FOR ROBERT, BRIEFLY (as he would want)

Who’s the first person you wish you could share a success with?   If Robert only knew, I find myself thinking when a problem story finally comes together the way he’d suggested.

I met Robert many years ago. It was a humid spring evening when I ventured into my first (and only) writers’ group.  Since I had just written my first short story, I dared myself to risk exposing it to strangers. Clutching my typed manuscript (remember typewriters?),  I walked into a Greenwich Village apartment.  Three women were sitting in chairs, while a sole man lounged on the one sofa, a crutch beside him.  Ranging from young to middle-aged, dressed in jeans and wrinkled shirts, they all looked unprepossessing to say the least.  This is going to be a zero , I told myself.

A woman who appeared to be the leader said, “Since you’re new, you read  first.”  (Nowadays we let the newcomer breathe first!)  I read my story,  pages  shaking so much I had trouble seeing the words. When I finished there was an ominous silence.  Everyone seemed to be looking at their feet. Then that woman said solemnly, ”I like it.”  She was interrupted by a male voice. “Of course most of this is garbage.”

I still don’t know why I didn’t run out, or how I knew that the blunt words were Robert’s way of saying there was 10% of my story worth saving.  In some intuitive way I understood that he was trying to help me . His perceptive comments then pointed the way to a trimmer and deeper story, as did the critiques from everyone else there.  So  I decided to join the group – and have stayed for  25 years.  .

The common belief is that writers are notoriously competitive. But every time one of us has had an acceptance the reaction from the group has been unanimously enthusiastic.  You see,  we feel we’ve each had a hand in it. And I will never forget the generous response from everyone the night I announced that my first book had actually found a publisher. “Fantastic!” proclaimed Robert, who used that word very sparingly.

He was also sparing – and adjective free – in his writing.  A minimalist who made Raymond Carver look verbose, his surgical deletions in my stories were invaluable because I tend to overwrite. ”Sentimental!” he would write in the margins, in glaring red ink.  Or– the worst crime –“Overt!”

Though his critiques usually ended up being right, there were times when his astringent spareness became the wrong fit for me. One time I confessed to him that I hadn’t  taken  every one of his suggestions about a story.  “I would hope not!” he said.

I’m a compulsive reviser, but he far outdid me with 50 to 100 revisions of every story and poem. “I have another Golden Oldie,” he’d invariably announce at each meeting.  So his output was slim, though he did have some two dozen pieces published in small magazines.

His stories were intellectual puzzles, but his hidden emotional side came through in his poems.  They gave us glimpses of  the women who came and went in his life, of friends who had died (mainly of AIDS) and the happiness he finally found in marriage to the widow of his best friend. He would have been embarrassed if he’d realized how much of himself he revealed in those poignant poems. Death was  a constant theme, as it was in his mind. He’d suffered most of his life with an illness similar to polio and had to use crutches.  For years he talked about which selections he wanted included in  his  “posthumous” book.

I’m putting all this in the past tense because Robert died two years ago, when his illness finally caught up with him.

Knowing these were probably his last months, he painstakingly arranged his stories and poems, demanded our sternest critiques,  and then paid a publisher to print his collected work in three slim volumes.

I had envied him the restrained beauty of those poems. So much so that I once ventured to bring in samples of my secret vice: my poetry. “I’m really not a poet,” I apologized.

“You have the instincts of a poet,” Robert surprised me by saying. ”But you’re lazy.”

Those words have reverberated within me, a challenge.  Recently I began revising my poems, and cut one about my father’s dying  from three pages to one.  I thought Robert would probably say it was still too long.  (He complained that Pound’s famous two- line poem,  “In A Station of the Metro,” was one line too long!)

This year my  poem about my father became my first one to be published.  Look what you did for me, I longed to tell Robert.

There had to be some way to thank him.  So I brought his books to Manhattan’s prestigious Poets House,  where they are now  with thousands of other poets.  You will find him under Fagan, Robert.  He would probably take the books from your hands to make a final revision.

BOOKS:: Widow’s Walk, Turning Toward Tomorrow, Ten Women of Valor

LINKS::; Facebook; LinkedIn


“Another eloquent and poignant piece. As a writer, this resonated very deeply with me. A writing community is so vital, both for support and honest critique. Same with friendship, right?”  –  Ben Kassoy

“A very moving story and insight into the development of a  writer.”- Warren A.



A confession: I’ve gotten a lot of compliments about the name of my  blog , anne-otations.  But the truth is, I stole  it.  On the distant day of my 12th birthday, my grandfather wrote me a three-page letter of advice about ladylike behavior and titled it  annotations.  (My name was originally without the e.) Grandpa was addicted to puns and I’ve inherited that.

He also bequeathed some expert advice about writing. Most of us have someone in our past who first encouraged us to write. He was that person for me.

His name was Samuel Archibald de Bear. (As a child, I was told that our Dutch  deBear side of the family was related to the deBeers of diamond fame, but I’ve never seen a karat of that.)

Grandpa was born in England and became the Sports Editor for the London Times.  In a story that’s legendary in our family, the publisher was offended by something Grandpa wrote  and punished him by giving his byline to another staffer. As we writers can understand, that was a blow not to be taken lightly. Grandpa tried to sue, but to no avail.  Unfortunately, this caused him to be blacklisted by other publishers.

Unable to find newspaper work Grandpa took himself off to America, along with a wife and five children  (one of whom became my mother). He had hoped to continue writing about sports, but knew too little about the intricacies of American athletics. So he got a job in advertising.  Another family legend has it that when the Ballantine ale logo of three rings was created, he supplied the famed caption: Purity, Body, Flavor.

He also became the mentor of the young granddaughter who was myself. My grandfather was the only one who believed I would become a writer.

This didn’t deter him from being a severe critic. Reading  my typical adolescent flowery phrases, he warned me about being “self-indulgent.” Clutching my manuscript, I protested that I loved my “poetic” words. He said that whenever I wrote words I was in love with, they should probably be erased.  It was the best advice I’ve ever been given.

One of the last times I saw him, when I was a rebellious 15- year -old, I broke the news that I intended to become an actress.   ”You’ll outgrow it,” he predicted.

I did detour into acting and it took decades before I came back to what he had insisted I was born to be: a writer. He didn’t live to see this, for he died just weeks after that final conversation ,

Yet to this day, whenever I applaud myself for a “poetic” phrase,  I invariably discover it calls so much attention to itself that it distracts from the story. Or that it makes for pretentious dialogue, not the truth of how the character would be speaking.  In those moments, my grandfather’s voice gives me strength to press the delete key.

This blog post is my belated tribute to him.

BOOKS: Widow’s Walk – available through iUniverse; Turning Toward tomorrow –;Ten Women of Valor – – also Amazon and Amazon Kindle

LINKS: Facebook, LinkedIn


“What a beautiful relationship you had with your grandfather.” – Susan R.

“A beautiful story – really enjoyed it.” – Warren A.