I spent today with Wendy Bishop. More specifically, I spent today poring over her book, Teaching Lives: Essays and Stories, aka her greatest hits, digging for stuff to flesh out an essay I’m working on about her, for a deadline bearing down on me. Wendy died in 2003 at the age of 50, and though I understood she had a life threatening illness, her death still came as a shock; as far as I knew, from email updates to her legions of supporters of which, as you can see, I was one, she showed all signs of “beating it.”
Like countless writers of my generation, I was devastated. I was counting on many years to come of her wisdom appearing at regular intervals in College Composition and the other journals I read for my profession, of many more poems, many more articles to appear in the books she wrote and the book collections she appeared in, for she was a prolific writer. In fact, as one story goes, she often appeared for required departmental reviews of her output with a laundry basket full of her stuff.
It was some comfort that articles she’d written, in her tradmark open, narrative, informal style, continued to surface long after her death. From time to time I wonder, what the last Wendy Bishop words to be published were or will be. The book for the essay I’m working on, is going to print, for the first time, an “ideas file” she kept on her hard drive.
Snapshots of what might have been.
She was so full of ideas and she taught me how to mine them. In 1999 she came to speak at UCA and I was her escort. She mentored me, taught me so much in those two days. I remember whenever we’d discuss something interesting or unique about writing, she’d say, “there’s an article in that.” Later, she generously offered an essay for a book I was editing and the unspoken truth between us was that her agreeing to appear in the book would help bring other influential writers on board, would eventually help get it published. I am one of many who can say she was instrumental in my career.
And so it is also some comfort to spend a quiet, rainy afternoon here in my office, the storms mercifully breaking the grip of days of 100+ heat, devouring her words anew.
As a role model and mentor, she was without parallel in creative writing and composition, and in part, that is what my essay is about. About how her stories of her less-than-stellar experiences in creative writing classes in the seventies and eighties freed so many of us to tell our own, starting a movement to reform creative writing that continues today, even as, far too early, she left the building.
A few women/rolemodels/mentors departed my life too early, before I had time to learn what I needed to from them, my grandmother, Gladys, my friend Judy, leaving me little to go on in terms of parting words–my friend Judy, a handful of letters and precious memories, my grandmother, even less, an eighth grade autograph book from which I learned she had a crush on Morton Downey (the singer) and aspired to go to the business high school.
But this afternoon, Wendy whispers in my ear, phrases like,
“No one can give us a sense of authority. We must earn it and we must take it.”
What an honor and luxury it is to be writing this essay, to feel her words, her presence so deeply once again.
It’s been a bit of a bumpy time for me lately–difficult physical symptoms surfacing from my “chemically-induced” temporary menopause, run of the mill financial stress, a lot of deadlines bearing down, last but not least today’s frantic morning effort to get everyone out the door in time so that the occasional cleaning lady can practice her art in peace–but in spite of that, today was a very good day.
Thanks to Wendy.