My teacher, my friend

by Ed Davis on December 4, 2017

My dear friend Nancy Pinard recently passed away. She was the best writing teacher I ever had. I still “hear” one of the best pieces of advice she wrote on a piece of my fiction many years ago:   “Shh.”

And she was exactly right. When my characters feel tension, too often I crank up what they are feeling viscerally to such a fever pitch that the writing can become over-wrought to the point of unintended comedy. I did it just the other day and heard Nancy’s gentle hiss in my ear. I listened and pruned the purple prose, thereby increasing emotion.

When I tell people that being in a writing group with Nancy was the equivalent of earning an MFA, I mean it; she was a super-tough critic and I was the beneficiary of her excellent eye and ear. Although I was already an alumnus of what I’d thought was a tough writing group when I joined hers, Nancy was tougher—and she taught me the delicate art of being honest without being brutal. As a fiction workshop facilitator, I desperately need this skill; and while it’s questionable whether I ever mastered it, I definitely aspire to be as effective as Nancy was at giving “suggestions for improvement.”

Not only was she a great teacher but a great writer, too. I regret that Nancy never published that breakaway novel of women’s hardcover fiction she worked so hard to achieve. In her final decade, she wrote novels about Darwin and Einstein—from their wives’ point of view, I believe—and the excerpts I heard or read blew me away. It hurts me that they were never published in her lifetime. That the novels were worthy is, to me, a given. She was a consummate craftsman, tireless researcher and perfectionist. But from my own experience I know how hard it is to get the attention of ever-younger agents, editors and publishers. Is it total fantasy on my part to hope that her books might still be published, as when Helen Pancake fought hard to get her deceased son Breece D’J Pancakes stories successfully published back in the 1980s, adding significantly to Appalachian literature? I can dream, can’t I?

Nancy’s legacy is secure, though, even without those publications. She did publish two novels:  Shadow Dancing and Butterfly Soup, which I highly recommend. The former is the autobiographical novel Nancy was working on when she showed up in my fiction writing class at Sinclair Community College in the early 1990s. It quickly became evident she knew as much about fiction writing as I did; it would take a little longer, and the acquisition of some humility on my part, to admit she knew more than I did about writing. She must’ve known it herself. But that didn’t prevent her from continuing to take my class, generously sharing her editing skills with younger students struggling to learn our demanding art.

Eventually, she taught her own fiction writing classes at Sinclair, Antioch Writers’ Workshop, Mad Anthony Writers’ Workshops and the University of Dayton. We, her students, are fortunate indeed to have experienced her enthusiasm and expertise. But I got more, a lot more from Nancy Pinard. We shared a long literary friendship, hovering over what she called our “heart books”:  our heavily autobiographical first novels about family, identity and passion: hers for ballet, mine for rock and roll. She cried in my presence after firing the agent (and friend) who’d also published our two heart books. Nancy committed deeply to friendships and did not surrender them easily.

I should know. Though we no longer met regularly toward the end of her life, we were always glad to see each other when we crossed paths. And while I could work up some guilt about that if I let myself, the truth is our friendship was based on mutual literary neediness. Maybe her greatest lesson to me is how I can’t do this writing thing alone. She taught me how to find and give trust, to always “responsibly report,” as she’d say when delivering less than good news about my latest story. I love her for that; I wish I were still receiving those reports—and yet, as long as I hear that whispered “shh,” I am.

P.S.

Speaking of passion, I’ve had a so-far forty-year love affair with Glen Helen, Antioch College’s thousand-acre nature preserve in Yellow Springs. Recently the Mad River Review published my essay, “Beyond Imagining,” conflating several days’ worth of rambling in my most sacred of places. I hope you might check it out and let me know what you think.  ☺

P.P. S.

And don’t forget the sixth annual Solstice Poetry Reading this coming Friday, December 8, 7-9:00 p.m. in the Vernet Ecological Building, 400 Corry Street, Yellow Springs, Ohio, right across the street from Antioch College. Fourteen scheduled poets will read, followed by a wine and cheese reception and open mic. Hope to see you there for another stellar evening!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kimberly Willardson December 9, 2017 at 3:58 pm

Ed, I was deeply saddened to hear that Nancy has passed away. The too few hours I spent with you and Nancy at her lovely home during writing group are treasures to me. And you’re absolutely spot on about her “excellent eye and ear.” I feel privileged to have received some of her valuable advice from those groups meetings.

I feel privileged to have known her in our writing journeys. She was gracious, generous with her knowledge, as well as with her listening ear.

Hugs to you. And thank you for this lovely tribute to Nancy.

Sincerely,

Kimberly

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Ed Davis December 10, 2017 at 1:38 am

Yes, those evenings when you were with us were special to me, too, Kim–I just wish they could’ve continued. But upon your leaving, we were unable to sustain any momentum. Alas, all writing groups seem to have an expiration date! On a brighter note, you would’ve loved our sixth annual solstice poetry reading at the Glen last night: 120 people showed up to listen to 14 area poets hold forth, then another 12 at open mic. 🙂 Hope all’s well with you.

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