image via unc.edu
Doris, I hope you can read this from, well, over there:
In 2003, I received a letter from the North Carolina Writer's Network informing me that I had been accepted as a writer in residence at Peace College in Raleigh, North Carolina. I hadn't been living long in North Carolina, and I hardly knew what to make of either the place or the offer. And…I'm somewhat embarrassed to say it now…I didn't even know who Doris Betts was, the person who was supposed to further my writing skills that summer.
Soon I had an e-mail from Doris (Miz Betts, I called her at first…she kept insisting, "It's Doris.") As I soon learned, there were others – I think a dozen were selected to work with her that summer. She apparently wasn't happy to have us just for the ten days or so at Peace, so she had us send her pieces of our work, and to the other eleven or so as well, and we began a cybernetic critique class.
I was writing a genre novel at the time, and submitted a goodly chunk of it, asking, "Is that all right, Miz – um – Doris?" "A suspense novel?" she asked, "sure, I read and enjoy everything."
Deep into the month or so of this prelim, she had me axe my beginning seven chapters (I couldn't believe a writing teacher would read that much, much less axe it altogether) and she presented me with several options to open my story, one being a prologue. So I wrote one. Man, was I proud of that! Then afer she'd seen it, she said, "No, Bob, I don't think that's it yet. Maybe it was better the way it was. What do you think?"
This was the week before we convened in Raleigh, and I went ballistic. I don't remember exactly what I wrote back, but it was rather salty. But by the time I'd arrived at Peace (College), remorse had set in. I found her as quickly as I could and apologized. She chuckled and said, "Oh, it's all right, Bob, that's all part of the process." Well, maybe it was part of hers, I thought, but writing is supposed to be a genteel calling.
Wrong! Writing, as I came to learn, is frustrating, passionate, edgy, emotional in every sense of the word – at least the best writing is. No wonder writers are most often seen as the weird ones in the crowd.
It's often hard to gauge the import of such a learning process while drowning in it. I'd previously been struggling with the craft of writing, was slowly making progress, but some months down the line, I came to the realization that Doris had moved my skills forward by at least a decade, given my earlier rate of progress. And that wasn't the end of the "Doris Summer," for any of us. We kept writing back to her, asking questions, begging critiques, and she always accommodated.
What I came to learn about Doris – again in retrospect – was that she truly cared about us as writers, and about our writing. It wasn't so long ago that I announced on Facebook that a small publisher had picked up on a short story collection of mine and wanted to publish it. One of the first to congratulate me on FB? Yes, Doris, deep into chemotherapy for cancer.
I can't speak for all of those present that summer, but I know that Doris moved – no, shoved – some of us (lovingly) into the profession of writing. She was a lauded professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, and a celebrated writer herself – she didn't have to be that concerned with us and our writing, any more than she had to congratulate me on my still-pending publication – – but she did – even as the cancer was taking hold. There's a word for that sort of attention – love. She loved us that much, and it's been impossible ever since not to return that affection.
I found out late Saturday that she'd died that day, following her husband and daughter in death. But to me, Doris isn't dead, nor will she ever be – as long as I'm around. I owe her a lot. I owe it to her to be a better writer than I ever dreamed I could be, and I'll do my best to accommodate that. If the world were filled with people of your sort, Doris, the big blue ball we call home would be a damned fine place – better than any of us ever dreamed it could be.