Late one night in December 1979, I stood angrily on a dark, deserted, snowy, street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, my hand in my pocket, my fingers curled tightly around a large, jagged rock. My husband, who was convinced that this venture was insane, but who could not stop me nor would he let me go it alone, waited silently beside me
I stared into the massive windows of number 79 GARDEN STREET: HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS. Opaque, impenetrable and probably unbreakable glass! My body trembled not so much from the New England frost as from inner rage. I couldn’t decide whether to throw the rock or not. “Go ahead!” I urged myself. “Do it! You’ll get arrested then everyone will know about them!” It was that kind of mad reasoning that had brought me there from New Jersey.
I’d never vandalized anything before. I was fifty-two years old, a professor of English at CUNY, the wife of a Barnard anthropology professor, the mother of three and the author of two novels, a memoir, and many short stories, articles and reviews. I was a respectable, law abiding citizen.
I actually took my hand out of the pocket and raised it high with the rock, but could not fling it. I stood there and wept, the tears burning my cold cheeks. This effort to pay back Harvard University Press like all the rest of my dealings with them would be abortive. I dropped the rock. My husband put his arm around my waist. “Come on, Sheila,” he said gently. “Time to bite the bullet.”
I was toxic with disappointment, a grown woman who had fed too long on her fantasies. A life-long writer, I’d sought recognition, the recognition all writers seek. I shuffled back into my slough of despair.
Two years before, in September 1977, I’d spied a gorgeous ad in The New York Times Book Review:
Introducing the Harvard Program in the Short Novel and Its Distinguished judges: John Gardner, Irving Howe, Eudora Welty.
Surely the Fates had decreed the timing. That very Sunday morning, hours before my family was awake, I had completed my comic novella, A PERPETUAL SURPRISE, the story of Robi Gangulee, a poor, virtuous Hindu who teams up with a scamp and triumphs. This unlikely buddy story, my second “Indian” book, was a labor of pure love I’d been working on since 1974, when I wrote the full first draft during a blissful summer at the Yaddo writers’ colony. I was convinced that it was the best writing that I’d ever done. Avidly, I studied the ad.
Harvard University Press is proud to introduce a new publishing venture designed to help revive the short novel. Writers are invited to submit their manuscripts – in general no less than 25,000 and no more than 60,000 words – to the program at Harvard University Press where they will be read first . . ..
Any writer anywhere was invited to submit. Upon acceptance the writer would receive $1,000 and a standard contract. Each novel would be published by itself in a hardback volume. One needed only to write to William B. Goodman, General Editor at the Press for information.
I wasted no time. Mr. Goodman responded quickly, and I submitted my novella and promptly was sent a receipt. For me, it was an admission ticket to bliss. My three earlier books, handsomely published by commercial publishers had gotten good reviews, but each had sunk without a trace, abandoned by the bottom-line people in marketing. Harvard was an academic press, I reasoned, so that would never happen. Not with those three great writers doing the judging. Harvard would get behind a book even if it were not a blockbuster.
Suddenly I had an enormous amount of leisure time on my hands. The years I had spent on the book had been incredibly crowded: a third child was born to us; we’d moved from a city apartment to a large house in Leonia, New Jersey. Distrusting “eating out,” I cooked all our meals and packed our lunches, as well as taking care of the other domestic tasks myself. I even ended up walking Bingo, the family mutt, every morning, a chore I chronicled bitterly in 1976 for The New York Times, which sent a photographer to walk alongside and capture the event.
…I was delegated by family acclamation – with one dissenting vote – to walk the new family dog. I complied. I couldn’t bear to acknowledge the purpose of these missions to myself or to the world, so I tried shrinking down into my coat collar and pretending I wasn’t there. Has anyone else noticed how pitifully inadequate current designs for women’s coats are around the neck? Whatever happened to the shawl collar?
A bold front was obviously the only modus operandi. I strode along, erect and purposeful, at first whistling the apt “B-I-N-G-O and Bingo was his name- Oh!” Tuneful and informal! I soon switched to the “ Grand March from AIDA,” which after all was written for elephants and therefore maintains a kind of majestic stateliness. So I proceeded to parade, staring directly ahead….
In addition to these varied suburban activities, I was appointed to a full-time college teaching job. All of this I undertook with zest along with my writing; it made for a busy, productive life embraced by my family who shared my goals.
In the nineteen seventies it seemed as if women could do all that they wanted to. I was greedy. I opted to do a lot. Apolitical all my life, I’d become in my middle age an early and enthusiastic – if passive – supporter of the National Organization of Women. I’d never felt the urge to burn my bra or protest in the streets, but I signed petitions, I contributed money, and I read Ms. Magazine dreaming big dreams. I even wrote for Ms. eventually.
My entry in the Harvard Program seemed to propel me into a rare orbit where I might achieve what I wanted most: to be the author of a truly fine, acclaimed book.
Writing has always been my lifeline. As a child in an impoverished, miserable home, I made up stories while my parents battled with each other. It was a way to shut out the terrible things they were saying. Other kids ran around outside finding total escape in the streets, while I preferred to sit in the hall bathroom – the only room with a door and a lock – and scribble. Periodically, I was expelled and sent outdoors to absorb the “fresh air” of Brooklyn.
As I grew older instead of learning to knit or crochet or play board games (I still do not know how to play MONOPOLY) – instead of taking part in the myriad social activities most people engage in for pleasure, I wrote because that was what I loved to do. Time disappeared when I was writing. I went into a zone where no one and nothing could touch me. My mind teemed with stories that I could never get down fast enough.
I can’t say how it happened that writing became the single affirmation of my existence; it just is. I write therefore I am. Through elementary school, high school, college whenever I had something printed, I rejoiced, no matter what the publication: pulp magazine, library handout, mimeographed sheets, class or school newspaper, yearbook. Much of my writing never saw print; the odds were not great, but it almost didn’t matter. The writing itself was an expression of faith. I’d sit down, pencil in hand, and leave my own sphere for an invented space, one I peopled and controlled.
It was what I did best and no matter where or how I ended up, I managed to keep writing. In graduate school I wrote at night as an aide on the wards in the State Psychopathic Hospital in Iowa City; when my children were young, I got up very early to write before hey woke; on anthropological field trips to Trinidad or India, no matter the kerosene lamps, the mosquito netting cocoons, the rough living arrangements, I kept diaries and filled notebooks with handwritten fiction.
During the hectic suburban New Jersey years – we were raising two adolescents and a baby – I also did book reviews and brief humorous pieces for The New York Times and The Bergen Record. I had an attic office and I worked there early mornings and late nights.
My children remember that the last sound they heard at night and the first sound in the morning was the clack of my typewriter keys. I concluded that the longest distance on earth had to be between the kitchen and my desk, but daily I warmed up and raced and stayed in that marathon.
CHAPTER 2 CONTINUES BELOW!
Hi Sheila! What a great story– I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it before, but I’ve been searching the New York Times archives all morning to find the article on Bingo! Love, Josephine