Sarah Yaw on Victoria Redel


My Literary Mama

In 1996, I walked into a night class at The New School and I had two things: a musician’s ear and a desire to be a writer. I didn’t understand what either of these things meant to each other, until the instructor demanded we write something and read it aloud. We read. She listened. When we hit a sentence that rang, she stopped, and, in the tradition of her training said, Start there. The first thing I wrote disappointed her.

Katie DePasquale on Dorothy Parker


The first Dorothy Parker poem I memorized, I found in a book of my father’s called The Portable Curmudgeon. It was “Resume,” her famous rant against all available methods of suicide but, notably, not against suicide itself. Being a teenager at the time, I fancied myself dark and so full of angst, which proves that I had no understanding of a suicidal state of mind. That hardly mattered though. In her brief poem, it was Parker’s cool, clever cynicism, her neat summary and rejection of all available ways to kill yourself, that got me. She made her conclusion sound so obvious, so hilarious, and it even rhymed.

Maya Sonenberg on Laura Ingalls Wilder


I’m not supposed to love her, but her books are my jewel box.

Like many other little girls, I discovered Laura Ingalls Wilder in the library. My school librarian, however, refused to let me check out Little House in the Big Woods, saying I’d be missing out on too many other books more appropriate for my age. My mother gave her a talking to; I devoured the series. My favorite was Farmer Boy, with its extensive descriptions of food so delicious I could eat them off the page, but I also loved Pa’s beard and the tunes from his violin, Laura’s rag doll Charlotte, the blackberry buttons on Ma’s fancy dress, the China Shepherdess, the Whatnot (whatever that was), the sleighs and horses. And I loved the endless descriptions of bed-making and floor-sweeping and butter-churning and well-digging and cabin-building and haystick-twisting. I even loved the coffee grinder used to grind wheat in The Long Winter, and the Pa’s meticulous and endless bullet-making. These were magical objects (looked at longingly, lovingly described) and magical actions, even if I didn’t yet understand what sort of magic they generated.

rob mclennan on Elizabeth Smart


Literary genealogy can be such a tricky thing. What does it mean to attempt to trace anything as nebulous as literary parentage or forebears? Sometimes it’s a matter of discovering a particular writer’s work that presents a permission to do our own work in a particular way, or even the simple permission to be able to begin to produce our own work at all. Other times, it is far more specific, and far more personal: a mentor, perhaps. This is far easier for some. My early years included a number of encouraging figures, writerly and otherwise, but no-one emerged as the mentor I was so desperately seeking. Early encouragement for my own literary scribblings emerged from Eastern Ontario poets Henry Beissel and Gary Geddes, and later, Ottawa poets Diana Brebner, Marianne Bluger, Mark Frutkin and Michael Dennis, all of whom helped the possibility of my writing more often, but not in any way did they help with the possibilities of the what or even the how. Would these be instead midwifes, or does that confuse these metaphors of literary mothers and fathers?

Sophie Littlefield on Nadine Gordimer


I’d been planning this post for a while, and had already chosen Nadine Gordimer as my “literary mother” before her death last weekend. I’m not ordinarily a procrastinator, and when I examined my reasons for putting off writing this piece, I realized it was due to a sense of guilt which I have been carrying around for nearly thirty years.

I was encouraged into a “useful” major when I went away to college, despite a childhood spent buried in books. I started writing fiction the day I read my first chapter book (what a revelation, that you could break a story into as many parts as you liked!), but settled for attending lectures by famous authors at the Midwestern university where I majored in Computer Science.

Elliott Holt on Alice Munro


An Open Letter to Alice Munro

Dear Alice,

It seems impossible that you don’t know me. What I mean is that I know your work so well—intimate, is the only way I can describe my relationship to your stories—that I feel like I know you. I consider you a kindred spirit and a teacher. I’ve reread your stories so many times that I know I’ve learned more from them than I have in any writing class. I once spent an entire day deconstructing “Friend of My Youth,” diagramming its structure, its story within a story within a story, to try to understand how you pulled it off. When you won the Nobel Prize, I actually cried with joy. And all day, after the Nobel committee made the announcement, friends emailed and called and texted: “You must be so happy that Alice Munro won!” My adoration of you is so well documented that people were congratulating me on your win, as if you were a member of my family.

Annie Liontas on Aglaja Veteranyi



Our story sounds different every time my mother tells it.—Aglaja Veteranyi, Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta

My literary fathers tend to stick around.  The late Gabriel Garcia Marquez lived a long, wild life, even if it ended in unjust and heartbreaking—yet poetic, inevitable—dementia.  My literary mothers die untimely and tragic deaths.

Susan Harlan on Isak Dinesen



A Farm in Africa

(Isak Dinensen hangin’ with Marilyn Monroe and Carson McCullers)

I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I read Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa for the first time, but after that initial encounter, I kept coming back to it. Sometimes I just open to a page and read a passage, like some people read the Bible.

Dorothea Lasky on Many Literary Mothers, A Violin Case, And A Woman on the Subway


I first started writing poems when I was 7 because I couldn’t sleep and needed something to do and poems were the things I could write to, to an unnamed friend in the nighttime (sometimes her name was Molly, sometimes her name was Blue, sometimes she was people I knew). 

But when I was 14 and 15, I gave up on poetry. I don’t think it was that I had lost the word. It was as if I simply closed the door to the voice that spoke to me. I had severe depression and had lost the ability to care if I talked to my unnamed friend in the night anymore. I think she stopped caring about me, too.

Cynthia Cruz on Helene Cixous


Helene Cixous’ Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing

Let us go to the school of writing, where we’ll spend three school days initiating ourselves in the strange science of writing, which is a science of farewells. Of reunitings.

I will begin with:

This is what writing is. 

I’m not sure how I came across the book. Maybe I saw it displayed in a small bookshop in the city and fell in love with the cover. I’m not sure. It is as if, by magic, or, more probably, as though my own terrible need for guidance, for a mentor, conjured the book into my life. However it appeared, it appeared in my life around ten years ago, perhaps longer. In any case, Cixous’ voice, her words, the power of her intellect fused with her passion drew me in immediately. I began teaching from the book as soon as I found it.