Writers seek inspiration wherever they can find it — from their families or traumatic experiences, from other novelists or newspaper headlines, from a falling leaf or an overheard conversation and maybe even, sometimes, from writing teachers. Elizabeth Strout, in her new novel My Name is Lucy Barton, creates the rather elusive Sarah Payne, a writing teacher who provides inspiration laced with mystery for Strout’s protagonist and first person narrator Lucy.
Before we even meet Sarah, we hear about her at the same time we are warned about the vagaries of the writing life, particularly the way in which writers are, or are not, appreciated. As Lucy tell us, “The writer Sarah Payne…was to speak on a panel at the New York Public Library. I was surprised by it; she seldom appeared publicly and I assumed she must be very private. When I mentioned this to someone who was said to know her peripherally, that person said, ‘She’s not so private, New York just doesn’t like her.” We never find out what it is that New York does or doesn’t like — her work or her personality. Strout just takes a mild poke at the epicenter of the publishing world and lets us know that often it is not the writer who controls his or her career.
It is true that no one seems to be able to get close to Sarah, a prickly yet compassionate teacher, but a serious reader would be wise to take Sarah’s advice to heart, for she provides clues to Lucy’s character and to Strout’s art and themes. She also delivers some solid writing advice. Lucy, the aspiring writer, seeks out Sarah as a teacher because “I liked her books. I like writers who try to tell you something truthful…And then I realized that even in her books, she was not telling exactly the truth, she was always staying away from something. And I felt I understood that too.”
When Lucy takes a class with Sarah, she hears the following definition of a writer’s work: “…she said that her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.” But at the same time, “she reminded us that we never knew, and never would know, what it would be like to understand another person fully.” Sarah offers Lucy an ambitious aspiration and then undercuts it. This is a double warning, both about the potential disappointments inherent in trying to capture characters on the page and in trying to understand the people in one’s life.
But this doesn’t mean that a writer should be deterred from writing or living. Sarah is also a proponent of plunging into the writing project and being ruthless in revising one’s own work. She advises, “If there is a weakness in your story, address it head-on, take it in your teeth and address it, before the reader really knows. This is where you will get your authority.”
Ultimately, the writer’s wisdom and authority might come from trusting one’s talent. As Sarah Payne says to Lucy’s writing class in Arizona, “You will have only one story. You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.”
This last bit of advice can be read in several ways. It might be controversial — critics and writers have long argued about whether a writer revisiting the same landscape can achieve literary success. But I like to think she is not talking about writing the same story over and over again, but that “one story” is equivalent to a singular creative vision. Being true to your vision can enable great work, and in this novel Lucy Barton’s one story (and perhaps Strout’s) is mesmerizing.