April 29, 2023
One never knows when some aimless channel-surfing on an Easter Sunday morning might lead to an unexpected and rather delightful surprise…
While I never was aware of this previously, I discovered that Ali Velshi of MSNBC has a segment on his weekend show devoted to recently-banned books. And though I’ve never been an overwhelming fan of Mr. Velshi’s onscreen presence (despite actually having run into him a couple of times, right here on the Upper West Side!), my rapid progress towards a sports station was slowed when I happened to catch the title of the book he was about to discuss.
“How the García Girls Lost Their Accents”
Written by Julia Alvarez…
And then the author’s face appeared for the morning’s interview and I finally allowed the remote control to slip back into it’s normal resting place.
Julia Alvarez just happens to be the same person who taught creative writing at the University of Vermont back when I was a student. By sheer chance, I took her class my senior year. She is the one who recognized the talent I’d previously only suspected I might have as a writer. Her beautifully-written words of encouragement are probably still kept somewhere in my files to this day.
Right into her later years, my mother would always remember Julia’s full name; not because of having read her work, but because she saw her as the singular reason her eldest son did not follow-through on his stated goal of someday becoming a lawyer.
I wrote the story “My Confession” back at her class, which was satisfying when read aloud to a score of laughing students. Having already proved to myself I had a grasp on comedy, I wrote my next story as a heavy drama. It was called “Bernard’s Conclusion”. Everyone ignored the buzzer signaling the end of the class period so they could hear the ending. Miss Alvarez thought both efforts deserved to be published.
(And years later, they are included in my “Early Odds and Split Ends” collection, available to be downloaded right here on michaelaba.com!)
There is no question my mentor did, in fact, help inspire an epiphany in the last days of my college career. “I don’t want to be a lawyer!” I found myself thinking. “I HATE lawyers!
“I want to explore this ability I may have to write stories and songs!”
But instead of hunkering down to compose more fiction, I immediately moved to Boston after college to pursue a career in music, joining former UVM bandmates in an actual three-bedroom apartment on Gardner Street in Allston. But I continued to occasionally type out a few short stories, focusing on comedy after coming to the conclusion I preferred to surprise myself with a laugh or two during those lonely and late writing hours, as opposed to ruminating in some sad, self-created fictional situation. (Stories from this time period also appear in the fore-mentioned book!)
In a stroke of good fortune, a Vermont friend of mine ran into Julia a few years later and she asked about me. She mentioned the possibility of getting me to apply for a scholarship at the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference in Middlebury, Vermont. I proceeded to spend two weeks the next five or six summers happily taking part in this great program, where students would mingle and be entertained by a host of outstanding authors and poets.
By the time I’d mustered up enough nerve to finally make the move to New York City, this former mentor of mine had gone on to become a wildly successful and respected author of several novels. At one point I was able to attend a reading she was giving for a new novel. Upon looking my way while in line to have her hard-cover copy signed, Julia burst into a beautiful smile, recognizing me instantly - to my pleasant surprise, I might add! Everyone around me - in a crowd consisting mostly of young women - were completely amazed and impressed that this stranger among them somehow knew this fascinating and talented woman.
Julia seemed happy to know I was still writing.
It’s too bad michaelaba.com had not become a thing yet…
I should probably admit that I actually haven’t yet read the three novels I’ve purchased over the years; in a strange and ironic twist of fate, this amazing woman has likely perused more of my prose than vice-versa. But I’m planning to bring those books with me this season to Martha’s Vineyard. Maybe I’ll send her a fan letter someday!
It was so sweet to see my former teacher on television; she appeared joyful and humble and at peace with herself. I myself am left pondering the circles of life and how everything is connected. Ali Velshi - if I run into you again on the street someday, I’ll likely bring this episode up; you might be a bit impressed with my connection to your Easter morning guest, too!
Congratulations on your well-deserved success, Julia Alvarez! An internationally recognized and appreciated artist!
And thanks for your positive influence over my own life. Let the record show: at one point, many years ago, you were a really gifted and encouraging young teacher as well!