On the Passing of Kit Reed

reedOne of my earliest writing mentors, Kit Reed, passed away recently. If you don’t know her work, I highly recommend you check it out.

I first knew Kit as RedWriter in our online writing class. Later, when she offered to tutor me one-on-one, we would sit in her warm kitchen and eat wafer cookies or pizza bagels, and she would offer her critiques on my work, and advice on the writing life. When my other classes or personal life became overwhelming (which they did, often), Kit would shake her head and say, “Triage.” She meant: set aside everything that’s less important than your writing. Do what you have to in order to prioritize your art. Even at a sprightly 75 years of age, she got up every morning to work. To craft whatever strange and heartbreaking new novel was currently thudding in her veins.

Kit was a fan of a process I termed the “Brick Shithouse” method of writing (at least I think I termed it– it may have been one of her own foul-mouthed inventions). She would write one page at a time, finishing that 500 words or so, then start over and rewrite it. Again and again she’d rewrite a single page until it was right, only then moving on to the next page, building her novel brick by solid brick. “You learn what you’re trying to say as you say it,” she’d tell me. She was the first person to introduce me to this deliberate, sometimes plodding, language-first style of storytelling. And for a sloppy speed-demon like myself, it was the best advice.

One afternoon I turned in a draft that was riddled with typos. The story was there, I figured. I could fix the tiny mistakes later. When we sat down at the kitchen table, Kit handed the half-read manuscript to me and said, “Don’t ever waste my time like this again.” There would be no class that day. I was to go home and fix my shit. If I expected respectful critiques, I better damn well respect my reader enough to deliver a clean draft. Today, I still call myself the King of Typos, but I reread everything I send or post again and again; errors do slip by, but never from laziness. Today, I return sample pages that aren’t numbered, or don’t include the author’s name. My feedback is a bit softer in tone, but the message is the same. Respect your reader. Don’t waste my time with this shit.

Kit never minced words. As such, our sessions weren’t always comfortable. But I learned more from her than anyone. I learned to treasure the gift of being a writer. The tools it gave me for navigating the world. When I was in pain (which was often, those years), she told me, “It’s all copy.” And she was right. Nothing in life is wasted. It all comes out in the work.

Kit Reed was brilliant and fearless. She told me to always put “…and is currently working on a novel” at the end of every ‘about me’ or bio. “Even if you aren’t,” she’d say. “Someday some publisher might read that byline and ask to read your book.” After all, that’s how she got her first book deal. “Don’t get a day job that involves writing,” she also told me. “Or it will burn you out for your own stuff.” Yet more invaluable advice.

I came to Kit’s kitchen at a time when my life was changing. I was giving up on a lot of things— a relationship, some friendships, some old ways of thinking, and old notions of who I was and what I wanted. It was a difficult period for me, with much uncertainty, but the rules were never clearer than sitting at Kit’s kitchen table. Don’t get it right, get it written. Respect your reader. Triage. It’s all copy.

My relationship to writing has changed a lot since then, but few things were more formative to who I am than my time with Kit Reed. She gave a shit, she gave me her time and attention and wisdom. She was never soft, always giving. She was brilliant, and her work remains so.

I have other stories about Kit, like the time I had to break into her house via a second-story porch, because I’d agreed to watch her dogs and locked the keys in the house (I never told her, not even when she wondered aloud how her trellis got chipped). Or the last time I saw her, meeting at her club in New York, and being so late she just shook her head and said, “Well there’s no time for a coke now. Your loss.” She rarely saw me at my best, but she was always so giving of herself anyway. I’ll be forever grateful.

So long, RedWriter. Thank you. You were a teacher and friend to so many, and we will miss you.

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