Jean McGarry writes in a voice that combines feeling, thought

LIVING FOR LITERATURE

November 29, 1992|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

Leaning into the table of writing students, Jean McGarry emphasizes a point with slender hands that seem to contour her thoughts. She's talking about the imagery of Virginia Woolf, leading the young writers deeper and deeper into the acuteness of literary detail.

The students sit, bottles of Seltzer at the ready, as if the course, "Describing in Fiction," were a particularly rigorous form of exercise. It is. Through their own stories as well as carefully chosen texts, they are learning just how much work strong description can accomplish.

Ms. McGarry helps them consider how Woolf's dark clouds of birds can become the violence of thoughts, how the moans of cows can express human despair -- and how the best writers can harness the powers released when exterior and interior worlds merge.

"Sometimes the character doesn't know what he is thinking, but the reader does because of the juxtaposition of images," Ms. McGarry says. Later, as the students share passages from their own writing, she evaluates the potency of several descriptions by how many conclusions they allow readers to make about characters.

Associate professor in the Writing Seminars of the Johns Hopkins University and director of the department's undergraduate studies, the 40-year-old writer published her third novel, "The Courage of Girls" (Rutgers University Press), this year. She has just finished "Gallagher's Travels," a story of a brilliant, neurasthenic young woman who stumbles into newspapers in the early 1970s as they are transforming into corporate, high-tech products. Or, as Ms. McGarry puts it, "just when they are going from a 'His Gal Friday' world to one which is streamlined and faithless."

What is the most difficult thing to teach writing students?

"Patience is one of the hardest," Ms. McGarry says. "Maybe 1 in 50 million persons can sit down at the age of 18 and write something that's perfect. At least that's my experience with my students, and especially with myself."

Rewriting is a must

And so they begin to learn, as did Ms. McGarry, that much of the genius of writing depends upon developing the muscle of rewriting. She has spent about a year and a half revising her current novel.

"As I've gotten farther along, I do more and more rewriting," she says. "In the novel I've almost finished, each chapter has gone through four radical drafts after the initial draft. It's kind of a scraping down to the bone and a rebuilding so I feel I can stand behind everything I say."

She plans to read from "Gallagher's Travels" this spring when she shares billing at the Library of Congress with writer Susan Sontag. After three books that were critically well-received, Ms. McGarry is often described as a "realist of the interior." In her work, according to reviewer Stacy Carson Hubbard, "girls move through a world of sullen and combative families and friends, watching and listening for keys to the unspoken codes that will make them feel at home in their own lives."

In a broad sense, Ms. McGarry's protagonists share the shape of her own life. Women who grew up in Catholic working-class families in small towns or cities like Providence, R.I., they move into new intellectual and social aspirations through university scholarships and spend a good piece of time trying to reconcile the contradictions in their lives.

Ms. McGarry's academic and arts-filled career has taken her far from the neighborhood where her father drove a truck for Bond Bread Co. and worked in general maintenance for Narragansett Electric. And the sharp, often humorous, contemplation of the natives of both these worlds has flavored her novels.

Modern wisdom

"I would call her work 'contemporary' in the best sense, meaning that it's full of a kind of modern psychological wisdom that is never glib," says writer Joyce Kornblatt. "She has created a voice of great feeling, yet one that's highly thoughtful -- almost philosophical -- at the same time, so that you really have a sense of a mind and a heart at work."

Ms. McGarry's first book, "Airs of Providence" (Johns Hopkins University Press), won the 1985 Southern Review/Louisiana State University Short Fiction Prize. Hopkins English professor Larzer Ziff calls it a masterful portrayal of the Catholic subculture of New England mill towns.

"It's a book about a little ethnic pocket," Ms. McGarry says. "People there speak differently and live differently than the rest of us do now. Everyone there knows everyone else. It was like a village in a way. And full of idioms."

She describes "The Very Rich Hours" as a very internalized story of a character who grows up in a world like Providence, goes to Harvard in the late '60s and feels "the terrible turmoil of someone who feels out of her league."

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