Nonfiction

Remembering Doris Betts: Courage and the Southern Writer

By Marjorie Hudson


 

Doris Betts died Saturday, April 21, 2012 at Araby Farm in Pittsboro, North Carolina. Yes, the farm was named for the James Joyce story, and not coincidentally for the up to 17 Arabian horses it kept, a passion of her husband, Judge Lowry Betts. She was author of six novels and three collections of short stories, and won many awards for her writing, including the John Dos Passos Prize and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Medal of Merit, and her short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” was made into a film that won an Academy Award.  

 

Her stories and novels explored with a clear eye issues of race, illness, human struggle, Southern history and culture, as well as healing and redemption—but her characters never had easy paths to follow.

 

Honored with the George Garrett Award in 2008 by Associated Writing Programs, she was renowned for her mentorship of student writers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—and every other place she visited or taught. Students and later colleagues included accomplished authors Jill McCorkle, Robert Morgan, Bland Simpson, and Randall Kenan.

 

As one North Carolina writer said, “A great light has been put out.”

 

In addition to being a literary light, Doris was also a great neighbor and mentor in the little town where she lived. I had the good fortune of meeting her when I was just getting started as a writer of fiction. I wasn’t in any of her classes. I was a lowly copyeditor at a luminous local publisher. After I published an early story in the venerable Story magazine, I told her I wished I could come to one of her classes. She let “outsiders” audit her classes in those days. She turned and gave me the once-over. “If you have a story in Story magazine, what you really need is just time to write.” She had me there. I needed time—but also courage. I kept thinking if I could borrow some of her courage, I’d be able to pull off being a writer.

 

It was from Doris that I learned the great lesson that being a Southern writer was not about being nice. It was about fierce dedication to the writing art, and to the art of living.

 

Living in the little town of Pittsboro, we’d run into each other from time to time. While she was out there mentoring her UNC undergrads, she was also teaching Sunday school at her local Presbyterian church. While she was winning national recognition as a writer, she was serving on the board of her local Friends of the Library. While she was working away on her next novel, she was also tutoring and working to establish a local literacy council. And while nursing her mother and husband in long illnesses, she would, from time to time, find ways to encourage me in my struggle to produce new work, weather rejections, and find work that paid.

 

She wrote many recommendations for me, and in recent years we met for lunch often, sometimes with a small group of local writers she seemed intent on encouraging. Shrugging off questions about her own work and her illness, she would always ask me—and the others—“What are you working on now? How’s it going?” Those snapping black eyes digging out the truth, shining a light on my tendency to fudge or waver in my habits. Asking for a commitment to the work that took just a little more courage than I had. Helping me live up to the idea that it matters to be a writer.

 

I study Doris Betts’s work for form and structure, character and plot, dialogue and moral center. I’ll be studying Doris’s courage and dedication to making a difference for the rest of my life.  

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Doris Betts (1932-2012) was a legendary writer and teacher. She taught at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for more than 30 years. You can find many of her books here.

 

 

 

Marjorie Hudson is author of Accidental Birds of the Carolinas, a Pen/Hemingway Honorable Mention, the title story of which was published in The Literarian in Issue 2.