The Woman Who Helped Daniel Mendelsohn Become a Writer

Dave Thompson/PA Wire URN:32251193

All writers start their writing lives in different ways. Musicians who prefer writing poetry to writing lyrics; English majors obsessed with Charlotte Brontë; established doctors with stories to tell ─ but some beginnings are marked by subtler shifts of consciousness than others. For The New Yorker, critic Daniel Mendelsohn narrates the improbable origins of his writing career: by getting close with a worldly 70-year-old French women who liked to dance at the music clubs of Charlottesville, Virginia. When Mendelsohn met Ghislaine Signard de Poyen Bellisle Neale, aka Chouky, as an undergraduate classics major, the stories she told about her life were the first time he realized “that the things I’d read about in novels actually happened to real people.” Her influence on him wasn’t simply about finding material, though, or that she taught him how to write. She taught him to think differently about how he spent his waking life, and she showed him that, in his words, “If you open yourself to the world, there will be stories to tell.”

After a while, when she was off somewhere—the swimming pool (“I do my lap every day!”), or Foods of All Nations, the only place she could get certain things that she liked to eat—I’d force myself, as if doing a physical exercise, to do as she did: I’d sit at the table and stare at the patio. Of course, I felt foolish, and, at first, I wasn’t particularly moved; I wondered just what she saw in all this. But one day I found that I’d stopped thinking about what time it was, what I needed to get done, and was actually just sitting there looking at the lilies of the valley. When she got back from her shopping trip, I told her about my little epiphany. She beamed. “Dan_iel_,” she said, in her slightly croaking voice, pronouncing my name the French way. “See? You always are sinking about your life! But I sink about the muguet, and he make me happy.”

She didn’t let me stay home on weekend nights reading. Because she insisted that I take her dancing—straight clubs, gay clubs, tiny dives where rockabilly bands played, motel ballrooms where swing bands swang, she didn’t really care—I started to dance, too; this, inevitably, led me to the next step, which was talking to people in strange places. She took me to my first gay dance at U.V.A., held in a building that was papered with notices for meetings of the Gay Student Union; I’d walked by often but never had the courage to enter. That night, she sent me home with a tall and wiry Kentuckian who’d spent two hours fruitlessly smiling at me until Chouky marched me over to his car and introduced us. The Kentuckian’s father did business in Asia; he had beautiful, beautiful kimonos hanging by bamboo rods along the walls of his bedroom. Above the bed was a woodblock print of squirrels huddling on a winter branch.

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