Monday, April 23, 2012

Betty Hyland

The Writers of Chantilly is a phenomenon in the context of writers’ groups. Where most have the longevity of tubercular mayflies, the Writers of Chantilly gets together twice a month, just as it has for at least thirteen years, which was when I joined; it was already a going concern then.

No one did more to make Chantilly a successful group than Betty Hyland. Not an original member, she came in a few years before the founder moved away and assumed responsibility for keeping a disparate group of writers moving forward. The group turned over its entire membership a couple of times since I started going, and probably once more since the commute required by working in Washington and living halfway to Baltimore made semi-monthly after work trips to Chantilly more of a chore than the pleasure they had been. Betty was the constant.

We pretended to argue on a weekly basis. Betty the grammar Nazi, and me the hard-boiled writer who cared more about how it read than how it diagrammed. The descriptions and foul language of my writing sometimes dismayed her, but she never let that interfere with the encouragement she provided every time she saw me.

A better person would be ashamed of how I picked on her. No better person being available, Betty accepted it all in good spirit and gave as good as she got. We sometimes disagreed—occasionally even got rowdy about it—yet never so it endangered the goodwill that bound us.

She was instrumental in getting half a dozen anthologies published, short works by group members who need encouragement to write. I’d get frustrated, seeing stories from people who wouldn’t write a word unless they were guaranteed to see it in print. Betty always stuck up for them. Her patience with such things was endless.

She wrote a young adult book, The Girl With the Crazy Brother, a fictionalized account of what it had been like to raise a schizophrenic son. It garnered good reviews and enough attention to be made into a CBS Schoolbreak Special, directed by Diane Keaton and starring Patricia Arquette. A Thousand Cloudy Days explored the topic again, then she turned to writing cozy mysteries with darker undersides than most, and always a clever twist that surprised, then seemed to have been inevitable.

Betty looked frail when i saw her last, about a year ago. She gave me as much hell as ever, and I her, though it was sad to carry her things while she was helped to the car and driven home. She was still Betty, and this was a speed bump for her, or so I assumed.

I was shocked when I heard she died yesterday, less at her passing—she’d been in and out of hospitals and rehab centers for months—than to learn she’d been three days shy of her 85th birthday. I would have guessed she was at least ten years younger, living proof feistiness is the true Fountain of Youth.

Part of me wants to go through every sentence written here with Strunk and White to ensure the grammar would meet her standards. I won’t, because she would have preferred to do that herself, even if she’d have to put up with me telling her I’d split that infinitive deliberately to see if she’d catch it. My prose flows better than it would have without her. I still break her rules, but with a better understanding of what they are, and why they’re there, so I know what I can get away with. Or, with what I can get away.


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