Wait for me in the corner and I’ll tell you how I ran away from home:
On Reading Dawn Powell
I was 11 when I first ran away from home. I ran because I wanted to see how far I could get. When it began to seem like I’d forget the way back if I traveled any further, I entertained the idea that something exciting—life-changing even—might occur nearby. What a delight it was to discover a writer who not only ran away from home when she was 11 (and never returned) but who also found comfort on the road, on the move.
Dawn Powell ran away because her stepmother burned all her short stories (“I burnt all that trash you were writing”), accidentally setting in motion her stepdaughter’s writerly destiny. Where I come from, women run away from home to get married. Sadly, they all return with small eyes and a divorce. They say it’s what happens when you run away. As a child, I kept looking for stories of women who ran away and lived happily ever after, but they were either hidden from me or they didn’t exist.
I wish I’d discovered Dawn Powell at that time in my life. Her writing is replete with women who did run, women who couldn’t, and women who didn’t. In “The Rut,” one of her earliest short stories, we are introduced to Anne and Marjorie, best friends who grew up to want different things out of life. Anne wants to leave town, Marjorie doesn’t. “I am going to get away and do something different and even if I don’t make a success, I’ll at least be out of the rut—this miserable, deadly rut!” Anne says. Years later, they meet again, Anne envious of Marjorie who is now contentedly married with two children. Marjorie asks Anne if she’s happy. “No, I am not what you would call happy,” she admits. “I believe it is the people in the rut who are happiest after all. Once they get resigned, they make the most out of it and things are so much easier. Ambition seems to be the obstacle to overcome on the road to happiness.”
As if this situation doesn’t cause enough turmoil, as Anne leaves Marjorie she tells herself that happiness is not what she actually wants in life. “What I want is work. And as soon as I find myself making a dent in the road that may develop into a rut for myself, I’ll start all over again!” The image of a young girl determined to overcome her failure to prove to her friend that she has achieved what she left to do is startling. The clarity of thought, and the ability to recognize the difference between happiness and ambition, even more so. While this is a lesson in gumption, Powell doesn’t stop with stories of those who leave and those who stay. If her characters are full of hubris at the end of one story, they walk deflated in another. The Anne who leaves “The Rut” becomes the fiery Miss Chilton in “Here today, gone tomorrow,” where we are warned in the beginning, “Increasingly the world she had left became desirable. She began to write long letters to a few of those she remembered although she had never intended to do this.”
Women who leave and continue to desire what they’ve left behind comprise a big part of Powell’s world. Miss Chilton is desperate to know if she is being missed and celebrated at the school where she used to teach history. Sitting in a room at Hotel St. Albert, New York City, Miss Chilton wonders if they still whisper her achievements to each other in hushed and reverential tones (“She was tired of imagining their gasps, she wanted to hear them”). We are told that Miss Chilton had once been deeply upset to discover that she wasn’t the only subscriber to the New York Times at school. The rival subscriber was a student whom Miss Chilton flunks in history.
Powell is relentless in her satire, and it is worth noting that her characters never seem to have many friends. Miss Chilton is alone. She mostly has imagined sycophants, but no real friends. That’s one pitfall of becoming your own person—you don’t have people to remind you to shut up every now and then, no one to tell you that you aren’t half as charming as you think you are. The women in her stories must realize this on their own, and when they don’t, it becomes a constant looming threat they never learn to confront. And here Powell is smirking, asking us—but why should they?
It takes a supreme will to be like Anne and Miss Chilton. But what does it take to be a Marjorie? Especially since the Marjories of the world are just as important to Powell. In “Such a pretty day,” Powell gives us two Marjories—Sylvia and Barbs—friends and newly married mothers who go shopping one day to escape the mundane powerlessness of domestic life (Sylvia insists that they wear culottes). Standing in front of an affluent store with barely enough cents in their pockets, the narrator tells us that “Barbs and Sylvia clutched each other’s hands to keep up their courage before the hostile clerks.” Inside, Barbs sees a dolphin rubber float, snitches it, and stuffs it down her front. They escape quietly and quickly, hitch a ride. But tragedy strikes when they get out of the car. Barbs discovers that she has forgotten to steal the stopper, without which the float is useless. She is devastated and begins to weep. (“Maybe a piece of paper -” suggested Sylvia, but the fish collapsed, dwindled to nothing. Barbs notes “I would forget the stopper. I’d have to forget the most important thing”).
Powell is not interested in saving her characters, and this particular trait, as Fran Lebowitz points out, is why she was a commercially unsuccessful, though still superb, writer. What does it mean then for me—a girl sitting far away in Bangalore (dreaming of running away—to discover Dawn Powell one hundred years later? For anyone learning how to write, Dawn Powell is a gift. She was so accustomed to the silence that followed before and after writing that it is impossible to imagine now, even momentarily, a silence like that. It would be too deafening. Dawn Powell is teaching me how to write in silence, to ignore silence, and to write despite the silence. I believe it is what will save me from becoming too spoiled, even if Dawn Powell never intended and doesn’t care about saving me. Remaining undiscovered is the default state of many women writers, but it must have meant something else to Powell entirely. An early childhood lesson for her was that in order to keep writing, she had to remain undiscovered. When Powell and her sister hid from their stepmother to paint & write, Powell said, “Since our creative labors made no noise, we were happily undiscovered for a fortnight.”
Happiness doubles its shape when there are female friends to share it with—and ambition too—but for many of us who grow up friendless, these women and their words become a blueprint to follow in both ambition and writing. Women’s writing from even a hundred years before us has the capacity to carry us when we run away from home, walk away from a relationship, or just plain set out to explore a city they’ve lived and died in. This is what friendship with the women I have only come to know through their words means to me. I borrow gumption from the firmness and surety of their writing, how strong and irreplaceable they look in the shadow of my love for them. Their ghost-like presence and the very real strength of words they’ve left behind for us is the legacy of female companionship, greater and bigger than any other kind.
At least I want to make my own rut.
“Never forget geography. New York is heroine. Make the city live, so that the reader walking about thinks – here is fifth avenue hotel, where so and so came” Powell writes in her diary in 1951. When I was in Los Angeles last year on a scholarship program, it took me a while to remember that this was Joan Didion’s city. When I realized it, it was too late, and I was mad at myself because her words had carried me across the city even when I was barely paying attention. The possibility that I had perhaps walked on the very street Didion might have, passed by the very same house in Hollywood where she lived and wrote The White Album left a painful smile on my face. As I was leaving Los Angeles, still smiling, Didion’s words echoed in my fingertips: “It all comes back. Remember what it is to be me, that is always the point”. It was remembering what it is to be someone else, even if that memory was never mine, to begin with. But in that desperation to make the city mine, to see what these women saw, we become them, even if for a moment. Such is the pleasure and joy of discovering women writers so far away.
So now I know that if I ever come to New York, like so many others do, I will look for Dawn Powell in the streets of Greenwich, in the cafes, in the parks, and in the hotels of New York. I will look for her in the same way I learned what writing is all about. History, after all, has always hidden women who had gumption, who showed us it’s possible to run away and not look back. And their stories always reveal who they really are.