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May Sarton's Gift
Deborah Straw

06/06/05

      It happened again today. A student with stars in her eyes stopped me and told me how much I had given her. Previously enrolled in two of my community college writing classes, she is almost my age (fifty-one), but our lives have followed entirely different courses. After beginning college a year ago, she has become my protégé and will continue to take classes with me -- perhaps even an independent study on how to become published. Both she and her writing are almost ready for this leap of faith. She has style, humor and stories that must be told.

     The "stars in the eyes" line is not arrogance. I see them twinkle at me, and I remember the feeling. I've had them, too. I was fortunate enough to have a wise woman mentor who changed my world just when I needed her to do so.

     I knew the writer May Sarton for the last eight years of her life. She was the most passionate, giving friend/teacher I have ever known. Although her legendary moods could be devastating and although she never gave me much concrete feedback on my writing, she did consistently point me in the right direction.

     Sarton was an exceptionally wise woman. What she gave—confidence in myself as a creative writer, as a more intellectual person than I had dared imagine—did wonders for this woman from small town New Hampshire with no guidelines for this type of frightening, exciting relationship with a famous person.

     May gave me her permission (to give myself permission) to write poems and short stories, something I had not dared to do until I met her. She also urged me to spend more time writing and less time teaching. She had discovered that writing and teaching take the same psychic energy, and that writers cannot afford to give away too much of their primary energy. “I am simply amazed at all you do for people,” she wrote me one summer. “But now there must come a way to do some writing of your own. ” Those two deceptively simple sentences prompted me to action.

     Through her loving, unwavering example, I also learned the importance and power of mentoring other women—whether through classroom or individualized teaching.

     In my 30s, I came to Sarton's table with a moderate amount of confidence. My parents had always been proud of me, had encouraged me through my college years and even through my '60s activities protesting against the Vietnam War. Most of their friends would not have done so for their kids. But I had no role models of professional women artists, and that is what I wanted to be.

     May Sarton was my favorite author. Since discovering Kinds of Love and Journal of a Solitude, I had devoured most of her works. Somewhere deep inside I grabbed the courage, based on the premise that Sarton’s and my fundamental values and personalities were similar, to attempt to meet her. When the author, 36 years my senior, was scheduled to come to our town for a book signing, I invited her for dinner at our house and she accepted.

     May came; we ate a gourmet dinner (thanks to my husband's cooking), drank Scotch, and hit it off. Thus began our intense relationship. After that first meeting, we met every two or three months, sometimes on her suggestion, many times on mine. Each time, she was an inspiring conversationalist and enthusiastic about my writing endeavors.

     We began with niceties (weather talk, discussion about birds or our cats) and a cup of tea, but almost right away, she wanted to know what I was writing. She uttered a hearty “Bravo!” when I took a new risk. During those years of high excitement, she encouraged me to experiment. I tried many genres—poetry, personal essay, and short fiction. She recommended books by authors, particularly women, she considered fine or unusual—Virginia Woolf, Ruth Pitter, Hilda Doolittle—and I generally concurred. She loaned me books by Pitter, Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen and others she admired. (Once, I introduced her to a great new writer’s novel: Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Dreams. Was I amazed to know a writer who Sarton hadn't yet discovered. ) May also gave me her own writing, even a few of the rare, out of print volumes.

     We also discussed her projects—her frustrations, deadlines, and recent reviews, both praising and damning. She talked of relationships, past and present, with editors, agents, readers and critics, and she related stories of her early mentors, Virginia Woolf and Belgian poet Jean Dominique, thrilling names from a glorious past literary world.

     Although May didn’t read all of my manuscripts, she consistently offered encouragement, ideas of markets, and positive feedback on a title or topic. When she did read something, she was cautiously positive and firmly critical. She told me one or two things she liked very much—a word here, an image there—and one or two things she thought needed work. For example, although she appreciated one essay’s thesis and the quotes I chose, she felt the language was far too repetitious. It was hard to hear her criticism, but I knew it was good for me. On the four-hour drive home, I still would be excited, reliving our conversations, considering her opinions, and planning the next phone call or visit.

     Between our visits, when she wasn’t immersed in a manuscript, May wrote me wonderful letters. Like her books, they were graciously worded, about nature, friends, books and, of course, ideas. When I finished reading and reviewing Dear Juliette (Norton, 1999), a volume of Sarton’s letters to Juliette Huxley, my black notebook of letters from her prompted reinvestigation. I received not as many, nor as loving letters as did Huxley, of course; nevertheless, Sarton’s unedited epistles were passionate and lyrical, full of book suggestions, encouragement and descriptions of the natural world.

     From the night of that first dinner at our home, there was no turning back. I knew if I had landed such a big fish, I couldn't let it go. I had to try to give this person as much as, or part of what, she could give me. I worked at it; this was a two-way relationship. I sent books, cards, and flowers. I called when she was sick, at the times of day she preferred. I praised her work. I did not interrupt her solitary hours. I continue to include her work in all syllabi and introduce students of all ages to her writing.

     Through Sarton’s example, I became more able to develop and share my talents by daring to write about what matters. May wrote unflinchingly about cancer; about infidelity; about depression; about hatred and prejudice; about friends and animals dying; about feeling suicidal. She made me realize through many of her poems and her journal entries, in particular, that these were legitimate topics about which to write, that there was an audience for them. She came out of the closet in her novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing(1965) when it was unfashionable to do so and suffered professional repercussions, but she did it. She taught me that daily life and relationships, in many ways, are what really matter in this life; the way we lead our lives and treat others influences and defines our mental and physical health.

     I discovered, as had Sarton, that writing down my thoughts and shaping and revising them into some cogent form ordered my world. I realized what was important, and what I needed to focus on. I discovered what I felt and thought about a number of issues that, prior to knowing Sarton, I might not have recognized as so pressing in my life.

     Instead of writing solely about subjects I had little interest in offered up by editors, I began to write about women's friendships, women's relationships to their homes, to mentors, to the natural world and to domestic animals. One of the reasons I was attracted to Sarton in the first place was because she cared about the same issues.

     I sometimes feel a jealousy at how much better she wrote about these topics than I do. (I believe this is in part because of her early education that focused on reading and reciting poetry and in part because she grew up with scholarly parents. ) She wouldn't like me saying this, on one level, as it's demeaning of my abilities. On another level, she would love the fact that hers is still the critical voice I hear in my head as I write each sentence, each poem, even though she’s now dead 10 years. She was a hard taskmaster, one of the most disciplined, unrelenting workers I have ever known. I don't have her talent, but I am improving.

     As a result of knowing May Sarton, I took steps to ensure I kept writing. I knew she couldn't be the only one, outside of my husband and parents, to bolster my career. Fifteen years ago, I started a writers’ group of published women writers; our biweekly Sunday evening meetings became a highlight of my life. (The group has since ended, for a variety of reasons. ) They provided an informal deadline and a discipline I haven’t always had. I reworked almost everything I shared; only a few poems and one short story were relegated to the wastebasket. Some pieces, like this one, have seen several rewrites. But the group and its process were daunting. When I received some pointed comments about an ending and lack of adequate conflict in a story, I often felt like quitting. Writing is a lonely business and much harder work than I had expected.

     The loneliness of the discipline is one of the reasons I continue to teach. I like teaching, and I believe in helping beginning writers, many of whom also had no role model for an academic or professional life. But Sarton was right: I must continue guarding my writing time and energy.

     Today, my student, I'll call her Kate, needed to be given permission as I did those twenty years ago. Kate has nearly completed a narrative essay about a small, incestuous town in northern Vermont. She said, "Oh, I couldn't send that out. Some readers would think I was snobby. ""So what?"I asked. I reminded her she has to be true to her vision of the world. Readers who can relate will find her and other readers will find writers whose vision of life they share. In the best of all worlds, readers who differ from the writer's world vision or social class but love her words will also read her.

     Kate’s piece about life for a woman in a small New England town, about the cliques and about the mean-spiritedness, is a universal tale about being an outsider. Those who live this type of small town life may not choose to read her work. It will be their loss.

     Like me, Kate is a woman from a working class background. Unlike me, who entered and finished college right after high school, she waited until her 40s to return to school. In part, she didn't think she was smart enough to do it. But she is quite brilliant and has a lot of raw talent. Kate is bursting at the seams to tell her life's stories, as I have been on many occasions. Both of us needed a wiser woman to encourage us to begin.

     Without Sarton's influence and power, I could not have so encouraged Kate's talent or so understood her situation. Sarton not only urged me to write more, she convinced me to believe in my own power, in my own vision of the world. believe that most of us have great creative potential, but we need to be coaxed out of our shells to share these talents. Albert Schweitzer called this a "rekindling of the light. " Or, according to the Hopis, we lose a lot of our childlike creativity and enthusiasm as we age. This is what I look to re-discover and encourage in my students, female and male, and I believe this is what Sarton did for me and dozens of other aspiring writers.

     Kate is but one in a line of women whose self-belief and talents I have helped rekindle. These women students keep finding me. They all love language, have a deeply creative source which may have been squelched long ago, and come to love Sarton's and other women writers' works.

     A couple other women stand out clearly. Terry, 20, came into my English Composition class with a weak vocabulary and unfocused ideas. Like many of my students, she watched too much TV and read too few books. After two semesters, she was writing tight and mature essays about the importance of her elderly dog and art in her daily life. I recently wrote her a letter of recommendation for a four-year school. She hopes to become an art therapist; she has just the right heart and personality to do so.

     Sally, 94, began putting her life on paper in my memoir-writing group at an adult day care center at age 92. Drawing on a rich life of travel, two husbands, children, and grandchildren, she began to get up in the middle of the night to jot down her thoughts. She noticed every bird and the way moonlight cast shadows on her apartment’s walls, and she gave me credit for her new passion. She lived to see her work published.

     Of course, it’s not just me; the stories they had in them all along press them forward. But as Sarton did for me, I give my students positive, critical feedback. Also as did Sarton, I offer ideas of markets in which these women might publish. In several cases, I have referred them to a quarterly animal journal, laJoie, of which I am a contributing editor. The senior editor, a nurturing woman named Rita Reynolds who runs a no-kill animal shelter in her home, concurs with my taste. My students get to see their work in print and even receive a token payment. They are thrilled, and I am thrilled for them.

     Although I still teach a bit too much, I continue to write, almost every day. I'm out of sorts if I don't. It's not all new work; revision counts. As Sarton said, this is the most creative part of the process. I’ve had two nonfiction books published and am hard at work on a mystery novel. I continue to write and publish essays, and to revise poems and short stories. I love helping women writers by writing book reviews of their new releases.

     Many of these things might never have happened if I had not known May Sarton. As I flipped through Dear Juliette yesterday, I realized how much I had gained from her and how much I still miss her. I'll never again hear her strong voice on the telephone, or receive a hand-written letter. Of course, she will never come back again, but I believe if she could see me now, she would be proud. She once read me a quote from another wise woman, Anne Morrow Lindbergh. It went something like this: you can never repay in kind, but you can pass it along. May Sarton's wisdom is still making an impact on my life and writing, and I will continue passing along what she so graciously and generously taught me.

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