not like I can remember now what it was, just the feeling remains). I get to interact with him a little more often now and I don’t know if I’ve ever told him what he did for me. Thanks Jim.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Elouise, I was hoping you would see Margaret’s post and comment.

    I was something of a creative writer throughout middle and high school. It’s not something I pursued in college, but I very much enjoyed writing as a boy. I had a string of wonderful, encouraging teachers in high school, but probably the biggest influence was my 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Zielke. Of course I had a crush on her, but so did all the boys. She laughed so easily and was fun and so encouraging, which is what a 13-year old boy trying his wings at writing needs most of all.

  8. #2: He did learn. At 27, he because the youngest Director of a
    Ceative Writing Department in the CA college system.

  9. Elouise–what a beautiful and generous comment!
    I’m glad to have details filled in about the Gloria Steinem event. You weren’t aware I was listening. (Sweet are the uses of eavesdropping.) I was a few feet away in the hall, as I remember, and had to pay attention. The conversation had a strong impact on me, obviously. The facts you provide make it all the more remarkable, and show Ms. Steinem as a thoughtful, good woman. She was so demonized in those days, and feminism itself was coupled with words like “Nazi” and “strident.” (Not that that’s changed completely.)
    And today, we had people pulling their students out of school lest they hear something like socialism (the HORROR!) from our president, who has also been labeled in words that only divide us and encourage fringe groupings. Ah humanity!

  10. – Don and Maxine Hubler (Grossmont High School). Don was the choir director at my high school; his wife Maxine worked in the choir room with him. Choir was my hardest and most rewarding class in all of high school (it took me 3 semesters to get an A, while I was pulling straight As in all my other classes). Don and Maxine are the only HS teachers that I have remained close to and in touch with (Maxine passed away a few years ago).

    – S. Kent Brown (BYU, Ancient Scriptures). I am forever grateful that I was able to take several religion courses (Old and New Testament) from Kent as a BYU undergrad. Many of our reading materials (on reserve) were non-LDS commentaries, and we had to write weekly papers citing them (I still have those papers). I remain in contact with Kent to the present day. Honorable mention includes: Chauncey Riddle (Book of Mormon), Wilford Griggs (NT Greek), and Hugh Nibley (a seminar on Enoch).

    [Pardon the length on this next one]

    – Dr. Ted Warner (BYU, History). This selection surprised me a bit, but it’s pretty obvious in retrospect. I had little interest in history in high school, and it showed: my AT score on US History was 540/800. Dr. Warner, Chair of the BYU History Department, was on the 3-person scholarship committee that interviewed me, and he asked me some very pointed questions about that test score. (I got the scholarship anyway.) My freshman year at BYU (1971-72), as a sort of penance, I signed up for an Honors seminar on the Indian in American History taught by Dr. Warner — it turned out it was actually a graduate seminar on the subject: 4 Honors undergrads, 5 MA candidates, one PhD candidate, and Dr. Warner. It was the toughest class I had my freshman year, and one of the best. To this day, I remember the hour I spent trying my best to defend my term paper in front of Dr. Warner and the rest of the class — it was agonizing and profoundly educational.

    After my mission and my sophomore year, I found myself facing the American History 170 GE requirement and really didn’t want to take the mass televised class. So when I ran into Dr. Warner on campus one day, I re-introduced myself and explained that I’d like to do some kind of ‘independent learning experience’ (something the Honors program required back then) that would satisfy the AE 170 requirement. Dr. Warner thought for a moment, and then smiled. He had long wanted to do a BYU Independent Studies class on readings in American History. I ended up reading 16 well-written volumes on American History (from the New American Nation series) and writing study questions for each; he edited the questions a bit, submitted the course to IS, and split the $300 honorarium with me when they accepted it. In the process, he instilled a love of history in me that continues to this day.

    Unlike Don and Kent, I have not maintained contact with Dr. Warner, and I’m not sure that he’s still alive. But if he were, I’d send him a photo of the three full-height bookshelves downstairs that are dedicated to (and crammed full of) books on history, biography, and social commentary. They really are his legacy. ..bruce..

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Bruce, I too took a number of classes from Kent and then worked as his TA. He was one of my most important mentors at BYU.

  12. I wanted to share memories of the three women Margaret has memorialized, plus mention some of my other favorite teachers.

    Margaret has already taken my favorite memory of Elouise (“May I wish you joy!”), but I should add that many years earlier I took a short story writinig class from her.

    My main memory of Mary Bradford, besides her cheerful (I almost said “bubbly”) demeanor is what she said once about the “Pillars of My Faith” session at Sunstone: She said she had misheard it as “Pillows of My Faith” and then went on to say why that seemed altogether an appropriate way to think about faith.

    When I think of Charlotte, I think mainly of the warmth and beauty of her home and the times I’ve attended gatherings there. I’ve seen her outside her home as well, but she always seems to carry a bit of home with her, the same warmth and beauty.

    Some the teachers who especially influenced me: Marden Clark, S. Kent Brown, Arthur Henry King, Truman Madsen, Marilyn Arnold, Richard Ellsworth, Marshall Craig, Jeanne Anne Waterstradt, Ed Hart, Gary Lambert, Richard Anderson, Bro. Peterson (Doctrine and Covenants teacher–I can’t remember his first name), Dennis Rasmussen, (I took a class from Hugh Nibley too–but it’s a bit of a blur, and his influence on me has mainly been through his books and articles), P. O. Kristeller (though it was just a lecture course–he never really knew who I was), David Perkins, Walter Jackson Bate, Gwynne Blakemore Evans . . . and many, many more.

    Now that I think of it–what good fortune, what grace, that any of us can list such people and count them as part of the fabric of our lives.

  13. Mary L. Bradford says:

    Margaret–The thought that I could have had any influence on such a star as you is humbling indeed. Like Elouise (who is also a great influence on me) I don’t feel envy, only gratitude and thanks to God for your time on this earth. May it be long!
    Thanks too for your remarks on my lovely friend- Charlotte.–And to Bruce: I delivered my Pillows of Faith at Sunstone after which it was published twice.

  14. Mary L. Bradford says:

    addendum to my comment. When my daughter read Maggie’s essay, she was amazed that such a discouraging comment by me had inspired Maggie.
    Since I am now old (very) and wiser (somewhat) I believe I am now alot kinder.
    Mary

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