In the fall of 1973, she told her creative writing students at Barnard College, “There are really only two reasons to write: desperation or revenge.” She used to tell us that we couldn’t be writers if we couldn’t be told no, if we couldn’t take rejection. We supposed, therefore, that the tone she took with us was merely to get us ready: “I’d rather shoot myself than read that again.” That writing could not be taught was clear from the way she shrugged her shoulder and lifted her beautiful eyes after this or that student effort. However, a passion for reading could be shared, week after week. “The only way to learn to write is to read.” She brought in Boris Pasternak’s Safe Conduct, translated by Beatrice Scott. She said she hated to do something so “pre-Gutenberg,” and then began to read to us in a voice that was surprisingly high, loud, and suddenly very Southern:
The beginning of April surprised Moscow in the white stupor of returning winter. On the seventh it began to thaw for the second time, and on the fourteenth when Mayakovsky shot himself, not everyone had yet become accustomed to the novelty of spring.
When she got to the line about the black velvet of the talent in himself, she stopped and threw herself back in her chair, curls trembling. Either we got it or we didn’t, but it was clear from the way she struck her breastbone that to get it was, for her, the gift of life.
Sometimes she read in order to write, in order to begin, to find her way in. She agreed with Virginia Woolf that to read poetry before you wrote could open the mind. She typed at a desk upstairs in her apartment on West 67th Street; she typed at her heavy machine on the dining room table. She wrote in big handwriting on legal pads that then waited on end tables for her doubts; she wrote in little notebooks that she tucked between the cushions of the red velvet sofa. When she wrote, books piled up all around her, opened, or face down, each asking questions of her, whispering about the way in.
She remembered Hannah Arendt visiting Mary McCarthy in Maine. Arendt was lying on a sofa, with her arms behind her head, staring at the ceiling. “What’s she doing?” she remembered asking. “She’s thinking,” her old friend Mary answered. She said she felt not a little put in her place. She said she envied those who could compose in their heads. She, however, did not know what she thought until she’d written it down. She said her first drafts always read as if they’d been written by a chicken. But when she revised, she did not question why she had chosen this life. She said that writing was almost a physical process and she could never understand why she could do it on, say, Tuesday, but not on Friday. She worked all the…
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