A Nostalgic Visit to Stanford, May, 2012
May 15th, 2012 | Blog, Musings/Reminiscences, Stanford, Wallace Stegner | 8 Comments
I just got back from a wonderful week in California, taking a trip down memory lane as part of celebrating (and taking the sting out of) my 65th birthday.
I’ve been back to Palo Alto and Stanford a number of times since I moved away in the fall of 1974. But there was something special about returning to the scene of my youth just as I was turning 65. I went to Stanford right after I graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1969, as a twenty-two year old Stegner Fellow, got my Master’s (MFA, though it wasn’t called that then) there, and then taught for three years as a Jones Lecturer in creative writing. I spent five formative years at Stanford trying to develop as a writer—an effort that continues forty years later. You’d think I’d have the hang of it by now. Anyway, Stanford was so important to me, and so good for me and to me.
How affluent and privileged Stanford looked. The whole place seemed embossed with gold! It’s got to be one of the most beautiful campuses anywhere in the world. The center piece is Memorial Church, a Renaissance style church built in 1903 by the Stanford family in memory of their son, Leland Stanford Junior, who died of typhoid fever at the age of 15 in Florence, Italy. Study on that heartbreak for a moment. The large mosaic on the church’s façade appears inlaid with gold. The central quad is composed of buff sandstone buildings with open arches and red tile roofs in California mission style, creating a sense of serenity and grace. Since I was there, the campus has expanded exponentially, with more and more buildings going up, impressive, state of the art structures around the edges of the original campus. But there are still great open, green spaces with groves of shaggy, shedding eucalyptus trees. Everything is lush and landscaped with native flora, plants and trees that thrive in that benevolent climate. It feels like the Garden of Eden, North California style.
Of course this part of California, Palo Alto and the surrounding communities of Los Altos Hills and Woodside, has a golden feel to it. I don’t think there is a more beautiful landscape in the world than the foothills directly behind the campus, gentle swells that bring to mine the human body, breasts and buttocks in particular, as if you’re viewing a monumental, living work of art based on the human form. In May the foothills are green, punctuated here and there with graceful, craggy live oaks. Beyond the foothills lie the more rugged low mountains of La Honda where Ken Keasey and his band of Merry Pranksters hung out. Beyond that, Half Moon Bay and the Pacific Ocean.
The gold feel also has to do with Silicon Valley, where people are making or have made more money than most people can imagine. These days it’s impossible to live in Palo Alto unless you bought a house early, or are now very wealthy. My friend Susan had the sense and wherewithal to buy a bungalow on Amherst Street for $70,000 back in the mid-seventies. It’s surely worth well over a million now. It’s right across the street from Mark Zukerberg’s former house. Facebook was right at the end of Amherst Street, much to Susan’s dismay. Traffic. But according to Susan, Mark is a nice guy. His house, though large, was by no means ostentatious. He doesn’t care about those kind of things, apparently. His yapping dog bothered Susan when it was in the front yard, so she’d cross the street to tell him and he’d take care of it, at least temporarily. I realize that Mark Zukerberg is just another dude in the ‘hood. But I admit I listened with undue fascination to the story of Mark’s barking dog. Mark Zuckerberg lived directly across the street! That was his house! Just this week I read about Mark courting investors on Wall Street while wearing a hoodie. Hoodiegate, the news is calling it.
The temperature last week was a perfect 75, not a cloud in the bright, blue sky. There was a peaceful, laid-back feel to the campus, with students riding bikes, going about in shorts, brainy as hell no doubt, but seemingly without a care in the world. I remembered well the astonished feeling of having been anointed, one of the chosen, that I enjoyed when I was a part of Stanford. I always said it raised my IQ ten points just to be there. More than any other place I’ve experienced, it felt as if Stanford had the largess, once you were one of their own, to take good care of you. Stanford supported me, absolutely, from the initial $3,000 Stegner Fellowship (which was enough money to live on for a year back then, along with food stamps) to funding my Master’s and then providing me a part-time teaching job. I spent five years at Stanford and never paid the university for anything related to my time there. Now it seems unbelievable, an incredible gift.
I realize I’m looking back on this period of my youth through the golden glow of nostalgia. But walking around campus last week, I felt nostalgic for the time and place, and the young woman I had been. I arrived in the fall of ’74 driving a new Chevy Nova I had bought with the $3,000 I had won from a writing contest sponsored by the Book of the Month Club. I rented a tiny efficiency on Cowper Street at the far end of University Avenue, decorating it with a collection of hats. Every school day I’d walk down University Avenue and along Palm Drive, the long entrance into campus, with the view of the church and foothills before me.
At twenty-two I didn’t know much about writing. But I was determined to be a writer. Writing had come easily to me at UNC, but at Stanford my real education began. I understood how little I knew, and how desire will only take you so far.
We Stegner Fellows met in a workshop with Wallace Stegner that first year. (I’ve previously posted about Mr. Stegner on July 6, 2011.) I remember being afraid, intimidated, shy, inadequate to what I felt was expected of me. Now I see that nothing in particular was expected of me. Any pressure was internal, but that’s the most potent kind. Ten to fifteen of us were in the program at any given time. We socialized a lot, making lifelong friends in some instances. We were all eager, ambitious and talented to various degrees. It was the early 70s, the Sexual Revolution in full swing along with the second wave of the Women’s movement. My passion for feminism was matched only by my obsession with men, love and sex, in no particular order.
Besides me, the other Stegner Fellows in fiction in ’69-’70 were D.R. MacDonald, a dear friend who has published four books with HarperCollins Canada set in Nova Scotia, with a fifth due out this fall; Judith Rascoe, who became a successful screen writer in Hollywood; and a fellow named Steve whom I know nothing about now. He had twin baby boys that year we were Fellows, something that seemed contrary to the writing life to me. I’ve published two books; I had thought it would be more. Why they picked us four I have no idea. They saw something in us and were willing to take a chance. Kind of like buying a lottery ticket. Some of us would pay off more than others. Over the years a lot of Fellows have paid off, so it isn’t completely random. Now Stanford gives 10 two-year fellowships, five in fiction, five in poetry. The stipend for each academic year is $26,00. Probably the equivalent now, in Palo Alto, of the $3,000 I received. I hear they get 1500 applications a year.
The writer from my Stanford years that became the most successful is Scott Turow. He was an Edith Mirrielees Fellow in creative writing from 1970-72. The Mirrielees was slightly less prestigious and less money than the Stegner, which, given Scott’s success, just goes to show. He also taught as a Jones Lecturer, but moved on to attend Harvard Law, where he wrote One L, a fine memoir about being a first year law student, and then the phenomenal best seller Presumed Innocent. He’s continued to have a distinguished law practice and to write popular, respected novels that straddle the difficult fence between the commercial and the literary.
A woman I knew slightly during those years, Stephanie Vaughn, was married to an English graduate student, and we, or at least I, thought of her as a wife. Not a writer. We were the ones in the Stanford writing program, after all, we were the anointed ones. Then suddenly out of the blue Stephanie published a short story in The New Yorker. We didn’t even know she wrote. What a sweet comeuppance. She went on to publish a terrific book of short stories, Sweet Talk, which is about to be reissued in paperback. She’s currently a professor of creative writing at Cornell.
You just never know.
Talent is a mysterious thing, to say the least. I’ve thought about talent a lot. I’ve pondered who succeeds as a writer and who doesn’t, and what makes the difference.
You can give any number of reasons: IQ, preferably high though that doesn’t always appear to be the decisive factor; talent, that innate gift of sensibility, style, language, and a sense of art; ambition, which drives you, keeping you at it through thick and thin; confidence, though I hardly know any writers who have it, writers being mostly anxious, insecure folk; love of craft perhaps, the desire to make something beautiful or funny or original; a distinctive voice or subject matter maybe; maybe finding what is uniquely yours to say; wanting to be praised or loved. Luck and timing. Doggedness. Maybe it helps a bit to be able to promote oneself, to have a certain savvy or charisma. Even good looks.
Ineffable, all of it.
There is no one key.
There are many gates to the city.
In my next post, I’ll report on a Q and A session with the British writer Martin Amis, which we stumbled upon when we wandered into the Stanford creative writing department. I found him rather interesting, and I think you will too. One of his riffs was on the aging writer – right up my alley….