Elizabeth Strout Remarks – 2018 Summer Benefit
When I was a child growing up on a dirt road in Maine I knew that I was a writer. I wanted to be a writer, but it’s also that I knew I was one. This is probably because of my mother, who gave me notebooks when I was very small, and she said to me, “Write down what you did today.” If we went to buy me sneakers, she would say later, “Write down what the man was like who sold us those sneakers.” And I did. So I began to think in terms of sentences from a very young age. I think my mother probably wanted to be a writer herself, but to my knowledge she never tried writing fiction.
My background was one of real isolation; except for a few fishermen and my great aunts, no one else lived on that dirt road. We had no newspapers or television, and there were no children around except for my older brother who seemed uninterested in me. And so I spent hours alone, in the woods, and in this way I developed the inner resources that a writer needs. I also learned the cadence of my Maine forebears. I would go in and out of my great Aunt’s houses and they paid no attention to me, but I listened to them, and their voices were dry, New England voices, they seemed always to be speaking of their husband’s last meal. My Aunt Olive – who was actually the sweetest of these people – would flick her cigarette and say, “I’m so glad Frank had those potatoes the way he liked them that last night that he lived.”
A writer also needs intuition and curiosity, and a deep and abiding interest in people, which I also got from my mother. When we went to town, and my father went into a store, my mother and I would stay in the car, and she would say about some woman walking by, “Oh, that woman’s not too happy to be going home to see her husband.” And I would be enthralled and say, How do you know? And my mother might say, “Well, look how she’s walking, and also the hem in her coat hasn’t been fixed for years, she’s depressed.” And the woman we were watching became very real for me, I can remember wanting to follow her home, I can remember watching some woman one time and wondering if she had pom-poms on her shower curtain.
When I was twelve years old, a family bought the lot next to ours and they built a white house and had a picket fence around it, I thought it looked so normal, so nice. And they also had a baby. I would babysit. One time, and I can only imagine my parents were out of town, I spent the night at the house of these people after babysitting, and in the morning the young wife made French toast for breakfast. She cut it in triangles and sprinkled confectionary sugar over it and in my whole young life, I had never seen such a thing of beauty. When my parents returned, I told my mother about this breakfast of French toast in great detail, clearly hoping she would take the hint that people could live in such a way, and she listened – I remember her listening to me – and then she waited a moment, and said, “Just remember, Elizabeth you never know.”
And she was right. We never know. We never know what goes on in the houses of other people. We may not even really know what goes in our own house. It was also about this time that I realized something else, and this is important: What I realized is that we will only see life through our own two eyes. We will never really know what it feels like to be another person. I could not stand this and I still can’t stand it, and so I keep on making it up. When I was young and reading a book, I remember thinking – and I have no idea what the book was – but I remember thinking, Oh, I’ve had that thought! And I realized that in books we had an opening into what it might feel like to be another person. And that maybe other people were not all that different from ourselves. Although people are enormously different from each other, and yet in a book of literature there is always that chance to recognize ourselves and also to recognize the differences of another person, and to have them become real to us.
It was many, many years before my writing was recognized by anyone. I mostly kept it a secret. I understood quickly that to announce one wanted to be a writer, even worse that one was a writer – without any publications to their name – was to receive looks of pity, as though I was leaking some kind of grandiosity, and so I kept it to myself. There was in college one English professor I had who knew my secret, though. And when I received a B on a term paper I had written about the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, I went to him to find out why I had only received a B. And he said, “You know, I don’t think it wouId be good for you if I tried to teach you how to write an analytical term paper, so every time a paper is due, turn in a story to me instead and it will be our secret.” I took every course I could from this man. (Many years later this same man wrote to me after I had won the Pulitzer Prize and he said that he thought the book Olive Kitteridge did not deserve the Prize. So there is that too.)
I graduated from college and sent my stories many places and always received that – then this was out they did it – that Xeroxed note of rejection. I worked numerous jobs while I was trying to become a writer. I worked in many restaurants, I sold mattresses on the 6th floor of a department store, except I never actually sold one, I was a secretary in a shoe mill in Dover, New Hampshire – which later would make its way into Amy and Isabelle. But I got tired of these rejections and so I went to law school. I thought: I will do good work during the day and write at night. A poorly conceived idea.
So I went to law school, and dropped out after a year and wrote a very bad novel, while working in a department store, and so I went back to law school, and I practiced law for six months at Legal Services. I was a terrible lawyer. And this was during the Reagan years when such places were having their funding cut, and we would go and demonstrate against these cuts, but it put me in a terrible position, because I knew from the union rules that the last one hired would be the first one fired, and so as I held my sign of protest I was secretly wishing for these cuts. And they came. And I was called into the office of the manager and told that I would have to leave.
Then my husband and I – I had met him in law school – moved to New York City and it turned out that the law degree was considered a graduate degree – so I was able to work as an adjunct in the English department of Manhattan Community College; I had had a few stories published by then in small literary magazines, and I taught there for thirteen years and I just kept on writing and reading, writing and reading, but I knew my writing was not quite good enough and I did not know why. But I thought it must have to do with honesty, as most everything in good writing has to do with honesty, and I wondered what it was I was not being honest about. At that time we would go to the small stand-up comedy clubs in the village and I recognized that people laughed at something that was true; they laughed at the things that were unsayable – and were in fact being said. It made me think: what would come out of my mouth if I had that pressure to make people right there in front of me laugh, what would I be saying?
And so I took a stand up comedy class at the New School, which was unbelievably frightening, every week someone else dropped out. But for those of us who stuck it out, for our final exam, we had to perform at the Comic Strip in New York. And yes, people laughed at what I said, I can remember hearing the first deep laugh coming from a man, and what I felt was almost erotic in my gratitude for him. But the point is this: my routine was making fun of myself for being a white woman from New England, and until I took that course and wrote that routine, I did not really understand that I was a white woman from New England, and that to be so made me different from many of the cultures surrounding me in the city. So I was able to write Amy and Isabelle, about a very uptight white woman from New England, and which, by the way, sat for two years completed because no agent would take it on. But it was finally published and here I am.
I was to stress here that during those years of my childhood, I read everything I could about writers, and this was when I first heard about Yaddo – when I was just a child – so many of the writers I read about had been there, and I thought: I will go there too. In my mind, it was extraordinary, a place where artists of all kinds could be nurtured and cared for as they worked.
And this is exactly what I found when I arrived here in the autumn of 2002. There was a Hungarian novelist, as A.M. Homes said, isn’t there always a Hungarian novelist? And a filmmaker, an opera composer – it was extraordinary. The Hungarian novelist would take walks in the woods as I did, and I remember there was a rule that there would be no talking during the day unless both parties agreed, and this was very freeing to me, when we met in the woods, we would simply nod, and I think there were times when he didn’t even nod, he was that deep in his thoughts. Yet at dinner time we were friendly with each other. One day the van took a few of us into town, and I remember that no one spoke on the van, and it wasn’t until we were deposited back at Yaddo that I realized everyone was most likely thinking of their work. The opera composer was on that van, and it struck me that he was probably busy arranging the instruments that would be underscoring his arias. I stayed friends with him for years, and I went to a number of his different presentations in New York. I remember his studio here at Yaddo, the piano it had in it – I thought I was truly in heaven, that such a place as Yaddo existed.
It seems to me these days, that our culture is more in need than ever of such a place that nurtures artists. Without art, there is no reflection back to society of who we are and what we are up to. It is essential for any culture to promote the wellbeing of artists, and I thank all of you for being here and doing just that. These places – like Yaddo – don’t just happen by magic. You people put your trust and your resources into those whose work may not show up for years, or may never show up. But you do it anyway. Because you know that a society must value the arts. And what you are doing here is an act of faith. I hope Yaddo continues on for many, many years, it is an extraordinary place.
Please join us in bringing this act of faith to fruition by making a contribution.