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?