Words Of Wisdom: Sallie Bingham Returns To Alma Mater

Contributing Writer

Patricia Trost Friedler, from Louisville Collegiate School’s Class of 1954, wasn’t permitted to make her debut like other graduates. Social injustice and anti-Semitism prevented her from thriving in school.

Renowned author Sallie Bingham created the Patricia Trost Friedler Scholarship for Young Women to honor the memory of her classmate. It’s awarded annually to an exceptional female student at Collegiate entering the ninth grade.

But the famous Louisville heiress’s altruism doesn’t stop there. She also founded The Kentucky Foundation for Women and Women’s Project in New York City. She hopes the arts will change backward attitudes.

“You can listen to a song and change your mind about something,” she said. “Art is the vehicle of social change.”

Bingham, who in October 2011 released a book “Mending: New and Selected Stories,” has acquired much wisdom in her almost sixty years as a writer. She recently visited her alma mater to share what she has learned with 12 gifted high school students.

Collegiate in the 1950s was emblematic of the repression women of the time faced on a daily basis. Bingham recalled how uniform skirts came down to the socks, which is almost 30 inches longer than Collegiate’s skirts at present.

From 1954 to 1958, Bingham’s writing flourished as an undergraduate at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass. But then she moved to New York City in 1963 to take advantage of the important literary movement occurring there. However, due to its volatile atmosphere, Bingham eventually moved back to her hometown of Louisville in 1977 with her two sons.

Though Bingham acknowledged the importance of her experiences, she urged students to rely more on their imaginations.

“Your imagination as a writer is without limits,” she claimed. “You can write about anything.”

Bingham wrote from a male’s perspective in her novel “Straight Man.” When she asked students if they too have experimented with writing from the point of view of the opposite sex, senior Michael Connolly admitted he was scared to try it.

Prior to the workshop, students had submitted writing samples to Bingham for her to edit. She, in turn, selected certain students to share their pieces out loud.

Freshman McKenna Poe read her harrowing poem about a family member. Bingham drew on her poem to demonstrate the importance of including emotions in writing, no matter how frightening they might be.

“These are feelings we’re not supposed to have, but we all have them,” said Bingham. “Go a little further into these powerful feelings. It makes you a stronger writer.”

It’s inevitable writers will encounter criticism in their careers, as Bingham did when writing about the collapse of her illustrious family’s media empire in “Passion and Prejudice: A Family Memoir.”

“At some point you deal with something you’re wanting to write being unacceptable,” she said. “But don’t censor yourself. If you do, you betray yourself as a writer.”

Sophomore English teacher Michael Rich was curious about where Bingham writes. She said she has a writing studio with a sign on the door that reads, “Writer Within. Do Not Disturb.” Bingham encouraged students to also find a writing space to claim as their own.

Despite summer quickly approaching, students withheld their anticipation for two hours to make the most out of their intimate session with such a prolific writer.

“It helped me to step back and analyze my own work,” said senior Hannah Watene, who’ll be attending the University of Pennsylvania in the fall.

Students were grateful for the opportunity to have their writing analyzed by Bingham.

“I’m in the process of creating some of my own works before heading off to college,” said senior Olivia Duff, who’ll be attending Georgetown University. “It was good getting a fresh perspective from a published writer.”

Bingham stopped by The Filson Historical Society Tuesday to discuss her new book “In the Blue Box” before flying home to Santa Fe, N.M. In the book scheduled for release in 2014, Bingham compiled letters written by her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother to weave together their very different lives.

Bingham’s grandmother failed as a writer. So if she were alive, she would be proud of Bingham not only for her writing successes, but also for why she writes in the first place.

“Writers like me don’t focus on the how many copies we sell,” said Bingham. “We focus on how many people we reach.”

Photos by AIMEE KUVADIA | Contributing Photographer