“I’m going to major in journalism,” I announced to my mother the summer before my junior year in college.
Her response: “I’m not paying tuition unless you major in something more sensible.”
Her reasons were complicated. Growing up in an orphanage from the age of 2 to 15, she was the daughter of a poverty-stricken, widowed Russian immigrant in Jersey City. Mom’s fantasy of becoming a physical education teacher was derailed when she had to get a job right after high school.
Sensible. I’d hated that word ever since Mom insisted on buying me hideous brown lace-up oxfords in seventh grade. “In the orphanage I had to wear shoes that were too tight,” she said. “I’m saving you from ruining your feet.” I know now it was an act of love, born out of her own deprived childhood, but back then it seemed unforgivable. My classmates would ridicule me in their trendy penny loafers. I sobbed so hard in the parking lot, Mom threw the shopping bag out the car window. Momentarily relieved, I stopped hyperventilating. Immediately, Mom reconsidered. She’d never had the privilege of throwing away expensive footwear.
“Go pick them up,” she said, and I obeyed.
I had no choice but to please my mother in college, reluctantly majoring in education. Even though I’d dreamed of being an author since my fourth-grade teacher showed off my first – and self-illustrated – novel, The Mystery in the Old Mansion.
Joyce Carol Oates described scribbling tomes in notebooks; when she ran out of blank paper, she’d turn the spiral pad upside down and continue in the other direction. I, too, filled loose-leaf pages with my narratives throughout junior high. I crafted my own teen gang-filled version of West Side Story (which I’d seen six times) and peppered the prose with steamy romance, gratuitous violence, and a plethora of four-letter words.
Aghast, my mother found it, read it, and decreed it as trash. She forbade me from writing, so I spun my yarns surreptitiously while pretending to do homework. I was a closet scribe, unable to stop.
In college, I tried to join the newspaper staff, but it was open only to journalism majors. “You don’t have talent anyway,” my mother said. It would take decades to understand that, having grown up with an absentee mother, she never learned how to encourage me. And she wanted me to live the life she’d been denied.
Burnt out after teaching special ed for five years, I searched for a writing mentor. That’s when I found Hayes B. Jacobs, the first person I ever met with an initial in his name. Hayes was a legendary professor who’d catapulted the New School program to national recognition, pioneering the concept that wordsmiths should teach craft, not academics. The first time I entered his classroom, he terrified me. A 6-foot-2, gray-mustached, whiskey-drinking chain smoker, he was born in Yakima, Washington, migrated east to Harvard, and broke into The New Yorker. He wore thick glasses because he had no peripheral vision and became apoplectic if someone wrote “standing on line” rather than “in line.”
Between you and I? he scrawled in red ink in the margin of my manuscripts until I wrote between you and me as automatically as spelling my name. If a student asked him how to be prolific, he’d bang on the desk with his fist and bark, “Produce manuscript!” He typed every critique on a manual Swiss-made typewriter, inspiring me to rethink and revise, but not reconsider my relentless drive to become a professional writer. Two years passed before he endorsed my first essay as “publishable.” Seventy-eight rejections later, my bylines began to appear next to luminaries like Russell Baker.
Why didn’t I flee from Hayes’s brusque and sometimes heartless remarks? (“Dear Hayes: What do you think of these possible titles for my book?”…“Not much!”) His tough love was his way of pushing me forward, to write more eloquently. When I asked him for a teaching position, he turned me down. Eventually he did offer me a job, confessing, “I hesitated because it would interfere with your writing.”
I came to know Hayes as a devoted husband to Gretchen, whose larynx had been removed due to throat cancer. He sent lilting postcards from summers in La Rochelle, taught me how to baste a turkey, and introduced me to wonderful southern women writers: O’Connor, Welty, McCullers. The most articulate man I’d ever met believed in me without ever saying the actual words.
Now I am a mentor to aspiring writers in the classes I teach and as a volunteer. When my mentee found out I had selected her to work on her memoir, she cried. I understood: I know how it feels to have someone care about your worth and future as a writer.
I developed a teaching style softer than Hayes’s, yet occasionally I still exude, “Produce manuscript!” Hayes claimed there wasn’t any hope of publication if an essay was in your desk drawer; I verbalize the same thing, updating “file cabinet” for “hard drive.” I’m thrilled when my students publish, against great odds. Leslie, a former actress, sold an essay about her transition from theater to written prose. Why did she want to be a writer? “One form of rejection wasn’t enough,” she wrote.
The most stinging rejection of my life, however, was from my mother. My motivation to write was stronger than her lack of praise. Or perhaps I spent my entire career trying to prove her wrong. When she was in her 80s, she presented me with a folder of article clips I’d sent her over the years. “Do you want these back?” she asked. “I don’t have room, and I was going to throw them out.”
She held out a thin file in her large apartment. I didn’t have the voice to tell her how much she’d hurt me. I could compose anything, but couldn’t manage face-to-face confrontation.
When I began studying with Hayes, my mother kept suspiciously asking, “What page am I on? I’m sure you have lots to reveal about me.”
One afternoon, I purposely left out the first draft of a sweet essay that described how she’d instilled a love of literature in me even though she’d never gone to college by reading to me every night before bed. The first time I read a book to her all on my own, she sat back, joyful tears in her eyes, a proud moment as indelible as Hayes’s typewriter ribbons.
Knowing she’d snoop into my essay, I left to do errands. When I returned, the pages were slightly ruffled. Afterward, she stopped asking if I were maligning her in print. Once she complained when I published a piece citing her age as 78. Her neighbor called and said, “Why Sylvia, I thought you were 74.” She’d lied about her birth date, uncovered by her journalist daughter. It made us both laugh.
When she died at 96, I wrote a eulogy about her life as a mother, a competitive golfer, a survivor of the Great Depression. Delivering my speech in the sensible shoes I now favored, I didn’t say I was the disappointing younger sister to a dentist and a lawyer. I didn’t apologize for not becoming the gym teacher Mom hoped would fill the void inside of her. I refrained from revealing that despite my accomplishments, I’ll always wonder how I persevered in spite of her discouragement. Perhaps it’s this quote from Barbara Tuchman that’s pasted above my computer: “I have always been in a condition in which I cannot not write.”
In a eulogy there are always more omissions than truths told. Yet my words touched family and friends. I was a writer – whether Mom approved or not. I still hoped that deep inside of her, she found a tiny place of pride in my work.
Cleaning out her apartment a month later, I found an envelope in the bottom of her dresser, underneath rumpled old clothes, discovering several more clippings of my essays. She didn’t throw all of me away, after all.
Candy Schulman is a creative writing professor at The New School in New York City. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Creative Nonfiction, Parents, and Salon.com.
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