This month’s question is:
What’s the best thing someone has ever said about your writing?
I was lucky enough to receive two new reviews on one of my books this past week. They were both good reviews, not too long, but each one ‘got’ the core of the story, expressed its connection to his or her enjoyment and said that they were eagerly awaiting the next installment (which will be coming out sometime early next year.)
That was a wonderful surprise, since I don’t haunt my listings looking for reviews, and since I have been out of circulation for two years due to family concerns. But the best thing someone said about my writing happened over twenty years ago. I was fresh out of college, had been working for maybe two years, and had started writing what would become A Killing Among the Dead, the last book in my Memphis Cycle. It is based on a great tomb-robbing scandal during the last dynasty of the New Kingdom, and edges into fantasy in some areas.
I have written since I was nine years old. This story, however, which came to me during my ancient history studies, was my first serious attempt with an eye to publication. I was polishing (and polishing and polishing) it, and I took it with me on a vacation to my family’s cottage in the New York finger lakes. My father’s cousin, Sally, was visiting with her children.
I liked Sally. She was a fun person, though sometimes pedantic, being a teacher of sorts – a professor, actually. That’s about all I knew about her, except that she had written a book about growing up in the fingerlakes. She learned that I was ‘writing a book’, asked if she could look at my manuscript, and (surprisingly) I handed it over and went off to enjoy sailing, fishing, driving through the upstate New York. Several days later she handed back my manuscript, which she had marked up, and told me that she enjoyed reading it, but she had a few suggestions, and hoped that I didn’t mind.
I think at that point I had begun to realize that my flying fingers did not automatically put out fabulous writing, and this story, which I had overhauled, was in need of more work. I thanked her, chatted with her and her kids, enjoyed the rest of my vacation, and looked over her comments when I had a moment.
Sally had some suggestions: ‘Instead of ‘digging your own grave’ you might want something more in period such as ‘carving your own tomb’. There were others, but her notation at the very climax of the story actually blew me away. The hero, thought to be dead, has returned to his command after spending several weeks in a tomb hunting the robbers and, finally, destroying them. He dreams of the gods and the Land of the Blest. And when he returns, his men are taken aback. He has changed…
Sally noted in the margin that I wasn’t quite saying what she thought I meant. That maybe I should read T. S. Eliot’s Return of the Magi, especially the last stanza. She thought it maybe expressed what was in my mind:
but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
In a sentence or so she had put her finger on what was at the very heart of my story, at the change in my main character, the change that he undergoes in the course of his struggle and his ultimate victory. She ‘got’ the story and she was able to unlock it for me. I now know that it was very rough – and she saw the gem within it and helped me to shape it. It was a magnificent gift.
I learned years later after her death that she had been the coordinator of the Syracuse University Creative Writing Program for many years while Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff were in residence. Her credentials were very impressive… And she had spent her time on my little effort. She had ‘gotten’ the point, and she had shown it to me. And she had enjoyed the story.
That was the best thing anyone has said about my writing.
He walked past the bodies without another glance and continued toward the tomb entrance, waiting for the echo of the warning trumpet.The echo never came. Instead, faces appeared at the tomb entrance and people stepped out into the sunlight to watch his approach. He could hear excited whispers, and then his guardsmen came forward, their bows in their hands. They, too, were staring with a mixture of awe and fear, and some of them raised their hands to shield their eyes, though the sun was behind them.
Wenatef could see Ramses standing high on the hillside. The young man raised his hand in greeting and then hurried down to the tomb entrance.
Wenatef paused to look up at them and note their expressions, then squared his shoulders and began to ascend the hill toward the opening. Several of the men fell to their knees, their hands about their protective amulets.
Wenatef saw the motion and paused. They don’t know, he thought with a sudden lurch of his heart. They will never understand, even if I explain…
Thank you, Sally.