Dear Diary #5—Dying for Approval
It’s beyond imagining. You would never believe it. I just received an email from my favorite high school teacher praising my novel, Dreamers.
Sister Mary ___ (Alas, she hasn’t yet given me permission to use her actual name) is a nun in the Sisters of Charity religious order. She was only twenty five or so when she became my English teacher. She was funny, smart, and even prettier than the character Amy Adams played in that telling movie, Doubt.
Sister Mary loved literature like I did. Once I found her after school sitting at her desk next to the window looking out on Sacred Heart Church. She was reading Shakespeare’s MacBeth, in another world, transfixed. I hated to interrupt her but of course I did. I remember she used to pound the floor with her little black shoe as she recited the poetry of Langston Hughes. Yes, Sr. Mary was both wonderful and frightening.
Her email of a week ago flows over me like honey. How thankful am I that she has had the persistence to stay in touch. What a different young woman I would have become back in 1962 if I had carried Sr. Mary’s words in my pocket. At seventeen I would have done anything for her approval. That small Irish-faced nun with twinkly eyes framed by her black Sisters of Charity bonnet held the keys to my fragile self-worth.
No, you won’t find anything about Sr. Mary in this diary. By the time I left high school, I had relegated her to the dustbin with all my other memories like old dolls turned ragged, ignored. I desperately wanted to leave everything connected with childhood behind.
Entering college, I put on a dark mask of disillusioned doom, the pose I thought I needed to become a serious author. I spent entire days attending classes without saying a word, my mouth stitched tight with fear and resistance. I remember the sensation of walking from class to the streetcar stop on a cold November day and not being able to breathe. By my sophomore year, I was literally dying for approval.
But things change. In my junior year, I signed up for Creative Writing, Playwriting, Poetry, English History and China & the Far East, classes that I found I loved. Even better, I started to write. A September 1964 entry describes my first attempt at writing a novel.
“The excitement of writing is nerveless; my words are suspended. I have never felt so peace-like. Everything is warm and deeply comfortable to me.”
Hobbyhorse was the title of my first “book”, a florid stream-of-consciousness describing the up and downs of two young lovers told from alternating points of view, a style I just realize I duplicated in Dreamers. In Hobbyhorse, each chapter seesawed back and forth, the characters sifted like fool’s gold from the sluice box of my first experience falling in love.
Suddenly I felt joyful, happy to be alive. My diary for November 12, 1963 reads, “I don’t even try to deaden my joy. It is slow-moving, calm.”
And then another miracle! I found a teacher willing and eager to read my work. Dr. John Hart, English professor from Yale, was a small, thin man with a pronounced limp. Walking across the Tech campus, I’d stop to greet him, He’d be dragging his leg, his jacket blowing in the wind. He had a pale Irish face with a big squashy red nose. A few strands of light hair fell across his brow as he answered my questions in a quiet dreamy way. Each week I’d give him my chapters, typed double-spaced and folded lengthwise. He’d put them in his coat pocket. Oh! how eagerly I pondered his response.
Congratulations on your beautiful novel, Dreamers! I love it! You’ve caught so well the mood of the Sixties—the glories as well as the mistakes, the feelings, the actions, the many causes, and, yes, the dreams. Your work is excellent, as you must know from the many descriptions on the book cover. I especially like that by Vicki Weiland. Your writing is indeed “taut, nuanced, sophisticated, and multi-layered.” I’m sending your novel to my oldest niece, a psychologist who will understand well the beauty and the anguish of the sixties. I’ll let you know how she reacts. Meanwhile, I just want you to know how proud I am of you and your work. You’re in my prayers, now and always. God bless you—and all those dear to you.
Artwork by Charr Crail