Weekend Write-in: Even Though You Won the Nobel Prize, My Mother Still Loves Me Better

Perhaps the room looked a little like this?

This week, I travel to Amherst, MA, to read from my new book in the town where it was published. On my walk this overcast morning with Bella, my border collie, I plan what to read, how to introduce things. A fox darts across a long driveway. A droplight still burns inside a carved giant pumpkin. Overnight, the leaves have fallen so everything underfoot is orange and gold beneath a gray sky. The flea market enjoys its final weekend. Bella and I detour through it, the dog sniffing at every post, me on the lookout for some cast-off I had no idea I needed.

I decide to read a couple poems, a section from a story I feel particularly indebted to. My husband has asked me before if I get nervous to read (Anticipating an acceptance speech he had to give at his high school’s athletic hall of fame dinner, he once lost his voice. Once the speech was over, his voice returned full force.). But I don’t get nervous. Instead, I’m excited to make the trip, especially excited to meet the people who brought my book to life.

Maybe I was nervous the first time I read. I try to remember when that was. Meanwhile, Bella greets a lab puppy beside a collection of empty frames and chairs that need re-caning. I think for a moment that it might have been with a lovely group of poets I worked with for a few years when my girls were babies.

But then, I remember: I was nervous all right. The first time I read my work in public was at Boston University. No excitement there: just mind-numbing anxiety and a healthy dose of dread.

Our graduate student reading took place in some dark academic room. We had been given a time limit that I knew would be impossible for me to fill, unless I wanted (once again in front of this not-so-forgiving crowd) to read crap. Let’s summarize by saying: It had not been a good year. But my mother was excited to hear me, and she would’ve been proud if I’d stood up and read recipes for chicken pot pie. Also, this requirement was nowhere near as terrifying as some of the other things we’d had to do to fulfill Derek Walcott’s assignments. So, despite a throat nearly closed shut with terror, I read two poems, then sat down and clasped my trembling hands in my lap.

When the reading was over and we stood in a narrow hallway for the obligatory social hour with juice and store bought cookies, George Starbuck told me I’d won the award for the briefest presentation. This was the kind of feedback I was used to receiving from George. Non-committal and not particularly helpful. Derek Walcott praised a revision I’d made (Yes, I said praised.). This opened up my breathing passages a little.

However, I had no choice but to introduce him to my mother. He told her she had a very conscientious daughter. My mother said she already knew that. Then she added, “So you’re Derek. I’ve heard a lot about you.” Um. Okay, so I thought the reading would have been the most awkward part of the evening, but you never know when my mom is around.

Somehow, I escorted her safely away from the gathering and we left shortly afterward, me relieved to be leaving the literary scene in the rearview, my mother insisting I’d exaggerated my accounts of Derek Walcott. “He didn’t seem very scary at all,” she said.

I didn’t think about reading again in public. Instead, I was relieved to escort my mother onto the Green Line and think I’d never again venture into that mythical room 222 where I had certainly not done service to Plath, Sexton, Lowell, and its other illustrious occupants.

Is it just a coincidence that the memory has stayed buried for three decades, only to return on Halloween? But it’s good to be haunted by certain reminders. I’d like to say I’m not that person anymore. I can fill the time allotted to me. I don’t cringe with mortification at what I am forced to utter aloud. But there’s no such thing as a completely shed skin for this particular individual of the species. A scale or two of the old stuff always hangs around.

I write, in part, to keep those insecurities at bay.

As for my mother, she won’t be making the trip to Amherst. But her lessons always accompany me: when you have the opportunity to meet people who also love what you love — stories, poems, the power of language — embrace it. And if the most intimidating person you’ve ever met in your life, star of your anxiety dreams, happens to be in the audience, smoking like a fiend? Just wave the smoke away and introduce yourself.

Happy First, Third, Twenty-Third and Thirty-Sixth Birthday, Bewildered

Justina Donoghue photo.

Justina Donoghue photo.

A year ago this week, my collection of short stories was published. But the book really began in January of 1979 with a Smith Corona electric typewriter and a basketball game I did not attend.

My sophomore year in high school, I dreaded weeekends almost as much as I dreaded school days. Both of my oldest friendships had imploded, leaving me with nowhere to sit during lunch and nothing to do once the final bell on Friday had rung. That Christmas, my mother had bought me the typewriter and, in my expansive free time, I began an autobiographical novel which chronicled the friendships I had lost. My idea: once my two friends read this and remember what an amazing time we had together, all will be forgiven. They’ll come back.

So when the extension rang in my bedroom and I interrupted my work to answer it, Tricia’s voice thrilled me. This was the opening. We’d start slow, I’d be apologetic and grateful, and then, eventually, I’d show them these pages. Even when Tricia skipped all small talk and asked for Coletta’s number (it was unlisted and I had been the one who initiated most of our get-togethers) I thought: maybe (hopefully?) they’re planning something for my birthday. Why else ask me for that number and then exclude me from whatever plans they would make?

I hung up the phone and resumed typing. On Monday, Coletta told me they had gone to the basketball game Friday night. Then she shut her locker without making looking at me and headed off down the hall.

I don’t remember when I stopped writing that particular tale, but one farm, four dorm rooms, several apartments, and two houses later, the manuscript is still with me.

By the fall of 1992, I understood very well that stories don’t save relationships. They do save writers, though.

So I sat in front of my Apple IIGS working on a story called “Having Your Italy and Other Realms of Worship.” A few hours away, the man I loved was trying to decide if he still loved me. It happens, right? Couples split apart only to discover how much they absolutely need to be together? The very thing had just happened to a friend of mine and now she was engaged to be married! But even knowing firsthand that happy endings were not necessarily impossible, I knew ours was. The relationship had helped me work through the initial and paralyzing grief of my father’s death, mostly because Dan insisted on spontaneity, on getting outside and filling our days with activity. I could miss my father, but I would still have to paddle the kayak or hike the mountain or scalp Red Sox tickets out the car window as Dan negotiated traffic in Kenmore Square. We were never destined to spend our lives together; I think we both always knew that, and if my teenaged friendship woes taught me anything, they taught me that you move on. You keep finding love and, because of what you have lost, you love a little more deeply the next time around.

In the winter of 2013, I laid “Having Your Italy” (retitled by the magazine that had eventually accepted it) on my bed along with nine other stories. With the calculator on my phone, I added up the number of pages to see if I had enough for a book, then mailed the manuscript away to AWP’s Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction. The title came from those moments when my characters look up from what they assumed were normal lives and find themselves surprised at where they’ve landed. When those moments visit me, I sit down and write.

I can’t conceive of a life without telling stories anymore than I can imagine a life without the kind of love I have been lucky enough to have experienced. This month, I will celebrate my own collection and all the stories we can’t help but tell.

And Finally, Our Last Night at AWP: Doesn’t Play Well With Others

Love is all around, no need to waste it; if you can have the town, why don't you take it? You're gonna make it after all!!

Love is all around, no need to waste it; if you can have the town, why don’t you take it? You’re gonna make it after all!!

I’ve been home from AWP more than a week already. What is taking me so long to wrap up the blog thing on it? Good question. Here goes nothing:

Saturday morning, Rebecca and I facetime Sarah Yaw who would be with us (and whose novel, You Are Free to Go, is with us in the convention hall at the Engine Books table). Sarah is home making microwaved scrambled eggs for her five year old twins who wiggle loose teeth for us and wave bloody swords they received as birthday gifts. It feels a bit Mission Impossible — Sarah checking in to hear what we’ve accomplished so far (Rebecca sampled the local whiskey and survived 48 hours without her suitcase; I had lunch with Pam Houston and didn’t order a glass of wine because the waiter came to me first and I was afraid of committing a faux pas so grossly classless, that I couldn’t even summon the courage to ask for lemonade and, instead, settled for tap water).

“Okay,” Sarah says, infinitely forgiving. “Then your homework tonight is to go to the main hotel bar and shmooze.”

Cue iconic music.

Cut to my blanched face and trembling limbs.

Rebecca says this is a great idea and though the thought of meeting real live writing people terrifies me, we head off to the day’s panel discussions as if this is any other day on the planet. We separate and I listen to writers discuss how uncomfortable it is to promote their books. We’re socially awkward people as it is, they say. (I’m paraphrasing. Or projecting. I forget which.) We’re most comfortable at home with our families and our cats (I’m almost totally freestyling now, but this is what I heard no matter what they actually said.)

Thus fortified, thus reassured I am not the only freak out there, I head back to the bookfair to find Rebecca. I’m feeling good, strong, confident, full of adventure, and then I see Rebecca strolling along an aisle and the familiarity of her inspires me to run towards her and throw my arms around her. “I missed you!” I say. I don’t care who hears me.

7:30: we head to the bar. I deliberately do not fuss with what I’m wearing. Rebecca loaned me some lipstick that never comes off. It’s like a lip tattoo. This is my one attempt at looking good. (that I insist on my own meaningless-slash-invisible protest might seem ridiculous but it gets me the four or five blocks I need to travel).

“One drink,” I say. “And then we’re out of there.”

But we meet a cowboy from North Carolina who works at a university in Kansas. He looks so much like my cousin’s son, I feel almost at ease. We take a selfie with him and send it to my cousin and to Sarah. Doing our homework, we write. The cowboy says he’s relieved to meet us. Relieved. Great word. He even makes Rebecca talk about her book (Charms for Finding, (http://www.hebenon.com/charms.html). This is beginning to seem like that rare phenomenon: a really, really, fun homework assignment.

Two hours later, he leaves for dinner with his colleagues: “If y’all are here when I get back, that’d be great,” he says. We won’t be, of course, but we promise to be Facebook friends.

An editor from Alabama takes the cowboy’s seat. He tells us that a bartender friend of his in New Orleans said that during the AWP conference there, the bars sold more liquor than they did for Mardi Gras.

“You know how it is with writers,” he says. We do! We do! We’re so busy talking to him about pit bulls and publishing and our favorite cocktail nuts, we don’t even notice when the cowboy returns.

“Wow!” I say. “That was a fast dinner.”

“Fast?” he says. “I’ve been gone two hours! I never thought y’all’d still be here.”

So, we nearly close the place and then we leave, happy with our final night in Minneapolis. It’s a beautiful city, pristine and friendly. The weather is spring-like and people gather to play ping pong outside, to sit along the wide streets and watch the bars empty out.

Soon, we and 14,000 others, will return to the kinds of lives we awkward writers live. Tonight, however, I think: The world is full of strangers, and that’s not a bad thing. Some of those strangers have left Minneapolis with my book in their hands. That idea, the few friends we have made this time, and Rebecca’s company for a few more hours, seem like miracles enough for one trip.

The Story of the Stories: Conclusion — See You in Minneapolis?????

A chai martini tastes like chai. Perks and Corks, a cozy spot, is part of downtown Westerly’s Renaissance. Thom McCann used to be on this block. But now, it’s breweries, bars, restaurants. This is my first time out in my own hometown. I’m fifty years old.

But this is not my first time out with my cousin Sue. The year after I graduated from college, I moved home and, though we pledged to stay home a night or two, we never did. There were discos to stroll through and beachside cabanas to drink Bartles and James at. And when the night ended, there was always IHOP. With our history, you’d think I’d be careful, but she says we should try the place on the river. Sit outside. Watch the swans. And I say, “Sure.”

It’s a beautiful night. My daughters are sleeping over their cousins’ houses after dinner with Nana. The girls and I are here visiting family (and there’s a lot of it) for a few days before heading home to pre-season workouts, captains’ practices, before my own school year gears up again. I dread September, so why not indulge August?

At the next spot, that patio we sit on juts out into the Pawcatuck. Sue and I have nothing to do but talk, and we never run out of that. The swans glow in the dark on the black river. A Lemincello martini tastes like lemons.

I don’t remember what kind of martini I order next. I do remember trying to stand up and thinking the river is a lot closer than it had seemed.

Sue, like the underage disco queen she used to be, bounces up from her seat, and says, “We need to get together more often.”

I say, “I can’t go home yet. I need to walk.”

When we were kids, our mothers warned us never, NEVER, go into the park at night. There’s still a little of their warnings with us, but we go anyway. Except for its ancient beech trees, its well-spaced lamp posts, the fish pond, the place is empty. I strut and fret my hour upon the stage that has been constructed for the annual Shakespeare in the Park. Sue climbs barefoot into the fountain behind the library. I think one of us takes pictures.

The next morning, my head pounding, I slink out into the light of my mother’s already busy kitchen. She has a visitor. She almost always does, and we are in the middle of an important conversation with this one when my mother’s phone rings.

My god, I think, has it always been that shrill? It announces the caller: Dennis Donoghue.

“Ignore it,” I tell my mother. Her visitor’s story that requires our attention and I am already struggling mightily not to puke. I’ll call Dennis as soon as I can move my jaw without the pain ricocheting through my skull.

Again, it rings. Dennis. My mother picks it up this time and, after several confused seconds, hands it to me.

Dennis says, “Why would someone from George Mason University be calling you?”

George Mason University?

I take the phone outside. Sit on my mother’s sidewalk. Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry, I think.

“My god,” I finally say. “I think it’s AWP.”


This flight is crowded with writers. Minneapolis-bound Bostonians on their way to the biggest gathering of writers in the world. 10,000 plus people just like me, people nursing this stubborn dream, or – maybe — people celebrating this dream come true.

The Story of the Stories: Part IV — From the Loyalsock

nature 2

Our Own Little Bubble. Loyalsock Creek. Williamsport, PA

July, 2012.

After the flood, I ask Rebecca, what was on the creek bottom? Tomorrow, we both leave for Minneapolis, but today, I am back at the Loyalsock. Summer. The cabin’s new wood redolent of wood and sap.

She writes: plates, mirrors, tire rims, rain spouting, footie pajamas , records, a car bumper, buckets, baskets, forks, siding, windows, tin cans, spoons, dolls, an old phone, and a pin-ball game. Not all at once and not all actually underwater, but they had been there and were muddy and amazingly twisted. And then, miraculously, there would be that delicate thing like a lightbulb, that looked completely unscathed.

Isn’t it amazing? The list itself, and the way she pulls the objects back together and leaves us with the most fragile, the least probable?

That summer, Brenda brings an underwater camera and this means she has to get near an element she’d rather gaze at from the porch, barefoot with a beer in her hand. Beside me, of course, land lovers, though I at least have been out in the rowboat. Rebecca, Sarah, and Amelie, Rebecca’s dog, paddle in water so clear, we can see bare legs kicking, Amelie’s soggy limbs.

We’ve written on the porch every morning, deep into the afternoons. My novel is revised. Sarah’s too. Rebecca’s poems like it here. Inside, Brenda rises later than we do, plans an art project. We can always do this: gather, work, and then live with each other again the way we did for eleven days at Bread Loaf when we first met.

c & r

On the last day, Rebecca finally convinces Brenda to come for a ride in the boat and we nearly tip over. This is how it goes, right? You say: you’re safe, you’re safe, you’re perfectly safe. But the world has other ideas.

Anyway, with her new camera, Brenda captures the creek bottom, a boneyard, scrapbook. This is how Rebecca spent the winter, shoveling dirt out of people’s bathtubs, tearing out sodden sheetrock, streaks of primer on her face, often deliberately. Sarah spent the winter with her twins. Sledding at the Big Hill. Costume romps and petting zoos and dancing, of course. Brenda? We never get that window opened completely. Some scenes with Nigel in them, his snout on the dashboard of her car, his stumpy legs blurring on their walks through their Pittsburgh neighborhood. The Steelers on Sunday. Gaga, Katie Perry, Alicia — the powerwomen soundtrack to her life without us.

So we have this week, by the end of which I’m searching for the next time.

AWP, someone says. It’s in Boston this year.

December, 2011.

My agent doesn’t like the novel.

I, a fraudulent writer who mostly wants to hang out with her friends, registers for AWP. I read the catalog to see what looks good or at least not painful. They also advertise a book award.

January, 2012.

I brood about the fact that my agent doesn’t like the novel.

February 2012.

Paralyzed by this most recent rejection and by winter in general, I sit on my bed and lay out all the hard copies of my stories. I have enough the required number of pages. Why not send them to the stupid contest?

The Story of the Stories, Part IV: Letting It Be Bad

In my Hetzel Hall single, I sat agonizing over how to write a short story. Stayed away from nickel night at Nick’s. Closed my dorm room door and ignored knocks. Let the phone ring and ring down the hall, people with reasons to chat be damned.

How Jumpin’ Joe got in, I don’t recall. He’s an unavoidably buoyant person, hard to discourage.

“Look,” he said, not standing still. Bobbing, probably, using hand motions, wiggling his Marx brother’s eyebrows. “Why don’t you take a poetry class, instead. Have a little fun for a change?”

“I know nothing about writing poetry,” I said to this animal science major, to someone whose first real job would be as an egg inspector for the USDA during the day and a bass player in a band at night.


Poetry derailed me (fodder for another 100 blogs).

But it was loss that brought me back to writing stories.

First, my father’s death and a summer workshop for teachers in Amherst. We had to tell name stories and one woman said: “I was named Margaret after my grandmother, but her name had originally been Mexico. When she married, her in-laws forced her to change it to something more appropriate.” There was no poem in that, only something vital being erased, something unimaginable. The dorm room I slept in was stifling. The group of teachers assembled not writers but earnest educators hoping to learn something that they could bring back to the classroom with them. Peter Elbow led some weird kind of writing therapy session that made me itch. I could still summon my father’s smell, cotton and starch, Ivory soap. I had memorized the cracks in his fingers, the missing nails. I wouldn’t let my mother throw his comb away.

In my conference with Peter Elbow, I said I wanted to write an essay based on the Mexico story. “I thought about writing something fictional,” I said, “but I can’t.”

“Do you know what word I hear?” he said, leaning forward. “Can’t. You can’t write it, you said.”

“That’s right. I can’t.”

He asked me what I was afraid of and I thought of standing up, walking to my car, driving back to my mother’s house. My mother’s house that used to be my parents’ house.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. This quack. This witch doctor. “Just let it be bad.”


I had learned long before that writing didn’t bring anyone back. Had spent my sophomore year in high school chronicling my friendship with two girls whose companionship I had lost. For Christmas that year, I had received an electric typewriter. I set it up in my room beside my stereo and banged away on it, filling page after page with the scenes from our lives together. When I’m finished, I thought, I’ll show it to them and they’ll remember: Oh, right. That’s how it used to be.


I didn’t write Having Your Italy because I believed it would bring Dan back. Older, wiser, more accustomed to the way loss inserts itself into life and how we surge forward, grateful even for the loves that cannot last, I wrote the story for me. But I loved many things about him and one of those was his longing, his restlessness despite my own realization that these things meant he couldn’t stay.

One day when he listed all the things he wanted to do, that he couldn’t imagine doing, I thought about how I might console him. Finally, I said: “I went to Italy without a map, without anything, really, except a good friend and the absolute wrong wardrobe.”

He said, “Well, I haven’t had my Italy.”

In the weeks after he left, I sat at my desk and clicked away at the keyboard of my Apple IIGS and wrote a story based around the line that forced a painful and necessary goodbye. The Mexico story was an invitation to write. The Italy story, I thought, might be something more important. Outside, night fell. Inside, I batted away all the never-again’s. I wrote the first draft and I let it be bad.


Teaching, too, derailed me, but motherhood? That sat me down in one place and threatened to hold me there, my beautiful daughter, Beatrice, busy with plastic things, her diapers dry, the electrical outlets sealed off.

I hung signs in local libraries: Writing Group Forming, Please Call (Please) — the parenthetical is just a reference to the little prayer I said each time I punched a staple in.

We met in the Rowley Library when it had a basement room with red shag carpet. Of the five people who assembled, four returned for the next four years. Mostly, we met in Newburyport at Jane’s condo, every Thursday night. Her children were grown; her husband tucked himself away in the spare room while we listened to one another’s attempts. When my middle daughter was born, Miriam filled me a water bottle and lectured me about the importance of hydration as I nursed Apphia through the critique. When I was finished, they took turns passing her around: Jane, Brian, Miriam. When my third daughter arrived home from Guatemala, I brought them all gifts.

But the writing stalled, story after story rejected. “I might just start writing poetry again,” I said, threatening the indifferent air and houseplants.

Then the phone rang. Landline.

Ten years after I had finished Having Your Italy, someone said, “We’d like to publish your story.”

The Story of the Stories: Part III — Fording Rivers with Jon and Not Disappointing John Denver’s Doppleganger

Jon knew the best time to leaf peep along the Kancamagus Highway. So that I could fully appreciate the beauty of his homestate, he drove his Le Car and I gaped out the windows at the scenery. We stopped often so he could take pictures and teach me the kind of lessons he picked up in the required New Hampshire history course he had taken in high school. Once he learned them, Jon never forgot facts. Campus was a couple hours south. The demands of our full courseloads in a place that had yet to change color, that would offer up for dinner the Sunday special Yankee pot roast, were far away. Instead, we had this. Was there traffic? I don’t remember. Crowds? In my memory, we are alone against the calendar page settings. The day was perfect and then it was time for lunch.

We’d packed something and, as I scouted the road for a White Mountains picnic spot, Jon pulled the car over, instead, onto a gravel shoulder and got out. Below us, the shallow rapids of a river sparkled.

“What are we doing?” I asked.

Jon clambered over the guardrail with our cooler. “Come on,” he said. “There’s the perfect spot.”

I looked around. Trees. More trees. The faded little Le Car with its implausible  racing strip. The river still racing towards the Atlantic.

When I hesitated, Jon motioned to where a house sat on the opposite shore, a vacation cottage, its windows blinking in the sun.

“That’s someone’s property,” I said.

Jon insisted no one was home. Even if they were, he doubted they’d mind someone using their picnic table for a few minutes. Live free or die, I thought. Live free or be arrested for trespassing, but Jon was on his way to the river. Live free or get washed away by the rapids before you get a chance to trespass.

“I don’t know about this,” I said, and that’s when Jon altered the course of my life.

“You don’t really have a sense of adventure, do you?” he said.

I love Jon. Best friend love. The kind that lasts no matter how infrequently we get to see each other. He’s brilliant and funny and earnest and, in those glorious days when we did see each other more than once every other year, he made me look at myself in ways I had not before. A mirror kind of friend, someone who saw who I was, and said: What the hell. I’ll hang out with her anyway.

I didn’t have a sense of adventure, but when he held out his hand that day, I took it and, in that moment, I began to remedy something.

I’ll never jump out of airplanes (like Jon did a few years later), but his words stay with me, urge me forward, still. Even onto Minneapolis.

As do these:

Eighth grade, Westerly Babcock Junior High School:

Mrs. Serra would stand before us with the book in her hands, read passages aloud, coax discussion from us. She liked books and that might sound odd, but it was the first time I thought it about a teacher: she reads. I’ve forgotten the novel we were studying, but once we’d finished the unit, the assignment was to write a different final chapter.

And I loved the job. Did what I always did: slipped into the world and wrote from it. The difference? No one had yet asked to see any of what I produced.

Mrs. Serra handed the papers back a few days later, calling us up to her desk to retrieve them. When it was my turn, she held the paper out to me just out of reach.

“You need to enter the school’s essay contest,” she said. I had no idea the school had an essay contest, but before I could ask for details, she added: “You can write.”

Sophomore year, University of New Hampshire:

Will Evans looked like John Denver who I had a soft spot for since a) that was the first concert I had ever attended (all decked out in my Dutchmaid lime green pantsuit), and b) Back Home Again was the only song my brother would let me sing to when he played guitar. Will rolled the sleeves of his plaid shirts halfway up his arms. He loved John Gardner and Joan Didion. I didn’t have a crush on him but I did feel very tender towards him. He was so earnest. You didn’t want to let him down even when you tried several times to read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and finally had to fake it in discussions. I’d cruised through freshman English. Writing papers had become rote for me. Five pages a week. Easy A.  For Will’s latest assignment, I scribbled some stuff about missing my niece’s birthday, homesick stuff, blah blah blah, yanked the finished product from my typewriter and headed into Lauren’s room to battle with the television’s rabbit ears so we could watch M*A*S*H*.

The next week in my one-on-one conference, Will slid the paper back to me.

“You know what your problem is?” he said.

He had a cowlick, I swear to God. Blond bangs and a cowlick. Not the kind of haircut you’d expect on someone who is about to excoriate you.

“You’re lazy.”

Lazy? No. Writing was just easy. Maybe I told him something like this, but I doubt it. I’m pretty sure I was stunned into silence and trying not to bawl.

“This isn’t an essay,” he said. “This is just some flowery description. You’ve got talent, but that won’t get you anywhere if you aren’t willing to do the work.”

Back in my dorm, I grabbed the box of tissues and the Webster’s New Collegiate: Essay, I read. A short literary composition on a single subject, usually presenting the personal view of the author.

This didn’t help me one bit. But I didn’t want to let Will down. Or Mrs. Serra. I started working then. Not just writing. Never again just writing.

Writing is easy. You put the right pen to the right paper and dream away. But Will was right. Good writing? That takes work. Work and possibly, a sense of adventure. An understanding of the power of words.

The Story of the Stories: Part II — Some Kids Have Cows for Pets: Other Kids Have Pigs

First Grade, State Street School. My mother put on her lipstick and headed out to parent teacher night to meet Mrs. Phillips.

“Don’t forget the bookfair,” I said.

I wanted one of the textbooks, Bright Horizons? Up and Away? Could someone really own a book that grand? But what other kinds of books would a school sell? Imagine being able to play school with my dolls (all of whose heads I’d shorn, imitating my sister Jeanne’s homework assignments from beauty school), my blue and orange stuffed cats with the jewel eyes, and my polka dotted clown, lined up on the sofa as I hoisted that impressive volume and read aloud to them!

Our house sat at the end of a long laneway. From my parents’ bedroom, I could watch for the headlights as cars turned off Franklin Street. Patiently, not so patiently, I waited for my mother. By the time she walked in, I had sprinted into the back entry to meet her.

The book she held out to me was far too small, too insubstantial a thing to be the answer to my prayers.

“What’s this?” I said. I had a temper. I was trying not to use it.

“Mrs. Phillips thought you would like this one. Besides, they don’t sell the ones you use in class. She said that would be against the law.”

My friend Jackie’s mother told us if we swallowed gum our bums would stick together. My own mother told me smoking would stunt my growth even though I never saw my Aunt Nancy without a cigarette and she was taller than my father. My cousin Kathy told me if you walked through a car’s exhaust, you would disappear. Sometimes, people said stuff just to scare you. (Sometimes, it worked).

I tossed the flimsy thing on my dresser, climbed into bed scowling. What kind of a mother let a teacher talk her out of what her kid really wanted? What kind of a writer called his book something as stupid as Charlotte’s Web?


Because my mother finally took Charlotte’s Web away from me (“You need to read something else,” she said, though I didn’t (still don’t) understand why), I had no choice but to start foraging for more material. In the face of the kind of friendship Wilbur and Charlotte possessed, basal readers lost their appeal. I loved that book because I believed it. That story was as true as any article I read in our Encyclopedia Brittanica. More so because it was hard to imagine something as homely as a frog could have such colorful innards, but a spider who saves your life with the help of a rat? How could that not become a kind of religion?

I thought I’d never find another book like it, but then I read chapter one of A Day No Pigs Would Die where a boy chases a prize Holstein through a briar patch and helps deliver her twin bulls. I thought our cows were the only ones stupid enough to labor amidst a patch of thorns, and that, aside from me and my brother and sisters, no other kid had seen anything like those pearly hooves poking out of the cow’s rear end, the way the muzzle emerged, nostrils quivering, eyes blinking before the calf was fully out into the world.

This is what I learned from E.B. White and Robert Newton Peck: Anything can become a story. Even unbelievably magical things. Even the kinds of things that happened to me.

The Story of the Stories: Part I — Just Because Your Only Friend is Imaginary Doesn’t Mean You’re Lonely

Part I

My father was the world’s most famous dairy farmer. He raised a bull named Osborndale Ivanhoe who changed the character of the Holstein breed. Long before his daughter dreamed of becoming a writer, my father made it into Esquire Magazine. That man and his celebrity bull. That bull and his starlet daughters grazing in pastures before admiring busloads of other farmers, of students of agriculture.

My mother, in a separate life, ran the lunch counter at Cap’s Cafe. The building still stands on the corner of Tower Street and Granite though now it’s a French bistro with outdoor seating that overlooks the intersection. My mother’s specialities included beef stew and American chop suey, things that, 60 years later, she still can’t prepare for fewer than a hundred people.

My parents met there, my mother the only person willing to wait on someone who smelled like a barnyard. I’m sure my parents, like any other couple, had dreams. I do not think those dreams included having a child who wanted to be a writer.

In our busy house, my mother fed hired hands, lining the counter with grinder rolls, cold cuts, lettuce she shredded into curling ribbons. Outside, my father’s trucks rumbled by full of corn, tractors roared past lugging wagonloads of hay. Milking machines pulsed. Cows bellowed. In summer, flies buzzed everywhere. Black ants dropped from the light over our kitchen table and landed in the sugar bowl. Winters, mice holed up in our cupboards; the dogs slept in mangers full of hay they wouldn’t let the heifers near. Season after season, I hunted down a good pen (nearly impossible to find), a piece of paper — phone book pages worked best, but any old envelope would do — and I scribbled. I loved the feel of ink on a page, the smell of a blue Bic, the loops and curls of letters.

“God damnit,” my mother would say, picking up a bill that hadn’t yet been paid. “How am I supposed to send this to someone when you’ve written all over it?”

But that carbon paper was as silky as my border collie’s ear, the rim of ribbon along the top of the blanket on my sister Jeannie’s bed. Things I also couldn’t resist. Writing felt as good as all the softest things on earth.

When people visited, I shut myself in my room. Read a book. Talked to my imaginary friend. Dr. Robinson told my mother she shouldn’t worry about me. “It’s a sign of an imaginative child,” she said. Tell that to my sister Barbara Ann who opened the Studebaker’s door to let me slide into the back seat. When she closed it behind me, I screamed.

“What’s wrong?” she said.

“You closed my friend in the door,” I said, sobbing loud enough for the shoppers passing by on the sidewalk to stop and stare.

We didn’t close the toy box so that my dolls could breathe. Crayons had personalities depending on their colors. Blue was a loyal boy. Yellow a boy nobody liked. Red was very popular, a celebrity color. I believed our house was haunted, woke one night to see a knight in shining armor walk through my bedroom, watched a shadow dance through the hayloft’s open window when the barns should have been empty. When I disappeared into a cornfield (I was three) and ignored my mother’s frantic calls, it was because I sat staring at the way sunlight hit a patch of earth amidst the tall stalks.

“What are we going to do with this kid?” my mother asked.

After another of his endless days at work, I would say to my fahter:“Tell me a story,” I wanted to listen until I fell asleep, feared being the only one awake in our big house, all by itself at the end of a dark lane. “Tell me another story,” I would say to my father, who no doubt wanted to eat his maple walnut ice cream that melted in a bowl beside his chair. He’d want to catch the weather on the 11 o’clock news, maybe return to the barns to check on a sick cow.

When, finally, he got too tired, he would say: Why don’t you tell me a story, now, instead?