Nancy Huddleston Packer: under no one’s shadow


Left to right: Kenneth Fields, Lucille Clifton, N. Scott Momaday and Nancy Huddleston Packer. (Photo: Steve Castillo)

Five years ago, I covered a Stanford event featuring Lucille Clifton, Kenneth Fields, N. Scott Momaday, and Nancy Huddleston Packer.  As so often happens when writing on deadline, the voices played out differently on the keyboard than they did at the event or in my head.

Crackerjack writer

All four were strong presences that night, but Clifton somehow began to dominate the final article, and Packer’s wry voice somehow got short shrift, which I regretted.

When a student asked how the three authors expected to be perceived by these children of the iPod age, Packer replied, without blinking, “I think all of us would like to be perceived as Shakespeare.”

“It’s important for us to look beyond the very moment and find what is lasting,” she added, after the laughter subsided.

Packer is coming to the fore again now, however, with her newly published collection of short stories, Old Ladies.

In an interview today in Palo Alto Online, the professor who headed Stanford’s Creative Writing Department described the effects of beginning her career in the era of Ernest Hemingway:

“It took me five years to be able to use an adjective. It had to be absolutely bare. I’m still not very good with adjectives and adverbs, but I know that it’s OK to use one when you need it,” she said, adding that over time her writing has become richer while retaining a relatively bare style, what she calls “no fancy dancing.”

What does writing look like for an 87-year-old? Pretty much like it always did:

Today her writing schedule isn’t so different from when she was teaching. Her mornings are spent in her study, writing mainly short stories. It can take her anywhere from two months to many years to complete a story.

“I mull over them for a long time. I’m an inveterate rewriter: I rewrite and rewrite. I change ‘a’ to ‘the’ and then to ‘an’ then back to ‘the’ again — just constant tinkering,” she said. Occasionally, she’d like to return to an earlier version, but once she switched to using a computer she lost the ability to retrieve the wadded-up ball from the trash.

There’s another chance to see her:  Try her at a reading and signing at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, October 10, 2012, at the Stanford Bookstore.



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