I grew up poor. My mother was incredible and well educated, but it was just the two of us, and circumstances were such that we were barely scraping by. Mom, however, believed that when there was some money, no matter how little, you should do something nice for yourself. Sometimes all my mother could afford was a Happy Meal. Sometimes our “something nice” was free, for example, she’d figure out the day at an art museum when we didn’t have to pay.
Of course, I am not a little girl anymore and I’m in a better financial place. I’m still frugal, though. But one day, I was at a friend’s house. She made me some scrambled eggs. They were just simple, plain eggs, but they were so fresh and buttery, the way eggs tasted when I was a kid and spent time with my grandparents in rural New Jersey. My friend had found them at a farmers’ market nearby, from a woman I started calling the Egg Lady. A dozen large eggs cost $5, which is really just ridiculous. But I paid it, and I keep paying it. Every once in while it’s okay to forgo the practical in favor of the joyful and delicious, it’s okay to allow yourself that moment of pleasure.
5. The Choice to Hear that Brutal Truth
At the age of 36, I applied to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and, to my complete surprise, I was accepted. At the time, I was working on a novel that was really a thinly disguised memoir. My first instructor was Marilynne Robinson, a writer whom I hold in the greatest esteem.
In the workshop, you bring in a portion of your manuscript and everyone discusses it. You’re not allowed to speak. You simply take notes. As my classmates reviewed my pages, they were relatively gentle with me. At the end of the class, there was a long silence, and finally Marilynne spoke. “Well,” she said. “It is true that the characters are not sufficiently complex to the situation in which you have placed them.”
To someone who’s not a writer, her comment probably doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it basically means that your characters are a mess—and if your characters are a mess, then you have nothing. It was devastating. I don’t know how I got through the rest of the class. I went home and cried for days and days, thinking “What am I doing here? I can’t write. I am a sham and a fraud.” After a few weeks, I got myself together. Marilynne was absolutely and utterly right. My characters lacked depth. I had to buckle down and face the two options: weep and move back home, or accept an upsetting dose of reality and continue with the business of trying to be a writer. Just about everyone encounters this kind of decision sooner or later: to put themselves in a position where they may have to confront the news they least want to hear. But once I’d done it—and mourned the loss of my first flawed efforts—I began The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.
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