Author News & Interviews

Fifty-years of the Writing Life

This piece is drawn from a speech that Shelley Fraser Mickle gave at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida, as a 2014 Nominee to the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame. Her new novel The Occupation of Eliza Goode is contributing funds to a Women of Distinction scholarship to help a displaced homemaker finish her education and reenter the workforce. Shelley has been a commentator for NPR’s “Morning Edition,” a New York Times Notable Author and a recipient of the 2006 Florida Governor’s Award for suicide prevention for her novel The Turning Hour.  

Shelley MickleI have lived a long and lucky life.  And now seems a good time to pass on some of what I’ve learned in my fifty-year career of following my bliss in “the writing life.”

Joseph Campbell, who wrote The Power of Myth—one of the last books that Jackie Kennedy edited— recommended that the most important thing a young person can do is to follow their bliss? 

Following your bliss—what did he mean by that? He defined it as the way to be alive in this world and the way to give to the world the very best that you have to offer.  He said that there is a track just waiting for each of us; and once on it, doors will open in our journey. 

So how does one discover one’s bliss? Where is a script for following your bliss with success? What do you do when doors slam? How do you revise your journey to fit your calling?

Since I know my own story best, I’ll use it for better or for worse. You see, early on, at about the age of four, I fell in love with the power of story. This naturally grew from my first discovery that the world was divided into two parts:  those who could read and those who could not. And the ones who could had all the power over me. They told me when to go to bed, when to get up, where to go and how to act.

Yes, as Joseph Campbell points out:  stories don’t give us the meaning of life; they tell us how to live in the world.  They are the passports to our culture. 

I wonder how many of you remember the person who taught you how to read?

For me, it was my grandmother, whom I called Chate.  Her real name was Kate, but I couldn’t pronounce that. She entered our house calling “Yoohoo!” and swept me up in a hug and measured me against her waist. On a good day, she came in at five feet. I thought that clearly she was circus material and wondered why she’d settled for an everyday life. 

She tinted her permed gray hair pine-needle red and fixed it in a style similar to a pot scrubber. Often I tied her up to a chair to practice my cowboy skills. And since she talked of snakes and cats in the same breath, I put my tom cat in the bed with her to watch her come “whooping” out in her nightgown.   

Each afternoon, when I was five, my grandmother and I lay on the double bed in my room with a book propped up.

As she read, I’d study the black squiggles on the page and wonder who decided which word should mean what? Was there someone in the sky, alongside the God who made us, who decided what we would call things? Was there an appointed Communications Bureau Chief who said a rope should be a rope and not a tire?  Or a tire a tire and not be known as a chicken?  My parents had named me, so was there someone who named all things?  Who was in charge of these stories on pages that came to me on my grandmother’s voice?

“Who?”

My grandmother didn’t need to search around for an answer. “God,” she said.  “God made the words. All the words. God made everything.”

God. Well, I thought it was very obvious that he was related to Santa Claus and to Roy Rogers, and no doubt he had the use of Cinderella’s Godmother’s wand.  He and that Godmother had to be closely related too. But I felt sorry for Him.  If he was in charge of all words, he’d taken an awful lot onto Himself.

Now, I was not an easy child. I was known for throwing screaming mimi fits. And only later I learned that a screaming mimi is the name of a bomb used in

World War II.  So each Sunday my grandmother took me to church. I really think she feared that I might be the first woman in our family to go to prison—or to Hell.

There in Sunday school, I heard even more stories, and these were older even than my grandmother. In fact, they were so old, I couldn’t understand how old. To   

have lasted this long, they must have something in them that we had to have, I decided. And so, stories were necessary to life. They were like air or water—or a good purse.

Soon, I was desperate for the power that would keep so many adults from bossing me around. For hours I sat in a chair holding up the newspaper, pretending to read.

Whenever anyone asked me what I was doing, I replied, “Why reading, of course.”  I put myself on display for long periods of time, pretending to read the stock reports, the front page, the obituaries. But well, that’s the thing about a lie. Once you start one, you have to live it out, or else you have no character.

Then one day, the magic struck. I looked down at the book opened there in my lap, and the letters on the page spoke out of the silence and made sense. They had sounds of their own. I could hear their voices.

Aha!  The lie that I could read was now swallowed by the truth that I could. Stories no longer had to come to me on only the voice of my grandmother or from someone else, or from the movies.  Now they came in a silence so lasting, nothing spoken was even close, or as neat.

I began to think of words as the magic of silent language, even though I did not yet know the word language. Language was what lived in my fingertips. It was the words I was learning how to write. I could write words I could not even pronounce, and every story had its own put together in its own way. When the words were read, they moved; yet when I went away and came back and opened up the book again, the words were still there on the page in the exact same way that someone had left them. They were the storyteller’s fingerprints.

Oh, how happy I was for God!  I was also mightily relieved for Him. What my grandmother had told me—that He was in charge of all words—was only partly the truth.  He might have thought up the idea of language, but He wasn’t in charge of ALL words. Some were the handiwork of mortal humans. Oh, Joy!  After all, He had written only one book.

So there was my bliss. There was my discovery that I could be a storyteller too.

But what about the next question? Once you discover your bliss, what to do about it?  I know this sounds crazy but when I was in high school, I looked forward to Saturdays for having the time to write stories that I knew no one would ever read.

Yet, how does one turn a blissful experience into something you can touch and feel? And most importantly, share?

Now here’s something I’m not too proud of, but it’s good for a laugh. You see, when I was eighteen, I wrote William Faulkner a letter. I told him I’d heard he knew a thing or two about writing, and I hoped he’d tell me how to be a writer too and that I was soon coming to the University of Mississippi. I knew that he lived adjacent to the campus and if he ever saw me walking around there, it would be all right to come over and introduce himself. Well, he died a month before I arrived on campus, and I took it personally. I thought it was a pretty drastic way to avoid me.

But oh! how wonderful to be eighteen. What ignorance, what moxie! How embarrassing, how brave! And, what bliss. To set off on a life journey with unbridled enthusiasm and determination is essential and must always be respected—and forgiven.

In short, back then there were no scripts to follow. Only a few graduate programs in creative writing existed, and I was too dumb to know about them and didn’t have the money for them anyway. 

Today’s students don’t realize that student loans are a fairly recent thing. When I grew up, if your parents didn’t have the money to send you to college, you didn’t go. Or you stayed out of school and worked until you did have the money to go, unless you were eligible for a GI college loan.  And I might add, that back then classified ads were separated into jobs advertised for Male and Female. As crazy as it seems, we women didn’t think of taking on much of anything but traditional roles.  In fact, my Freshman aptitude test came back saying that I’d be great at typing and taking something called short hand.

But I also knew that following my bliss required a complimentary track. I loved stories, but I needed life experience. And I needed to prepare myself to live in the world. I studied psychiatric social work on a government grant. Not only did I then have a means to make a living, but I also gained intimate knowledge in the struggles that people face. My ability to create characters in my stories comes from that part of my education.

I have found that there is never a wasted moment in being a student of any discipline.  

Meanwhile, I studied writing wherever I could get in. I took classes at Harvard night school because I wasn’t smart enough, or rich enough, to get in during daylight. After I had children, I fed my toddlers cookies under my desk while I wrote every morning because I wanted both:  a family and writing career and found that an unlimited supply of chocolate chip cookies helped me have both.

Along the way—and all of us experience this—I received a fat slice of good luck.  Mine came in the form of a famous editor and critic who, over a period of several years, became the midwife to my first novel, which started out as some 600 pages and ended up a New York Times Notable book after something like an arduous gastric bypass. Yes, Louis Rubin, a giant in American Letters, took me on and for over twenty years read everything I wrote and coached me with warmth, affection and firm insistence that I write only universal emotional truths.

What I really want to say to those following their bliss and finding it tough going is this:  the tough going never stops, but then, neither does the bliss. It is found in the moments when you stare into the dark where you can imagine no one is the least bit interested in hearing your voice or seeing your work but then realize you’ve never had so much fun. You’ve changed yourself, becoming tougher, wiser, funnier, and so much more aware of being alive.  

Over and over I rediscovered my bliss, even after the publisher who fired me, saying I was too understated to do what was necessary to have large book sales. The agent who said she just didn’t like my work anymore and would I please stop expecting her to do anything with it.  Oh yes, the rejections were constant and if I had burned them all in my fireplace, I could have been warm for many winters.

To handle the doors that shut, it’s wise to have a support group. I remember the classmate in my writing class at the University of Mississippi who every day handed me a card that said, “Big shots are the little shots who keep shooting.”  I remembered the idea in a poem I often repeated: When your rewards seem few, Remember, The almighty oak was once a nut too.

Also, I once wrote my parody of a typical rejection slip:  It was for the King James Version of the Bible.  Dear King James, we are returning your manuscript herewith. Overall, we found that it is too violent, not enough sex, and just who in the world do you think would ever believe this?

My novel Replacing Dad I lovingly wrote in response to watching one of my neighbors face the challenge of parenting her son through a divorce. What a lucky streak that that novel became a CBS/Hallmark movie and for me to experience seeing it made into a film. No matter how far the translation of film took the story from my novel, the spirit of it survived, plus I learned a bit of how Hollywood works. Indeed, film has become the most powerful source of storytelling in our modern culture

Now, rather than talk about my recent novel, I’d rather that you read it.  For that’s the thing about fiction:  you have to experience it, rather than be “told” it. 

I will say only that The Occupation of Eliza Goode is a result of my long career. When I started out, I took the advice of many successful writers, that is:  write about what you know, express yourself, it’s your whole ballgame, Baby.  Well, I discovered something else in my long journey of following my bliss:  my audience matters. 

Writers not only write about what they know, they write about what they understand emotionally.  And as I researched the Civil War, I was so excited about what I learned, I was eager to pass it along to my readers. So, The Occupation of Eliza Goode is my gift to you.  It is a culmination of a lifetime of acquiring the skill to tell a story in a way that turns at unexpected times, that hopefully delights with surprises, that opens doorways into dark human suffering so that the reader might be changed in understanding a fellow human being’s trials and triumphs.

In working on the novel, my most exciting day was when I found a book titled Reminiscences of a Soldier’s Wife by Mrs. John Logan. It was here that I discovered that Mrs. John Logan, at the age of fifteen, growing up in Illinois witnessed Lincoln ascend the stage to debate Stephen Douglas. Her description of that was so thrilling, I lifted it to put in my novel, and thus share it further. Yet, I had to read almost the whole memoir before I discovered that Mrs. John Logan’s first name was Mary. Indeed so many women’s lives in the nineteenth century disappeared into their husband’s lives or vanished altogether. 

In creating my character Eliza, I feel that through my imagination I retrieved one of those voices from the silence and brought into current awareness the story of one young woman emerging from an underworld—which really is a very American story.   

In the back of the novel, in my notes, you can read the funny little story of how everyone in my family was named after Robert E. Lee. And you can find there the historical fact that became the plot for the novel— as well as the fact that the photograph on the cover is of a real woman, young and struggling to survive in New Orleans in a time when few avenues were open to women to earn a living.

What I did not realize in the seven years I spent writing this novel was that subconsciously I was working out my sorrow and reverence for the brutal war that defined America. Too often it is forgotten that the Civil War was America on a suicidal course, that the whole world was doubting that a diverse population could govern themselves.

The miracle is:  we did not break into two nations. We defied following the model of Europe. We did not break into multiple nation-states, so that today we don’t need passports to cross a state line, or we don’t have border wars with our neighbors. Indeed, the Civil War was so brutal and horrifying that it prevented us from ever again testing our unity with such violence.

Yet it seems to me that too often it is forgotten that our strength is our unity. 

We can, however, always reaffirm one of our essential beliefs:  that together we are able to open doors for others, fund new scholarships, and can express our conviction that education is essential to our future. Besides, there’s no greater gift than holding out a hand to those on the pathway of following their bliss.