What I remember most about her is her love of story. She listened earnestly as we shared ours, though most were typical undergraduate slush pile material. Her face, always turned toward the speaker, showed genuine interest and something like wonder. Around the workshop table, we were not students with dreams of writing; we were writers. Not because we had earned the title, but because she believed it of us. It was her gift.
She shared her own stories, fiction and non-fiction, and each felt like a treasure. I remember these: A mannequin’s kiss from an early story she had written. Delivering mail for years when her writing did not pay the bills. (Which writing often doesn’t.) Showing off her toned arms, earned by running and a new workout regimen. She spoke of Sister and Pharaoh, as she was writing Pinion at the time, wondering aloud about their voices and thoughts. They were real to her, these character, these stories, our stories.
Not so remarkable that she would speak of her work—every one of my creative writing teachers has. But remarkable how humble, how transparent, and how open she was with her work. At the head of the table, she earned our respect but did not demand it. She deserved our admiration, yet spoke of her work as unfinished, as progress. She let us in—a bunch of sundry undergrads. Unlike another teacher I had years later who spent the entirety of her class relating every piece back to her award-winning story. (Always that reference: “award-winning.” Always.) I don’t remember the award, but it was certainly not a Pulitzer.
I cannot imagine Claudia using her Pulitzer as a prop. Instead, she listened to our stories. Really listened. I saw her once after she won. “Claudia” felt like a strangely grown-up name to use; in classes we had called her Emerson. I felt giddy and grown up holding the stem of a wine glass and calling her Claudia. She did not talk about the award, but instead brought up my story: “I still remember it. You know—the one with the red sweater at a funeral. I loved that.”
She loved it so much that she wrote a recommendation that, if I’m being honest, is what got me into graduate school. For my stories then were less stories and more non-fiction scenes with no beginning, middle, or end. Yet Emerson—Claudia—saw a whisper of something. She took me by the arms and demanded that I apply to school and send out my work. I would not have thought to do so otherwise.
Claudia’s words, written and otherwise, were full. Brimming with sincerity and light and laughter. I remember watching her once in a bar when her not-yet husband Kent played guitar. She lit up. Far from a school girl, but like a woman discovering love not for the first time. The love that knows the both richness and fullness and the heartache and the hurt. The love that, knowing both good and bad, dives headlong anyway.
I have no pictures of her, but the one I stole from my friend Lydie with the two of them dancing at a wedding—that is how I see her in my mind. She lit up the page and lit up the room and lit up so many writers with her faith in them. I am thankful for what legacy she leaves in her words, and in the memories of all who knew her. Her light still pours through the words and yet, I think those who knew her would agree that the room seems to have quieted. It was too soon.
In memory of Claudia Emerson, 1957-2014.