If you’ve just left your lonely writer’s garret under a cloud of self-loathing because, instead of writing, you’ve been up there brooding, doodling the same snub-nosed, short-chinned profile you’ve idled over since high school—stop working alone. Try writing with someone else.
My partner and I together wrote guidebooks, educational materials, a couple of novels…
Every so often, some skeptic would grill us, “But how can you write together?”
Pregnant pause, our eyes finding each other. “With a b-i-i-i-g pencil!”
Why explain, when to us the answer seemed simple: you leave your ego at the door, because it’s the writing that’s paramount. If something works, use it. If it doesn’t, change it or get rid of it. Isn’t that how you write? But when you’re working with a partner you trust, it gets easier to tell what to keep and what to toss.
I first met Mary Lou Kallman in EGL 610 Introduction to Graduate Studies, when she delivered a presentation on Huizinga’s Waning of the Middle Ages. As she stood at the front of the room waiting to begin, nothing in her appearance alerted me to the giant mind working away beneath the home-cut hair, the carelessly soldered aviator frame glasses, and the pudgy freckled face with its self-deprecating smile. Very little would interest me, I was sure, about the Middle Ages or the dumpy hausfrau in her Sears-Roebuck powder-blue polyester pantsuit.
And then she started talking.
She was brilliant: trenchant, articulate, thoughtful, witty. Ideas sparked from her like the Perseids in August. So I approached her after class.”How would you and your husband like to visit me and my husband?” Who could resist that suave invitation?
Have I mentioned she was gracious? And generous, so she accepted. Soon we were always together, chattering away about Chaucer’s world and Hawthorne’s; about Jane Austen’s narrative voice; about literature and how it worked, what it did, why it did it; about the process of writing, about words and structures, sentences, paragraphs.
After class, we walked to my car, arguing about some new and compelling idea she’d come up with. It frightened me, how effortlessly she could formulate a theory, breathe life into it, and then chuck it away as a will-o-the-wisp. When I came up with an original idea, I hung onto it like death, since I might never have another. Ideas tumbled out of her, ideas to spare, to give away like loose change. So I fought them. Whatever she raised, I argued against. And she loved it.
This was what school was about—not grades, but this fervor, this exploration for its own sake, this testing of ideas and of oneself against the ideas. Because she was happy to dump a theory as wrong-headed, so I came to be willing to laugh at my own dashes down dead-end tracks of thought.
Class ended at eight. She walked me to my car. We talked. I walked her to her car, still talking. She walked me back. And so on. Often, I got home minutes before midnight. Hours spent to and fro in the parking lot, one car to another, the nights getting darker and chillier as the semester progressed, until we took to sitting in one car, then the other, still talking.
That was the start of a friendship that morphed into twenty-five years of life together, and ended only with her death in 2003.
When we wrote fiction together, we’d discuss the upcoming scene, then start scribbling. She scribbled twice as fast as I (I doodled that profile), and when we both were done, we’d read to each other what we had. Sometimes we’d use one version and toss the other; sometimes we’d toss both and try again; sometimes we’d find we’d gone in two complementary directions and could use both.
It was never lonely, always captivating. And oh, the edge-of-the-seat anticipation at some random time of day when an idea would strike one of us (okay—her) and there’d be the grab for a scrap of paper—envelope, napkin, whatever—and something new got written.
A few days after she died, I came to, out of a deep and drug-like sleep, and dashed off a scene. It was for the novel she’d been working on by herself—from her own past. She’d left a hundred or so draft pages, and I had no thought of finishing it, not then. But try as I might, I couldn’t stay away from it. It was my way of working with her, of keeping our give-and-take alive. It got me through the worst of times by enabling me to treat with my grief in fiction. A dozen years on, it has become Even You.
Today, I write by myself. I love words: the sound of them, the texture, the way they bounce meaning off each other. When I write, I go deep into myself—and that’s where I find Mary Lou, waiting to talk.
Marilyn Oser is the author of the novels Playing for Keeps, and Rivka’s War, a favorite of readers and critics alike—as well as the blog “Streets of Israel” and several short stories and guidebooks. A Ph.D. in language and literature, she is also a recipient of the University of Michigan’s prestigious Avery Hopwood Prize for excellence in writing. She lives in New York’s Hudson Valley and on Long Island. Her newest novel Even You is available September 1st.
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