Fiction’s Pull To The Blank Page


A beautiful little sister and a homely older one — Kathryn, Thelma.  1910.   An intrepid mother who wants freedom from a husband and the confining life of a wife.  They run away to Montana — beneficiaries of the homestead act of 1909 — leaving Vernon behind in Ohio to find a letter saying they are gone.  The girls are afraid, wonder what will become of them.   It’s winter and cold and they ride in the 3rd class car of the train, a coal fire in the center, around which passengers hover, trying to stay warm.  The mother, Glenna, though she doesn’t have money (only what she’s been able to steal from Vernon’s pockets), has a sense of class and finery.  She carries with her a harp (yes a big, beautiful harp that she can play like an angel).  She carries a trunk of summer dresses and an iron and ribbons for her daughters’ hair and they look impeccable, if cold, in white linen.  She carries too her own great grandmother’s China wedding bowl and Temple Notes to Shakespeare.  She’s a reader, a dreamer, ambitious and will not be trapped.  In Montana there are jobs for women and she wants to work, wants to earn money, wants to feel the power of providing for herself and her girls.  She loves men and loves to flirt and when the train gets stuck in a snow drift it is not long before she’s playing her harp for the gentlemen in first class, warm in a Pullman Sleeping Car with fine Scotch.


Glenna’s school house in Winston, Montana.  And the town covered in snow.

My grandmother, my great grandmother — snippets of story.  The frontier at a moment that welcomed women, offering opportunity.  (Montana would elect the first woman to the House of Representatives in 1914.)  Who were these women?  Of course, I knew my grandmother well.  I adored her, adored listening to her elaborate stories of our lineage.  I could imagine her as a little girl, learning the tales of where we came from, from the refined Glenna who refused to accept that her circumstances were what they were, that she wasn’t a queen or a duchess.  But it didn’t matter now because she had been and would be again.  Her life didn’t begin when she was born; it would not end when she died.  Rather, she was just one link in a miraculous continuum, that reached back to Germany and Scotland, that included men like Helmut von Keller, advisor to Bismark from Mechlenburg-Schwerin along the Baltic Sea and women like Mary Queen of Scots and the Royal Stewarts of Nairn — princes and duchesses and queens and the War of 1812 that brought some of her people to America where their children and children’s children became novelists (James Fenimore Cooper among them) and the first woman to go to college and fine painters of the human anatomy who stole cadavers from graves.  One started the Dole pineapple empire and another became the milliner for Granny Taft, William Howard Taft’s aunt.  They survived the Civil War.  They were fabulously wealthy and then lost it all in the various 19th century runs on banks.  From my grandmother’s telling, the lineage made perfect sense — her mother’s line (German), her father’s line (Scottish).  They were nobles both, cast on the shores of America by war and the great hope of something more.  Her details were precise, born it seemed to me, of a fierce imagination.  James von Slagle, her great great grandfather, came to America during the War of 1812 as a military advisor to Major General Andrew Jackson and saw to the training of rough, unschooled farmers, preparing them for battle against the Indians.  He led his troop in the battle of Horseshoe Bend on the shores of the Tallapoosa River in Alabama in 1814, a success that would make him a national hero.  In a picture of James von Slagle that my grandmother described, he had the finest mustache and the broad strength of an aristocrat, “Von,” she told me, “indicates noble birth.”

The stories were Glenna’s who died long before I was born, but who has lived in my imagination ever since I was a girl through the stories retold to me by my grandmother.  And now, finished with a fourth novel, there are days such as this, in which I begin to dream about writing a fifth novel.  1910 — the 20th century spreading out before Thelma and Kathryn and Glenna — the long road their lives will follow.

She wondered what would become of them — the novel could begin as the three head west on the train in winter, pioneers.  Who would these women be (alive in the continuum of their descendents) at the end of the 20th century, a century in which so much changed for women?  Here is where fiction starts for me: at the intersection of memory and imagination.


Glenna and Thelma posing on wooden horses during a long stopover in Saint Louis, on their way home to Ohio in 1914 for Christmas


Kathryn, the beautiful younger sister.

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Montana Cowgirl Becomes A Lady Of Quality


Speaking about fiction….  My grandmother comes to mind this morning.  She used to say, “If I don’t like something the way it happened, I just tell it as I would have preferred it to have happened.”  An impoverished cowgirl in Montana, she worked so that her little sister Kathryn could go to school.  Their mother left their father when they were six and four years old in 1910, heading from Ohio to Montana so that she could be an itinerant school teacher.  When my great grandmother, Glenna, went off to teach in remote corners of the state, she left Thelma (my grandmother) to take care of Kathryn.  When Thelma was eighteen without a highschool degree but eager to go to nursing school in the east, she rewrote the narrative as she would have preferred it to have been.  She changed her name to Kathryn and used her little sister’s degree and records for her application to the nursing school at Brooklyn Hospital.  She was accepted.  In New York, she transformed herself into “a lady of quality.”  In the picture here she’s about 85, driving still her Lincoln Continental with a gold nameplate on the dashboard that read: Mrs. Charles Mitchell Brown III.

(If you look closely at Grammy’s glasses, you can see my sister Laura McPhee with her camera taking the picture.)

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Tips For Applying To MFA Programs In Fiction

A student came to see me today to ask for advice on applying to MFA programs.  The season is approaching.  Applications are due starting in December.  Here is what I told my student:


1) Do your research.  Learn which program will suit you best.  Find out where the writers you admire teach.  (Most writers teach.)  But remember, a good writer does not necessarily make a great teacher.  So, be sure the program has other attractive attributes.   (A full scholarship is a good place to start.)  Also, just because a writer is listed on the faculty doesn’t mean he is.  Check course offerings to be sure.

2) It’s all about the writing sample.  A good program will care most about the work you submit—not about the GREs or grades from college or recommendations or fancy resumes.  Knock their socks off.   From the first sentence to the last, this should be the best possible example of your talent.  I also always tell my students, as I did the one who visited me today, that short is better.  An application may ask that you submit “up to 50 pages.”  DON’T!!  Unless they are brilliant, and even then I’d hold back.  Just think of the quantity of work they are receiving, most of it not very good.  A short, sharp, glittering story or two can easily  be enough to showcase your style and make them want you.

3) Recommendations: the application readers are curious just as we all are.  If you have the support of someone well-known it can make the reader perk up a bit, take a second look at the writing sample.  But also, a beautiful letter from your English professor or from an unknown writer you took a workshop with at some local venue can do the same.  In the end, it all goes back to the writing sample.

4) In your letter of application, be sure to say why you want to go to that program.  Let them know you’ve done your research.  Everyone likes to be flattered, genuinely.  If there is a particular writer you’re eager to study with, let the school know it with a thoughtful explanation.  But, again, be genuine.

5) And just to reiterate: spend 98% of your time on the work—draw us in swiftly and carry us along on the crest of your stunning prose.

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Archival photographs, stop time


My daughter Livia, 4 months old.  Maine, July 2000

My mother came to visit me today to hang family photographs taken over the years and that had been collecting in a pile in the corner of my dining room.  She’s a photographer, you see, as is my sister, Laura, so I have many pictures for the walls, all stunning—pictures they’ve taken and pictures my mother has restored that had belonged to an earlier generation.  We focused on black and white today.  The pictures included here are all printed on gelatin silver paper in my mother’s studio’s darkroom in Princeton, New Jersey. Since they’ve been archivally treated—washed, fixed, dried—they stand to last a long time. The life span of archival prints is actually not known.  Prints still exist, in excellent condition, from the 1870s when the gelatin silver process was first used.  Though my mother loves the ease and democracy of digital, in her work her preference is for film and archival prints so that the photos can last.


 Martha, 1966


My mother at the May Court Ball at Sweet Briar College, 1956

The dress was made by my grandmother from organdy, the flowers at the shoulders all hand-stitched.  Mom’s daughters (I won’t mention which ones) wore the dress to their black tie dances in the 1970s and destroyed the dress from too much dancing.


My maternal grandparents, Charles and Kathryn Brown III just before my parents’ wedding, an evening ceremony, March 16, 1957

Grammy, as I called her, grew up an impoverished cowgirl in Montana.  A big reader, she dreamed of marrying a blueblooded Bostonian who’d give her “an extra river water diamond” (a marketing term for superior quality) from Tiffany’s—romantic notions she’d learned about in stories and advertisements in The Saturday Evening Post.  She married a Bostonian, as it happened, Charlie Brown, heir to the Buster Brown shoe empire which was essentially defunct by the time she met him.  As a child, he was the model for the Buster Brown shoe boy.


My father with a toy dog, 1932

This is a photograph that my mother had restored.  The negative lost, she made a new negative from an original picture and then printed this copy archivally to preserve.


My Jasper, quite new but already smiling, 2004


With my father and stepmother and a few of all their children in Percy, New Hampshire, 1973

The wall, where these pictures now hang, tells a story: my parents as children, their marriage, my girlhood, their divorce, my children.  The story reaches back, will stretch forward, unfold on other walls—photographs preserving, stopping time.

Click here to visit the site of my mother, Pryde Brown


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Filmfatale–my sister’s new site for writing about movies


Here, on the wing of my mother’s divorce lawyer’s airplane, Jenny, in patent leather shoe boots (I’m wearing white knee socks, not sexy white patent-leather boots–at six years old, I hadn’t yet learned to compete) already looks like a femme fatale.  Jenny has always loved movies.  Throughout our childhood she’d stay up late watching the Million Dollar Movies, then the late late movies–illuminated in the blue glow of the television screen, our mother telling her repeatedly that it was time for bed.  But Jenny could outlast our mother–tired, she’d give up, falling asleep while Jenny finished watching All About Eve or The Best Years of Our Lives or whatever happened to be playing The Searchers, Stagecoach.  Jenny has written three novels and all of them, to some degree, have a noir element.  Movies, she knows, she loves.

Click here to visit her site

And check my “family” page for her books.

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A Big Question for aspiring writers: to get an MFA in Creative Writing or not? A few thoughts:


My students always want to know if it is worth it to spend all that money to get an MFA. Here are some thoughts which I share with them: When I was at Columbia University’s MFA Program in Fiction, the novelist Russell Banks spoke with our class and said that the MFA could be likened to an old-fashioned apprenticeship, one in which for two years the beginning writer is allowed to work at and develop her craft alongside others doing the same thing–like young sculptors in Bernini’s studio in 17th century Rome. It’s also a chance, Banks said, to buy yourself some time.

I have always loved this way of thinking about the MFA. You’re there to develop and grow your own talents, unimpeded by work and life, to explore your craft. This puts the onus on the writer, where it should be, not the program. Of course, the program you choose is important, but it will not make the writer. A writer writes and this is how the writer gets better. The MFA affords you that time while also surrounding you with other aspiring writers in the same position, colleagues you can share your work and concerns with.

Additionally, you study with writers who are devoting their lives to their work and through them you can be opened up to what inspired them and in turn be inspired yourself.  And know, you do not need to go into debt to get your MFA. There are many programs around the country that have full or partial scholarships, that offer teaching fellowships. It takes some research and of course a stunning application.

The most important thing to consider is if you’re ready. Are you ready to devote yourself to your work? Is this what you really want? Don’t believe the program will turn you into a writer. That is done by you and you alone. I loved Columbia, but there are any number of fine schools. Here are just a few:

Coumbia University’s MFA in Creative Writing

The Writer’s Workshop at The University of Iowa
(My husband, Mark Svenvold, went here for poetry and loved it, was a Teaching Writing Fellow.)

New York University’s MFA Program

Johns Hopkins MFA in Fiction and Poetry

Stanford University’s Stegner Fellowship
(Very difficult to be accepted, perhaps the most competitive and is not an MFA but if you get it, you don’t need an MFA!)

The New School’s MFA Program

The MFA Program at the University of Miami, Coral Gables
(I believe that if you’re accepted, you get a full scholarship.)

This is just the tip of the iceberg. A comprehensive list of MFA programs can be found at Poets and Writers.

Please don’t hesitate to ask me questions. I think about this subject all the time for my Hofstra students. By the way, as soon as Hofstra establishes its MFA program, of course I’d list it here.

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