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Sharon Olds was born on November 19, 1942, in San Francisco, California, but was brought up in Berkeley, California, along with her siblings. She was raised as a "hellfire Calvinist," as she describes it. Her father, like his before him, was an alcoholic who was often abusive to his children. In Olds' writing she often refers to the time (or possibly even times) when her father tied her to a chair. Olds' mother was often either unable or too afraid to come to the aid of her children.
The strict religious environment in which Olds was raised had certain rules of censorship and restriction. Olds was not permitted to go to the movies and the family did not own a television, but her reading was not censored. She liked fairy tales, and also read Nancy Drew and Life magazine. By nature "a pagan and a pantheist," she has said that in childhood she was exposed in her church to "both great literary art and bad literary art," with "the great art being psalms and the bad art being hymns. The four-beat was something that was just part of my consciousness from before I was born." Of her Calvinist childhood, she said in 2011 that though she was about 15 when she conceived of herself as an atheist, "I think it was only very recently that I can really tell that there's nobody there with a copybook making marks against your name."
Olds was sent east to Dana Hall School, an all-girls school for grades 6 to 12 in Wellesley, Massachusetts, that boasts an impressive list of alumnae. There she studied mostly English, History, and Creative Writing. Her favorite poets included William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, but it was Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems that she carried in her purse through 10th grade.
For her bachelor's degree Olds returned to California where she earned her BA at Stanford University in 1964. Following this, Olds once again moved cross country to New York, where she earned her Ph.D. in English in 1972 from Columbia University. She teaches creative writing at New York University. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on "Emerson's Prosody," because she appreciated the way he defied convention.
On March 23, 1968, she married Dr. David Douglas Olds in New York City and, in 1969, gave birth to the first of their two children. In 1997, after 29 years of marriage, they divorced, and Olds moved to New Hampshire, though she commutes to New York three days a week. There, she lives in the same Upper West Side apartment she has lived in for the past 40 years while working as a Professor at New York University. In New Hampshire she lives in Graylag Cabins in Pittsfield. Her partner, Carl Wallman, is a former cattle breeder.
In 2005, First Lady Laura Bush invited Olds to the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. Olds declined the invitation and responded with an open letter published in The Nation. The editors suggested others follow her example. She concluded her letter by explaining: "So many Americans who had felt pride in our country now feel anguish and shame for the current regime of blood, wounds and fire. I thought of the clean linens at your table, the shining knives and the flames of the candles, and I could not stomach it."
- 1978 Creative Artists Public Service Grant
- 1978 Madeline Sadin Award, New York Quarterly
- 1979 Younger Poets Award, Poetry Miscellany
- 1980 Satan Says inaugural San Francisco Poetry Center Award.
- 1981–1982 Guggenheim Fellowship, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation
- 1982–1983 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship
- 1983 The Dead and the Living Lamont Poetry Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
- 1992 The Father, shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize and was a finalist for The National Book Critics Circle Award.
- 1993–1996 Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers Award
- 1998–2000 New York State Poet Laureate
- 2002 Academy of American Poets Fellowship
- 2002 The Unswept Room, Finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry
- 2003 Judge, Griffin Poetry Prize; for "distinguished poetic achievement at mid-career"
- 2004 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Awards
- 2004 Became member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
- 2006–2012 Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets
- 2009 One Secret Thing, shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize
- 2012 T.S. Eliot Prize, Stag's Leap
- 2012 Stag's Leap, named as one of "Oprah's Favorite Reads of 2012"
- 2013 Pulitzer Prize, Stag's Leap
- 2014 Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry
- 2015 Elected to become a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (to be inducted mid-May 2015)
- 2016 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets
- 2020 Shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize, Arias