Doris Betts, 1932-2012

If, as Robert A. Heinlein observed, There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch, it doesn't take a great leap of understanding to recognize the fact that we spend our lives getting into serious debt. Someone is out there buying our lunches from the first moment of our existence--before we know, or are even capable of knowing, who "someone" might be, or even even that we exist ourselves. That debt to our mothers is uniquely unrequitable, but there are other debts that we acquire from the moment we leave the womb that will almost certainly go without payback. We are in debt to our parents and guardians for shelter, for nourishment, for everything they teach us, good and bad. We are in debt to our siblings and friends for a whole different category of lessons, as well as for a kind of sympathy and companionship we cannot get from even the most generous of parents. We are in debt to our teachers, our coaches, our employers, all those who have taught us how to do what we do. And in many cases, we owe a debt to people we have never met: to those who raised our parents, and their parents, and all our ancestors; to those who fought for all the rights, privileges, and comforts we now enjoy; and to those who created the stories that nourish our imaginations. But as entropy takes us farther and farther away from those who helped launch us from our starting points, restitution becomes more and more unimaginable. No matter how much wealth you set aside for these generous souls, you'll never even find them all, let alone deliver to them what a strict accounting would say they deserve.

With payback an impossibility, then, what can a debtor do? My parents know how much I owe them, just as they know they'll never get fair restitution; the only thing I can do to is follow their example, and try to match their generosity with my own offspring. And they, of course, will have to do likewise. It may sound like some cosmic Ponzi scheme, but the relentless flow of time demands that we go to our graves both owing and being owed, each of us a borrower and a lender at once.

The grey-green landscape outside my window this Sunday morning is one that seems likely to produce thoughts primarily of debts, and that is indeed the main focus of my mind, thanks to the news I got late yesterday that Doris Betts had died. In my personal ledger, there are few debts larger than the one I owe her, but even as I processed the news of her death, I was realizing that Doris herself had no idea how much I owed her.

I first met Doris sometime in the mid-1970s, when she directed the North Carolina Fellows Program, at which my mother also worked, but I didn't really get to know her until I entered UNC myself in the fall of 1981. Thanks to my usual half-assed approach to anything bureaucratic, I mistakenly assumed that anyone who had qualified for UNC's Honors Program would automatically be enrolled in any writing course he wanted, leaving me shocked to discover that Doris's English 29W course had filled up when I wasn't paying attention. I could have settled for the non-Honors version of the class, I suppose, but for some reason I was determined to play with the big boys, so I wrote Doris a letter. I don't recall exactly what I wrote, but I did let her know that I desperately wanted to get into her class, and I added a line that, as I think about it now, could have easily been taken the wrong way; I told her that I'd be willing to commit "any number of felonies" on her behalf if she'd let me register.

As I soon discovered, that stupid joke was exactly the right way to get on Doris Betts' good side. Her reply welcomed me to the class and asked that the felonious gains be handed over in tens and twenties, please.

I spent that fall of my freshman year finding out that while I was a capable writer, I did not in fact know how to write. I had the ear for it, so to speak, and I had some chops, but I knew very little about the theory, structure, or history of what I was trying to do. Doris (and my classmates) provided plenty of feedback on my short fiction, including a peculiar bit of twist-ending crime fiction called "Your Basic Kidnapping," which combined my strengths (an enjoyable and conversational narrative voice with a certain degree of smart-ass wit) and my weaknesses (a ludicrous plot with no characters of note beyond the narrator). The course was everything I'd hoped it would be: a chance to write more or less what I wanted for an audience of interested and well-informed readers.

I was somewhat surprised, though, that after taking some time to study our writing, she gave each student a personalized list of short stories to read--stories that she thought would offer us some important insights into how we might become better writers. My list included "In the Penal Colony" by Franz Kafka, "Why I Live at the P.O." by Eudora Welty, and "The Two Bottles of Relish" by Lord Dunsany. They didn't have a lot in common, but they certainly got my attention, particularly the latter, which probably says something about me as a writer, or perhaps as a diner.

From 29W I went on to take Daphne Athas' class in Stylistics (which I loved, but which I was at least a year too young to fully appreciate), Jim Seay's course in Intermediate Poetry (which I signed up for without taking the beginning class, but was allowed to attend after auditioning with a few poems), and short fiction courses from Lloyd Little and Bland Simpson. When I returned from my junior year abroad, I was ready for the big kahuna: English 99, a year-long weekly seminar for seniors. Doris and Daphne were the professors, and the students included several friends from my past classes, such as Mimi Herman, and a number who would go on to write acclaimed work, including Tim McLaurin, Randall Kenan, Kate Rindfleisch, and Sharlene Baker. It was a total delight. Daphne encouraged us to experiment, with her wide-ranging mind bringing surprising and sometimes even bizarre abstract points to our attention, while Doris' droll wit and no-bullshit professionalism kept us honest and focused us on the work. I never took a better class, never learned more about myself as a writer and a person, than I did on Wednesdays in 1984-85.

So yes, I owe Doris a debt I will never get to pay back, and she simply couldn't have known what those days in Greenlaw Hall meant to me. But maybe she had a vague idea, because there was one thing I got from those classes that she could see as clearly as I can the two brilliant pink azalea blossoms bending under raindrops outside my window. One of my 29 and 99 classmates, with whom I remain convinced I was fixed up by Mimi and the others one afternoon in 1985, became my wife, whose value to me is beyond any of the words I learned to use. I'll never be able to give Doris anything close to what I owe her, but because she was my teacher, I now have people in my life who can accept the lessons and the love she gave to me.

No, the lunch in this world is not free. But I learned from Doris Betts that we can always buy it for each other. And that, after all, is the way it tastes best.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on April 22, 2012 10:43 AM.

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