My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Lenore Gay, author of the new novel Shelter of Leaves. Lenore is a Licensed Professional Counselor with a Masters in Sociology, as well as in Rehabilitation Counseling. She has worked in several agencies, psychiatric hospitals and for ten years she maintained a private practice. The Virginia Center of the Creative Arts has awarded her two writing fellowships. Her poems and short stories have appeared in several journals. Her essay “Mistresses of Magic” was published in the anthology In Praise of Our Teachers. “The Hobo” won first place in Style Weekly’s annual fiction contest. Lenore is also a volunteer reader at Blackbird, An Online Journal for Literature & The Arts.
My First Mentor
My father, a jovial, patient man, made paintings, mostly watercolors and pen and ink drawings. He wrestled big logs into his studio and carved them into abstract pieces. The smell of wax drifted from his studio when he polished the wood, to “bring out the grain.” He told me that by high school he’d figured writing and painting were both harsh mistresses; if he wanted a family, he had to choose. He chose painting and earned an MFA in painting.
At age sixty he enrolled in a poetry class at the local university, Virginia Commonwealth University, and took poetry classes for twelve years. His legacy was 1,000 poems. He’d edit a poem, and keep five or six versions. I watched his mind at work by following the trail of edits.
Wide, tall bookcases stood on either side of our living room fireplace. An early reader, I pulled books off the shelves and attempted to read them. I stumbled through my parents’ books: Gulliver’s Travels, Arabian Nights, Kidnapped, David Copperfield, Treasure Island, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and Rebecca.
Mother, a voracious reader, taught me to write my name when I turned four. We visited the downtown library, where I acquired my first library card. My joys were roller skating on city sidewalks, and reading. When I turned five, my father and I began visiting museums and art galleries. To my questions about why an artist painted a strange body or a sky with three suns he’d answer, “What do you think?” When I asked what to write about, he’d say, “Use your imagination.”
Later, fascinated with Japanese painting, my father wrote haiku, a seventeen-syllable Japanese form of poetry. He gave me books on haiku. He and I critiqued each other’s attempts. I wrote haiku through high school, along with mostly limp poems. In college I composed an epic poem for a final paper in Art History class. I figured it was an A or an F. The professor gave me an A.
Philosophy and psychology were my college majors; in graduate school I earned a master’s in sociology, later a master’s in rehabilitation counseling. Through the grad school years, counseling career and parenting, I had little time to write. But stories were always with me, floating through my mind, collecting.
I have completed four manuscripts. One of these, Shelter of Leaves, was published this past August. Some months ago, I started work on a fifth novel. For now, the novel’s the thing.