Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 9, 2011

The Left-Handed Story: Writing and the Writer’s Life by Nancy Willard

I first read The Left-Handed Story: Writing and the Writer’s Life a few years ago, but it’s one of those books that I can pick up when feeling stuck and find a few sentences that make me smile again. Nancy Willard writes poetry and fiction for both children and adults, and these essays show how some kind of magic is often part of her creativity. Though most of her magic has a foot or finger in the real world. In “The Back Burner” she writes of cooking as magic. Not, perhaps, what’s on the front burner, where you might follow a set plan. But the back burner, which welcomes this and that and the other thing, and simmers. In “Crossing the Water” she traces the evolution of a poem from a childhood memory of swimming lessons: the metaphors and theme emerged with time.

In “The Muse Goes Greyhound” Nancy Willard discusses inspiration, and wonders if it was the rhythm of the oars that set free the mind of Lewis Carroll when he began first telling a young neighbor about Alice and Wonderland. She’s also quick to point out that inspiration is not all a writer needs, referring to Charles Dickens’s manuscript of A Christmas Carol, which was published in facsimile by the Morgan Library: “the first page is so crossed out and written over than one can hardly find the first sentence, which sounds so right and inevitable.”

Just in case you’re not already set to find this book, or Telling Time, another great essay collection, let me tell you how this poetry professor at Vassar ends her classes, which she describes in the last short essay. She buys fortune cookies, pulls out the old fortunes with tweezers, and replaces them with lines typed from poems the students wrote during the course. “They go out into a violent world with good fortunes in their pockets: the blessings they gave each other.”



  1. that fortune cookie thing is so cool. I had to wonder about the title of the book, why does she call it left handed? Is that a reference to the different parts of the brain?

  2. I like the idea of the rhythm of the oars fueling Lewis Carroll’s imagination. I wonder what sounds fuel other writers’ imagination or keep the pacing steady as they write? (Right now, I have the sounds of the dishwasher running downstairs and the sounds of dogs next to me, snorting or sighing before sleep.) Great post! Would love to be in Nancy’s class with fortunes from poetry.

  3. That fortune cookie idea is wonderful. What a gift to the students.

  4. Yes, she calls the stove her muse. And there are lots of sewing metaphors I could relate to as a former 4-H girl.
    Here’s one of her children’s books I haven’t read but mean to look for: The High Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake.

  5. I think that’s a term she invented for stories not written from what you know but from more than you know, which says are most of the stories she’s remembered through the decades. Thanks for asking! (cause I had to go back and reread)

  6. Mmm, like those sleepy dog sounds. Better than squirrel-alert sounds, which are the price of having a bird feeder nearby.
    And oh yes that class sounds like the best of the best fortunes.

  7. It makes me want to steal it. But I’m not cool enough to pull it off. However, on Winnie-the-Pooh days I do bake scones.

  8. Scones are always good. Well done, you!

  9. This sounds fabulous!

  10. Stories written from more than you know… now that’s what I’m talking about! (I argue all the time against the conventional wisdom that says, write what you know.) Isn’t writing about DISCOVERY? And IMAGINATION?? Yep. The book sounds wonderful.

  11. I *just* picked up this book last night, to dip into again. And I frequently go through Telling Time when I’m downhearted. Nancy Willard has been the writer in residence at Hollins several times. Everyone *adores* her–she’s so wise and generous and *magical.*
    She’s coming to Hollins again in 2012. I’m taking that summer off but I don’t want to miss seeing Nancy, so I’ll be going back to give a talk . . . and hope I can spend an evening with Nancy Willard, sitting on the verandah in the green rocking chairs.

  12. Kelly, these essays and others of Nancy Willard’s are so good that sometimes reading just a page is enough to send you back to your own work, or see the world as more enchanted. I think An Angel in the Parlor is out of print, but Telling Time is also wonderful.

  13. I was spurred to write this reading Betsy Bird’s blog a few days ago about writers from Michigan, and my heart started beating hard to the tune of Nancy Willard. I have that same thing — even reading snippets cheers me.
    I already wanted to stalk you on your AWP adventures, but now I totally want to be by that rocking chair. How wonderful you get to talk with her, and that she is as amazing off the page as on!

  14. This sounds delicious, from the back burner straight on to the fortune cookies. What a wise writer (and painstaking, too! Tweezers, forsooth!). I’ve admired her books for children and will have to look out for this.

  15. Some of her fiction and books for children are fanciful, and I like the one-foot-on-the-floor sense in the essays of how she gets there. Often through soup kettles or cloth.

  16. Just lovely, her words… and yours! Always inspirational.

  17. Oh this is a must go buy it now book, I can tell. I never tire of stories of writers and where they find their words.
    I would have loved to have a teacher like this. Sometimes I wish I had come to writing on a different path. I have never had a teacher guide me. I hunger for one still.

  18. Thank you, Jeannine, for this wonderful post. I had the great good fortune to meet Nancy Willard at the Sandhills Conference in Augusta many moons ago – she made such an impression on me and I have turned to her work many times. I am always recommending TELLING TIME and read excerpts to eighth grade composition students years ago. (One of my favorite essays is “How Poetry Came into the World and Why God Doesn’t Write It.”)THE HIGH RISE GLORIOUS SKITTLE SKAT ROARIOUS SKY PIE ANGEL FOOD CAKE is in a category all by itself, and quite delicious! Robyn Hood Black

  19. And you and your flowers are so inspirational, too, Laura!

  20. Susan, you’ll love this book or any of Nancy Willard’s essay collections: I bet you’ve read some of her essays here and there. What a teacher. But at least we get to have the benefit through her written words.

  21. Robyn, I don’t know whether it makes me happier to know other people are discovering a writer or to hear other people who know the work and agree it’s wonderful. But I guess I don’t have to pick apart the happiness! Thank you for stopping by!

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