Saturday, June 9, 2012


—from her proud publisher and grateful student

When I got serious about being a small-press publisher in 1985, establishing a small press eventually called Daniel & Daniel, I had a number of assets going for me: some publishing experience with Stanford University Press and Capra Press; bookselling experience mainly with Kepler’s Books of Menlo Park; and my partner, eventually named Susan Daniel.

Another asset that helped Susan and me get the company off to a good start was that I had friends in the Stanford writing community. During our first few years, under the imprint John Daniel & Company, we published books by a good number of Stanford-related authors, whom I had met during my undergraduate years and later as a fellow in the Stanford Creative Writing Program. These included Janet Lewis, Mary Jane Moffat, Constance Crawford, Charlotte Painter, and eventually Maclin Bocock and Albert Guerard. All of them highly respected writers, all of them good writers, writers to be proud of.

Of all the Stanford authors we’ve published, though, the one I’m proudest of and fondest of has been Nancy Huddleston Packer, who also happened to be my best and my favorite teacher while I was an undergraduate there, fifty years ago. The stories I wrote for her classes were no good whatsoever, but I kept taking the classes anyway, unwittingly getting my worst work out of the way early.

Mrs. Packer didn’t lecture, but the wisdom about writing that she threw out on the table during her read-and-critique sessions was life-changing for me. I can’t say she made me a better writer immediately, but I quickly learned why I liked some writers better than I liked others. So she made me a better reader, anyway. And what I was learning about writing also amounted to lessons about life.

For example, Mrs. Packer let her class know that a story’s plot isn’t just a sequence of events, but is a chain of consequence. A makes B happen, C is caused by B, these together produce D, and so on until the payoff, the climax, which by then seems inevitable and unavoidable. This domino theory of fiction, I realized, was true of life itself. Knowing that didn’t keep me from making a passel of mistakes in life, but it helped me see life as a literary art form.

For another example, Mrs. Packer told us an essential ingredient of any elegant story is irony. I won’t elaborate on that, except to say that I have thought of Mrs. Packer often when life has thrown me an ironic curveball.

Later, when I was a fellow in the Writing Program, by which time I was allowed to call her Nancy, she asked me one day how my writing was coming along. I had been wrestling with the third draft of a story I was writing, and I told her I was finally learning how to rewrite. “Good,” Nancy quipped. “That means you’re finally learning how to write.”

About Nancy Huddleston Packer

Nancy Huddleston Packer is a literary figure well known to and much admired by a large and prestigious community of writers. As a director of Stanford University’s Creative Writing Program and a close associate of Wallace Stegner, Packer influenced and cheered on some of America’s best emerging writers. She also had a strong influence on her own children, best-selling authors Ann Packer and George Packer. Meanwhile Packer also built a writing career of her own, publishing short fiction in numerous important magazines and literary journals, including Harper's Magazine, The Reporter, Women's Studies, Sewanee Review, Epoch, Cold Mountain Review, Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly, North American Review, Kenyon Review, and many others. She is also the author of five published collections of stories: Small Moments; In My Father's House; The Women Who Walk; Jealous-Hearted-Me; and Old Ladies, published this month by John Daniel & Company.

About Old Ladies

The protagonists of the eleven stories in Old Ladies, Nancy Huddleston Packer’s new fiction collection, may be “old ladies,” as the book’s title suggests, but they are by no means stereotypes. They are, in fact, remarkably different from one another.

Although more than half of them are widows, one is a happily married writer of children’s books, another is a happily unmarried academic, and a third is a revenge-seeking divorcee. Some of Packer’s women are weak, but more of them are strong, stronger than their grown children think they are or than their former lovers want them to be.

As the characters in Old Ladies are different, so are the stories. No two have the same subject, theme, or situation. Some of the stories are funny, especially in the way old people cope with aging and come up with inventive solutions. Other stories are filled with loss, loneliness, and the prospect of dying. Many of the stories have that mixture of grief and humor that comes with the accumulation of years.

Whether funny or sad, Packer’s writing is always strong, solid, and entertaining. Her stories hit the ground running, develop in a chain of consequences, and move quickly to their satisfying end. And one thing these “old ladies” have in common is that their creator makes us care about every single one of them.

And now a word from our sponsor.

Old Ladies, by Nancy Huddleston Packer, can be ordered by your local bookstore or directly from the publisher. For more information, see

For those of you in the San Francisco Bay Area, Nancy Packer will be featured on West Coast Live, broadcasting from Yoshi’s in Oakland, on Saturday, June 9, at 10:00 a.m. West Coast Live; on KALW 91.7 from 10 – noon. I think you can listen live or get a podcast..

Nancy will be signing her new book at Books, Inc., Town and Country Village, Tuesday, June 19, at 7:00 p.m.


  1. John, this was a very lovely tribute to your mentor. It was heart felt. All too often, I haven't felt mentored emotionally but intellectually knew that I had been all along. Thanks for sharing this wonderful piece.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Theresa. Sometimes I think having a good mentor is like having a favorite author, whose books we read over and over. We learn something every time we read them.

  2. I have a writing mentor too--Willma Willis Gore. She was one of the leaders in the writing critique group I joined in 1981--and still belong too. Willma eventually moved away. I had the privilege of attending her 90th birthday celebration in Sedona a week ago. I learned more from her than any from any book, class or writing conference.

    1. Bravo to Ms. Gore. She made a difference for you, and I'm sure it shows in your writing.

  3. John,
    What a great way to pay tribute to someone who helped you so much. She sounds like a wonderful woman.
    I don't have one specific mentor but I've been blessed with so many incredible people in my life who have guided and supported me.

    1. Patricia, I think we writers learn from everyone around us, because as writers we're always listening for stories.

  4. This is a wonderful thank you to a great teacher.

    The workshop process often seems easy from the outside, but it takes someone with a true genius for writing to get it right, and it sounds like she did more than just get it right. The proof? Her student is a fine writer as well.

    John Brantingham

  5. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Seachrist, told me I should be a writer some day. She also made me promise to always have illustrations in my books. I haven't gotten to that yet.

    William Doonan

  6. What a nice tribute to a mentor. Too often we neglect to tell our teachers of our gratitude until it's too late. And you were able to go one better by publishing her book.

    1. Thanks, John. Yes, it's been a privilege to publish Nancy Packer. Partly because she's been a friend and an influence on my career, but mostly because she's so damn good!

  7. Hear! Hear! for Nancy. Lovely story, John.


  8. I loved reading this, John. What a wonderful person Nancy Packer is and how important she has been to your life.

    I had a mentor from my teen years through my late 30's named Norma. Not a writer but so supportive of me as a writer and as a woman/person. I've written about her and published an essay called Norma, which is on my website. She knew how much I cherished her friendship but didn't live long enough to read what I wrote about her. Thanks for your story.

    1. Eileen, I think it's probably true in all professions and life paths that mentors make an enormous difference. I don't think we ever stop relying on the support of our friends and teachers.