She Grew Up in a House Without Books. A Teacher Helped Her Realize She Could Write One Herself.

She Grew Up in a House Without Books. A Teacher Helped Her Realize She Could Write One Herself.

I’d just finished my sophomore year when I ran into Mary Gordon, possibly Barnard’s most prominent faculty member, on the corner of Broadway and 116th Street. I’d taken her fiction-writing workshop that semester, and she’d made a point of letting me know that she doesn’t normally take sophomores. She may have meant this as a compliment, but I took it as a warning: You hardly deserve to be here, so step it up. I was heading to the library and she’d just come from the gym. I wasn’t sure I was supposed to be seeing her like this — sweaty, in her workout gear. But she hailed me down. “What are you reading this summer?” she began, almost as if we’d already discussed the subject.

Talking to Mary Gordon takes focus and attention, if you don’t want to seem like an idiot. It’s a little like going for a run with someone who paces a minute per mile faster; our cadences may look similar to an observer, but one person is working way harder than the other. I imagine her mind is constantly whirring on different subjects: Virginia Woolf, the church, third-wave feminism. My mind, then as now, was largely occupied by what my next meal would be. The question of what I should read that summer was already worrying me before she asked. By the end of that semester, I felt totally out of my depth.

“I don’t know,” I said.

She nodded, reached into her bag, removed a notebook and scribbled a list.

Then she tore out the page and handed it to me. Read these authors, she told me, adding that it didn’t matter which of their books I picked. If I couldn’t find them at my local library, she said to ask the librarian to borrow the books from another library. I didn’t know libraries could do that.

Then she told me I was a good writer, but I had to read the right things. “You have a subject,” she told me. “Most people your age don’t have that yet.”

I have a subject? I thought. But I knew better than to ask her what it was. The names she wrote down meant nothing to me then. Most sounded Irish, and that was a relief: Roddy Doyle, Edna O’Brien, Maeve Brennan, John McGahern, William Trevor (whom we’d already read a little of in Mary’s workshop, and whose work I’d immediately fallen in love with), Grace Paley (“Jewish,” Mary said, “but you’re interested in the same details”), Katherine Anne Porter. She put “Dubliners” on the list without the author’s name, and I wanted to joke that even I had heard of that one. There were more, but these are the ones I remember because these are the ones I read.

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