Monday, April 23, 2012

Doris Betts, writer and teacher of writing

Doris Betts arrived at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill a year before I did. She came as a lecturer, a fill-in who did not have the academic credentials usually required of faculty members. But she had a couple of well-received novels under her belt, and she impressed her academic colleagues enough to not only win a spot on the faculty but also to become faculty chair and one of the most beloved professors at the university. I arrived with a very limited preparation from a small high school and unrealistic ambitions, thinking I might someday make a living as a writer, and was gone four years later.

I never knew Doris Betts during my time in Chapel Hill, despite taking every creative writing course I could, and never read her books until years later. I was privileged to hear her speak on several occasions and had the opportunity to talk with her on a couple of occasions. I've said many times that she gave the best speech on writing I have ever heard. She was the featured writer at a Barton College Friends of Hackney Library event several years ago. The twice-yearly library dinners attract a variety of authors. Some are more gifted as writers than others. Some are more gifted as speakers. I knew Betts was an exceptional writer, but her speech about why writing is important and how one goes about writing was as good as anyone will ever hear. She said she didn't outline her novels with incidents and turning points. Instead, she said she liked to bring her characters together on a page and see what happens. Her character-driven novels seldom attracted the attention of the suspenseful, who-done-it books, but her novels achieved the ultimate goal of great fiction — an examination of the human condition through characters who are as real as your neighbors and relatives.

With her death Saturday, North Carolina has lost a great writer. More important, it has lost a great teacher of writing, a great friend of writers and a great advocate of good writing. Her novel "Souls Raised from the Dead" is one of the most beguiling books you'll ever read. Betts brings together her distinct characters in trying situations and lets them work through their problems. In doing so, she gives a little explanation of what life is all about.


Mike Fahy said...

I was lucky enough to take one of Betts' creative writing classes while I was at Chapel Hill, and I learned a lot from her. She was a great teacher of the art of writing, and (as I learned years later when I finally picked up one of her books) she was also a fantastic writer.

I wouldn't have known of her death if not for your blog, Hal, so thanks for making note of it.

- A long time lurker

Erstwhile Editor said...

Glad to know you're still out there, somewhere in cyberspace, Mike. I'm sorry we never had a chance to discuss Doris Betts. We should make an appointment and do that!