As he boarded a Chautauqua Institution bus, a man called out to Mary Jean Irion, who sat in a rocking chair by the entrance to the Athenaeum Hotel.
“Peter, is that you?” she responded, and a smile broke out across her face. “Oh, how nice to see you. You keep writing.”
The man on the bus pulled away, and Irion laughed.
“I don’t know him at all, except that I rode in a bus with him a time or two several years ago and found out that he was interested in writing,” she said. “So he gave me a couple of things he’d written, and I criticized them and handed them back to him, and so we have this tie.”
Such is the presence of Irion at the Institution. Twenty-five years ago, she led the charge in founding the Chautauqua Writers’ Center. Although she retired as its president in 1997, she has remained a steadfast teacher, mentor and inspirational figurehead in the Institution’s literary arts program.
At 3:30 p.m. today on the porch of Alumni Hall, Irion will give a special book talk titled “Rubbing Sticks into She-Fire and Smoke.” She will elaborate on the process of writing and self-publishing her latest book, She-Fire: A Safari Into the Human Spirit.
She and her husband, Paul, once owned a house on the grounds called Fernwood, which served as the base for the Writers’ Center before it moved to Alumni Hall. For the entire season, the Irions would host literary events and accommodate visiting authors. But this season, the Irions are staying in the Athenaeum. Their visits to the Institution have become shorter and less frequent in recent years. Irion said she believed this would be their last visit to the Institution.
Irion takes pride in the history of the Writers’ Center and looks toward its future with optimism.
“I hope that [the Writers’ Center] will always be interested in teaching people to write according to who they are,” Irion said. “I’m hoping it will keep language a lively force in life, so it’s not always a matter of writing about the past that we treasure, but what’s going on right now.”
In 1986, two years before starting the Writers’ Center, Irion went on a safari in Kenya. What began as a journal of the trip would — 26 years later — become She-Fire.
Irion gave the original 74-page journal to her fellow safari tour group members for Christmas one year.
“They said, ‘That’s good, you ought to publish it,’ ” she said. “I knew that it wasn’t something that would be publishable. I kept thinking, ‘What is in there? What is in there that’s good?’ And I began to rework it, and I’d rewrite it, and I’d rewrite it and I’d rewrite it again.”
Irion said the rewriting process was like performing a brass rubbing — placing a sheet of paper across an old tombstone — and the more she rubbed, the more writing was revealed.
“Every time I worked it over more details came out of the information that I had in the first place,” she said. “I think that if I do another rewriting of it right now I probably could pull out some more detail that is not there yet.”
Twice Irion thought she had finished the book, but publishers would not have it. Once in 1997 and again in 2003, Irion sent the manuscript out and received positive feedback but no offers.
“Everybody said, ‘It won’t make the bottom line. It’s not going to pay for itself. It’s not going to sell,’ ” Irion said. “It sat around on a shelf in my cabinet for years. I gave up on it — I just didn’t think anymore about it.”
Then, two years ago, her husband self-published a novel. Seeing his success, she decided to self-publish, too, and took She-Fire off her shelf.
During the book’s first year of publication, Irion said she has distributed approximately 100 copies — what she called a relative success for a self-published work. A healthy portion of those copies were sent to family, friends and people who had helped her throughout the years.
“So often people who love the arts … are just terrible at the business end of it, and I think I’m one of those,” she said. “I hate to do the marketing, and I hate to go out and push myself, and say, ‘Look at what I have done! Won’t you buy my book?’ “
The “sticks” in the title of Irion’s presentation today refer to life and language. The “smoke,” she said, is what happens after one rubs those sticks together — and in her case, produces She-Fire.
“I really wasn’t sure what kind of book I had produced and what to do with it,” she said. “It’s a different kind of thing than I’ve ever done before.”
The book’s narrative follows observations from the safari; a second layer uses metaphor as a means to poeticize those observations; and a third and final layer weaves in the author’s self-reflection.
“It’s a travelogue, it’s an epic poem that is not developed, and a memoir,” Irion said. “Those three elements are braided together all along the way.”
Irion could not care less about money or fame. She only hopes to have contributed somehow to the human spirit — what she defines as the love of life, as giving one’s self to the world.
Looking off into the dreary gray of the rainy Chautauqua afternoon, Irion speculated that She-Fire was an answer to her first book, From the Ashes of Christianity. From the Ashes ends with a call to the reader to return to myth, particularly focusing on the myth of the phoenix — the mythical creature that could only be born from its own ashes.
“Maybe [She-Fire] is a new myth, maybe it isn’t — we don’t know,” Irion said. “At the beginnings, we really don’t know what we’re working with … There is a mystery about it that we don’t understand, and we’re trying to figure out.”