In the summer of 1990, I attended a writer’s conference in Aspen, Colorado. I felt fortunate to have been accepted into a fiction workshop with one of my favorite writers, Jane Smiley. And it came at a time when I needed a lift. My first novel, TULKU, had come this close to being accepted by Little, Brown: I had rewritten it after feedback from an editor, and she advocated for it. But in early June, my agent called me to tell me they had turned it down. Not only that, but he didn’t know anywhere else to send it.
TULKU was dead. But there was much worse. Earlier that week, my father had died suddenly and unexpectedly at age 62.
So there I was in Aspen, fighting the sadness. I had a story to workshop about a young woman growing up in East Boston, which is where I practiced medicine at the time. The story was okay; it grew out of my attempts to understand a patient I reacted to in an instinctively negative way. The problem is that I’ve never really liked short stories, and fiction writing classes love short stories. They can get into the nitty gritty of style and theme without having to deal with lots of text. But okay.
I made friends. There was the young woman who got altitude sickness, another who wrote about her twisted, sadistic mother, another who wrote for some reason about auto glass. Jane Smiley was insightful, caught up in a love affair, and strangely remote. She told us she would never say whether or not she liked our work, because she had seen the negative effect a teacher could have on a student. One writer she knew of had had a twenty-year case of writer’s block after harsh words from a mentor.
When I met with Ms. Smiley for my one-on-one session, though, she did say one thing. I didn’t have the writing skill, she told me, to attack the kinds of themes I was addressing. I should start with something lighter, something simpler, as she had with her first horse novel.
I never touched the East Boston story again. My last day in Aspen, I took a silent journey. I rode up the gondola to the top of Aspen Mountain. So many times since childhood I had taken that trip in winter with my father. At the top we often paused for photos in the sunshine before finding our way down. He was a strong graceful skier. At times it seemed he could lead anyone anywhere. He made us forget our clumsiness, our hesitations.
I walked down the mountain, trying in my mind to transform the grass and rocks into the snow-covered slopes I knew so well. I remembered turns and falls, and I let grief wash through me along with the beauty of the mountainside. I thought of John Keats, worrying that he would never write all that was inside him in “When I have fears that I may cease to be.”
. . . then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
The next day I flew home to Boston. Soon, I started helping my stepmother establish the foundation we set up in my father’s memory. I worked on improving math and science education for American schoolchildren. I didn’t write fiction again for fifteen years.