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.

Weekend Write-In: The Difference Between a Talented Writer and a Talented, Published One

During their final days in one of my senior writing classes, my students sit down for a brief conference with me. This year, I asked James the same thing I’ve asked a few other gifted young writers: “Do you know the difference between you and people who have published poetry in literary journals?” James, like his peers, did not, so I told him: “They kept writing once they left high school.”

Seems simple enough, right? And, god knows, with the proliferation of writing programs at the undergraduate, graduate, even PhD levels, plenty of people call themselves writers these days, but in my nineteen years of teaching, only one of my students so far has come back to visit me, Bachelor’s degree in hand, and said, “I want to be a writer.”


It’s not easy to profess yourself a writer, I know that. And it’s not easy to say to anyone (read: parents) faced with coming up with the kind of Monopoly money required for college tuition these days to say you’re going to use your education to become a poor poet, but people do survive in this profession. They may be hungry, but they don’t starve to death. They may not be ready for the runway at Goddard Park, but they’re not naked in public (usually, though there was that one couple at Bread Loaf . . .). But I’m not really suggesting my students dedicate every minute of their professional lives to writing; I’m not even suggesting they go to school for it. I just want them to know: you can do this if you keep on doing it and by this I mean publish, I mean keep writing.

One of the many wonderful things about teaching is that I get to witness the earliest stages of real talent. So many kids can write (especially poetry), but only a select few have an innate, instantly recognizable gift. When I see these kids again, all grown up many years later, and they tell me they are lawyers or computer technicians or architects, I think: but what about your writing? Because it’s hard for me to believe that they could set that gift down on the table and walk away from it towards something any old talented person can do.

Kurt Vonnegut has said of writers,”We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” This doesn’t seem like such a bad way to spend at least part of your waking moments.

So here’s to all those kids (and all those who used to be kids) who think writing is what you do in your angsty adolescent journal and in one elective class you could finally fit into your high school schedule: keep going. And, when you do, let me know you’re out there, wing buds at the ready, toes over the edge of that marvelous cliff. Let me come cheer you on.

Weekend Write-In: Walk On, Walk Blindly On

The Larcom Review, named for Lucy Larcom, mill worker, suffragette, writer, and teacher.

The editors for a new, local, literary magazine were appearing at the Newburyport library. With three small children at home, I couldn’t make it, but two of my friends did. They returned with mixed reviews. One was excited for the opportunity to send work to a magazine dedicated to writers and writing with a New England connection. The other was dubious: a new literary journal started by people who weren’t writers? How good could this possibly be?

But my more enthusiastic friend added, “They’re especially looking for nonfiction.”

At home, in the bottom drawer of a dresser, I had a descriptive essay about a collapsed shed that had stood on my family’s farm. My dad and I had spent a few hours one day before we moved off the farm, trying to determine if there was anything of value left in it. I’d written the essay several years before as part of an in-service workshop on how to teach writing. What the hell, I thought. It’s just sitting here.

So my piece appeared in a small, but lovely magazine. The editors were gracious and excited to publish my work (it was so long ago, one of them called me on the telephone to accept the piece). I thought: great news, but that’s that.

But a few weeks later, I received a call from a woman who wanted to hire me for a small writing job based on my essay. I was also invited to read with other local writers from that issue. I had never had the opportunity to either write for money or read aloud to an audience. All this from one small magazine and an essay that had sat in my drawer for six years.

In the classifieds of Poets and Writers, was an ad for a magazine called the Cider Press Review. Never heard of it, I thought, but I had a batch of poems looking for a home. I sent them off and CPR took one about the day the horse in my neighborhood was put down. Great news, I thought (again), but that’s that. Except that CPR was one of the first magazines I’d published in that built an email contact list (also again: I’m old(er)) and this is where I learned they were sponsoring their first book prize. I spread my poems out on my bed and counted pages. Enough for a book. So I mailed them off.

The next time I tried something like this, it was because 1) I’d seen an ad in Writer’s Chronicle for a short story award (Papers across the bed once again; the cat aggravated by the invasion) and, 2) I wasn’t writing anything new so why not send the old stuff out?

Cider Press published One of the Cimalores, my first collection of poetry. AWP awarded Bewildered its Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction.

And all because, once upon a time, a little essay of mine appeared in a magazine called The Larcom Review and and I learned: you just can’t predict which step will be the first one. The only thing you can ever know for sure is that you have to keep moving forward.

Septembers This September Reminds Me Of

September Salt Marsh

September Salt Marsh

Spent part of Labor Day weekend at the Steep Hill Beach. For the two summers we had it, we anchored our little boat, All the Best, here. Funny to think of Dennis on the beach for a few hours now. Dennis who doesn’t like the sun or to sit still. The girls in life jackets for the trip out through the river. A cooler, a net bag of sand toys. Today only Apphia is with me, sunning herself with her friend May. I’m the restless one.

Pulled weeds in the driveway yesterday and wondered: how did they get this bad? So many mornings, as I waited for the bus with the girls, I pulled the grass and wild oregano that had trespassed into the gravel. Other days, we played tag. We put the finishing touches on high ponytails.

5:30 AM, Bella and I walk. I used to set my alarm, instead, to write a few minutes before my new job began. How to teach full time and write? That was a question ten years ago and still.

First Day of Kindergarten for Beatrice. Here with the send-off committee.

First Day of kindergarten for Beatrice. Here with the send-off committee. 2003

Pine Grove’s driveway helps me extend the morning walk to the two miles that feels passable. I pushed the double stroller along this same route on September 11, 2001, to drop Beatrice off for her first day at preschool while her sisters watched, oblivious. Was Beatrice, though? She cried so hard when the teacher carried her inside, and I thought: why not just take her home? Why let any of them out of my sight today?

Dennis turns sixty this month. When he turned 40, we had lived here a few weeks, would be getting married on the last day of the month. At the last minute, I called friends (I used an address book!!, one he’d had since the 70’s) and family. Said nothing to him. All day, they trickled up the driveway, his parents and siblings, his friends, my family. Each time, he stared at them and said, “What are you doing here?” They met the goat, petted the horse. Riley swiped food off plates; Daisy cowered beside one of us.

For his 50th we had a tent. His southshore cousins rented a van. By 8PM, he had his first (and last) migraine, rose after everyone but Tony and his nephew Michael had left, tucked into the leftovers, the coolers of beer.

This year, a smaller gathering where he will give garden tours and then the food, the coolers of beer.

I painted a wall with chalkboard paint to keep track of their soccer games and Dennis and I, applying our best reasoning skills, determined which games I would attend, which ones he would, which ones we’d have to rely on carpools for. Now, when both JV and varsity are home, he moves his chair from one field to the other, half a game each. I stand on the football practice field where I can see both and where, at the end of cross country practice, Beatrice’s team will warm down on the outskirts of where her sisters play, the salt marsh changing colors behind them.

This is always the time of year for flies to find their way inside.

One September, the dog’s cancer returned.

Our first fall on Cross Street, 1995. Daisy still a puppy; Riley alert for dogs who incorrectly assume this is their neighborhood.

Our first fall on Cross Street, 1995. Daisy still a puppy; Riley alert for dogs who incorrectly assume this is their neighborhood.

We recorded Patriots games on the VCR and spent warm Sundays working outside. Tore up a front yard’s worth of forsythias that refused to bloom, shoveled up the macadam from the driveway to replace it with gravel, brought the horse and the dogs out to the trails beyond Kittery Ave. Bill Parcells had just become coach. The Krafts had bought the franchise and promised great things. We drafted Drew Bledsoe and, when he was sidelined by a hit that sheared his blood vessels, we didn’t hurry in to watch some kid named Tom Brady’s first game under center. These days, we let the outside work wait a few more hours.

After a soccer game, I stop at Cider Hill for apples. The stand is abandoned so I bring my money to the ice cream window where the girl says I can leave whatever I think is fair; the woman who runs the orchard has gone for the day. This is the woman, I’m sure, who hosted Justina’s third birthday there, who offered me a dozen pumpkins for a dollar apiece. I bought magic markers and googly eyes, Elmer’s, picked up a cake at Market Basket and invited any of the nursery school kids who could make it. We had a hayride out to the orchard where we picked apples and then we sat and ate cake, colored pumpkins, shooed away yellow jackets.



We got married on the last day of September twenty years ago. This rainy day is nothing like that sunny one. Tonight, no dancing. Dennis cleans the chimney. I’m waiting for the girls to come home to a house that seemed so full of noise just a little while ago.

Every September is back to school. Yellow school buses. The surprise, no matter how inevitable, of the first yellow leaves, of the darkness coming earlier. Cold mornings that turn into warm days. The flattened remains of coiled snakes who come onto the blacktop at night to stay warm and aren’t quick enough to avoid harm. Saturday yard sales. Forgetting how brief apple season lasts. Checking the dates for the Topsfield Fair. Septembers that remind us of other Septembers. Septembers that go on as if it matters little what images they leave us with.

Nice to Meet You? Yes, It Always Is

Todd was well known around campus, a life-of-the-party fraternity-type. Women loved him. Men loved him. He moved in a crowd or inspired one to gather. Why, then, would he remember me? I was quiet then, boyish-looking in my collared shirts and short hair. He’d only met me a dozen or so times even though when we did run into each other, I was always with his former roommate and good friend, Jon. And, true, Todd and I did rollerskate once together — because he asked me. He’s sure to remember me now, I thought, clinging to his arm as we stumbled around the rink to Duran Duran. But the next time Jon and I strolled across campus, here came Todd, reaching out his hand to grasp mine, saying, “Nice to meet you!”

I moved around a lot in my twenties. My social circle changed again and again. It wasn’t until we settled in Rowley that I discovered: My god. It wasn’t Todd at all. It’s me.

Josie and I worked out at the gym. Her children and mine took swim lessons at the same time so we shared bleacher seats and the family changing room. Two other friends introduced us at various times, told us we should get to know each other, that we had so much in common: children the same age, vegetarianism. So, a couple years later, when she requested a meeting with her son’s teachers, I was excited to see her again. I opened my mouth prepared to greet her, when she looked up from her notes blankly. “This is Carla Panciera,” the guidance counselor said, and Josie said: “Nice to meet you.”

Then, there was Tina, a perfectly lovely woman whose daughter was a year ahead of my daughter at our local (and tiny) elementary school. Many days we waited outside for the end of the school day, my friend Anne, Tina, and I chatting. Eventually, I also had Tina’s children in my class. Tina came to parents night. I see her often at Market Basket. Anne and I pass her working in the garden on our morning walks. Each time, she smiles brightly at me — she is very friendly — and cocks her head the way people do when they are waiting to be introduced. “She doesn’t have any idea who I am,” I say. Anne used to say I was imagining it (how little she knows about my history!), until the day she mentioned me to Tina and Tina said, “I hear you mention her name a lot, but I don’t know that I’ve ever met her.”

My brother once married into a small family. By small, I mean ten relatives including his new bride. The matriarch was Aunt Edie, a well-dressed woman who clearly worshipped her niece’s new husband. “Janice’s new husband is a wonderful artist,” Edie would tell me. “Yes, I know,” I would say. “I’m his sister.” She’d glance at me as if I was playing a mean trick. “Remember we met at the shower?” I’d say (where there were six of us around a tiny table?). “And the wedding?” (which took place in my family’s back yard). “And in Janice’s new shop?” (where I was the only customer). And, okay, my brother has four sisters, but she remembered Barbara Ann, Jeannie, and Patty.

Last summer, on a river cruise, I saw Lillian who was very pleased to meet me. I knew she would be, as she has been genuinely pleased each of the dozen times she’s done so — even the time before last when I said. “You know, I’ve met you several times before.”

Marybeth gave my daughters Halloween glowsticks for years because she lives beside Anne whose house I am in nearly as often as my own. When my mother visits, I call Marybeth at the senior center to request a wheelchair rental and remind her that I’m Anne’s friend. When I return the chair, she doesn’t even bother to pretend I’m not a complete stranger to her.

At the Rowley library, I help Suzie unpack books for the used booksale. We’ve met at Holly’s house, a gathering of a few couples to celebrate Holly’s latest book launch. At another of Holly’s (small) gatherings, we embark on a hike and then regroup in Holly’s barn for lunch. Now, across piles of paperbacks, Suzie says, “I have a very good friend in town who’s a writer.” Before I can stop myself I say, “Yes, I know. Holly Robinson.” This causes great confusion until I’m forced to remind her: “I met you at her book launch?” I leave the hike slash luncheon thing out. Preserve some little pride.

At the Ipswich library, Elena, who took several of my writing classes, asks me again what my name is so she can check my book out. At least she admits she has a touch of that facial recognition thing. The director of the library, a man for whom I worked for several years, passes me as if I’m completely invisible, and, perhaps, at least at certain times during my life, I am.

You might think I’d learn by now.

But Bob and I had been counselors together at UNH’s Freshman Camp, an organization that was known on campus as a tight-knit, borderline cultish group. Once a month for three years, we gathered to build the kind of team chemistry that would foster an amazingly fun four day camp experience for three hundred incoming freshman. Camp itself lasted nearly a week. Counselors also spent one weekend every spring at a retreat in a mansion in North Andover where we danced until dawn each night. Bob could swing dance; so could I. Our final year as counselors I was on the Exec Board which meant I sat ON A STAGE to conduct meetings. Fifteen years later, Bob and I met again at a pediatrician’s office where we had both taken our babies. Hugs all around! Good times! Fun, improbable reunion!

So this fall, when Bob’s son walked into my classroom, I said, “Oh my god! Sean Dorring. You’re not going to believe this, but I have danced with your dad.” A few weeks later, I searched the parents night crowd for Bob’s familiar face. Instead, I met his wife who said Bob wouldn’t come to my class because he was embarrassed. “He doesn’t remember you,” she said. His son had even shown him my picture in the yearbook. Nothing. “How do you remember him?” his wife wanted to know.

How, indeed? Maybe I have the opposite of that facial recognition thing. Maybe I am cursed, instead, with indelible imprints. I can see you, all of you: loping across campus as the bells at Thompson Hall chime, bending down to fasten a neon light to my young daughter’s neck, smiling up at the Justice of the Peace as she pronounces our loved ones husband and wife, waiting for your child to bound out the doors of school with her lunchbox swinging. holding out your hands so I twirl just right, spinning so close to you that it is impossible to believe you would ever miss and let me go.

Weekend Write-In: Varsity Line-Up Starting Four

I have taught writing to high school students for twenty years. As public school teachers, we spend a great deal of time writing curriculum according to whatever directives the district and state demand. These change often, driven by the whims of new administrators or politicians. Ideally, according to my evaluators, if you want to teach one of the courses I do, say the senior poetry class, you should be able to read my unit plans on a shared website and, essentially, do what I do.

But whenever a real human being has to teach one of my courses, I begin by recommending one of the following books. Not only do they help me get my students writing and thinking, but they help me get writing and thinking. Best of all, they DEFY proscriptive regulations on how to write curriculum and ask only that real writers describe real lessons that work. Amazing, right?

naming the worldNaming the World. Bret Anthony Johnston, ed. For prose writers and/or teachers of prose writing, I can’t imagine a more helpful book. Johnston (author of Corpus Christi: Stories and Remember Me Like This: A Novel), compiles lessons from Joyce Carol Oates, Ann Packer, Tom Robbins, Elizabeth Strout and Steven Almond, among dozens of others. The lessons are creative, easy to follow, and include both individual and group pursuits. The index includes lists of writing warm-ups to get writers to what Johnston calls, “Ass in the chair time.” Indispensible.

practice of poetryPractice of Poetry: Writing Exercises for Those Who Teach, Chase Twichell and Robin Behn, eds. What Naming the World does for prose writers and teachers of prose, this book does for poets and teachers of poetry. Another compilation of lessons by writers for writers that work. This is a dog-eared, well-loved addition to my bookshelf at home and at school.

the discovery of poetryThe Discovery of Poetry, Frances Mayes. If you want to learn more about what poetry is and how to go about writing it; if you want models both contemporary and classic for the various elements you study; if you want a book whose writer speaks to you, invites you to enjoy both the reading and writing of poetry, you can’t do better than Mayes. I use this book with both my senior poetry class and with my AP English students because Mayes makes poetry accessible. She offers you, especially, many poems to choose from and, in this way, guides you toward learning from those writers whose work you most admire. All textbooks should be written like this: Mayes wants you to love poetry first and foremost and then, if you choose, to write some of your own.

on-writingOn Writing by Stephen King. This book is half memoir, half craft lessons. Unlike the other books I’ve listed here, King doesn’t offer exercises. Instead, he describes his own life as a writer and then he offers tips to fiction writers. Teenagers love this book, and adults understand why King has sold so many books. You can imagine him speaking to you over beer (or, since he doesn’t touch the stuff), strong coffee. His advice is straightforward and far from high-brow. Great read.

These books, for me, get the job done. I especially value hearing from writers who write and teach.

What can you add to this list? What books help you write? Teach? Think?

5:30 AM

Sunrise is not for another forty-five minutes, but the sky lightens. First day back to school for my daughters. If they are sleeping, it has been fitful, full of running dreams.

On our street, cars pass on their way to an early train. No lights on in the neighbors’ houses yet. Even the mean woman next door sleeps peacefully, resting up to take on the day’s conflicts.

The new goats across the street still dream of whatever keeps them from crying out once the sun has risen. Too early for chipmunks, but this doesn’t derail Bella’s thrill when we pass the stone walls.

Lights on in a house with horses outside it. Horses nickering towards the yellow windows. The cat has yet to come out into the driveway, though, the gray and white one that glares at Bella when we are not out so early as this.

In a house with chickens outside, another light. The coyote who’s been stopping by must see it, though it won’t deter him. The chickens reshuffling feathers over their nests, the broody one determined: today is the day I will not be forced out into the light.

Janet isn’t up yet. She will be by the time my girls get to the busstop. She’ll let us know if we’ve missed it. Sleep on, Janet. The school year has just begun.

The brook runs.

In the hayfields that didn’t get a third cutting, no finches fly up. No geese paddle at the edges as they did one day this week. Nor any adult turkey keeping watch over several young ones making their way through the tall grass.

On the corner, a house with young children. Upstairs, someone is awake, though the shades aren’t drawn; downstairs, no doubt, someone else tries to brew a quiet pot of coffee, to claim a few minutes of quiet before the day begins.

No one has taken up the free stuff by the apartment house: crockpot, travel mugs, file cabinet. They have made it through another night. Not the skunk carcass, though. The scavengers have finally finished their work there (and we’re grateful for it).

We pass another border collie, one more interested in making friends than Bella is. Her owner is still shirtless from a hot night. Maybe he didn’t expect to see us here.

Bella pauses at Anne’s house, waiting, but no Anne today. She’s no doubt awake, dreading the commute into town, waiting for the coffee machine’s timer to click on, holding the dog off a few moments longer.

The big house has been quiet ever since the woman died. No more walks, arm in arm, with her husband in his overalls, her hair in a bonnet. No reason to rise early, especially if the night has been difficult.

A light in the kitchen of the big dog’s small house, but the yard he guards so loyally is empty.In a yard full of flea market items, a security light burns. Nothing appears stolen, but who can tell?

My mechanic has not yet opened shop.

One house has no shades, so the first floor is illuminated. Television on. Open cabinets. A shelf of bowls.

No scent of baking donuts arises from the shop on the corner, its for sale sign hanging in a dark window. At the white house on Main Street, a bulb burns over a back porch, a two person bench, as if to say: sit here for a bit; I’ll be with you as soon as I can throw something on.

The elementary school looks open, though its parking lot is empty except for the custodian’s car. The nursery school stays shuttered, silent, as does the big house that is never quite finished, the acupuncturist’s house, its stone cairn emerging in the dawn.

Someone burns an electric candle on a second floor above a front door, its glow partially obscured by a sheer curtain: here’s the way home.

The new puppy’s house is quiet. Good for them. Quiet, the family who just dropped their son off at college.

At Stephanie’s another woman stands at her counter. It’s been a long time, now, since Stephanie died, and we’re happy for her husband, but to many of us, that will always be her front porch, her kitchen, her windows.

Bella and I loop back onto our own street where someone has woken up in the ranch house, the window hidden by an overgrown shrub.

In the house with a newborn in it, the father drags the trash to the curb. He’s still wearing his pajamas.

Finally, a chipmunk, so sleepy it sits still atop the stones, but Bella misses it. It’s hot already and she doesn’t have to rely on hunting to stay alive (a good thing).

In our own house, lights blaze. Inside, I know, water runs, phones buzz, bare feet pad from closet to mirror. Someone is looking for flip flops; someone else is cursing her hair. No one thinks they’ll have time for breakfast. Everyone wonders if they have whatever it is they need to get through the day. Enzo, the gray cat, watches from doorways. Minx, the white cat, has already gone back to sleep after breakfast.

Bella won’t yet come in for a drink of water and I don’t blame her. Hold onto the morning for me, my pet. Hold fast to what we’ve witnessed: the slowly waking world.

Weekend Write In: Real Cows, Imaginary Heroes

A very real cow. A very real me. At least in this instance.

A very real cow. A very real me. At least in this instance.

When our cow Darcy escaped from the farm and wandered along Route One until she ended up in someone’s backyard, I was not the one who went with the police officer to retrieve her. I had gone out to the barn and had told my father, who sent the young hired hand, instead. But when I wrote about this adventure, I made myself the protagonist. Had to, as the essay was about my dawning understanding that life did not begin and end on the farm. Darcy’s wanderlust, I wrote thirty years after it happened, made me see that the world awaited.

Pleased with the final results, I sent the piece off labeled: non-fiction and was thrilled when it was both accepted and mentioned in a review of the literary magazine itself. A literary magazine the real hero would probably never read.

For several years after that, I continued to work on a series of “essays” about my life on my family’s farm.

Then two things happened:

#1 I published a book, a collection of poems, and, suddenly, people I knew were reading my stuff. Uh-oh, I thought. Good thing it’s poetry and not the cow “essays”.

#2 I met Scott Russell Sanders.

As a non-fiction tuition scholar at Bread Loaf, I was assigned to his workshop. He also delivered the conference’s first lecture in which he admitted he “committed memoir.” Scott spoke of the liberties memoirists take with the non-fiction genre, liberties he insisted made what was written another form of fiction. When, later in the week, a woman read from her well-received book and described, in vivid detail, a poker game that her family had played twenty years earlier — complete with specific cards and razor sharp dialogue — it was clear that, unless she had videotaped the encounter, some of this supposedly true stuff was made up.

That had been okay with me, perhaps because I, too, was guilty of it, but Scott’s influence was profound. He gave me two options: re-work the pieces so that I told the truth. This would include taking out of quotes whatever couldn’t possibly have been said. Or, re-label the collection as short stories.

I decided to tell the truth and thus embarked on a massive revision. The result according to my critic friends? I had destroyed the pieces.

I also struggled to complete. For example, I wanted to write a new piece about my father’s love affairs with bulls, the dangers they posed, his fearlessness or foolhardiness when it came to handling them. I took Scott’s advice and began researching. I called my brother, my cousin, former hired hands.

Writers believe they have good memories, though it may be just that we convince ourselves of the truth of something and there it is: a story crystal. However, people who don’t write pretend nothing of the sort. Thus, no one had much to give me. If I had to tell the truth, so help me God and Scott Russell Sanders, what was I supposed to do with the scraps this research provided me?

I believed Scott and I wanted to do right by the genre. But I was also tempted by my desire to tell a well-constructed and full detailed story, and by a marketplace that often seeks good creative non-fiction.

Then, two things happened:

#1 I added The Things They Carried to the sophomore curriculum at the high school where I teach. Tim O’Brien wrote these connected short stories because his memoir based on his service in Vietnam didn’t capture what it really felt like to be there. In one story he says, “I want you to feel what I felt.” What’s true about The Things They Carried is how it makes its readers feel. The horror of the war, the difficulty in telling a story, these things are very real.

#2 My bookclub read Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman, the fictional story of the death of the author’s young wife. Once again, his grief was as real as the readers’ responses to this story of love and loss, but he had chosen to write a novel.

These writers freed me. I went back to work on my story about bulls. This time, I added a fictional frame that had only one small kernel of truth. Wow. That was easy (and guilt-free) and someday, if I’m very lucky and this book gets published, I won’t have to worry about leaving out that boy who, long ago, led Darcy home along Route One, police car keeping pace behind him, blue lights flickering over a scene I only wish I had been in.

Tell Us Something We Don’t Know About You

He could have been modeled after Alex Keaton, Michael J. Fox’s character in Family Ties. A shorter than average young Republican who roamed the halls of UNH’s business school toe-walking in his Docksiders. At a dorm party, when I told him what my major was, he snorted. “English?” He said this the way some other soul who never stumbles into anything might say: You stepped in dogshit. “What are you going to do with that? Teach?”

I snorted right back at him. “No,” I said. It was not a lie. I had no earthly idea of pursuing that profession. I wanted to be a writer, but had no idea how one went about that, so I just moved off towards the garbage pail of spiked punch. He wanted to be an actor: he confessed this after a few more glasses of this particular poison, but he thought it too impractical. I shrugged. What do you say to someone who feels forced to make that decision? We were nineteen years old.

He became an international businessman. I’m sure he’s very happy. I did become a teacher, of course, and despite the anxiety a new school year inspires in me, I’m pretty sure once again: I’m happier than he is.

I don’t resent his long-ago derision (Okay, I do, but it was the 80s. Who didn’t want to make a soulless billion or two?). But I do remember it often.

The next few months, for example, the memory will surface as the seniors in my school (and in my house!)apply for college admission. By the time we set the clocks back, I will have met with a succession of apprehensive young people wielding what they hope will be the college essay that convinces their heart’s desire school to fall in love with them. They will follow me into my room every morning as I unlock the door and take off my coat, knock on my door during lunch, hunt me down during my prep period, write their names on my whiteboard during study, find me after school just as I’m digging my keys out to lock the place up. “Do you have a second?” they will ask, their parents will ask, their guidance counselors will ask.

Some will need a pre-writing conference. They will sit with me to brainstorm ideas. Many of these students will be kids I have never met before, but they will confess vulnerabilities, delineate their failures, share with me descriptions of vacation homes, grandparents’ hands, how it feels to be powerless in the face of tragedy. I’ll ask probing questions: I’ll have to. But they will answer. They will do the work of fleshing out an idea with someone who is almost a total stranger.

Some will slide an early draft across my desk and then sit quietly as I read it. Out of the corner of my eye, I’ll note how their hands are clasped; I’ll hear them sigh; I’ll feel the desk move as they jiggle a leg.  I won’t necessarily look at the writing at this point, but at the ideas. Where is the energy? What’s this really about? More discussion follows. They discover something they’d forgotten. The general idea becomes a specific memory. We’re not brainstorming anymore; instead, they’re telling stories.

They’ll come to me with essays their parents suggested they write, things that don’t sound like them at all. They’ll come to me after the professional their parents hired to help them has finished his work. “Where are you in here?” I’ll ask, and often, we’ll start over.

They’ll email me late at night: One last question. How’s this look? What if I added this?

They’ll drop by so I can double check the spelling, their use of apostrophes.

“I really want to get into Brown/Middlebury/UMass Dartmouth/a nursing program/my mother’s alma mater, etc,” they’ll say, imagining I’m holding the magic lamp in my hand instead of their laptop.

Websites, how-to manuals, advise them to tell the admissions office something they can’t know from the rest of the application, something not listed in their resume. The essay prompts ask them to describe a failure, or what defines them, or the place they feel most content. And guess what happens? They do. They write down things they won’t show their parents – things they don’t want their peers to see. They take the kind of risks they can’t take in essays of literary criticism or informative papers for any school subject. And they hand them to me.

My days will have little time for planning, correcting, overseeing make-up work, socializing with colleagues. Instead, I will sit at my desk with their essays in my hand, and I will ask myself: “Who am I that I get to do this?”

You’ve most likely jetted all over the world; I’ve sat behind my desk. But, my god, the worlds I have seen from there, the glimpses I have had into people’s lives, those invitations that humble me, that make me grateful for where I ended up.

So how about you, Mr. International Businessman? What can you tell us that we don’t already know about you? Perhaps it begins with that dream you once had of being on stage? If you wanted to figure it out, I could help you, once the early application deadline has passed, that is.

Weekend Write-In: Go Ahead, Get Away

The Loyalsock Creek, Barbours, PA. Our 2012 writing retreat.

“Our Own Little Bubble” Our cabin on the Loyalsock Creek, Barbours, PA, 2012 writing retreat. The porch is where we gathered every morning to work. (photo by Hudson Rush)

Weekend Write-In: Go Ahead, Get Away

What are the chances I’ll receive this? I thought, as I applied for the Provincetown Fine Arts scholarship that would allow me to take a weeklong poetry workshop for free. Pretty good, as it turned out, and then the truly inconceivable thought: how will I leave my 3, 4, and 5 year old daughters to do this?

My friend Miriam, also a mother and a writer, said, “You’ll miss them until you step onto the ferry, and then, in a weird way, you’ll forget all about them.”

That prophecy had a lot of help coming true: my mother signed on to help my husband that week, I found an apartment in an antique Cape directly across from the bay that was quiet and affordable, I chose a workshop with a poet, Jim Moore, who turned out to be the perfect mentor for me. I woke every morning at dawn, wrote for a couple hours, went for a run where I revised in my head, returned to a house exactly as immaculate and silent as I had left it and reworked the new poems. Workshops and readings in the afternoon and evening and days devoted to being solely a writer.

In six days, I wrote at least as many poems, poems that completed my first manuscript. I met writers whose careers I have followed these past ten years. Most importantly, I discovered that getting away to write is essential and (despite the fact that my 3 year old broke her arm mid-week and I wasn’t there when she had it set without morphine), should be guilt-free.

Despite knowing this, when I headed to Bread Loaf three years later, it was for what I thought would be an agonizing eleven day stretch away from my family. This time, I left behind a box of surprises for my girls: one card and one gift for every day I was gone. I tried to leave them something that might amuse them for a few hours: jump ropes, press-on tattoos, a jigsaw puzzle, a few dollars for ice cream. And then I left, teary, forgetting my Provincetown lessons.

In Vermont, I was introduced to writers are various stages of their careers. I spoke with agents, editors, writers whose books I had devoured. I reveled in Scott Russell Sanders’ nonfiction workshop and hurried off to readings several times a day. I danced my fool head off. At the end of every event, I returned to my tiny, shared room at Brandy Brook, and collapsed beside Sarah, Brenda, and Rebecca to share the details of our days. Nights, when I called my children, their voices reminded me of the world I wanted to return to, though it was clear that I did not need to hurry back. They were fine and I? I was being a writer.

Last weekend, I sat with a view of Lake Cayuga. On the loveseat to my left, Sarah worked on the fourth draft of her latest novel. Beside me on the couch, Rebecca drafted a poem in the notebook she bought exclusively for our yearly retreats. On the floor in front of us, Brenda cobbled together notes for a teaching grant. We would break for lunch, return to our separate spheres for a couple hours, then regroup for cocktails, dinner, sharing the day’s successes and difficulties.

In a documentary on her work and her life, Anne Lamott reminds an audience that no one cares if you get to work or not. So, if you want to write, write. She’s right, of course, but sitting alone with that kind of truth can paralyze us. Instead, we can head off to a conference like Bread Loaf or AWP and feel overwhelmed by everyone else who’s writing, trying to do what we want to do.

But once a year, my writing friends and I gather to work side by side. In this context, the conviction that abandons us sometimes when we are alone with our tasks or alone in a mass of strangers, returns. This is the only kind of camaraderie that will sustain us through those long, cold, lonely times when we are alone with certain truths about the writing life.

What about you? What stops you from squirreling away this time for yourself? Or, how do you getaway to write?