They say you are lucky if you have one great teacher. I don’t know who “they” are and if “they” mean someone who inspires or excites you or truly changes your life, but when I heard this I was in my 30s and had not had That One.
Most of my teachers, reinforcing my lack of interest in their subjects, inspired me to watch the clock or cut their class. In high school, I took and liked a psychology course given by a history teacher. I majored in psych in college. The high school teacher had little to with that. I found a subject that intrigued me. I wanted to understand Mom.
A post-college writing teacher encouraged me to send out my work. He provided market lists, reassurance and weekly edits, but he was not a life-changer. My desire to write came earlier and from within.
In 1983, I had an essay about being a divorced mother accepted at PARENTS. I was to be paid $1500. A mistake, no doubt. An extra zero. The second I saw that I signed the contract and immediately sent it back.
A few days later, the editor-in-chief, Elizabeth Crow, called. My stomach dropped to my knees. Had she caught the mistake or changed her mind about accepting my piece? “Nancy Kelton, Nancy Kelton, how do I know your name?” she asked.
“I sent you an article when you were at New York Magazine.”
Pause. “Not just one, right?”
Gulp. “No, ten.”
“Didn’t I reject them?”
“This is great,” Elizabeth said. “Great.”
“You’re a pro. I know you’re in it for the long haul.”
My father used to say, “It only takes one.”
Elizabeth was my one. She called me again the following week. “Send your work to me, not the articles editor. Write your whole next piece. After that, I’ll just need your opening paragraphs and a few more telling me where you’ll go.”
For the next decade, I wrote essays for PARENTS about my sister, father, being a mother, dating, men, and holidays. No research. No how-to’s. Elizabeth published 4 a year, going way up from the $1500, editing very little.
“It’s fun for me,” I told her.
“For me, too,” she said. “You don’t think I want to edit articles on teething and colic, do you?” With an essay on my first post-marital relationship, she got tons of mail from the Bible Belt. She called, read me some letters, and told me which ones she’d print in the next issue.
“Are you upset with the mail?” I asked.
“Thrilled. The magazine’s being read and I love making waves.”
A few times, she gave me assignments. She didn’t like how they came out and didn’t run them, but paid me anyway. “Write what you want to write,” she said. “You’re not a hired wordsmith.”
Elizabeth ‘got’ me and my writing. Her analysis of my essays and why she bought them figures into the appendix of my writing book.
When we schmoozed at lunch or in her office, we’d get to our lives and kids. Married (and grateful she didn’t have to date) with 3 children, she said when one takes a friend to their weekend country house, there’s not room in the car for everyone. Someone has to take the train. What a problem, I thought. Lucky her!
She left PARENTS to run the company that owned it, but missing editing took the helm at MADEMOISELLE and then had other jobs. We stayed in touch. She got divorced. We had dinner several times. Then we didn’t see each other very often. I reached out to her. She said she wasn’t feeling well. Soon after that, I heard she died.
“There are no barriers between you and your readers,” she once told me. There were none between Elizabeth and me.
The space she gave me changed my life. I think of her when I write and when my work is accepted and rejected. As she said during our first conversation, “You’re in it for the long haul.”