by Debra Thomas, author of Luz, the 2020 Winner of Sarton Award for Contemporary Fiction
When I first began researching the various awards open to writers, my heart flipped as I read about Story Circle Network’s Sarton Women’s Book Awards. These awards celebrate the best in women’s memoirs and contemporary and historical fiction and are named in honor of May Sarton, who is remembered for her outstanding contributions to women’s literature as a memoirist, novelist, and poet.
May Sarton. My weathered paperback copy of her Journal of Solitude (price on back cover, $3.95) has been on my bookshelf beside Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own for decades. Decades! Underlined, dog-eared, with scribbled notes in the margins, Journal of Solitude, first published in 1973, has inspired and consoled me throughout my writing career. In this profound yet gentle journal, Sarton speaks of a woman’s need for not only a room of one’s own, but the time to sit in peace and quiet, to reflect and create—without distraction. Solitude is imperative for writers to thrive.
I first read Journal of Solitude when I was a young mother. I was hooked from the opening paragraph. “I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my ‘real’ life again at last. That is what is strange—that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened” (11).
How I identified with that honest declaration about the need for solitude to live a complete and satisfying life. With two young children, I struggled to find time to write. While returning to college to study literature and writing, I juggled between my children’s needs and my needs as a student and a writer. Once I graduated and began teaching, the frustration only increased as I tried to balance class prep and grading (especially essay papers!) with my children’s activities. Solitude? It didn’t exist. But May Sarton’s words made me feel less guilty about trying to carve out some semblance of time to write. She also helped me believe that my ‘real’ life included being a writer.
But my self-confidence wavered. As I sent out short stories and received rejections, I wrestled with imposter syndrome, even when some of those rejections included praise for my writing. So once again, I would turn to Sarton’s Journal of Solitude for advice. How brave she was to confess even her darkest thoughts of depression and self-doubt. When she received “an annihilating review in the Sunday Times” she spoke of the “darkness again . . . the old struggle to survive.” Yet she subsequently fought back toward the light, continuing, “On a deeper level I have come to believe . . . that there is a reason for these repeated blows—that I am not meant for success and that in a way adversity is my climate. The inner person thrives on it. The challenge is there to go deeper” (65). How this cheered me on! Revived and recharged, I accepted the challenge and went deeper.
Many years later, as I prepared to publish my debut novel Luz, like many new authors, I was filled with self-doubt and fear of failure. Just a few months before my publication date, these fears were compounded when the American Dirt controversy exploded, and I was faced with the possibility of similar criticism involving cultural appropriation. Luz tells the story of a young Mexican girl’s search for her father, a migrant farmworker who disappeared after leaving his home in Mexico to work in the US. Based on my years of experience as an immigrant rights advocate and an English as a Second Language teacher for adults from Mexico and Central America, my novel came from the depths of my own passionate feelings. Despite the reassurances of my respected mentors, including award-winning Latina writer Alma Luz
Villanueva and my publisher Brooke Warner, I was concerned. I turned once again to Sarton’s Journal of Solitude and read these powerful and encouraging words:
My own belief is that one regards oneself, if one is a serious writer, as an instrument for experiencing. Life—all of it—flows through this instrument and is distilled through it into works of art . . . And at some point, I believe one has to stop holding back for fear of alienating some imaginary reader, or real relative or friend, and come out with personal truth. If we are to understand the human condition, and if we are to accept ourselves in all the complexity, self-doubt, extravagance of feeling, guilt, joy . . . we have to know all we can about each other, and we have to be willing to go naked. (77)
So naked I went, and low and behold, my novel, Luz, was not only well received, but it won the award I most coveted: the 2020 Sarton Award for Contemporary Fiction!
I couldn’t believe my ears when I received that special phone call from Texas. I wept silent tears as I listened to the words, “I’m so happy to tell you that your novel, Luz, won Story Circle Network’s Sarton Award.” To say I am humbled and so very grateful just doesn’t cover the depth of my emotions.
Now, as I approach my sixty-eighth birthday this summer, I have begun reading May Sarton’s At Seventy. Once again, I am moved by how directly she speaks to me. I have never been bothered by aging. At thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, I’ve never felt the sort of negativity that others have at reaching each new decade. Sarton’s words again captured my deepest beliefs. “But I do not feel old at all, not as much a survivor as a person still on her way. . . . I look forward with joy to the years ahead and especially to the surprises that any day may bring.”
Before you start thinking, Oh, come on, life is not that rosy, Sarton then speaks of waking up at night with thoughts of regret or shame or woe and concludes that, “But all, good and bad, painful or delightful, weave themselves into a rich tapestry, and give me food for thought, food to grow on.” And to write about, of course, for May Sarton, who died at eighty-three, has another journal for me to delve into one day, At Eighty-Two.
But I’m not quite there yet. I’m “a person still on her way,” looking forward to “the surprises that any day may bring.” Like my phone call from Texas.
Sarton, May. At Seventy: A Journal. W. W. Norton & Company, revised edition, 1993.
Sarton, May. Journal of Solitude. W.W. Norton & Company, 1973. First published in the Norton Library, 1977.