Sunday, November 3, 2019

A Friend Who Mentored Me

On Christmas Eve, 1966, I left the convent after spending eight-and-a-half years there. One of the first persons I met after leaving was Robert Kraske. A publishing house in Ohio, had offered me work as an assistant editor of its weekly reader for the primary grades of Catholic schools. Robert was my boss.

On Sunday evening, January 22, 1967, Bob picked me up at the Dayton airport. I was sure he wondered how one talked to an ex-nun who still wore the pallor of the convent. Forging right ahead into unchartered territory, he asked a question that reflected a real interest in what I might reply. Then and there began the multitudinous conversations we had for the next 52 years. 

Rather quickly, I learned that Bob was, in general, always deliberate in speech, especially with regard to words. He was the first person to quote to me the famous line of Mark Twain. He did this while critiquing my first assignment under his tutelage.

"Dolores," Bob instructed, "Follow Mark Twain's advice: 'The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.'" I got his point and found a better word than the one he'd blue-penciled in the article.

Twain’s observation mattered to Bob who studied throughout his life the art of crafting words into books. He did this so successfully that twenty of his books for 10-to-14 year olds have been published. Often, during our long friendship, he’d stop me in mid-stream as I sounded off about writing, politics, aging. With genuine pleasure, he’d say, “That’s it, Dolores. That’s it. The right word.” He took delight in hearing or using the right word in any given sentence of composition or conversation. 

Bob became the mentor I needed so as to learn how to write for youngsters, how to delete excessive verbiage, how to hold fast to the thread that would guide the reader effortlessly through my writing.

In short, Bob taught me both to write and to edit. Thus, he gave me a career that lasted from 1967 to 2001 when I retired. During those years, he also taught me the art of writing longer books. It was Bob who gave me the advice that has kept me writing. 

Back in the 1990s, As I worked on a novel about Bronze-Age-Greece, he’d ask, whenever I visited him and his wife, Jan, “How’s the book coming?”

 “I’m still on Chapter 1. Polishing it.”

 “Dolores,” he’d say, “you’ve been on Chapter 1 for two months now. Start another chapter.”

“But, . . .”

“Keep going. Write each day and stop in the middle of a sentence. The next day, pick up from there. Do that until you get to the end of the first draft. Then. And Only Then. Will you know that you have a novel.”

“But, . . .”

“When you have the first draft, you have something to work with. You know you have a book in there somewhere. Then you rewrite. Edit. And finally, only after you know you’ve grabbed hold of the story, do you polish.”

“But, . . .”

“If you keep polishing Chapter 1, you’ll never get to the final chapter.” It was sound advice and I took it. Thus, Bob became the mentor of my writing to be published. 

Finally, Bob has been the mentor of my aging. I have watched him for years as he began to learn how to paint in acrylics, draw with charcoal sticks, and play jazz on a keyboard. Always and ever, he tried new avenues to explore. His curiosity about technique and process never faltered.

Always he read for new ideas and enjoyed nature during his daily walks around Stillwater, Minnesota. And always he embraced life: When Jan died, he learned to cook, collected recipes, paid bills, bought groceries, lived his life, adjusted to the new norm, welcomed his adult children home with meals he’d cooked for them, cherished their triumphs, helped them through the dark times, and remained steadfast. He was a man of great fortitude.

And always he was, for me, the living example of the following words by William Blake: “To see a World in a grain of sand. And a heaven in a Wild Flower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand. And eternity in an hour.”

I shall be missing Bob for the rest of my life. 

The photo, taken by one of his sons, is for Bob's 90th birthday. He died a few weeks short of his 93rd birthday in late November.