Author, Alumna Bliss Broyard Returns
- By Leah Samuel
Bliss Broyard, who says her time at UVM was the beginning of her formal training as a writer, will speak on campus Thursday, Feb. 26 at 5 p.m. in John Dewey Lounge, Old Mill. (Photo: Melodie McDaniel)
Bliss Broyard drew wide attention from readers and critics for her 2007 family memoir, One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life — A Story of Race and Family Secrets. The 1988 grad returns to UVM on Thursday, Feb. 26, for a reading and talk, part of the Writers' Workshop Reading Series sponsored by the James and Mary Brigham Buckham Fund and the English Department.
Broyard is the daughter of celebrated writer and New York Times literary critic Anatole Broyard. Born in New Orleans in 1920, Broyard would live as a white man in the north as an adult, though he was African American by his ancestry and the "one drop" definition of laws of the era. Across decades, he let his heritage fade into obscurity, even keeping the truth from his two children, Bliss and Todd. It wasn't until shortly before his death in 1990 that they would learn of their father's and their own heritage. For Bliss Broyard that revelation would eventually drive years of research and writing culminating in the publication of One Drop.
Bliss Broyard grew up grew up surrounded by books, but points to her time at UVM as the beginning of her formal development as a writer. "I was not the most focused student," she admits. "My mother said I learned a lot about socializing. But I was serious about classes that I liked, mostly English."
One of those classes was with Professor David Huddle, poet and novelist, whom Broyard credits with taking her from merely writing to actually being a writer. She recalls an intense summer writing workshop with Huddle in which he required a one-hundred-page autobiography the first week, followed by a second week focused on a work of fiction.
"He took us seriously as writers," Broyard says. "He talked a lot about the writing life, and he likened writing practice to baseball practice. He said that we had to get the foul balls — the false starts, the bad writing — out of the way. Now, having taught creative writing myself, I can appreciate his approach." (Coincidentally, Huddle's essay on writing/baseball practice, "Let's Say You Wrote Badly This Morning," was originally published in The New York Times in 1988. Huddle's editor on the piece: Anatole Broyard.)
Huddle remembers Bliss Broyard as passionate and forthright. "She spoke more frankly in class than almost any student I've ever taught — and so she often generated controversy in workshop discussions," he says. "What she had to say was the kind of thing a teacher might think of, but be reluctant to express in the classroom. I could only be grateful to have a student carrying out the thankless task of providing honest but necessary criticism for her classmates."
After graduating from UVM with a degree in English with a minor in anthropology, she began writing in earnest. Over the years, her short stories and essays were published in journals and anthologies like The Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Ploughshares and Cookie. She has also contributed articles as a journalist to O, The Oprah Magazine, Elle Magazine and The New York Times Book Review. A regular paycheck came from work as a researcher and associate producer for the documentary division of MTV.
Making time for her own writing was a challenge. "For years, I used to write late into the night, when there was no danger of the phone ringing or emails coming in," says Broyard, who lives in New York. "Being awake and working when everyone else was asleep helped me maintain the illusion that writing was something that I did purely for myself and wasn't actually my job."
And, as her life changed, so did her writing habits.
"Since I became a parent, I've had a hard time keeping to those (late night) hours, and I've been forced to treat writing more like a nine-to-five job." she says. "On the positive side, having to pay a babysitter in order to get some work done has proved to be a pretty effective cure to my habit of procrastination."
But a deadline can still mean a night working long after her husband and child have gone to sleep. "And then for the next few days, I slightly sleepwalk through my domestic life," Broyard says, "spacey, but exhilarated with the thrill of having finished something."
This article is excerpted from a piece that originally appeared in the spring 2008 edition of Vermont Quarterly magazine. Read the entire story, including an excerpt from One Drop.