Collected Stories by Donald Margulies is a study of the professional relationship between a once successful author-turned teacher and the graduate student she is mentoring. The young woman, Lisa, who is taking her tutorial with the older, Ruth, admits that after reading Ruth’s novel in high school she was hooked on the idea of becoming a writer herself (I remember having the same reaction as a teenager after reading Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage). Very quickly Ruth makes clear how much dedication and hard work must be invested in such a career (Again, on a personal note, I recall how my Drama School professor stressed these facts, though failing to warn us of the disappointments that would come with constant rejections, of the single-minded need to persevere).
Over time, the two women become closer as Ruth encourages Lisa to send out her manuscripts, enclosing her own letters of recommendation. The balance changes when Lisa publishes her first book of stories without Ruth’s help; the shift in the relationship is as visible as the shifts of weight in a scale. The scene has the same emotional impact as that of a defiant daughter announcing to her astonished mother that she is leaving home for the Big City.
A few year later, Lisa publishes her first novel, this one based on her mentor’s personal experience. Ruth once confessed to Lisa about a love affair she had had with a long-dead poet. Ruth, who had earlier declared that anything and everything was material for a writer, is enraged now that her own story – which she never published – has become the source for the book, calling Lisa a thief (Here Margulies raises an important question: is a secret told to a close friend and publicly revealed an act of betrayal? Obviously, the answer depends on whether one is the subject or the tale-teller). But underlying this antagonism are the older writer’s fading reputation and envy, counterpoints to the burgeoning career and independence of the younger. Ruth has forgotten the inevitable cycle: winter must yield to spring.
For my own part, having been once a hopeful author and neophyte, I recognize the truth of Margulies’ portrait – a person full of ideals, hero worship, and harsh judgments, eventually facing life’s realities. As we age and become mentors, we see – as Ruth does not – that we must allow the young to find their own answers, to respect their choices, however mistaken. With amused tolerance we greet our distant shadows, the search for success, and we acknowledge the unexpected by-paths we’ve traveled to become our present selves.
Posted August 28 2013 by Mildred Kuner
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