Deb Molly Writes for Tillie Olsen

2012 Debutante Molly BackesI was sixteen years old when I realized that women could be writers.

Obviously, I knew that women could write — and did write — books; I’d grown up with Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume and Ann M. Martin and Francine Pascal. I belonged to a generation of children raised by feminist mothers who read Ms. Magazine and told little girls that we could grow up to be the first female president of the United States. I spent my childhood in gender-neutral overalls, exploring cornfields and building bridges when the cow pond flooded. I was Free to Be You and Me and We Girls Can Do Anything! (Right, Barbie?)

And yet.

Somehow I didn’t know that women could be Capital-W-Writers. Women could write books for kids, and books about kids, but the Important Literary Writers were all men. In school we read Hawthorn and Faulkner and Joyce and Hemingway and Fitzgerald. And Steinbeck, Shakespeare, Salinger, Wright, and Wiesel. Anaya and Boyle and Dickens and Twain. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Kerouac, O’Hara, Williams, Keats, Hopkins, Stevens, Yeats.

I’m sure we read some women, too: Flannery O’Connor, Barbara Kingsolver, Harper Lee, Amy Tan. Emily Dickinson. Sandra Cisneros. But somehow they didn’t count in my mind. Maybe because they felt like the exceptions that proved the rule, or worse, like the token women to prove that Women Could Write, Really.

Of course, I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to move to Paris and hang out with the cats at Shakespeare & Co and sit in cafes and write in my notebooks. I wanted to rent a cold water flat and write stories and poems on an old typewriter and develop a taste for tea and/or whiskey. I wanted to wear all black and go to smoky poetry readings and stay up all night talking about literature. I wanted to be Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound and TS Eliot all rolled into one.

The problem was, I didn’t write Important Literary Things. My poems were about hatching monarch butterflies with my mother, or the moon over the winter garden, or the complicated silences of my first real boyfriend. I titled my journal “A Quiltmaker in the MOMA” because I didn’t feel like a Capital-A-Artist, but rather like a crafter. A quiltmaker. A girl.

And then I read Tillie Olsen’s story “I Stand Here Ironing,” and everything changed.

“I Stand Here Ironing” was not written in smoky Parisian cafes; it was written between household chores. The narrator is a woman, a  mother, who reflects on her eldest daughter’s childhood while ironing and keeping one ear listening for the baby’s cries. The story is fairly simple and deeply moving. Reading it, I felt — for the first time in my life — that I could do this. I could write a real short story. I could be a writer. Even I, just a regular girl from Wisconsin, living a regular life, could write about my own experiences and turn them into fiction.

It was a profound realization. I could be myself and still be a writer. I didn’t have to twist myself into something I wasn’t; didn’t have to try to fill Hemingway’s excessively macho boots in order to be taken seriously.

Which is why, when my college advisor mentioned that Tillie Olsen would be visiting campus in the spring of my junior year, I kind of freaked out.

On the one hand, I had to meet her. On the other hand, what if she was awful? She was 89 at the time — what if she had become a bitter, cranky old woman? What if she now thought “I Stand Here Ironing” was stupid? What if she thought I was stupid? Part of me wanted to hide out in my room all weekend and avoid actually meeting her in person, to protect my own imaginary version of her.

I was half-relieved when Tillie had to miss the welcome reception being thrown in her honor. She was quite old, rather frail, and battling a cold. But the next day, my advisor called me. “Molly,” she said breathlessly, “I gave Tillie Olsen the poem you wrote about your mother, and she loved it. She wept. She wants to meet you.”

And so it was that at 21 years old, awkward and nervous and overwhelmed and endlessly grateful to my pushy advisor, I met Tillie Olsen. She took my hand in hers and made me promise to keep writing. It was a terrifying moment — one of those times when the sky opens up and you simultaneously see both how big the future is and how your life will only occupy a small part of it — and I was afraid. If I promised, it would be real in a way it hadn’t been. I had been dreaming of “being a writer” for years, but until that moment it was a nebulous dream, a childhood dream, a faraway future dream. A dream, not a plan.

But I couldn’t say no to Tillie Olsen, either. Her hand was impossibly small and light, but her grip was firm. “Promise,” she said.

I squeezed her hand. “I promise.”

Her assistant gave me a piece of paper with an editor’s name and poetry journal in San Francisco, where she lived. “Via Tillie’s insistence,” it says. I still have it taped into the pages of my journal from that year.

I confess I never followed up on that lead. I never sent my poetry to Tillie’s editor friend at the poetry journal. I wasn’t ready to publish. I was just beginning to claim a spot for myself in the world as a person; I was years away from claiming a spot as a writer. And by the time I was, Tillie Olsen had died.

But I’d made her a promise, and you don’t break a promise to Tillie Olsen.

I kept writing.

I keep writing.






17 Replies to “Deb Molly Writes for Tillie Olsen”

  1. Good morning. I have a collection of retro board games. One of them is “Career Game What Shall I Be?” From 1965. The choices for a young woman were teacher, ballet dancer, model, stewardess, nurse, actress. The cards read, “Your makeup is sloppy. Bad for model, actress.” It’s funny NOW – but that was reality in many of our lifetimes. I also have a copy of Writer’s Digest Magazine from the 70s with the cover headline, “Mommy Can Write!” And the photo is Mom with her typewriter on an IRONING board.


    1. Thanks, Joanne! I’ll definitely always be grateful to my advisor for that moment — not only that I got to meet Tillie, obviously, but also that my advisor believed in my work enough to push it into TO’s hands. That belief was a great gift.

  2. I love this, Molly. Yet another wonderful example of how one writer can touch another writer–and I suspect you think of Ms. Olsen often as you teach. Knowing you might very well, just as she did, be inspiring the hearts out of your students for years and years to come.

    1. Someone — Natalie Goldberg, maybe — talks about who “gave you permission” to be a writer. I think we all have a handful of writers who were & are our touchstones, the writers who went before us & helped us to believe we could do it, too.

    1. Thanks, Katie! Isn’t it great? If someone tells me they haven’t read it, I’ll send them out of the room & tell them not to come back in until they have. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Alexa! And how did Hemingway become a “literary type” in the first place? He tried to capture his own understanding of how the world worked, as truthfully as he could. And he wrote A LOT. That’s the part of him we should emulate, not the bullfights and deep sea fishing.

  3. Oh, this is wonderful. To have an experience like this, that you can fall back on in moments of self-doubt. I like what some of your commenters wrote about “touchstone” and “gave you permission.” I have a few Tillies in my life, and I remind myself about their generosity and encouragement when I’m feeling down about my writing.

    Thank you for this post. You reminded me!

  4. Don’t send me out of the room! I have now read I Stand Here Ironing. Thanks for sharing it with me. What a moment that must have been!

    And, yes, what a wonderful advisor. All teachers should be so giving, and believe in their students so strongly.

  5. Molly! I too love “I Stand Here Ironing” since reading it for the first time in 9th grade. I wanted to attend her welcome reception and was bummed that Tillie wasn’t feeling up to it. Somehow, I ended up at Grinnell House the next day with half a dozen other students (is this when you met her?), sitting in a circle of chairs and just hanging out with Tillie Olsen. I was so in awe that I didn’t know what to say or ask her. So I just sat and listened. When she signed my copy of Tell Me a Riddle, she wrote, “To Erin Stutelberg: Eloquent Listener-And I think Speaker, too-with much of substance to say. In Solidarity, Tillie Olsen.” And I decided on that day that I would always listen carefully, eloquently even, and I would also try to be the speaker with much of substance to say that Tillie seemed to think I was. Amazing how meaningful a few words can be. Listening eloquently to my students was one of the ways I was able to be the teacher that they needed, and, well, I’m still working on being an eloquent speaker, but when I feel inadequate I just remember that Tillie Olsen said I had much of substance to say.

    Thanks for helping me remember that.

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