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Compiled by Eric Sean Weld   Date: 5/11/09 Bookmark and Share

Q & A with Beth Taylor ’75

Author of New Memoir to Read at Local Bookshop

Beth Taylor ’75, a senior lecturer in English and teacher of writing at Brown University, recently published a memoir about her experience  growing up in a Quaker family in rural Pennsylvania. Her book The Plain Language of Love and Loss describes the interruption in her childhood caused by her teenage brother’s suicide, and the path that brought her to Smith and beyond.

Taylor will give a reading from her book on Wednesday, May 20, at 7 p.m. at Broadside Bookshop, Main Street, Northampton.

Meanwhile, she responded to questions about her memoir, her days at Smith and teaching at Brown.

The Gate: What inspired you to write The Plain Language of Love and Loss?

Beth Taylor: In my 40s, looking back at my life from my point of view as a writer, I saw that the stories of young men I had known and lost to the war in Vietnam were not just private sorrow, but part of public history. I was interested in the journeys of conscience of these young men; I interviewed their families and used their letters and journals to bring them alive again. First I wrote the story of Butch Geary, my 4-H Club leader who had gone to the war as a Marine and died leading his men through a meadow in Vietnam. Then I wrote the story of my cousin Rick Thompson, who worked for the Quaker hospital in Quang Ngai and died in a plane crash while transporting children to Saigon. There is also the story of my high school friend Tony McQuail, who sent back his draft card, left for Canada in 1970, and stayed there for good. That story became part of this memoir, The Plain Language of Love and Loss. But this memoir focuses primarily on the legacy of my brother’s suicide in 1965--which many believe was linked to the war.

Gate: What do you hope readers come away with upon reading The Plain Language of Love and Loss?   

BT: I hope that, although the story begins in sadness and a complicated time in our country’s history, it inspires a sense of affirmation as I explore the ways in which friendships, marriage, and parenting helped me weather the losses and near-misses that befall a life. At different stages I see that grief can be a mask, even a lover, as well as a teacher. I wrestle with questions about my family and Quakerism. I wrestle with anger, alcoholism, and my own sense of faith. Early responses to the book suggest these parts are particularly resonant in many lives.

Gate: How did your Smith experience inform what you have learned about love and loss?

BT: Smith allowed me to immerse myself in my love of literature, the stories of others who had endured the vicissitudes of life. I remember taking Dean Flower’s seminar on Faulkner and, after the twelfth Faulkner novel in the 12th week, I could hardly get out of bed. But Faulkner’s language, his dark vision and grim humor, seemed to wrap around an essential hope in our life force in a way that made sense to me. The young American Studies Program at Smith also allowed me to create an honors thesis that included oral histories and documentary photographs of West Virginia families with whom I worked during a summer AFSC Work Camp after my Junior year. This was just after my cousin Rick had been killed in Vietnam and the process of immersing myself in carpentry with these mountain families, listening to their stories of living so close to the bone, helped me to regain a sense of perspective about what was important in life.                  

At Smith I was also buoyed by wonderful friendships--classmates with whom I am still close, and with now-retired Professor Snoek and his family, with whom I attended Quaker meeting, and whose kids took me outside myself and into the pleasures of kid-dom while I studied hard.

Gate: What specific Smith experiences do you cite in the book?

BT: I show the richness of a women’s community and the pleasures of the five-college consortium, through which I took classes at Mt. Holyoke, Amherst, and UMass. I show the grand rooms of Jordan House, where I enjoyed the rituals of sherry and tea, formal dinners and holiday parties where we composed poems or songs for each other–-what I call the “vestiges of an arcane but endearing concept of gracious living.” I show my pleasure in the discipline of studying hard all week, undistracted by young men. I show friends in the co-op house, the art department, English seminars, and the Quaker community around Mt. Toby Meeting. And, I show the beauty of the area--the tobacco fields, orchards, the camel humps of the Holyoke mountain range.  

Gate: How did your brother’s suicide affect your education? Your road to Smith?

BT: Geoff died when I was 12 and within the next year I went from As, Bs and some Cs to no Cs ever again. I had always been bookish in a Quaker family without TV, but after his death, I went to books for solace. Looking back, I think academics were perhaps something in which I could see clear cause and effect--something I could control--and I needed that. As I got closer to college, my father, who went to Haverford like most of the men in his Quaker family, spoke highly of Smith women and remembered visiting a girl at Smith and climbing the trellis to kiss her goodnight. That sounded pretty good to me. 

Gate: What components of your Quaker and Bryn Gweled upbringing have you retained?

BT: I find the ethos of Brown, where I teach, very familiar--its emphasis on learning for its own sake, not just for grades. Like my Quaker background, Brown values independent thinking and personal searching. Like Bryn Gweled’s mission as a cooperative community, Brown values collaborative and creative ways of learning. Although my husband and I did not raise our boys as Quakers, my youngest son, with no prompt from me, has just chosen to go to a Quaker college. So, one never knows how one’s past will send out little waves of suggestion--hopefully in a positive way.

Gate: Why, would you say, has the written word become your medium of communication? How does writing best accommodate what you have to impart?

BT: Quakers are not only bookish; they take pride in directness and honesty--“plain language” in style as well as in the historically democratic use of “thee, thy, and thine.” And, witnessing is part of Quaker practice. For me, that led to documentary photography and writing as my preferred art forms. Agee’s and Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Studs Terkel’s oral histories were my inspirations. I was a photographer, doing my own darkroom work, starting at age 12. In my 20s I was writing for the Sunday Magazine at the Providence Journal, doing my own feature writing as well as the photographs for the cover art. But, one day my camera was stolen. I was very poor; I had no insurance and couldn’t afford a new camera. But, I realized all I needed for writing was some paper and a pen, so I would just keep writing. And I did. 

Gate: What advice do you give your students at Brown who aspire to write?

BT: Read, read, read. Revise, revise, revise. Invite critiques by trusted editors. Look for the complicating layers in any story. In this era of glib blogging and first-draft writing, I teach them in particular to research, to interview, to check all so-called facts, to do the hard work of investigation so they can reach for the ideals of the best journalism--to be fair, balanced, and accurate, even when they are writing about their own lives. This is essential for any writer or producer--for a radio piece or a multi-media presentation. It’s the old-fashioned reporting tools that make their stories more significant.



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