September 12, 2021KR OnlineKR OnlineSpecial Collections

In Memoriam: Nancy Zafris

Photo of Nancy ZafrisThe community of American letters lost an exceptional voice and generous spirit with the death of Nancy Zafris on August 1. The loss was personal for the Kenyon Review family, who knew Nancy as not only a superb writer but also a dear friend, a talented fiction editor, and a phenomenally gifted teacher. Nancy created the generative model for our writing workshops and returned to the Kenyon campus, summer after summer, to lead sessions in fiction writing. She was an astute reader who, with tireless generosity and wry humor, helped hundreds of writers discover new possibilities for their work. Only a few weeks before her death, Nancy and some fellow workshop faculty members were asked what kept them going amid life’s struggles and hardships. Without missing a beat, Nancy answered simply, “Language.” Language felt hard to come by when Nancy died. But we asked several of Nancy’s colleagues and former students, as well as her son Sam, to find words to express their feelings for a person they valued deeply.

 

From Geeta Kothari

This is how I want to remember Nancy Zafris at Kenyon: we’re sitting at the back of the auditorium for the student readings. Nancy reaches into one of her jacket pockets, pulls out a pen and the crumpled program she’s carried around all week. By the end of the hour, the program, a purple sheet of paper, is covered with notes and stars. Every student had her attention.

Nancy herself was a star: a brilliant and inventive writer and teacher. She had the reputation for being tough; in fact, she was simply direct, which is what her students loved about her. Among the pens, markers, index cards, and string at her end of the table, there was always tape. Nancy is the only teacher I’ve known who brought duct tape to her workshop. She used it to tape butcher paper or index card outlines on string to the wall. Occasionally the tape appeared across the doorway to make a point to a student who was late.

Nancy was my friend, mentor, and colleague. She brought out the best in me, as a writer and a teacher. Her presence in my life was a gift.

 

From Lori White

Nancy used to say she never lost a student. She was right. We followed her after class, hopeful to get her help with a story, a quick read-through with her edits, those sharp ink strikes we’d try to decode later, once our nerves settled. We wanted her praise when we hit the target and her criticism when we missed. Some cracked jokes in her classes, and others cried (I have the latter reputation). Regardless, she taught us how to write better. Because that’s what Nancy Zafris cared about most: a good story.

But Nancy also taught me how to live better. She always had plans—new languages to learn, new countries to see. I’d visit her a few times a year, and before I could set down my suitcase, she was ready to tell me about the next trip or the next project. She had plans for me too during my visits: trips to Dayton to visit her mom or drives in the country so I could see the Ohio corn. She showed me how essential each day was.

I was driving cross country, tent camping, when Nancy passed, a trip I never would have considered without her example. I was where I was supposed to be, where she taught me to be.

 

From David Baker

“Life, friends, is boring.” I offered this assessment to the group of us. Immediately Nancy shot back, “We must play tennis,” and grinned at me. No one among the other eight or ten of us had a clue what we were talking about.

Leave it to Nancy to hear the Berryman line and serve up her quick reply, with just a touch of topspin. We were all standing around, at the Kenyon Bookstore, at the reception after the faculty reading of the summer writers’ workshop. Maybe it was 2010. Awkward, good-willed, a little confused, all of us.

Nancy and I were born the same year. But I have always felt she was older, wiser, definitely quicker, and more aptly patient than me—or impatient, as an occasion might call for. Her guidance to students was rich with both firm guidance and hand-clapping acceptance. Her presence at the summer workshops—we attended more than a dozen together—was a bit of magic and awe. No one worked harder, wrote with more adventure and nerve and playfulness, nor was as engaged with each student’s work but also with the shape and purpose of the whole enterprise. At each year’s reading I couldn’t wait to hear what new thing—scene of a story, bit of a novel, flash essay—Nancy would bring to us. Every time the piece would chime with another inflection of her unmistakable voice, wrenching, penetrating, heart-breaking, dramatic, lyrical. And hilarious—Nancy could tickle us all, herself included, as she peeked over the podium to see if we got it.

Oh, and about the tennis thing. We played every summer for years at the workshop, often in couples with David Lynn and whichever unsuspecting participant we could entice to be our fourth that afternoon. We played until ankles and knees—like workshop complaints—told us otherwise.

So I think of her there on the court. She hit the ball hard, deceptively hard. She ran down every damn shot. She served with topspin, or a slice, or a straight-ahead slam. You could not wear her out. She loved the game so.

Sports, friends, is not a metaphor for life. We must not say so. But here’s to you, my dear friend, cohort, partner, and guide. Here’s to you, Nancy, with love.

 

From Ellen Weeren

I’ve started this so many times. In an attempted letter to Jim, Sam, and Abby. As a note for Nancy’s memorial page. In a rush to capture all things Nancy in my journal. It still feels impossible but Nancy would never accept that something was too hard as an excuse for not doing it. So, I’ll do what Nancy would do and tell you a story.

Nancy first came into my life at a small fiction workshop in Richmond, Virginia. She gave the class her famous postcard prompt. I cheated and looked for a card that I thought would be easy—something I knew something about. My card featured The Last Supper. Jesus stood with his hands outstretched, the table filled with food and wine. I wrote my draft as if Jesus was the narrator, rather than someone sending out the postcard.

Nancy’s response was a head shake and, “No, that’s not it. Who’s next?”

I buried my head in my hands. We both laughed. I knew it was terrible. She couldn’t pretend it wasn’t. If I’m honest, I’d admit I didn’t even know what she was talking about for most of that workshop. But Nancy snatched onto the little bit of potential I had hiding inside tremendous self-doubt.

She gave me permission to write. More than that, she expected me to write.

I’d like to say I’m unique. That Nancy saw a glimmer in me that no one else had. But that’s not true. Nancy saw potential in everyone who fully engaged in the process. She admired writers who showed up.

She always showed up.

Once at Kenyon, Nancy got a phone call from her oncologist. It was devastating news. We went for a walk around the bookstore building. Then, five minutes later she laughed with her students and focused on them. Very few people know just how remarkable her journey was, how strong she was. The work was first. She honored her commitments and then some. She asked for no sympathy.

In her last days, she told me to listen for her. She said I’ll be able to hear a whisper, “No, that’s not it. Nancy wouldn’t like that.” I can’t wait to disappoint her again. This time it might just be on purpose so I can hear her guide me once more.

 

From Rebecca McClanahan

When the news of Nancy’s death settled—if such news can ever settle—I took from my shelf the books she’d published over the decades we’d taught together and become friends. I was searching for one particular story, and yes there it was, its opening sentence setting our altered, post-Nancy world into motion: “Angela Dahlgren was the first to hear it.” Over the years, Angela’s family circle has diminished, the absence of loved ones quieting her once-noisy world until what she now hears is a faint, unidentifiable sound, an “insistent fragile tickling trying to get inside her.” As the story proceeds, others in town begin to hear it too.

Nancy, I believe, was always the first to hear what many could not: the hum of possibility in students’ drafts, the heartbeat of her own fictional characters, and the unspoken pain and grief of friends. In the story, the sound disappears only when Angela steps outside the town limits and looks back on what she is leaving. Walking to the edge of town, she recalls watching her young sons stepping toward the school bus and turning “at the last moment” to wave goodbye, a sight that always caused her heart to be “broken in joy.” That is how it feels to say goodbye to our irreplaceable colleague, teacher, editor, and friend. Thank you, Nancy, for your immeasurable gifts.

 

From E.J. Levy

Before I met Nancy Zafris, she was already mythic. As the Kenyon Review’s fiction editor when I was in graduate school, Nancy was well known to students like me, who’d heard of her high standards and her willingness to consider work by emerging writers. We all aspired to have stories chosen by her. Her exacting standards were part of the myth. I was tongue-tied when we met in May 2002, at an MFA graduation ceremony at Ohio State University. Laconic, with an indelible gravelly voice and dry understated wit, Nancy came over to say hello and wish me luck. She was kind, but I sensed I better have something worth her hearing or I’d better shut up. (I shut up.) She did not suffer fools. A decade later, Nancy saved my first story collection—and me—by picking it as a prize winner in a series she edited. I learned then of all she’d done to bring attention to other writers’ stories; I saw first-hand all she did for mine and for me.

Nancy brought me into Kenyon Review’s family, inviting me first for a bookstore reading, then wrangling an invitation to read and teach in the literary festival. Nancy taught me the term “auto-fiction” and told me I ought to propose a session in it for the Writers Workshop. Fierce, bitingly funny, no-bullshit, intimidatingly smart, and sometimes startlingly direct, Nancy was unvarnished when she saw injustice that needed to be set right. It took me a decade to realize she was not the mythic editor-writer of my imagining—a female Gordon Lish—but something far rarer and better: a brilliant writer-mentor, deeply kind, incredibly generous. As Lori Ostlund has said, in a profession in which many suck up and punch down, concerned only for improving their own reputations, Nancy was the opposite: she pulled others up. Her final novel is a marvel, a mix of Greek mythology and American gothic; it’s mythic, big-hearted, riveting, singular, haunting, indelible, like the woman who wrote it.

 

From Sam Zafris

Summers with my mom in Gambier made me feel like the son of a celebrity. After readings, students jostled for a chance to introduce themselves. There was no getting coffee with her without an admiring workshopper saying hello. Her teaching was revered by past students, and rightly so. It married energy with insight and frankness with sensitivity. She was welcomed by a family of Kenyon friends. If she knew how popular she was, it never got to her head. Her endless generosity meant that she had time for anyone, and a Midwestern work ethic meant that conferencing with students until dinner was the norm.

At Kenyon and beyond, she was a teacher, mentor, and friend to many, but to me, she was my mother, and the very best imaginable. I’ll miss her every day for the rest of my life. She taught me to write, but more than that, she showed me how to live. She fit a lifetime into these last four and a half years and never once complained amidst a challenge. She loved her friends and family, Rascal, my wife, my father, and me until the end. She accepted the joys of this life along with its mysteries and its pains, and now, we must do the same.

 

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Memorial contributions may be made to support a full scholarship to the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop in Fiction at Finn House, 102 West Wiggin Street, Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio 43022-9623, or at Nancy Zafris Memorial Scholarship.

 

Read “Nothing” from the Spring 2009 issue of KROnline.