A Gift from the Past
Originally published December 21, 2016
The prospect of setting up a new desktop computer gave me an overwhelming sense of dread, and yet my old computer was eight years old. It was time. It was past time.
So a few weeks ago, Chris and I began to dismantle the electronic components on and around my desk. First to go was the old screen, which was perched atop a rectangular metal box with on/off buttons that controlled pretty much everything: the screen, the old computer tower, and my printer.
That old power box was a relic of an even earlier computer configuration, and had been on my desk so long it had left a series of small round “footprints” on its surface.
“Do you want to keep this thing?” Chris asked.
I shook my head He lifted it off the desk and underneath the box was a tiny universe of debris: fragments of bird feathers, crumpled post-it notes, mangled paperclips, disgusting fluffs of dust and dog hair.
And one note card.
It featured a pen and ink drawing of a thatched-roof cottage nestled into a rocky hillside. I opened the card. It was from my old friend and writing mentor Dorothy Nafus Morrison. The card was a voice from my writing past.
Accomplished, Experienced, and Prestigious
I first met Dorothy when I was invited to join an exclusive critique group back in 1996. The group met just once a month—but all day, from mid-morning until late afternoon. Everyone in the group was a published writer—or had a book scheduled for publication. Even among such an accomplished group, Dorothy was one of its most experienced and prestigious members.
She had published several respected books for young readers, including a series of short biographies about key historical figures in the Pacific Northwest. And she was working on what promised to be a definitive biography of Dr. John McLoughlin.
Dorothy had a finely tuned critical ear for major structural problems in a manuscript as well as for small but strategic grammatical errors. Her criticisms were always polite but firm and specific. She didn’t offer praise unless she felt the writing merited it. Her own manuscripts were polished, vivid, and engaging, even when she was writing about academic topics. The chapters she shared from her McLoughlin manuscript—and eventually the finished book itself—helped shape my own approach to Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writing Life. But back in the late 1990s, I found this group challenging and sometimes intimidating. What was I doing among such a distinguished group? Yet I persevered.
At monthly critique group meetings, I shared sections of the manuscript that would go on to become A Voice from the Border. After hearing me read a Thanksgiving scene set in November 1861, Dorothy gently reminded me that Thanksgiving wasn’t a recognized national holiday until 1863, and when I struggled through the falling action of the book, she suggested The Story of the Guard: A Chronicle of the War, an illuminating source that helped me plot a more convincing ending. A Voice from the Border went on to win an Oregon Book Award and become Mark Twain and Shaara Awards finalists. I’ve always believed I shared those awards with Dorothy and the rest of that critique group. Their advice strengthened the book and taught me essential lessons about the writing process.
Which brings me back to that notecard….
Dorothy sent it to me in 1998, just after A Voice from the Border was published.
The Best Kind of Praise
The note was short but full of the best kind of praise for the book—the kind that comes from a discriminating reader. She didn’t throw around empty adjectives; she identified specific aspects of the book she admired. Her praise was so generous that she didn’t mention the sections in the book that had benefited directly from her editorial suggestions.
To be honest, however, I don’t remember exactly how I felt when I first read Dorothy’s note all those years ago—probably relief that she had liked the book and delight that she had written to tell me so. But I’m sure I viewed her note as a gift from an extraordinary writer and friend.
Dorothy’s book, Outpost: John McLoughlin and the Far Northwest, was published in 1999, when Dorothy was in her late 80s, and continues to be the definitive biography on McLoughlin all these years later. The all-day critique group disbanded in the early 2000s, but I was invited to join another critique group, which also included Dorothy. She continued to write and attend critique group meetings until shortly before her death in 2011. She was an inspiration.
A Word of Encouragement
So how did such an encouraging and precious note come to be abandoned under an metal power box on my desk for almost twenty years?
I have no idea. It’s not like me to be careless with treasured correspondence. But it resurfaced at just the right moment.
I’ve been struggling to finish a new Civil War novel, worried that historical fiction isn’t relevant anymore, and that even if it still is, I’m not equal to the task, that the book is too big for me. Yet here’s Dorothy’s voice, reminding me that I know how to “bring an era to life,” to create “compelling characters,” to write a satisfying story with a “satisfying ending.” I’ve done it before; I can do it again. I simply have to persevere, as Dorothy always did. Her message is a gift from my past for my future.
Her rediscovered note also reminds me how important it is to praise the work we admire from friends and colleagues. Far too often we’re vocal in our criticism, but silent in our praise. Yet a word of encouragement at just the right moment can make all the difference—today, tomorrow, or perhaps well into the next decade and beyond.
So when it’s appropriate, add a line of praise to your holiday cards this year and in emails, text messages, and the occasional handwritten note throughout 2017. It’s a very simple yet profound way to nurture and encourage creativity. In times like these, we need more kindness, generosity, and artistry.
Happy holidays, everyone.