Again Calls The Owl Sketch, Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 2009, photo © 2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.
Margaret Craven worked as a journalist and didn’t publish her first novel until her late 60’s (something I find strangely hopeful). Born in Helena, Montana in 1901, she grew up in Puget Sound, Washington of meager means, worked hard to be one of the first women to attend Stanford, and graduated in 1924 with honors.
Craven’s novel I Heard the Owl Call My Name was first published in Canada in 1967. Picked up by an American publisher in 1973, the book was on the 1970’s bestseller list. It was made into a film in 1973 and shown as part of the CBS television network’s “GE Theater” series.
Near the end of her life, Craven wrote Again Calls the Owl, an autobiography in response to readers’ questions about how she came to write I Heard the Owl Call My Name. On a recent visit, Liz’s mother bought an old copy of Again Calls the Owl to read on her plane ride from Wyoming to Minnesota. She passed it on to me.
As opposed to memoir, the book is sparsely written in the autobiographical style of laying down significant chronological events that shaped the author’s life. A highpoint was Craven’s unexpected rendezvous with writer Gertrude Stein. A friend of Margaret’s had grown up in San Francisco with Alice B. Toklas and arranged a meeting when Stein came to town for a hospital visit at Mark Hopkins.
Alice B. Toklas walked Margaret into Gertrude’s room where she sat on her bed writing letters in a red velvet robe (an image not hard to imagine). Stein welcomed the young writer and they had a long chat about writing that ended with Stein’s sadness at her friend Ernest Hemingway and “the change that had come with The Sun Also Rises,” something she termed “the beginning of his egomania.”
Again Calls the Owl is a short read, about 120 pages, and includes Craven’s pencil drawings interspersed throughout the book. I wanted to share Stein’s writing advice to Margaret during their three hour visit. She wrote down what Stein had told her on the cable car ride home:
“Every writer must have common sense. He must be sensitive and serious. But he must not grow solemn. He must not listen to himself. If he does, he might as well be under a tombstone. When he takes himself solemnly, he has no more to say. Yet he must despise nothing, not even solemn people. They are part of life and it’s his job to write about life.”
“Be direct. Indirectness ruins good writing. There is inner confusion in the world today and because of it people are turning back to old standards like children to their mothers. This makes indirect writing.”
“A writer must preserve a balance between sensitivity and vitality. Highbrow writers are sensitive but not vital. Commercial writers are vital but not sensitive. Trying to keep this balance is always hard. It is the whole job of living.”
“When one writes a thing — when you discover and then put it down, which is the essence of discovering it — one is done with it. What people get out of it is none of the writer’s business.”
“Every writer is self-conscious. It’s one reason he is a writer. And he is lonely. If you know three writers in a lifetime, that is a great many.”
“You do not have to write what the editors want. You can write what you want and if you develop sufficient craftsmanship, you can sell it, too. I want you to write for the Saturday Evening Post. It demands the best craftsmanship.”
-Gertrude Stein from Again Calls the Owl by Margaret Craven, Dell Publishing, 1980
Though Gertrude asked Margaret to stay in touch, she never contacted Stein again. I recently learned from Bo’s blog Seeded Earth that there is a statue of Gertrude Stein in New York City’s Bryant Park. Much to my amazement, it was the first public statue of an American woman placed in the whole of New York City — it was installed in 1992. (Here’s the link to view Bo’s photograph of Gertrude at Seeded Earth and read more about the sculpture.)
I see Craven’s euphoria about her visit with Stein much the way I feel when I go and hear Nikki Giovanni, Ann Patchett, Patricia Smith, Steve Almond, or Mary Oliver talk about their work and have a chance to shake their hands when they sign my books. Or when our Poetry and Meditation Group receives a card from Billy Collins, Gary Soto, or Robert Bly.
It is the same joy I feel from the privilege of having studied with Natalie Goldberg. The things she has taught me about the practice of writing are immeasurable. There is much to be learned from the wisdom and knowledge of published writers who have already paid their dues.
At the end of Again Calls the Owl, Craven reflects on Walk Gently This Good Earth, her novel about growing up in the Cascades and her father’s life in Montana. One last quote from Craven urges writers to take heed:
A professional writer must be careful what he writes now about the past which could be used to hurt innocent people unmercifully.
I think it’s time my country does what the Indians of Kingcome are doing. We must return to our roots, our own safety and integrity, and I think this is beginning to occur. Our lives depend upon it.
-from Again Calls the Owl by Margaret Craven, Dell Publishing, 1980
- Margaret Craven biography at BC Bookworld
- Reviews of I Heard the Owl Call My Name at Barnes & Noble
- Cover Art of releases of I Heard the Owl Call My Name at Library Thing
- I Heard the Owl Call My Name at Powell’s Books
- Again Calls the Owl at Powell’s Books
- Review & Comparison of Walk Gently This Good Earth to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird — Westcotts & Finches at Mirkwood
-posted on red Ravine, Monday, August 10th, 2009 with gratitude to oliverowl
-related to post: Book Talk – Do You Let Yourself Read?