Milford at Fifty presents My Milford by Wenonah Lyon

Milford group 2008. Left to right: Jaine Fenn, Wenonah Lyon, Sue Thomason, Mike Lewis, Al Robertson, Jacey Bedford (in front), Mark Harding, Liz Williams, Anna Feruglio Dal Dan, Chris Butler, Nick Moulton

I will be eighty in July. In 1960, in my first year literature class in Atlanta, Georgia, I sat in a class of about thirty – almost all females. Dutifully, we took notes. The lecturer said, “Women cannot write fiction. There have been two good woman writers – Jane Austin and Virginia Woolf.”

My best friend, Ellen Abrams, raised her hand. “What about the Brontes? Mary Shelley? Margaret Atwood?”

The lecturer was offended.  “How dare you challenge me! Do you think you know more than I do?”

“Yep,” Ellen said and walked out.

 After class, I joined her. She’d already dropped the class. She advised me to do the same thing.

“You’re transferring to Duke. I can’t afford any place but here.”

“Take it next term, get a different teacher. You won’t learn anything from this jerk.”

He was an extreme example of a general disparagement of women and their ability. In addition, there was a class problem. I was the first person in my father’s family to finish high school – much less go to university.

I ended up going the University of Texas in Austin, majoring in anthropology.  Luck, a Pell Grant, a Fulbright Hayes and I ended up with a BA, MA, and PhD. I did fieldwork in Lahore, Pakistan. In addition to employment possibilities, it was fascinating to read fiction in a different language, and to read fiction written in English from a South Asian perspective.

I tried writing fiction during the summer, when I had no teaching obligations. I wrote and re-wrote the entire first page – the first paragraph, over and over.

Then I read something Hemingway (I think it was Hemingway) said;  “all first drafts are shit.’ Write it, then re-write it. I did. I was encouraged, and decided to write the same story using every person, every tense and see how it changed things.

Then Milford came up. I applied, paid, and went. I was terrified. It went OK. I was encouraged.

I took early retirement when I was sixty, and started writing fiction seriously, eight or ten hours a day. I wrote short stories and poetry, some were accepted and published, online and in print. In 2004, my short story took first place in an independently judged contest at the Yosemite Writers Conference. Other short fiction was re-printed in anthologies. Most recently, DREAM NEXUS, a YA novel, was published by Dreaming Big Publications.

Miker Lewis, Mark Harding, Anna feruglio dal Dan, Chris Butler and Wenonah Lyon in a crit session

My trip to Milford was important in all this because of the encouragement it offered. There were people there who could write, who had been published, and they didn’t laugh me out of the room. If the writing had been appallingly bad, they still wouldn’t have laughed me out of the room. Milford combines criticism with kindness. I remember Milford with gratitude. Criticism with kindness: and you can see what you do wrong and be equally kind to yourself.

Wenonah Lyon is a retired anthropologist.. In addition to academic publications, she has published short fiction in In Posse, Dead Mule, Quantum Muse, Maps, flashquake, Unlikely 2.0 and other online and print journals. (The essay in Unlikely 2.0 has been included in cityLit Berlin.) Dream Nexus, YA fiction, will be published by Dreaming Big Publications.

About Jacey Bedford

Jacey Bedford maintains this blog. She is a writer of science fiction and fantasy (www.jaceybedford.co.uk), the secretary of Milford SF Writers (www.milfordSF.co.uk), a singer (www.artisan-harmony.com) and a music agent booking UK tours and concerts for folk performers (www.jacey-bedford.com).
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