I never met her, and yet she changed my life. I wrote to tell her, but this was back in 1978, and what I said then was only that her words had propelled me to change. Or at least to try.
I was 31. I had a husband, three kids, a very sick mother. I was busy. Too busy to pick up a dream I’d put on a back shelf years before.
But Dorothy Gilman’s words, which I read in McCall’s Magazine while waiting at a doctor’s office, compelled me to do this. If the doctor had been on time? If I’d picked up Newsweek instead? Would I have tried so hard? Would I have ever even dared to try?
The magazine had printed an excerpt from Gilman’s newest book, “A New Kind of Country.’’ And though the story was about her, a much older woman than I was back then (she had raised her children and was now taking time for herself), I felt a connection. And in a conversation she imagined she might have with God, I felt something more.
The imaginary conversation went something like this:
It is Judgment Day and God says to Dorothy, “So what did you do with the talents I gave you?’’
And Dorothy hems and haws and says, “Well, um, I was busy with my kids, taking them to hockey practice and baseball and busy with my husband having dinner parties and well, you know. I didn’t have time to use what you gave me.’’
And God looks at Dorothy and says not with anger, but with great love, “But when I gave you those talents, you didn’t have a husband and kids. It was just you. So what did you do with your gifts?’’
It was a lightbulb moment right there in the doctor’s office. What were my gifts and what had I done with them?
Every nun I ever had said I could write. They all gave me As. They called me a writer.
But when I went to a public college and my English teacher said I couldn’t write, I believed her. And I stopped writing, though I never stopped wanting to write.
Now here I was 31, with three little kids, thinking, yes, I would write. I would try. But where to start? What to do? How to begin?
I went to the library and read books about writing. I bought writing magazines. I filled notebooks full of other people’s writings, copying words and phrases and whole paragraphs that I loved. And then I read them out loud. I imitated. I experimented. I practiced.
My father said, “I paid for you to go to school to be a teacher.’’
My husband said, “You don’t get worse at something you do every day. Just keep trying.’’
The first thing I had published was an anti-nuclear power letter to the editor. Three sentences in the Stoughton Chronicle. I bought 10 copies.
What followed was two years and one wall of my sewing-room-turned-office-pasted-with-rejections-slips, some with encouraging notes scribbled at the bottom, my favorite from “Playboy’’ (“Dear Mrs. Beckham, Thanks for sending ‘Thy Neighbor’s Cheesecake.’ I thought it was funny and clever, but I think we’ve invested enough space on Talese lately. I’d better pass, but I wish you well in placing it elsewhere. . .’’).
Then I wrote a column that The Boston Globe published on the front page.
I wrote to Dorothy Gilman again, thanking her, telling her what her words had done for me. And again she answered. Ten years later, when I wrote and told her I was having a book published, she offered to write a blurb.
When I read last week that she died on Feb. 2 at the age of 88 of complications due to Alzheimer’s disease, I thought once again, how different my life would be if I had never read her. Listed among her many accomplishments were the children’s books she wrote and the novels for young adults and her 14-book Mrs. Pollifax series. But there was no mention of “A New Kind of Country.’’ It was never a big seller. It never won an award.
But it made me something I always wanted to be. Dorothy Gilman used her gifts and because of her I have used mine. I bet in their real conversation, God is pleased.