I had a day away from the office yesterday. I did try to post at the State Library, but my god, I wasn’t the only one trying to snatch a free computer, and who knew Sydney was full of such dedicated midweek swats? I gave up in the end and went and found a corner to sit and read my book (The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath. I saw a rather overpriced secondhand copy at a market last Sunday and it occurred to me I’d never read it, which seemed a bit remiss. So I borrowed it from the library and despatched it in two goggle-eyed days. I hadn’t known it was rather like a girl’s own answer to The Catcher in the Rye… did you? That’s how it struck me, at any rate, especially in the early New York section. All very sad, really, and, given Plath’s early end, it casts quite a spooky pall over the whole experience of reading it).
As I’d all but smashed through The Bell Jar , I needed a replacement and fast, so I went to Dymocks, picked up next month’s book club book (we’re doing a non-fiction title this time, Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void. I’ve already written a post about the documentary based on the book, which blew my mind into a million little pieces, so I’m looking forward to reading it), and then strolled those aisles feeling alternately crestfallen and encouraged by the number of titles on the shelves. It seems a simultaneously good and bad thing for my own manuscript that there’s such an awful lot of books out there. Anyway, as I was scanning, I came upon Booker winner Anne Enright’s latest, a collection of short stories entitled Taking Pictures.
Well. As you know, I’m trying to develop some sort of clue about short story writing in the off-hours away from the MS. More and more it seems to me a critical skill to acquire. It’s such a different act of creation, and a very different discipline to any of the other writing I do, and I’d love to one day be tolerably competent in the art. So I thought ‘Yes, I should really read some Enright’ (couldn’t stand the thought of The Gathering, just reading the dust jacket depressed me, Booker or no Booker…). I idly flipped through the first few pages and what do you know? The dedication reads: For Theo and Eileen Dombrowski.
These names mean something (or a lot) to several readers of this blog, because Theo and Eileen Dombrowski are the tireless, endlessly versatile English teachers who worked first at Pearson College, Canada, where I – along with others who I know sometimes drop in here – was a student between 1989-91, and then the Red Cross Nordic College, Norway, and then back to Pearson, for so many years before retiring finally a year or so ago. Anne Enright, Booker winner, is a graduate of Pearson College herself, although I daresay her IB results were a damn sight sharper than mine (I nearly failed, thanks to my own immaturity and determination to spend my entire two years talking to people rather than doing a stitch of work… I don’t know that it was an altogether dud strategy, because I’ve never again been in any environment like it – it’s not every day you live with people from 75 countries – but I cut it a little too fine for comfort). I did know Enright was alumnus, because the college announced her Booker win on its website, but I somehow hadn’t put together the fact that she must have been educated by at least some of the same teachers as me, and certainly the indomitable Dombrowskis.
How wonderful. I’ve never known the people cited in a novel’s dedication before, and I got quite a thrill when I saw Theo and Eileen’s names there. How lovely they must feel to know, as teachers, what they’ve helped create, this Irish powerhouse who is now contributing to the very subject they taught for so many years. It must be incredibly gratifying.
I’m afraid as part of my intellectual atrophy at college I let Theo and Eileen down a bit. I didn’t perform at my best at any stage of the two years, in Eileen’s class the first, and in Theo’s the second. It makes me sad to think of my stupid obstinacy; I wish I’d made a bit more of the learning opportunity, although I can say with absolute certainty that as a LIVING opportunity, I sucked the marrow right from the bone, I was absolutely first-rate as far as seizing the day was concerned. Dear Theo and Eileen. The last time I saw them was June 2000, the first and thus far only time I’ve been back at the college since being a student. We were back there, so many of us, for our ten year reunion, and one night Theo and Eileen had us up to their house on campus for drinks. It was such a perfect night, one of the highlights of the entire reunion, and I remember it vividly, the warmth of their home and their company. I was so abashed by my poor showing as an English student a decade earlier that I felt when I first arrived back for the reunion that they might not know who I was; the relief when Theo gave me a queer look and said ‘Of course we remember you’ was pretty intense. They wouldn’t have any idea whatsoever what their good favour means to me, none at all, but I know.
In fact, I stopped writing short stories back then, in 1991, because I just wasn’t up to scratch. I only realised it yesterday, after I bought Taking Pictures and wandered through town with it thinking about Theo and Eileen. At the time, I did a creative writing major project, something the IB calls an ‘extended essay’ (EE) of 5,000 words. Eileen was my ‘supervisor’ of sorts, and my short story categorically sucked. I think I was too self-conscious and too insecure and too half-arsed about it for it to be anything else, and the screaming truth of my own inadequacy just snuffed me out like a weak flame. I didn’t attempt fiction again for a full 8 years after the IB, when I wrote an appalling MS whilst living in London. Knowing that it, too, sucked, I stopped trying again, for another 8 years.
It’s funny, but when I found out Eileen and Theo were retiring, I emailed them to say that doing my PhD was in some way an attempt to make it up to them, and make it up to myself, and that finally I could stop looking over my shoulder at our mutual disappointment in my failure to really try. So now I’ll clutch Anne Enright’s book like a prize and a talisman, and keep Eileen and Theo’s wonderful teaching close to me once more.