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One Woman's Opinion

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A Late Arrival

Mary Wakefield Buxton

by Mary Wakefield Buxton

Urbanna, Va.— Is age 72 too late to finally complete one’s lifelong “masterpiece”? I hope not, because it took me almost that long to write it.

Maybe my new novel, “The Private War of William Styron,” based on real life and due to be published next month by Brandylane Publishing Co., is not a masterpiece but it sure feels like it to me. It took six long years of writing, proofreading and finally finding a publisher. The project was the greatest writing challenge of my life.

Writing a novel is scintillating fun with hours of fascinating characters bounding about in one’s brain while exciting conversations and events take place. Life in a book is thrilling—very different from what life really is, filled with boring tasks that nobody cares to do but that still must be completed anyway.

But proofreading is long and grueling work hunched over a keyboard squinting for the umpteenth time at every word to make sure it’s correctly used, spelled and punctuated. Not my cup of tea. Before I was finished, I was referring to my masterpiece as . . . “That damn book.”

Why bother writing books anyway? I’ve often asked myself that question. Do many read books any more? I fear it’s old fashioned to read a book. The young are hooked into a cell phone, smart phone, PC or tablet with anything they want to know at finger-tip command. Who wants to read a book?

Well, I do, for one. I love to read. I like to go one on one as a reader does, gallivanting through the mind of a writer. Exhilarating; I can’t get enough of it.

So I spent six years writing a novel about my mentor, cousin and Pulitzer Prize winning author William Styron. He was a great writer and inspiration along with being a very kind and gracious Virginia gentleman. And yes, the Commonwealth still produces that rare breed of man known as a southern gentleman.

We were related by marriage. When his mother died in 1940, his father became depressed and landed in the old Buxton Hospital (now Riverside Rehab on Chesapeake Avenue). There, he met the head nurse and director of the Buxton School of Nursing, Elizabeth Buxton, who was in her 40s and well into spinsterhood. They surprised everyone by falling in love and marrying, providing then 14-year-old child “Billy” with a stepmother and sending him off to what turned out to be a very happy experience at Christchurch School in Middlesex County.

Billy and Elizabeth were the perfect storm. He had the “artiste” temperament and she was of the old school who believed it was her God-given duty as stepmother to make something of her stepson.

Perhaps it was a classic stepmother-stepchild story? But Bill saw it differently. He told me if Elizabeth had gotten to him, say five years earlier, she would have utterly destroyed him. He cringed lifelong at the image of him ending up an engineer at the shipyard like his father, living in Hilton Village and enjoying a social life at the James River Country Club. That doesn’t sound so terrible but, to Bill, it was a lifelong nightmare that he compared to invisible darkness.

There hangs the tale. With my admiration for writers and what they have to endure in order to write, I was entirely in Bill’s camp. Perhaps that’s why he filled me in on most every detail of his young life “struggling,” as he called it, for the very survival of his soul.
After Bill Styron passed away in 2008, and after speaking to his widow Rose, a writer herself, it hit me that I was about the only living person who actually knew about Bill’s “private war.” I realized I had to write the story so it wouldn’t be lost to posterity. So I went to work.

But I was fair to Elizabeth. It isn’t easy to be a stepmother. As demanding and strict as she was, Elizabeth was a highly admirable woman. She carried great responsibility and was totally dedicated to medicine and educating the next generation of nurses. Educated at Hollins but denied the chance to follow in her father and brother’s footsteps to medical school because she was a woman, she became the legendary director of the nursing school and a pioneer career woman.

It’s quite possible the rebellion Bill experienced as Elizabeth’s stepson was the trigger that turned him to writing. His first book, “Lie Down in Darkness,” and the character of Helen Loftis may well have been inspired by his rage against his stepmother. Regardless, the book was so powerful it launched his career and at the mere age of 26.

My new book will be marketed on the national market. I hope for success but, at my age, I might be just a little late arriving on the literary scene. Better late than never?


Mary Wakefield Buxton’s column “One Woman’s Opinion” will return after Labor Day.

posted 05.28.2014

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