I was a middle school teacher in the spring of 1999 the first time I heard Bret Lott's name. It was the end of a day near the end of my third year of teaching and I was going to be married in the summer. I was driving home, headed down highway 18 in Lenoir, North Carolina, crawling through a string of stoplights. A few furniture factory plants, a Little Caesars. An outdoor sunglasses vendor.
Go beyond the call, the radio announcer said. It was a Christian station and this was his bit. His job was to spotlight a believer impacting his community with an outreach of some magnitude or to call attention to a Christian making news in the secular world. He particularly liked to mention Christian sightings in the entertainment industry. Billy Baldwin holding Bible studies in his trailer. An eighties sitcom star who now played a Christian superhero. Kirk Cameron. One of the nurses on ER. And today, Bret Lott, an outspoken believer who wrote literary fiction and whose novel Jewel had just been selected for Oprah's book club. In his memoir Before We Get Started, Lott later referred to Oprah as the Force. Of course, this was going to change everything for him, his book, his career.
And for me: I'm not sure I'd even heard the term literary as a genre used before. I knew I liked John Irving. Margaret Atwood. I knew I didn't like Christian fiction as a genre. I'd been frustrated with how cut-and-dried what I'd read of it made the Christian life and its struggles seem. I knew, even back then--me, young and teacherly, living in a tiny apartment on top of a graveled hill, in my last days of laundromats and Lean Cuisine dinners--that life of any philosophical stripe is gloriously complicated.
I read Jewel on my honeymoon and enrolled in a creative writing class the following spring. By the fall of 2001, I'd quit my job and was checking out MFA programs. My friend Sheryl Monks likens the call to write to Joseph Campbell's notion of the hero's journey: a mentor steps up, wiggles a finger. Come. I've yet to meet Bret Lott in person, but I've accepted his invitation all the same. I've pursued him the way every aspiring writer should seek the creator of work that inspires us: I've read his books. He taught me voice and how the lyric quality of really good prose can elevate and crystallize any scene, no matter how domestic, how ordinary at first glance. A woman rises from bed on a morning in 1943 and knows she's not of the "rightful age" to bear children and already, I know this woman. Already, I'm in her world and I'm worried for her and inspired by her, and at the same moment, I'm the writer, reading to learn. It's Bret Lott, wiggling his finger. Come, he says.
I was finishing up my MFA when he became the editor of The Southern Review, and for the next couple of years, I submitted regularly. I got my first "ink" from TSR: a scrawled few words on the bottom of the rejection slip: much to admire. A few submissions later, and I had it, not an acceptance, but a hand-written rejection from the man himself: Dear Ms. Woodring--The writing in this is wonderful, but I grew impatient with the disparate pieces the story tried to juggle--Keep us in mind! He signed it; here was proof that finally, finally, I'd made contact. He had read my work.
I kept going. Years later, after the publication of my first novel and my story collection, I submitted a story to a literary magazine contest he was judging. It was a story I'd actually written years ago, when I was full-swing in my Bret Lott phase, when the rhythm of his prose beat through my thoughts constantly. I revised it a bit, and was beyond thrilled to learn a few months later that Lott had selected my story as the winning entry. He wrote of my story, "it is a quiet cameo, a beautifully rendered portrait..."
This happened in 2009, ten years after that spring afternoon when the sunlight filled my car and the radio guy implored me to go beyond the call.
So, what about you? Who is your writing mentor? Have you met him or her? Tell me how his/her work has played a part in calling you to this writer's journey. Any good stalking stories?
(November, 2011: update.)