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Posts Tagged ‘Ernest Gaines’

“In the beginning, I tried to be a more cosmopolitan writer, but I realized that I was a country boy, and I had to deal with things I knew about and where I came from.”
Ernest Gaines

The odds from the start were greatly against Ernest Gaines becoming the novelist Ernest Gaines. Or the one whose work would one day be turned into a landmark TV movie that would win nine Emmys.

Imagine being born in Oscar, Louisiana during the depression. To poor black parents who were sharecroppers. And at the age six, instead of going to school, you began working in the fields picking cotton, onions, or Irish potatoes for 50 cents a day. As hard as that is to imagine, I’m sure it was a harder life for Gaines to live.

But Gaines, who died yesterday at age 86, had couple of things in his favor—and one important side hustle. His crippled aunt never walked but that didn’t stop her from cooking, cleaning, and being a strong displinarian to a houseful of kids. She was the main inspiration and guiding force in his childhood—all the more important after his parents life him behind after World War II to seek employment in California.

And in a church they used as a schoolroom five months of the year in the off-harvest season, Gaines learned to read and write. That gave him the opportunity to start his side hustle—his first writing gig. He wrote letters for the elderly people at five cents a pop. And because the people wanted him to fill the front and back of the paper, it gave him an opportunity to use some creativity beyond talking about the weather. And a writer was born. (Though he didn’t acknowlege that until many years later.)

At 15, he would join his parents in Vallejo, California just north of San Francisco. His literary world greatly expanded when he went into a library for a first time in his life. He read a wide variety of writers from around the world, and then attended Solano Community College northeast of Vallejo. That led to an opportunity to study at San Francisco State University. Two of his stories were published in the student library magazine and that opened doors for him to study at Stanford University with Wallace Stegner. 

At this point he was a long way from Oscar, Louisiana. But he would return to Oscar frequently for inspiration. He may have written in California, but the subjects were usually the people and the land of the rural South.

Two of his best knows novels are A Lesson Before Dying and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Both were turned into TV movies, but it was Jane Pittman that was a cultural phenomena in 1974— a few years before the miniseries Roots.

It’s the story of one woman’s journey from slavey to the Civil Rights movement. Though I was 12-13 when the movie came out, I remember clearly all the promotional material released about Cicely Tyson playing both the young and 110-year-old Pittman. Her transformation was so well received that she won two Emmys (Actress of the Year and Best Lead in a Drama). In total it won nine Emmys including John Korty’s direction and Tracy Keenan Wynn’s adaption.

My mentor and former professor Annye Refoe took a graduate class where Gaines made an appearance. I asked her what book of his she’d recommend and she said A Gathering of Old Men. That book was also adapted into a TV movie with the same title (by Charles Fuller) starring Louis Gossett Jr, Richard Widmark, and Holly Hunter.

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“Now that I look back on my career for the past forty-some years, I feel that I’m still writing those letters for those old people. Not only for the old, but the young as well. And not only for those I knew as a child, but for those who lived many generations before. They were not given a chance to read and write, and I was. But without their voices, had I not sat on that porch and wrote letters 55 years ago, I’m certain that I would not be sitting here tonight. After all, what else what I had to write about?”
Ernest Gaines
American Academy of Achievement summit  (heard on the What it takes podcast)

Just another example of what can rise up from unlikely places.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“I really do believe that chance favours a prepared mind. Wallace Stegner, who was one of my teachers when I was at Stanford, preached that writing a novel is not something that can be done in a sprint. That it’s a marathon. You have to pace yourself. He himself wrote two pages every day and gave himself a day off at Christmas. His argument was at the end of a year, no matter what, you’d got 700 pages and that there’s got to be something worth keeping.”
Scott Turow
Writer of Presumed Innocent interview with Robert McCrum

“Much of Stegner’s writing grew out of his itinerant upbringing, a self-described ‘wandering childhood’ that took him to North Dakota, Washington, Saskatchewan, Montana, Utah, Nevada, and California.”
Honor Jones and Andrew Shelden
Wallace Stegner inVQR


Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972 (Angle of Repose) and has been called “The Dean of Western Writers.”  Though born on a farm in Iowa (and earned his Master’s and Doctorate degrees at the Iowa Writers Workshop) he really was a man of the country having lived in 20 different places (including Canada).

He taught at the University of Utah (where he did his undergraduate work), the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin and Harvard University before being the founder of the creative writing program at Stanford University. His students over the years included Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), Thomas McGuane (Ninety-Two in the Shade), Ernest Gaines (A Lesson Before Dying),  Wendell Berry (The Unsettling of America), and Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).

Here is part of Stegner’s advice to a talented writer who had studied with him:

“I imagine you will always be pinched for money, for time, for a place to work. But I think you will do it. And believe me, it is not a new problem. You are in good company…Your touch is the uncommon touch; you will speak only to the thoughtful reader. And more times than once you will ask yourself whether such readers really exist at all and why you should go on projecting your words into silence like an old crazy actor playing the part of himself to an empty theater.”
Wallace Stegner
the Atlantic, To a Young Writer

And in case you are intimidated by Stegner’s academic pedigree, it may help you to know that Stegner spent part of his youth in an orphanage and once said that he didn’t grow up with any art, music (except for some folk music), or literature.  The only architecture around him was a grain elevator. In fact, he never saw a city of any kind until he was 12 years old. He once said, “Coming from nowhere. you have lots of places to go.”

In one talk, he also stressed the importance of having a sense of place and continuity, “You are members of a community—most of you. You are a members of a region, of a country, of a culture, of an ecology, a species, and if you find it as I do a ‘weed species,’ that isn’t any reason to belong to it less, or love it less, it’s only an excuse to mitigate its weediness.”

Robert Redford narrated the documentary Wallace Stegner: A Writer’s Life.

The Papers of Wallace Stegner can be found at the University of Iowa and are open for research.

*Back in the day, spending time in an orphanage didn’t always mean that your parents were dead, but perhaps they weren’t able to afford to raise and care for you properly. I’m not an expert on the subject, but I’m guessing that wasn’t too uncommon throughout the depression. By the way, orphanages find their way into stories because the place is so rich to explore from a perspective of the universal themes of home and belonging. And as I’ve pointed out before, orphans make for great protagonists. (See the post Orphan Characters.)

Scott W. Smith


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