Norma Fox Mazer (1931 - 2009) was my teacher and friend, and I remember her irrepressible enthusiasm as she helped me sort through the tangled mess of manuscript pages that I’d share with her every month as part of the student-teacher pact that we’d agreed to when I was her student at Vermont College. She was a writer, after all, who thought nothing of rewriting passages multiple times and often remained unsatisfied with her words until the twentieth, thirtieth, or--dare I say?--fortieth draft.
I’d signed on to work with Norma for the semester not because of her amazing reputation as an award-winning writer of young adult novels and short stories and not because I’d heard how she was a master of plot, but because of the way that she had responded to excerpts from student manuscripts in the workshop that she led one summer and which I was lucky enough to find myself a part of.
Norma may have looked petite and delicate, almost fragile in a schoolgirlish way, but she was lithe and strong and always overflowing with an inexhaustible source of energy. Her mind was as sharp as a Misono UX Chef’s knife, and she was quicker to get to the heart of a story’s problem than any writer I’d ever met. Moreover, she was tenacious–even zealous, I might say–in describing what she saw as flaws in a story. And though it took me a while to understand that her tenaciousness wasn’t inspired by mean-spiritedness or spite or self-satisfaction but rather from her love of stories and for getting the story right, I learned eventually over the months that we worked together that her tenacious analysis was simply her way of showing her faith in the story and in the writer’s ability to succeed in telling it.
Her comments weren’t always easy to hear, especially if they were directed at you and your story. That’s because Norma was a firm believer in telling the absolute truth and not holding back any part of the truth for fear of hurting a writer’s feelings. What she saw in a story–its strengths, its weaknesses–she was compelled as a writer to say, and I think she felt that to say anything less would have meant betraying her vision or being less than honest. It would have meant compromising the integrity of her thoughts and her vision. For her it was simply unthinkable to say anything less than the truth. To do so would have meant shortchanging not only the writer of the story but her own sense of herself.
After working for weeks with Norma one-on-one and receiving her comments on my work in the form of six and seven page single-spaced letters, I began describing her responses to my friends and colleagues as “excruciatingly honest.” She refused to hold anything back. She cut through the brush with her Misono mind and focused with her laser vision on the story, seeing through the words to the underlying structure (or lack of structure), analyzing its strengths and weaknesses in ways that allowed me to see, as well. It was as if I had acquired x-ray vision, too, and could view my story’s shortcomings through her eyes without feeling that I’d failed. This was another one of Norma’s gifts. She could urge writers to keep working toward a goal that they couldn’t see, and, yet, because she believed in its existence and had faith that the writer would eventually discover it themselves, the writer could keep writing, keep working on the story, searching for new routes through the underbrush to reach its heart. Her faith fed my own so that I never felt abandoned or alone in my search.
It was her style of responding to my stories–her excruciating honesty–that taught me that I couldn’t hold anything back in the writing process, couldn’t pretend or shave the truth to save someone’s feelings (even if those feelings were my own). At first, such excruciating honesty seemed heartless, almost cruel. But over time I discovered something about honesty and courage as these qualities related to writing and life. Norma taught me--as I’m sure she taught her other students--what it meant to tell the truth unabashedly and straightforwardly. And she helped me find the courage to keep searching for that truth, even when it seemed on some days forever beyond my grasp, just out of reach.
When it comes time for you to review your own work or the work of other writers, I urge you to remember Norma. I think she would say that you owe your work nothing short of total and complete honesty. Excruciating honesty. It’s the only way that you’ll find your path–your true path– into the heart of your story. Her words echo in my mind (and heart) today, and, even though she’s gone, it feels like we’re still swimming together, her joy in writing--her passion for words and stories and truth--still helping me stay afloat.
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