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Writing the Profile: Mary Ward Brown

by Roy Hoffman, fiction and creative nonfiction faculty


To write a profile is to discover—and recount—another person’s life. The experiences I have researching a profile, especially time spent with the subject, stay with me long after the piece is done. That’s true of the two days I spent in 2005 with Mary Ward Brown, an author in Alabama’s soil-rich region known as the Black Belt, whose first work of fiction, at age 69, won the PEN/Hemingway Award, and second, at age 85, burnished her reputation. The guidelines I keep in mind when I write a profile play out in my story, excerpted below, about an author who shows creativity flourishes at any age.


  1. The intention of the profile is not only to see the subject in the world, but also to see the world through the eyes of the subject.

  2. A prime challenge is the opening, the right place to begin bringing a person to life. Be specific, detailed; root the subject into a time and place.

  3. Early on, introduce an overview, orienting the reader to the larger story.

  4. Blend in research so it’s not conspicuous.

  5. Add a few key observations from others, a reflection by a friend of the subject, or a comment by an authority on the person’s expertise.

  6. Find the experience, the conflict, reversal, or inspiration that sets the subject on their path, the defining moment from which their singular story emerges.

  7. Use scenes to make the profile vivid, using techniques you would in a short story or novel, using dialogue selectively, tellingly.

  8. With an eye to developing an engaging story, don’t let the profile become static. Keep moving the narrative forward.

  9. End your profile with a flourish, ideally in scene, to give the ongoing sense of a fascinating life, rather than a pat, tie-up-with-a-bow conclusion.


As you read my profile, edited for length, note how these nine points are integral to the text. Then forget the guidelines and enjoy the chicken salad, the talk about books, and the soul-searching story of a remarkable person who discovered her writer’s voice at an advanced, still vibrant, age.


Mary Ward Brown: Black Belt Storyteller


Hamburg, Alabama, 2005


Petite, silver-haired and 87 years old, Mary Ward Brown welcomes you to her farmhouse with a big smile, pumpkin pie and delightful conversation about some of her favorite things: Russian literature, the four Gospels, Greek tragedy and Bob Dylan.


“I love Dylan,” she says, setting out chicken salad sandwiches near a vase filled with jonquils from her yard.


“When I can’t remember something, I quote Dylan, who says, ‘I had to send a truck back for it.’”


Brown is a keen-eyed observer of the life of small-town Alabama, a deceptively grandmotherly presence who favors cable-knit sweaters and bell-shaped hats while composing in her slow, meticulous way short stories that probe the melancholy heart of the rural South.


While she lives seemingly isolated, giving directions to her house by markers like a bend in the road and an old fence, she dwells at a crossroads of literary recognition. Her phone rings often, and invitations come frequently, distractingly, for interviews and appearances. . . .


Auburn’s Wayne Flynt, in Alabama in the Twentieth Century, writes, “Brown proved conclusively that the literary muse could work its wonder at any age.” For Brown, who did not publish her first story collection, Tongues of Flame, until age 69 and her second, It Wasn’t All Dancing, until age 85, fame or anonymity seems to be beside the point.


“I love to work,” she says, “but I love people, too.”


Books line the rooms of her farmhouse, scores of short-story collections, Greek histories, biographies, books by friends. . . . And Brown listens to books on tape. The bedtime stories that she enjoys now are the recordings of the classics of Western civilization.


After lunch, perched on the edge of her bed, she fusses at her own limitations. “I don’t feel educated,” she says.


Why does an 87-year-old push to make it through a reading list as daunting as that of a graduate student?


“Because I’m in the world,” she answers matter-of-factly. “You want to learn.”

* * *


Her formal education took place nearly 70 years ago at Judson College, the Baptist women’s college whose imposing columns rise in downtown Marion, six miles north of her farmhouse on Perry County 35.


She had been interested in writing since her undergraduate years and worked early on in public relations for Judson. But it wasn’t until she was in mid-life that her desire to write stories, to bring to life characters “with the seeds of real people in them,” began to deepen.


It was sorrow that took her there.


Born on June 18, 1917, in the house where she lives now, Mary Thomas Ward came of age in the middle of Alabama’s Black Belt. Her parents, Mary and Thomas, owned 3,000 acres rich with cotton. “They weren’t readers,” she says. “They were doers.” . . .


Her father owned a sawmill and built their rugged but cozy home from heart of pine. The house maintains a solid, intimate feeling, the rich timber holding not only her countless books but dozens of paintings of local scenes. . . .


After a seemingly sunny childhood, Mary went to Judson, where she boarded, even though it was nearby. Mary’s mother was suffering from cancer at the time; the family thought it best if Mary lived in a dormitory. Her mother passed away while Mary was at school.


She recalls those days, when the boys from Marion Institute would come courting the Judson girls, as is still a local tradition. Brown remembers how the young cadets would sit with the girls on the couches in the Judson lounge, the lights turned down low “until the night watchman came through,” she says.


But 21-year-old Mary fell for a debonair Auburn man, Charles Kirtley Brown, 14 years her elder, who was working as public relations director for the university. They married soon after meeting. “I went to Auburn,” she says, “as a bride.”


“He called himself ‘the great lover,’” she says, laughing.


In 1942, while still at Auburn, they had a son. That same year, her father died, leaving Mary the house and 1,500 acres of the land. The young family moved back to the rural hamlet of Hamburg—which can’t be found on many maps—in south Perry County.


“Kirtley had never lived on a farm, much less owned one,” she says. They farmed cotton and raised grade Hereford cows. Later came soybeans.


As Brown tells of her life with her husband, she shows a photo of the two of them, young and full of fun, strolling through the New Orleans French Quarter; then another of her husband before their life together, “as a young blade,” in hat and bow-tie. . . .


Her husband died at 67 from lung cancer, and Mary, at age 53, was alone. He had run the farm, managed the finances, taken care of business. Mary had raised their son and periodically tried to do some writing.


“When you’ve been married a long time and lose your mate, you don’t really belong to anybody. It’s like the Biblical ‘one flesh.’ . . . It was a terrible loss.”


She remembers Kirtley’s buoyant humor, his sense of honor. “He was a great man. It was a privilege”—her eyes brim with tears— “to live with him all those years.”


She is silent a moment. Afternoon light streams into the farmhouse.


“People worried about me out here by myself, that it was ‘unhealthy.’” At night, missing her husband, she would “cry like a hurt animal,” and during the day learned to take care of the business of the farm, which included leasing out acreage to other growers.


After the deepest grief passed, “I’d get up at 4:30 in the morning and start writing.”


She would write in bed by hand, then go to the old typewriter to continue, take a break and walk down the country road a mile. “It was exciting. I had a real focus.”


Her stories revolved around church people, young couples, old men, people facing redemption, hope, loss.


“I knew about the start and end of the story, but the middle was an adventure,” she says.


She took writing workshops . . . placed her first stories in literary magazines. . . .


She found a literary agent, but he died.


After her story “The Cure,” about an old country doctor, was published in Best American Short Stories, she wrote to a second literary agent, who took her on.


“I’m not prolific,” she recounts writing to that agent. “I write only short stories. I’m no longer young.”


* * *


“She’s my best friend,” says Samantha “Buffy” Reinhart, a visual artist in Marion who also looks to her much-older pal for guidance. “She’s cool. She’s a very gracious person. I never go to her home she doesn’t put on tea or have something baked. And she counsels me about being an artist.” . . .


At a party one evening in Reinhart’s home, Brown is there with partygoers in their 30s and 40s. She sits among them on a sofa listening to the Kudzu String Band do a bluegrass version of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” and sipping bourbon punch.


On the way home, the stubble of winter fields rolls past beneath the clarity of a February sky. This is a stretch of the planet she knows like the palm of her hand.


Brown says she used to be fearful of death but now is calm about the prospect. She says she once watched a calf being born in the fields behind her house, and the act of its being born “was traumatic. But then it was OK.”


She suspects the act of dying will be much the same way.


“Part of me is already dead,” she says with her stoic humor. “I’ve already lost part of my sight, part of my hearing.”


Not long ago, in Chattanooga, after being honored by the Fellowship of Southern Writers, Brown fell and cracked her pelvic bone. She used a walker during recuperation and keeps it still in her bedroom to use like a calisthenics barre.


All healed up now, she comes and goes about her beloved house with cautious ease.


In the afternoon, she goes out to her back yard by the bird feeder. In the sun-washed yard, she holds up her hand. “Come on, redbirds. Did you think I’d forgotten you?”


Birds begin to alight in the branches of the holly and the mock-orange trees. She stands there, a small woman in the spacious yard. “Birds? Where are you? Hurry. Come on. I’ve got all of this for y’all.”


She spreads the feed, then goes back into the house and waits by the window. The cardinals descend, pecking at the grain, filling her yard with scarlet, like an inspiration.


***


Afterword: Brown passed away in 2013, at age 95. This story is in Roy Hoffman’s book Alabama Afternoons: Profiles and Conversations.



Roy Hoffman is author of the novels The Promise of the Pelican, Come Landfall, Chicken Dreaming Corn, and Almost Family, and the nonfiction books Alabama Afternoons and Back Home, and

has written for The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall St. Journal. He teaches fiction and creative nonfiction in the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University. On the web: www.royhoffmanwriter.com




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