–Mildred James

My first thought is how on earth did you do all this? But my real question comes from my most valued lifetime friendship: did your mother play a role in your becoming a writer?

—Mildred James, Crawfordsville, Indiana

I laughed when I read the first part of your question, Aunt Mildred (and you long ago earned that title by being such a good and dear friend), but it also made me feel pleased. Having started writing at a time when writers like Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, and John Gardner were producing extraordinary amounts of work, I’ve always had a nagging feeling that my years of writing and rewriting have produced less work than they should have. Though I don’t feel that way as much now, your thought is still a welcome one.

In terms of your more serious question, the answer is yes. I would not be a writer if it had not been for my mother. The most direct connection may be that she taught English and, as a careful writer herself, was an important writing teacher for me as I grew up. But I have a more impressionistic answer for this question. As you know, books and music were the most important things in my mother’s life besides family and friends. She definitely passed those passions on to me. In fact, as a child and even a teenager, I sometimes wondered if I could be a concert pianist since I had a good ear and some innate talent and technical facility, and I enjoyed playing. What I didn’t have was the temperament for the kind of public performance that depends, essentially, on physical calm. I’m also quite sure I could not have put in the amount of daily practice required to perform at a high level as a pianist. Uncoding someone else’s work and trying to write it into your own mental and physical DNA requires a sort of intensity that’s different from mine. (And in thinking more about it, I realize that it requires a different kind of creativity, the ability to not only learn something inside and out but to process it emotionally so it is new at each performance.) But I did manage an hour of practice each day because of the habits my mother instilled in me—somewhat against my nature. She expected me to practice every day. I learned to expect it of myself.

I’m not someone who believes writers have to write every day as if it’s some sort of daily Office. I think the mind needs time off for good behavior and as a restorative and because it’s so good at sorting out problems when we’re not paying attention to them. Yet I can almost live at my desk when I need to, and I think there are two reasons for that: writing always takes me to new things I can make up myself, and I have this habit I learned early from my mother of returning consistently to work.

She had a light hand, along with her gentleness, but she was always a strong influence on me. I can think of two examples that feel the most vivid. When I was five, at Halloween, we moved from Missouri to Ohio. I had started kindergarten, but Kingston, Ohio didn’t have a kindergarten. It was pretty devastating to be demoted from being a school child to a little girl at home. My mother made it an intentional project that we have school together. She read to me and, without my realizing it, gave me the sort of reading readiness program that meant I walked into first grade as a non-reader and, by the second day, could read entire books. She gave me regular piano lessons and set a time for my daily practice. I learned simple chores that made me feel grown up.  I ironed the decorative hand towels that had been her wedding gifts and all of my father’s handkerchiefs; I learned how to sew a seam and a hem. Most importantly, my mother was mine for the whole day.

That is the year I always think of when I think about her. It was all about learning new things and about books and the music that became part of how I hear the world. But the other example is something I really only discovered when I was working on Suite Harmonic. During their New Harmony years, the Harmonists had a very spare way of furnishing homes. My mother, whose mother grew up in New Harmony, had a similar style—clean with very little excess. When I first visited New Harmony, it occurred to me that something of the town’s physical presence must have become part of my grandmother and she must have passed it on to my mother. And then I made the more obvious connection, that that small town, with its large aspirations regarding learning and music, helped shape both of them and, in turn, me. I have always known that what my mother taught me helped me dream the working dream of a writer. I now suspect that New Harmony had a role, too.

Above, Mildred celebrates her 100 years with fireworks.


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