As I taught writing, I often found it necessary to invent examples of the principles I was preaching. The textbooks offered some, but they didn't always fit. Or they were from literary works that were too elaborate for students to imitate. I made up a little passage, for example, to illustrate an "unreliable narrator," a monologue that might have been heard in a dorm. I made up bits of dialogue to demonstrate the choppy, fragmented, and elliptical qualities of natural speech.
When I taught the smaller seminar courses in writing I thought it would be helpful if I wrote a story of my own and offered it to the students for criticism, as they offered theirs to me. I would participate with them in the struggle to express private visions and emotions in public words, and in the painful realization of all the ways in which the literary product fails to live up to the writer's hopes. I remembered that when I was teaching at Saint Peter's College, among colleagues who were mostly journalists, one of them told me that he always wrote the assignment that he gave to his students, and always showed them his version. I admired this practice and decided to try it myself.
In that senior seminar in composition which was such a disappointment to me, I wrote a humorous little sketch which satirized the permissive educational theories of the late sixties and early seventies, in which teachers let their students dictate what they wanted to be taught and how the teachers were to teach. The seminar students read it aloud, taking the various parts, and seemed to find it amusing. Or maybe they were ridiculing it -- I couldn't tell. But I sent it to The Critic, they bought it, and published it with illustrations that were funnier than my text. So my first attempt at sharing my creative efforts with my students had a satisfying result.
The following year with another seminar group I wrote a serious story about a college couple going to New York to get an abortion. The germ of the story was a news article I read which reported that the greatest number of abortions occurred during the Christmas period. I was struck with sadness to think that at the season of the blessed Birth, more births were cancelled than at any other time of the year. I don't remember what theories were offered about why this happened. But for the purposes of my story there was a logical reason: college students have time off at Christmas.
In the early seventies abortion was still illegal in most states, including Indiana, and it was a dangerous, backdoor affair. Those who could afford to went to New York, where it could be done legally and safely. On the DePauw campus I had heard with anger and shock of students making this trip. "He had to take a girl to New York," one student told me with a meaningful look, in explaining his roommate's absence from class. Another student wrote a story about such an expedition, which included sprightly scenes of shopping and sightseeing, as well as the visit to the clinic. The story was almost zestful. In commenting on it, I complained that the characters seemed to regard their trip as a sort of holiday. "Weren't they at all troubled by what they were doing?" I asked. "They had no choice," the writer answered. "There was no other solution." It was obviously his own story.
I felt terribly pained to think of students doing this, and regarding it so matter-of-factly as "the only solution." I wondered if the girl who was delivered to the clinic to have her womb violated really regarded it as casually as her boyfriend. I imagined her feeling frightened, lonely, and guilty, and above all unloved. I imagined that the Christmas lights and carols celebrating the birth of Christ would be unbearably painful to her. I created a story in which a college couple take this ironic trip to avoid missing classes and exams, masking it from their families as a pre-Christmas adventure. I called it "Away in a Manger."
I hoped that besides demonstrating some techniques of scenic writing, dialogue, and transition, the story would make students perceive, even if dimly, what a cold and loveless "solution" abortion is.
I sold the story to The Sign and it was published in the Christmas issue. For another seminar I wrote a story called "Conditional Love." I got this title and the character, too, from Jon Mattingly, whom I had first seen in Advanced Freshman English and who had been worrying me ever since, the unhappy loner who hated everybody. He had been in my creative writing class as a junior and had done some good stories. His writing had great intensity. He always treated misunderstood people: an outcast with noble ideas, a father and son feuding, a rich man with fascist contempt for democracy. He talked well about other students' stories, sometimes praising and sometimes blaming, but always judiciously. He seemed tremendously interested in the class, but I sometimes felt that he liked it for the wrong reasons. It gave him a chance to know people as he couldn't know them in ordinary friendship, and it gave him a chance to air some of his strong ideas.
When he came to talk to me about his stories, I found that he despised fraternity life as much as ever, was contemptuous of DePauw attitudes, was still friendless. He told me of seeing a dog come into the library. There were a lot of dogs wandering around the campus; Greencastle didn't apparently have any law about restricting dogs. More than once a dog had come into my classroom, to lie dozing on the floor. Jon told of a dog getting into the library reading room, where several students tried to coax the animal to their tables. "They whistle at it, pat it, stroke it. Here boy, come here and lie down by me. The warmth and friendliness they give a dog! Do they ever do that to a human being?" he demanded, his voice cracking. He wanted friendliness so desperately, but he didn't know how to receive it. After our class one day I saw a girl pause a minute by his chair and ask, "Are you an English major?" It would have been so natural for him to walk out of the classroom with her and take up her conversational invitation, but he didn't.
Jon was particularly truculent with girls. He felt they despised him for not measuring up to some standard that they demanded. He claimed to believe that love is always bartered: "conditional love" he called it. It's awarded, he said, not for what a person is but for what he can give. A son, he said, is supposed to make his father look good, by being a good athlete, for instance. If he does, his father will love him. Girls want a boyfriend to make them look good by having the right clothes, the right body, the right kind of campus prestige. Then they will love him. Conditional love.
I have seldom put a real person, whole, into a story. Usually I take a certain characteristic or a gesture or a way of talking or even a personal conflict from one person and combine it with bits from others. But though I changed Jon's appearance and a few other things, there is a good deal of him in the story. I had the boy in the story work in the library, which Jon didn't do, and made the narrator a librarian who observed him. This was so I could use the incident of the dog in the library just as Jon had told it to me. I wanted to use this incident because it was so revealing of his tensions. After I finished the story I wanted to acknowledge my debt to Jon. The next time he dropped in to see me I told him that I had written a story, using some of the ideas he had expressed about conditional love, and using that as the title. I didn't say that I had created a character based on him, but simply gave him the manuscript to read. When he finished it he looked a bit shaken. Then he said, "I know people like that." I don't think he quite realized how much the character was like him, but he was flattered that I had used his ideas.
Later I sold the story to The Sign, and when it was published I gave Jon a copy, along with a gift: a handsome edition of Walden Pond. He liked that.
It seemed that college teaching was helping my fiction writing in several ways. First of all, it was probably improving it. As I struggled to discern what made good writing and analyze it for my students, I applied the lessons to my own work. The second way teaching helped me was by the stimulation I got from reading students' stories, talking about fiction with them, and sharing my own efforts with them. If I promised a class, "I'll write a story too," I had to do it. The third way teaching helped me was by giving me the chance to know a lot of young people at a time when they were growing and changing, and feeling things intensely. Story material was all around me, peppering my imagination with hints and fragments. My journal filled up with these hints and fragments of youthful turmoil, just as in the summer it filled up with the troubles of nuns and priests.
Sometimes, too, I got a hint or fragment from some other source. One year I went to a Creative Writing Conference at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. There were teachers of writing from schools all over the country, and some good writers were there to read from their work and discuss their methods. One morning I got to the session a little early and overheard a conversation between two professors sitting near me. One was telling the other about his fourteen-year-old son. "He has decided to give up meat and alcohol for the rest of his life," said the father in an amused tone. "His spiritual development is under the guidance of a guru, a gorgeous twenty-year-old girl who's into eastern mysticism." The father chuckled. "Every young man's first mistress should be a beautiful older woman. It's the perfect initiation." The father went on in this way, apparently enjoying, from his safe professorial position, the experiments of his adolescent son. "He's given up drugs for the time being, but he feels he may need them later to help him touch the shape of his other lives."
I almost hated the father because he was so disengaged. Instead of worrying about his son and trying to guide him, he was making anecdotal capital out of him. I imagined him telling these stories at cocktail parties, with the ironic lift of the eyebrow that I could see around the curve of his jaw. I wrote down the things he said. These were the merest scraps, but later, back in another DePauw seminar, I put the boy and the father into a story, a rather horrifying story called "Rite of Passage."
I thought it was the best story I had ever written, yet I was uneasy about it because it had been written out of hate and contempt. I sent it to the Virginia Quarterly Review contest, and when it finally came back months later the editor wrote me that it "was among the stories considered right up to the last." Thus encouraged, I tried it on some other magazines, including of course The New Yorker. A year went by with no acceptance. I put it aside, deciding I didn't want to publish it anyway because it had too much ill-feeling in it. Then I took it out again, read it over, reminded myself that satire can be corrective, and tried some more journals. Finally it was accepted by the Colorado Quarterly and published in 1976, some three years after I had listened to the conversation at the Library of Congress.
When I wrote "Rite of Passage" in 1973 I was teaching a senior seminar that I found stimulating. I had taught most of these twelve students earlier in writing courses, and they belonged to what I considered "my class" at DePauw: they had come as freshman the same year that I had begun teaching. I had, and still have, a special affection for those students who were new when I was new. I can still name almost all the students in that seminar.
Tom Ainlay was perhaps the best writer in the group, and a hard worker, but outspoken and abrasive. I think the others were all a little afraid of him. I noticed that Rick Bollinger, though he was his good friend and fraternity brother, didn't like to disagree with him. Sally Wilkinson, whose stories were inclined to be soft and sentimental, came in for some of his sharpest censure, and I could see how it hurt, but she always answered anybody's criticism with "Thank you." Once Kathy Rardin, soft-spoken but clever, got the best of Tom in a critical argument. He recognized that she really had the better point and retired from the fray. He was used to people who couldn't out-think him. Tom Ainlay is now a busy free-lance writer in Tokyo; Kathy Rardin McMillin does free-lance public relations while taking care of her two children; Sally Wilkinson Gilbert is a Methodist minister, and I like to think that she composes good sermons as a result of her training in writing. Rick Bollinger went on to the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, and moved through public relations jobs with various companies. Like most people in public relations and advertising, he still dreams of writing his first novel.
It was for this group that I wrote the novella which eventually became my first novel. I had read a fascinating news feature in The New York Times about the profitable market in babies for adoption. Adoptable children had become scarce since the contraceptive pill had been introduced and abortion had been legalized. People who wanted to adopt would take extreme measures, both legal and illegal, to get hold of the available infants, or would authorize their lawyers to do so. Some lawyers, the article reported, had scouts on college campuses to find pregnant girls and offer them big sums for their babies. One lawyer would show his clients a portfolio of pictures of handsome young men and women, and invite the clients to choose a pair who would produce a baby for them. A couple hired a pregnant girl to check into a hospital under the wife's name, so that the baby would be born as their own.
It occurred to me that a young man could become a baby-producer and pay his college expenses by "filling orders." He would get a girl pregnant and then introduce her to his lawyer "contact," who unknown to her would be acting for the couple who had placed the order. What a monster such a fellow would be! I decided I didn't want to write a story about him. But what of the girl, frightened, morally against abortion, or unable to afford it? There was the story.
What kind of girl, in the sophisticated and sexually liberated 1970's, would be innocent enough to get mixed up in one of these schemes? I thought of making her an Italian-American girl, because I knew that Italian families were strait-laced about their young women. She would have a strict father and protective brothers, have done little or no dating in high school, and be too shy and inexperienced to suspect the charming seducer. In fact, to increase the suspense of the story, I hoped to create a seducer so engaging that even the reader would not suspect him.
My original novella contained nothing but this plot: the charming seducer who is being paid to produce a baby for an Italian-American couple who want the child to look Italian. Their contract, handled by a crooked lawyer, requires that the pregnant girl go to an obstetrician under the wife's name, and eventually deliver the baby as the couple's child. For bringing this off, the seducer is to be handsomely paid. My story ended when the girl discovers by accident that she has been framed; she breaks off all relations with her lover, the lawyer, the obstetrician, and the whole conspiracy; and goes off alone to continue her pregnancy and keep her baby.
I was very pleased with this plot. In my journal I wrote: "This might even be a movie." I thought I had handled the clues very cagily, so that the revelation wouldn't be foreseen but would be fully justified, as in a good mystery story. I thought my seminar students would learn something about foreshadowing by seeing how I did it. I wanted to teach them, also, about using a few facts as the germ of a story, and then building characters and scenes and incidents on this germ.
Whether they learned anything or not, I don't know. They were singularly impassive in their reactions to the story. They wanted to know "Where did you get the idea?" and "Could such a thing really happen?" I showed them the Times article and they were interested in that, but they had almost nothing to say about the story, and I felt let down. But at least they hadn't tried to flatter me by praising it.
I still believed it was a good story, and so I sent it to Harold Ober Associates, my old firm, expecting that they could sell it to one of the women's magazines. To my chagrin, they didn't think it salable. It was the wrong length for a magazine novella, the heroine was not very appealing, it was "monotonous." Crushed, I put the manuscript away.
I didn't forget it, though. When I got it out again a year later and reread it, I still thought it had possibilities. I asked my colleague at DePauw, Tom Emery, to read it. Tom was a struggling writer himself, extremely sympathetic to other strugglers. He read it and gave me a critique that helped me enormously. The gist was that the story was too plotty. He was interested, he said, in the character, the girl. He wanted to know what would become of her, how she would deal with what had happened to her. I saw that Tom was right. Character was the thing that had always interested me most in fiction -- plot much less so, which is why I have never cared much for mystery stories. How odd that I should have been satisfied with a story that was all plot! The plot I had here was only the beginning of the novel that I would develop.
I began right away to imagine Anne Macarino's movements after she runs away from her treacherous lover and his fellow-schemers. What would she live on? Where would she go while waiting for the birth of her child, and how would she support herself and the child -- a twenty-year-old girl who has never had a job and who cannot call on her family for help? I made a synopsis of what would happen.
I decided to try to get a contract from a publisher. A friend of mine, Rosemary Casey, was an editor in the juvenile book department at Dodd, Mead. She had often said to me, half in fun, "Why don't you write a book for us?" I never took up this light challenge because I didn't think I could write books for children and didn't even want to try. But now it occurred to me that the novel I was planning might fit into the "young adult" category. I sent Rosemary the novella and the synopsis of the rest of the story. She liked it. Her colleagues in the juvenile department liked it. Dodd, Mead moved slowly; there were officials up the line who had also to be persuaded. It was months before the decision came that Dodd, Mead would give me a contract.
I was thrilled. I could hardly believe it. Now, at sixty-one years of age, I was at last going to realize an ambition that had been working in me all the years since I had had the studio in the attic of our house in Webster Groves. I was going to publish a book.
Ah, but first I had to write it. After I signed the contract and accepted Dodd Mead's advance payment, I began to stew. I didn't know whether I could really sustain my narrative to book-length, even the short length that "young adult" novels require. I'd lie awake at night worrying that I had accepted an advance for an unwritten book. From my years in literary agency I knew that it was standard practice to make a publishing house commit itself by paying an advance. If a publisher didn't have to put up any money it would be all too easy for him to issue a carefree acceptance that he could later repudiate. Actually it was sound practice for me, too. My Puritan conscience compelled me to make a schedule for myself: I'd get up every day at six o'clock and write for a couple of hours before turning my mind to classes and class preparations. I'm not a fast writer, but as every writer knows, diligence does result in pages. The pages piled up, the characters filled out, incidents came to me, the story moved to its climax. A great advantage of regular writing is that your story remains with you, in your mind as you bathe, dress, walk, cook, and do the physical and mechanical things of your day.
During that winter and spring of 1975 there was a crisis in my family in St. Louis. My mother, in her late eighties, had a stroke which partially paralyzed her. All of us, myself and my five brothers and sisters, had to go through that common but nonetheless painful ordeal of placing our mother in a nursing home. There were some disagreements among us on which home it should be. For several months, in letters, phone calls, and weekend trips to St. Louis, I participated in this family tension. The logistics were only a peripheral part of the tension. The greater pain was to see my mother looking so pitiful, her sparse hair stringy, and no life in her face. When I'd go to see her I was never sure whether she knew me. Sometimes she'd smile vaguely. I'd talk to her about the news of my life, especially about the book I was going to publish, but she didn't take it in. In earlier years she had relished every detail about her children's successes and adventures. When I'd kiss her goodbye she'd murmur automatically, "God bless you." Only that shred of her motherhood remained.
Still, I kept writing my story. It struck me again that people can forge ahead with their work, and even do it well, against a background of anxiety and pain. Ed Fischer told me of writing an essay, which turned out to be one of his best, while waiting to go into surgery.
I finished the novel that Spring of 1975; Dodd, Mead accepted it and put it into production. Thus through the byway of teaching, I came around to the place I had wanted to be since I was in college: the author of a book. I can imagine some objections from readers who are struggling toward this fulfillment themselves. "Teaching may have helped you write it," I hear them saying, "but getting it published is another matter. How lucky you were to have a friend in a publishing house who actually said to you: write a book for us. Teaching had nothing to do with that."
I can't deny my luck, and don't want to. But the fact remains that I had never tried a book, and had written a skimpy amount of fiction, until I began teaching writing. Yes, I had written a doctoral dissertation, but to do that I had also required the prod of my teaching career. I had to write that dissertation to get that Ph.D. which would entitle me to continue as a college teacher. It was this new, exhilarating vocation that spurred me to write, helped me to write better, and, in fresh contacts with young people, gave me material.
A Nice Italian Girl was published in 1976. The next year it was adapted for a television movie with the deplorable title: "Black Market Baby." I remembered that in my journal I had written, "It might even be a movie."
© 2004 by Elizabeth Christman. All rights reserved.
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