[Although Linda Gray Sexton (Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton, Other works in Bibliography) is more than familiar with inherited traits — as her latest memoir Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide profoundly showcases –, she is also well-acquainted with the gifts we receive from others. In today’s guest post, the memoirist/novelist writes about shared talents and cherished experiences that have enriched her life.]
I am always struck by the way so many aspects of my life are rooted in the lives of other people, how they transform my experiences, moment by moment. Be they parents or children, mentors or professors, lovers or friends, they all have made a significant impact upon my growth as an individual, and I believe that I have had the same effect on them. It is a creative kind of sharing between us, very different from that which psychology and science say about the domination of environment and genes.
I learned how to write in my mother’s study, curled up on the old green sofa while she leaned back in her desk chair, her feet propped up on the bookshelf. Through her own experience as a Pulitzer-Prize winning poet, she passed on to me a love of the word that formed the basis of my own desire to express myself this way. At twelve, I began to write my own poetry seriously, based on the methods she had shown me, creating draft after draft till I reached the most pitch perfect poem I could.
At college, I learned about expository writing, from professors and grad students alike, and began to hone my critical—rather than my creative—skills. This new sense of style came to me in my classes, an ability to craft explication de textes, as well as verse, and to write with absolute adherence to more formal language. Then, at my own hand and computer, I discovered more still as I began to write both fiction and memoir, as well as book reviews and teaching both younger and older students to pay attention to structure and their choice of words.
I combined all I had learned about the craft of writing of every sort, and then learned to plow slowly through whatever I was creating in order to grow as a writer. And whenever someone asked, I happily gave away all I had learned, to readers, listeners and peers alike.
The opposite has been true for me as well. How often, sometimes without even knowing it, we give to those who are older and wiser or just plain different than us in their outlook or experience. My sons, along with their friends, have taught me so much: how to work the internet, and how to post on Facebook; how to hold down a job that requires sixty hours a week, and how to date in this brave new social world. And I hear professional writers and younger voices as well: how to look at a book in a new way either through a review, or a blog; how to craft a better idea that engenders a bigger audience.
There was a time when I helped my mother to grow in just this way. During college vacations, I brought home books by writers whom I was exploring in class, and we would once again hole up in her study—but this time it was I who read favorite authors to her, I who taught her all I knew about writing and reading. T.S. Eliot, Wordsworth and Tennyson, Ezra Pound. With no college degree of her own, she would marvel at all I was learning and thank me for bringing this new knowledge into her writing room.
Once, as we sat outside a doctor’s office, waiting for my results of a crucial examination by a specialist in gynecology, she supported me through the dreadful vigil. My predisposition for a particular cervical cancer came from a drug she had taken as she had tried to prevent a miscarriage while she was pregnant with me; but when I turned twenty-four, I had a different problem, of another sort than the one we had anticipated—infertility.
She sat with me that day, in unspoken empathy, knowing that she might have passed on to me a deadly condition and blaming herself, though no responsibility could really be assigned. We were two different but united women, each with our own issues: guilt and fear.
And as we sat there waiting, I read aloud to her from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves in a quiet voice that took into consideration the other patients sitting around us. Nevertheless, my mother grew excited and then enthusiastic and then, at last, emotionally moved. She had never experienced Woolf before. We distracted ourselves from the threat of the medical issue before us, and she marveled at the rhythms and the words that this other woman had chosen to bring her vision into life, words that I now offered up to my mother as we held hands and I spoke them out loud.
When I was a child, she had passed onto me an enduring and immense gift: the love of language. That day I gave back to her a gift of the education in literature that she had never had. It was a special kind of communication, one woman to another. It was a mutual inheritance, from her to me, and then, in reverse, from me to her. I know I treasured the exchange. I am certain she did, too.
Book Giveaway: The Divining Wand is giving away one copy of Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters in a random drawing of comments left only on this specific post, Presenting Debutante Eleanor Brown and The Weird Sisters. Comments left on other posts during the week will not be eligible. The deadline is Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 7:00 p.m. EST with the winners to be announced here in Thursday’s post. If you enter, please return Thursday to see if you’re a winner.