Six Questions in Search of an Answer

Virginia Euwer Wolff
Virginia Euwer Wolff
(photo: Sonya Sones)

There’s always the chance that any of us has settled for the wrong word.  In working on a piece of fiction or anything else, I have to listen quietly for the right one. An attempt at deep tissue massage of the mind. The idiosyncratic fluency that our writing demands is available to us; often it’s just hiding behind a veil, waiting to be of use.   

From my childhood: In our somber, widowed household (my father had died when I was 5 and my brother was 7), we heard the Metropolitan Opera on our battery-operated radio on Saturdays. One of my mother’s favorite operatic sopranos was Lily Pons. As a little kid I heard it as “Lily Ponds.”  My misinterpretation of the singer’s name produced a fusion of water and music, silky, flowing, mysterious, made of harmonies embodied in a giant flower floating inside an orchestra, as torrents of opera sang to us out of the radio. I had no language for such a thing. Probably still don’t.

Thousands of those misunderstandings punctuated my childhood; I’m still straightening some of them out. 

I didn’t learn the “belly button” or “got up on the wrong side of the bed” kinds of idioms till I went to school. The vocabulary of our farming community came to me courtesy of my classmates and their families. “Liar, liar, pants on fire” didn’t reach us in the Pacific Northwest of my youth; when I heard it first as an adult, I found it mischievous, noisy, and adorably silly. I’m blessed and constrained by my automatic mental video version of metaphors.  

Poetry and its caloric energy live in every room in my my house; the poetry bookcase has needed structural repairs. And the world contains zillions of poems I don’t know, many of them being composed this very minute. At times I’ve worked at memorizing poetry; like all muscles, it must be used or it collapses.  My human mentor is Ashley Bryan, who can quote hundreds of poems from memory as easily as other persons can recite NFL statistics for decades back. I thank him for his influence. 

Yes, I revise and revise and question and nearly delete and then think better of it, and revise again and consider that embracing ambivalence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I took piano lessons for only about a year. I was 7. At age 8, naïvely acquainted with the middle octaves of the keyboard, I switched to violin lessons. Mostly because of passion for its sound, which I’d heard in a couple of concerts, thanks to our mother, who seized every opportunity to expand our childhood world. Something about looking down from the balcony at glaring stage lights and a throng of violins in many sizes, from small to huge.  Somebody conducting with a white stick, and ladies in long dresses and men in dressy suits, stroking and blowing and pounding—from high piccolo to lowest timpani—gorgeous melodies from a chorus of instruments on a shining stage, sweeping all the way up to our top rows and dazzling us. 

I had no idea that the violin would be such a daunting instrument. But tenacity runs in my family. 

I owe it all to my mother. Widowed in wartime, and suddenly learning to run our fruit ranch, with food rationing, gas rationing, no electricity, she   made sure I got to my violin lessons, 20 miles down curvy roads, often snowy. By age eleven I was let into the children’s orchestra (those 40-mile round trips), an exhilarating turning point. I played on, including in my college orchestra with a woman conductor, and then—after a terrible lapse of nearly 15 years–in volunteer orchestras for most of my adult life. And in quintets, quartets, trios, all amateur except for a few weddings and parties that we musicians were paid for.  I still play chamber music on a modest scale, including quartets on my front porch during the pandemic.

I still believe that making music in groups is just about the most fun to be had. Pushing us to do it better, pulling us along in its massive ebb and flow.

Oh: And my orchardist mother also played the organ for church, served on the local irrigation board, worked for the PTA, took us traveling across the USA by train, twice, making sure we saw the Empire State Building and our first Broadway show (Oklahoma!) before I was nine years old. She opened and ran an antique shop near the pear orchard, she saw us through our uneasy teenage years, got us educated; and she bravely held Alzheimer’s at bay till she couldn’t anymore.  

And I’ve never been sure of the connection between the music I’m privileged to play and the writing I’m privileged to do. Something about rhythm, maybe? But a solid lesson from music and my mother, for sure: Tenacity will get me there; sloth won’t. Only one book of mine, The Mozart Season, has music at its core.

An intriguing question. Each generation transforms notions such as “forever,” “community,” “spectrum,” “cool.” As kids work at decoding the adult world, shock and pathos and awe keep emerging. Our newest generation has taught us: online toxicity, code-switching, unfriend, cancel culture, cisgender, TikTok. Grave and intimate concerns that my generation was terrified to mention aloud are now cast broadly through social media with thousands of followers. Older generations gasp in surprise and get free aerobic exercise from it. Today’s teens also rejuvenate us: their endurance, their impatient commitment to mending the social injustice that has assaulted them so viciously, their dedication to the urgency of healing the agony of climate crime on this planet that they didn’t ask to be born on. 

Their forebears had to learn to spell “aeroplane.” The cultural pendulum sometimes seems so slow. And then we find that it has already swung. Endlessly fascinating.

At this time I’m writing about teens in the 1860s, the 1960s, the 21st century. Listening closely for their voices keeps my neurotransmitters jumping.

I’m a fraidy-cat (an idiom of the 1920s) about winter driving on ice, about high precipices, about swimming in an ocean current, about playing solos in front of a crowd. But somehow there’s a small bit of courage deep down in my belly? That’s one. Here’s two: In nearly all my years of writing, I’ve hidden my work away, never asking anyone’s permission or approval until my editor saw what I’d been doing. And by the time I’ve had a drafted and re-drafted and re-drafted story, it’s usually been too late to turn back. And here’s three: A writing advisor once preached, “You must up the ante with every story you write.” I try. 

Only recently have I joined a writers’ critique group. 

And that part I said earlier, about angels, was terribly arrogant. I wish I hadn’t said it. 

I’m a morning person. Coming from a farming family, we hadn’t much choice. Morning noises that I now remember with love: tractors, sprinklers, milk pail clinking against the back door. And in winter, a single tractor with snow blade scraping down to ice, breaking trail to the woodshed and the barn. 

I’ve written at different desks and tables in different time zones. For decades I’ve worked with classical music in the background, but sometimes silence feels more forgiving. At my borrowed desk now, I gaze at white pine, oaks, maples, and Virginia creeper, I admire birds at the feeder, and in winter I get to watch deepening snow outside the windows of the appallingly cluttered room where I work. My work day is nine to five, but with lots of short breaks. I plunk on the inherited family piano, knowing how lucky I am that it lives with me. I try to catch up on thank-you notes and sympathy notes, I look at the proliferating to-do lists, I go outside and breathe the fragrances. I return to the computer and the narrative problem at hand, feeling glad that the things that used to worry the socks off me don’t really do that anymore. Decades ago, I took eight months to find and name the narrator of a book, while I was writing the story around those absences. The wait was worth it. Now, if such a hidden story component eludes me for a couple of years, I know it’ll arrive eventually. I’m the slowest kids’ author in the USA; that is, I’m not aware that anyone has challenged me for the distinction.

And yes, I eat and drink as I work, and occasionally blow crumbs from the keyboard.

We are so absolutely lucky to have such things as books in our post-Gutenberg world. I read a mix, as so many others do. Poetry, criticism, novels, short stories. I’m always behind in history and science, and try in vain to catch up. Every room in my home has bookmarks sticking out from between pages. I’m a painfully slow reader; I’ve never succeeded in breaking the habit of reading every word. I love wordless picture books, I love art books, I love alphabetized bookshelves. During the pandemic I’ve attended lots of poetry readings on Zoom. They’re stirring, distressing, provocative. No, I don’t often read a book because some force is causing me to feel I should. But that was why I read War and Peace and Paradise Lost, back in the days when I tried to read a winter classic each year. Each was a gloriously nutritious adventure and took me much longer than a winter to get through. I still hear the resonant voices of Pierre, Natasha, Satan and their associates. 

Much of what I read is for research. Not long ago a librarian asked me, “Now, you’re the one who homeschools?” “No,” I smiled, and took the eclectic pile from her, with thanks. May we all thank our librarians, and may they live long and prosper. 

Virginia Euwer Wolff
Virginia Euwer Wolff
(photo: Sonya Sones)