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Get Ready for Harriet Doerr and Lesson 16 of Write it! How to Get Started
Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr in parts: on setting and grief
Harriet Doerr stopped her college education to marry and raise children. Three years after her husband’s death from leukemia, she went back to school, finished her bachelor’s degree at age 67 and began studying writing in the Stegner Creative Writing Program at Stanford at the invitation of Wallace Stegner himself. Her short stories became the novel Stones for Ibarra that won the National Book Award in 1983 when she was 73.
A personal note on grief: Although the book we’ll study together is largely about Ibarra, it strikes a grief chord. I was moved to tell you this by Terry Freedman’s post on Bravery
When my son died in 2017 at age 47, I was writing the last pages of a novel—and then was struck dumb. I’ve told only one stranger about this: Sherman Alexie
when he wrote the poem I have linked you to. I wrote in comments a first note about “fire,” as you will understand if you listen to me at the link below. Here’s the first note: “You take me back to Prometheus: the terror and the gift. I rely on heroes in _Who by Fire: a novel_: Folks who've done incredible things to save others from fire. Have my own obsession with fire. We need it and know that tragic losses come with it. From my heart to yours for your sister, Sherman. No way to heal from that loss. xo ~Mary” and he replied.
In my second note to Sherman, I got more courage and here's what I wrote: “Heart to heart. I rarely share this, Sherman. Maybe you're the one person who could handle it—just so you know, not many can: https://www.maryltabor.com/2019/07/benjamin-hammerschlag-in-my-heart.html”
Sherman has thanked me for the link to him, but on the second note, silence.
Silence surrounds my son’s death—and not as I describe in the link above.
With the new year, six years after my son’s death, I may be able to finish that novel in which he appears fictionally and ever so briefly. And I may be able to write a story about him: I dreamed last night how it might begin. Perhaps you and I together with some help from the study of Harriet Doerr will find our way to start again, however late.
Go to Amazon where you may buy Stones for Ibarra used (right column) for about $4 or go to your public library. You’ll have plenty of time to read because next Thursday I’m thrilled to offer a guest post by Terry Friedman.
Here are questions for you to consider while reading this novel:
Consider the fact that short stories form this novel, that in some sense each chapter comes to a resolution, somewhat self-contained as a separate story.
What holds the stories together to justify that the book is a novel? Or do you think the novel doesn’t succeed fully as a result of that choice?
Doerr tells us on page one in the first paragraph that Richard Everton “will die thirty years sooner than he now imagines.” Why do you think Doerr made that choice and what is the effect of tipping her hand at the start about this plot element?
Ask yourself these questions that Auden posed for reading a poem: (1) Here’s a verbal contraption. How does it work? (2) What kind of guy inhabits this novel? (3) Is there a main character and what has the writer done to make sure you conclude that?
There are no “right” answers to these questions. The novel has been widely praised, but as we saw with The Blue Flower,
such praise does not always justify the reader’s view. And clearly, to appreciate this novel, one must give credit to the choices Doerr made and that I will attempt to address—with your help—in the questions I’ve asked above.
As writers and readers, we’ll learn something by taking the time to understand what this writer has done, whether or not we agree that she has fully succeeded.
Writing experiments will be included in the paid ($5 for a month) lessons in parts that will follow Terry’s guest post. I post on Thursdays.
Last week I read another book that I highly recommend and that I hope to talk about in one of the parts of this lesson: Levels of Life by Julian Barnes: Early in this novel, Barnes says, “Every love story is a potential grief story.”
If you’re here free, considering going paid: