When the words won’t come, when another blank screen beckons, when a character who comes to life in your brain becomes an awkward plot stopper on the page, and when you know that all your mental agony probably won’t result in enough compensation to cover your costs, let alone enable you to quit your day job, what in the world makes a writer stick to the writing process?
The long, literary life of Ann Waldron, who died July 2 at age 85, might give us a clue or two. Waldron, born in Birmingham, Alabama, found a lot of her writing inspiration in the South. She graduated with a degree in journalism at the University of Alabama in 1945 and promptly got a job at the Atlanta Constitution, where she met her husband, Martin (who later became a reporter for the New York Times — he died in 1981).
After her husband’s death, Ann Waldron soldiered on with her writing, with credits that included three biographies of southern writers and editors (Hodding Carter, also known as “Big Hod,” the father of the man many remember as the State Department spokesman suring the Iran hostage crisis, Caroline Gordon, and Eudora Welty), as well as six novels for young children, nonfiction books about art for children, and reviews of children’s books. Ann Waldron’s house on Park Place in downtown Princeton, two or three doors away from my house, was a destination for scores of children’s books that publishers hoped would get a notice from Waldron — she reviewed children’s books for the Philadelphia Inquirer for 23 years. A lot of those books eventually ended up as bedtime reading for my two kids.
At a “service of witness” to Waldron’s life at the Nassau Presbyterian Church I gained a little insight into what kept Waldron engaged so cheerfully in her craft. First off Waldron genuinely liked people — the raw material for any writer’s word factory. Virginia Thomas, a family friend since the Waldrons’ days in the south, talked about how she and Ann exchanged letters weekly — or more often — for more than a half century.
Waldron was also enthusiastic. Another longtime friend, Don Harrell, spoke of their frequent excursions to Broadway plays. They had seen most everything from good to bad. He remembered leaving with Waldron after seeing “The Starlight Express” and Waldron declaring in one breath, “Was that not the worst thing we have ever seen?” and then, in the next breath, “What’s next.”
While enthusiasm for a subject might be necessary for a writer, it was seldom sufficient. Unrelenting hard work also factored in. In the opening pages of her 1998 biography of Welty, the Pulitzer Prize-winning and bestselling author from Jackson, Mississippi, Waldron quotes the author in a statement that lies like a gauntlet across her path: “Your private life should be kept private,” Welty said in 1972. “My own I don’t think would particularly interest anybody, for that matter. But I’d guard it; I feel strongly about that. They’d have a hard time trying to find something about me.”
Waldron found out enough to fill 340 pages of her book, “Eudora: A Writer’s Life.” But Waldron certainly had a hard time gathering all that information. Her book ends with another 41 pages of notes and acknowledgments. Welty never cooperated with her biographer. At the church service, someone noted that the royalties from the book might not have covered Waldron’s costs. But, pointed out Justin Harmon, a colleague from Waldron’s “day job” at Princeton University, “writing never paid much. Ann wrote for the satisfaction and she wrote because she was endlessly curious.”
My neighbor dodged the bullet of depression and alcoholism that has plagued many practitioners of our craft. In a much quoted 1989 Washington Post article, Waldron reported on famous writers and their liquid crutches. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, John O’Hara, and many more writers were assessed from a liquor bottle’s point of view. The prototype, Waldron wrote, was Ernest Hemingway. Drawing on a biography by Kenneth Lynn, Waldron describes the scene:
“Hemingway had the same capacity for alcohol that his characters did, and in ‘The Sun Also Rises’ Jake Barnes and Brett Ashley drank three martinis apiece before lunch, which was accompanied by five or six bottles of red wine.
“In 1939 Hemingway was ordered to cut down on his drinking. He tried to hold himself to three Scotches before dinner but he couldn’t do it and, in 1940, he began breakfasting on tea and gin and swigging absinthe, whiskey, vodka, and wine at various times during the day. He even let his boys drink hard liquor when one of them was only 10.
“His alcoholism brought on hypertension, kidney and liver diseases, edema of the ankles, high blood urea, mild diabetes, mellitus and possibly hemochromatosis, recurrent muscle cramps, chronic sleeplessness, and sexual impotence. He shot himself to death at age 62.”
When Waldron was in her 60s she switched her writing focus from children’s books to adult biographies. A decade later she made what some might consider an even greater transformation — from nonfiction to her series of murder mysteries set on the campus of Princeton University. The heroine of the series was a former journalist teaching an undergraduate writing course. As the New York Times pointed out in its obituary: “The nosey newspaperwoman was something of a self-reflection.”
At the memorial service, Justin Harmon recounted a visit with Ann just a day or so before her death. She was moving in and out of consciousness. But at one point she turned to her good friend and beamed, “I have just had a tremendous revelation.”
I never talked religion with my former neighbor but at the service Waldron was described as a good and “critical” Christian. I doubt anyone could imagine her sharing a religious experience in a trivial way. So I am sure people of faith envisioned a revelation of a window into a new passageway, perhaps leading to a life after death. My first thought was that maybe she had just come up with the outline for a new series of books.
Either way, it was time to turn the page in a remarkable story.