One Foot In History
And I found this to be true of many writers. We start out as something else first. And at first I was a history major, then an actress, and then a poet. And at the time my idea of being an artist, being a writer was to wear a romantic blouse with big sleeves, and smoke cigars and sit in a dark room with a candle and try to write something. And then my first husband was a lute maker, a renaissance lute maker. He’s quite a famous instrument maker today.1 And I just learned through him, just living with him that “Oh, you work hard to create something beautiful and good.” It’s actually a daily practice of many hours and kind of obsession.
But when I was, during that time period in the 70s, in New Mexico, I was living there with him, I wrote my first story. Now, this is hilarious to me. It was called Julka and Rena: A Simple Tale of Pre-Christian Poland. Now, I’ve never been to Poland, I didn’t know anything about Poland. I think I did — and it’s a story about witches. And I made the — it’s set in 13th century Poland. It just came to me. And I did a tiny bit of research, and I wrote this thing, and that was the first story that I really got published. And I kept — it was in a little magazine called Jeopardy. I think it was from the University of New Mexico or something like that. I was so thrilled, I got the accepted letter. I was just beside myself.
And the second story I wrote on the fumes of the first, was A Russian Officer, and that was set in 19th century St. Petersburg. So, clearly I had already had one foot in history, with fiction. And I saw these people, the thing that’s interesting is that I literally in my imagination saw these people in these places in Poland and St. Petersburg as if I was there, almost like I was watching a film. The challenging aspect, of course, was to translate what I was seeing, into language and make it a good start.
What I like to tell my students, when I think to tell them this, is that I’m completely self taught.2 I didn’t go to an MFA program, and plus I didn’t commit to writing till I was 30, 29-30 years old and realized I was going to die one day. Somehow 30 was the sort of hammer of mortality above my head or stuff like oh — I was a Midwestern housewife at that point. I didn’t know any writers. I didn’t know anybody. I wasn’t in any writing program. I was in my Lamaze mothers group and they liked to talk about their curtains and recipes, and how their husbands got on their nerves.
And I would just go to the Wilmette public library and get books. And I remember bringing home the Writer’s Market. I brought that home, and that’s how I started submitting stories. By that point I really did start writing stories and submitting them. And I used the Writer’s Market as my sort of map as to where to send them. I made a few mistakes, but eventually I developed — and this is the last thing, eventually I developed a hierarchy of literary journalism, a three tiered system; the ones I would most want to be in, the top magazines. And then a second tier, that I would be delighted to be in. And a third tier that, well, that would still be good if I got in those.