When I began work on my MFA at Vermont College, my teacher, Gladys Swan, asked, “What would you like to accomplish?” I said, “Well, I work with high-school students. I know that some novels really work with them and some don’t. I would love to write a book that would speak to young people the way that To Kill a Mockingbird has spoken to so many of my students and also to me.” We also talked about The Catcher in the Rye in that conversation. I don’t think it’s any accident that both of those novels have a prevalent first-person narrator with a strong sense of voice.
Gladys said to me, “The first thing that you have to do is not think about who your audience is.” She said, “Write it for you. Make it true for yourself, and let the audience find it.” In that same conversation, we talked about a short story I’d just begun about a crazy woman named Mary Anne, who later became Dolores. Gladys said, “You have too many pots on the stove here. There’s too much going on here for a short story.” That’s what I had written up to that point, so I said, “What should I cut out?” She said, “Don’t cut out anything. Keep going. Maybe you’re trying to write a novel.” I said, “Not me. I couldn’t handle that. That’s beyond what I can do.” And she said, “Well, if you want to learn how to write a novel, read the oldest stories. Those stories have lasted because they say things that people have needed to be told over and over and over again.” She said, “The world is an old place and all the stories that people need are already out there. You’re never going to tell an original story because everybody who’s come before you has beaten you to it. Put your own original spin on a story that has lasted.”
She came up with a reading list for me, and when I started reading and studying the myths, seeing the cross sections from culture to culture, that’s when I saw what she was getting at. And, really, that’s been the wellspring that I go back to over and over and over again when I’m starting something new.