February 9, 2015

Seeking my Mentor, Penelope

My writing teacher sent us out to identify a mentor whose writing life we might model ourselves after.  This was to be an opportunity to find a writer with an internet presence if possible.  (She did say that if our role model was a recluse, without an internet platform that would make the assignment easy).  

An obvious choice would have been Melody Beattie, but instead someone else came startlingly to mind:   Penelope Niven. Last year I fell in love with her memoir, Swimming Lessons.  In it I learned that she began publishing books rather late in life  (not much younger than I am now).

I went googling straight away to see if I might find a way to follow Penelope, hoping to take a peek at her path.    She'd already inspired me with her memoir, and I suspected she had more big plans in the works. Maybe her focus would rub off on me.   Or maybe even one day I'd ask her to blurb the book I aspire to write? 

So how did she get started?  "Penelope Niven was a high school English teacher, nearing 40, when she began work on a biography of Carl Sandburg. She had never written a book before. She didn’t have a Ph.D. in literature and hadn’t even been that familiar with Sandburg’s work.But the volume she produced 14 years later, “Carl Sandburg: A Biography”(1991), was ground breaking and helped revive interest in a nearly forgotten poet, Lincoln biographer and literary folk hero of his time."

I was happy to find her shining smile and elegant gray coif pictured at the top of her webpage:  http://www.penelopeniven.com

But the print below her picture told me of her writing landmarks, achievements and honorary degrees-- in the past tense. Niven had passed last August of an aneurism, the day before my mom's birthday.

I tell myself coincidences are God's way of being anonymous. But does her death mean that I must give up on her as a “mentor” or role model?


  1. Greetings! Many times I've read your words, which I found through Syd's website and links. What a surprise today to read your homage to Penny Niven. I was fortunate enough to know her slightly through work. I say keep her as your mentor; she was a truly wonderful person. Please g.oogle her obituary and read it (not the article posted in the Winston-Salem Journal about her death, but the "true" obituary found in that and other area newspapers). All she did, and all she wanted to be, will inspire you to keep her as your mentor.
    Another Niven fan

  2. I absolutely appreciate that this was a meaningful coincidence for you, to chance by me, via Syd and find … Penny!

    I never thought of her as Penny, and so it makes me smile today that you know her even slightly. I am wondering if you mean the obituary and life tribute on her own website, or that was in the national paper?



I welcome your thoughts. Keep me honest~