Losing Louise, Finding Joy: The Death of a Mentor and the Afterlife of Her Legacy

October 25, 2019 § 11 Comments

steeleby Cassie Premo Steele

I was young when I wrote the letter. I had finished my Ph.D. and had revised the dissertation and was hoping to publish it when I heard that Louise DeSalvo was coming to a nearby university as a visiting professor for a semester.

I wrote her a letter, telling her about my work, and asking if she’d like to help me get it published since our work—hers on Virginia Woolf and child sexual abuse, mine on multicultural women poets and the legacies of trauma in their lives and work—were similar.

And then I waited.

One Friday morning, the phone rang. It was Louise—her voice, a strong, determined pitch with a pinch of New Jersey despite the years of research in British literary scenes— saying, “Yes. The world needs this book.”

I did not know it then, but with that phone call, she put in motion the rest of my career—not the book itself which became We Heal From Memory: Sexton, Lorde, Anzaldúa and The Poetry of Witness—but the importance of the sentence itself as I gradually moved away from academia and into my own creative writing and writing coaching.

I learned to tell myself: The world needs this book.

I learned to tell others: The world needs this book.

Louise helped me in so many ways—by believing in me, by giving me foundational writing advice, and by modeling a life of balance.

desalvo and steele“You’re the real thing,” she said to me during a visit with her husband, Ernie, to their home in the Hamptons.

I know there are hundreds of other young writers who heard this from her, but at that moment with the Atlantic coast beside us, it felt like she’d offered me a whole ocean of faith in myself.

She also told me something that would forever change how I wrote and how I advised other writers.

“Virginia Woolf wrote for two hours a day,” she said. “And that might have been too much for her.”

It was a revelation that one of the greatest writers in world history only wrote for two hours a day.

I started adopting this practice. And indeed, I found that two hours of focused, uninterrupted, flowing writing is infinitely better than hours and hours of sitting, procrastinating, and distracting oneself.

(This was before the advent of the internet, and this two-hour rule is even more crucial now.)

I advise my clients to stick to this limit, and they tell me it changes everything, not only about their writing, but about their feelings about work and home and family.

Which brings me to the third lesson Louise taught me: a life of balance is not only preferable, it is necessary for good writing.

If we don’t want to follow (literally) in Virginia Woolf’s footsteps into the water, it is important to put self-care, time with family, and activities that nurture our minds, bodies and souls at the forefront of each day.

Whether it’s baking bread or shopping for eggplant, painting a dreamscape or kayaking or knitting, Louise modeled for me what a truly great writer does: she stays healthy, happy, and balanced.

When I heard that Louise had cancer, I reached out to her by email. I wanted to tell her what she’d meant to me.

Our last conversation was about knitting. I told her that I’d recently learned but I feared I wasn’t very good, and she encouraged me to try the Brooklyn tweed scarf. I did—in the muted colors of the stone and brick homes of northern New Jersey that always made me think of her.

The morning after I heard she had passed away, I woke before sunrise to make bread.

It was November—the Days of the Dead—and the house was dark and cold. But the oven and the memories of the warmth Louise had given me were a balm to my mourning.

Recently, my wife and I were visiting my poetry publisher, Annmarie Lockhart, who lives near where Louise used to live, and I mentioned that I was reading Louise’s posthumous memoir, The House of Early Sorrows, so she was on my mind.

Always a Jersey Italian go-getter, Annmarie exclaimed, “Let’s go!” and drove us around until we located the house.

I jumped out and took a quick picture. The home was exactly how I remembered it but smaller. I thought of Virginia Woolf’s “angel in the house,” the spirit that encourages women to neglect their creative lives for housework and domestic activities, and it felt as if a different angel had taken residence in Louise’s old house – and in mine.

It was an angel who spoke quickly. An angel who loved being a wife and mother and did it with the same fierceness she brought to everything. Who cooked and ate with the conviction that good, healthy food held magic. Whose writing was as sharp and truth-telling as she was in real life.

And an angel with a wicked sense of humor.

As I turned from the house and went to get back in the car, an alarm went off.

It seems that Annmarie had gone to the end of the street to turn around and I’d tried to get in someone else’s car.

We laughed hysterically once I realized the mistake—and hightailed it out of there.

“Holy moly,” I said to Annmarie. “Now I can’t write about this!”

“Oh, yes, you can!” she said. “This is exactly what the world needs!”

And the joy Louise had taught me in convincing me that it was perfectly fine to believe in my work and live a happy life came back to me fully then.

I couldn’t wait to pick up the pen.

Cassie Premo Steele, Ph.D., is the author of 16 books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction and lives with her wife in South Carolina where she coaches writing clients from around the world and offers an audio writing coaching series called JOYWORK. Her website is www.cassiepremosteele.com and she’s on Twitter at https://twitter.com/PremoSteele







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