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December 21, 2017

Chloe Benjamin: Lessons from Molly

Posted by tom

Chloe Benjamin is the author of THE ANATOMY OF DREAMS, which received the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award. Her second novel, THE IMMORTALISTS, releases on January 9th and poses an intriguing question: If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life? As a child, Chloe knew she wanted to live her life as a writer. Her mom’s domestic partner, Molly, served as an early writing teacher, and the lessons she taught her helped her become a more economical writer who strives for “elegance over excessiveness and rhythm over length.” Chloe and Molly have kept up a years-long tradition of giving each other books for the holidays, as she explains in her Holiday Blog post.

I’ve wanted to be a writer since the age of eight or nine. I couldn’t take creative writing classes until college, so throughout my childhood, my mom’s domestic partner, Molly, served as an early writing teacher. Molly had been an English major at Stanford and pursued journalism for a few years afterward, but she ultimately turned to technical writing, where she stayed in order to support our family. Still, she retained a love for literary writing and an eagle eye for editing it.

Molly is not a cuddly person; her love is expressed through dedication, thoughtfulness and hard work. No fan of long phone calls, big hugs or adverbs, she reads like she lives: with an appreciation for clarity, nuance and meaning that isn’t trite. I, on the other hand, was prone to purple prose, stories that meandered far longer than they had to, and a habit of giving every image two or three descriptors.

“It was as red as an apple,” I wrote, as a teenager, “or a basketball hoop, or a fancy lady’s lips.”

“Choose one,” said Molly.

Her suggestions felt extreme at the time, but looking back, they helped me to reign in my propensity for overwriting. Now, I value restraint as much as lyricism and find beauty in both. In my work, I strive for elegance over excessiveness and rhythm over length. I’m proudest of my writing not when it’s chock-full of imagery but when it conveys exactly what I intended it to.

Meanwhile, Molly and I have kept up a years-long tradition of giving each other books for the holidays --- often used ones from San Francisco’s Green Apple Books. We’ve always communicated best in writing, and gifting books is as much a method of communication as our monthly emails. She introduced me to Michelle Huneven; I gave her Kazuo Ishiguro. Our choices are reflective and deliberate: we usually give the other something we’ve already read and loved.

She still reads my work. Meanwhile, after decades away from it, she’s picked up her own creative writing again. Every so often, she sends me a short story or a bit of nonfiction from her life. Now, though, neither of us edit. We just take it in.