In 2006, I took a nine-week writing course titled ‘Tales Told From Memory’, offered by the local community college. Until that first class, I’d had no idea what kind of writing I’d be doing. I was there because a friend of mine twisted my arm to take a writing class with her. But, as I was parking my car in the college lot just minutes before the start of class, my cell phone notified me of an unheard voice message. My friend had left the recording, telling me she had changed her mind, and would not be taking the class after all. Quite annoyed at being abandoned, and not excited about walking away from my non-refundable registration fee which she had sent in with along with hers, I got out of my car and ventured into the classroom alone.
The professor was a lovely woman, and a published poet. At the end of each two hour class, she gave us writing prompts: Write about the first job you ever quit or got fired from (which spawned the essay ‘Please Don’t Ask Me To Come Back’), and write about an experience that forced you to stick with something unintended (which spawned the essay ‘Heza Cloud Dancer,’).
Much to my surprise, I found the solitude of writing more enjoyable than I’d expected.
One week, however, was particularly challenging. The prompt: Write about something that happened early in your life, and had a profound effect on you years later.
Now that one had me in a funk. I spent the entire week procrastinating. On the night before the essay was due, I sat at my computer and stared at a blank Microsoft Word document, watching the cursor blink in steady rhythm. After a good twenty minutes or so, my fingers began to work the keyboard, furiously gaining speed, as the brain dump kept on coming. Wiping away silent tears with the back of my hand, I typed and typed, and typed some more. When I was finally finished, ‘Trying To Forget, In Order To Forgive’ was staring at me from my computer screen.
What to do? I didn’t want to share it with anyone. I printed one copy, turned it in to the professor with a note that said ‘Not for sharing…thank you for understanding’.
The following week, my essay was handed back to me with a red ink commentary on the last page:
Quite an amazing story! You’ve recreated the situation and the characters quite vividly, and the story moves forward with real energy. Good natural, conversational tone. You have a big story here and might think of expanding it considerably. I would like you to show more scenes, more freely: when your parents tell you your sister is giving her baby up for adoption, your reaction to it, and how it felt to meet André at your sisters’ deathbed (a very dramatic scene).
I read it quickly before dropping it into my leather portfolio, along with the class notes I’d just taken. Relief. It was behind me, and I didn’t have to share with others in our weekly group readings. I could now bury it, way down deep in that ‘Don’t look back unless you’re going that way’ category of my highly secured emotional vault.
The Professor stopped me on my way out of class that day. Leaning in, using a quiet confidential tone, she said “Ann, you need to take that essay and write a memoir. It’s a huge story”. She gave my arm a reassuring squeeze before she turned away.
The following year, in 2007, I was introduced to a well-known author whose newly subleased office happened to be down the hall from mine. Her name rang no bells, and not having a clue at the time I met her, I asked the obvious. “What do you do?”
“I’m a writer”, she told me. A writer? With subleased office space? Thinking maybe she was a professional blogger, I asked the follow-up.
“What kind of writer?”
“I’ve been a nationally syndicated columnist, I write novels, memoir, and articles for national magazines and newspapers like The New York Times”.
WOW, I thought. What’d she say her name was?
Turns out, she is widely published, just like she said, and author of many books, some of which have become Hollywood movies as well.
She’s my age, but seemed to have an unending fountain of inward focused life experiences. The roads she’d traveled were unlikely to ever intersect with my own journey thus far. She came across as rather earthy, outwardly bubbly, but with an intense almost analytical gaze, making me wonder who she really was, with the layers peeled back.
As I got better acquainted with her in the following weeks, it became clear that she was driven, with a solitary intensity that I found foreign to me. Working with a huge white board behind her, she outlined her story arcs carefully using colorful dry-erase markers, and Post-It Notes scribbled with additional tidbits, which were tacked all around the sparse unused spaces on the board. Her desk was one massive wooden dining room table, salvaged at a resale shop. Seating for at least ten, maybe twelve. Pushed against the wall, beneath vast east-facing windows, she plugged in a white noise machine behind her, to drown out any intrusive office sounds that might be going on outside of her always closed door.
With her computer, printer, and scattered books, papers, pens, pencils and herbal tea mugs, she turned an oversized table into a work environment that was wrought with the frenzied brain power that only serious writers can evoke. She even managed to come up with a large comfy desk chair, a rocker as I recall, to further the ‘serious writer’ ambiance.
Peculiar, I thought. Subleasing office space in an office of publicity and media relations professionals, where I myself was subleasing office space. Coming from a corporate background, I found her altered workspace to be rather bohemian.
One day, we chatted for a few moments while crossing paths in the hallway. “How’s your writing coming along?” I asked.
After a rather dramatic eye roll, she quickly looked down and then gazed up at me from heavy eyelids, leaving me the impression that catastrophic stress was mounting to an unbearable level. I then mentioned that I’d taken a writing class the year before. I have no idea why I mentioned it…I truly had NO clue what kind of stress serious writers might possibly feel. I mean, they’re writing because they WANT to be writing, right? Let’s face it…they don’t want to be working a ‘conventional’ job where they would actually get paid routinely, hourly, salaried, with benefits or whatever. If they wanted THAT, they wouldn’t be struggling with ‘the stress’ of writing, right?
Suddenly she was alert. “What kind of writing class?” she asked.
‘Tales Told From Memory’, I said. Her face lit up.
She promptly encouraged me to join her upcoming one-day writing workshop, which would be open to all writers, but would mostly focus on memoir. It was going to be held at her own home, on a Saturday, and would have a maximum of only 10 participants, ensuring that everyone would have their submissions work-shopped in a comfortable and friendly surrounding. As luck would have it, there were only one or two spots still left.
Ummmmmm. What to say? I’m not a writer by profession, and I might be a complete sham. Why would I want to delve into her world of catastrophic stress mounting to an unbearable level? But, then again, how many opportunities would come my way to spend a day with a REAL writer who might offer me guidance and encouragement? But, did I really want guidance and encouragement? And, it was rather pricey. MUCH more than the cost of my nine-week class. But still…it was dumped in my lap as an opportunity. So I said, “I have a novel I’ve been working on that incorporates some memoir based on an essay I wrote for that class”. I hadn’t gotten very far on it, but I had a decent start.
“What’s the subject matter?” she asked.
“It’s a novel about a criminal trial involving international adoption.”
With raised eyebrows, she asked what part was memoir. “Adoption” I told her. And, to my advantage, I had four years of experience working side by side with an international adoption facilitator, so I felt I could write a very plausible novel incorporating loosely revealed personal experiences.
“Ann”, she said. “Bring the original essay in. This workshop is truly focusing on memoir”.
“I can’t do that. It’s hugely personal and far too emotional for me”.
“All memoirs are hugely personal”, she told me. “Have you ever read one memoir that started with ‘I had a happy well-adjusted life’– End of story.”
I hadn’t thought about it that way. But I wasn’t convinced, so I didn’t sign up for her workshop.
Another few weeks went by and then we again crossed paths in the hall. Like a mentor counseling her subject, she looked directly at me and said “You’re attending my workshop, aren’t you?”
I shook my head, NO. I got that piercing look, which silently communicates a punctuated ‘Did I just hear you say NO?’
Feeling obligated to verbalize, I impolitely mumbled a polite decline. No matter, she just pushed harder. Are all writers this persuasive? Quite obviously, the successful ones are.
Fine. Okay. Jesus, I’ll do it.
With the workshop just a week away, she insisted I promptly email her my essay, so she’d have an advanced read.
Neck hairs on alert. Out of my comfort zone…out of my comfort zone.
I sent her my essay, and immediately she sent back a list of email addresses for all the other participants. We were all to swap our ‘manuscripts’ with everyone else in the group, so we’d be prepared for our long one-day workshop upon arrival.
Feeling sick. Red flag waving wildly. MANUSCRIPT?
I had no idea what I was in for. I arrived at the appointed start time of 9 a.m., parking carefully on the narrow road up on the mountain where she lives. Her home is secluded amongst the towering trees, and screened from the road behind a tall wooden fence. Inside the front door, it’s cozy and inviting, and somewhat exotic as well. The kitchen is cheery and bright, with mountain views that are inspiring. Clearly she loves to bake. Pastries, tea and coffee were circulated as we mingled and got first impressions of each other.
Several women remarked that they were entranced with my essay, and one of them said that now, having met me, I seemed so ‘confident and put together’. Really? A rather interesting observation, since I wouldn’t say ‘put together’ is my thing. Fashionista, I’m not.
Within short order, we all assembled in her step-down living room, on sofas, overstuffed chairs and loungers, all of which were staged around the presence of a large fireplace. There were just enough seats for each of us, and still enjoying our coffee, tea and pastries, it was like attending a sisterhood retreat with an agenda custom designed for us and us alone.
To begin, we were asked to quickly introduce ourselves to the group as a whole, and to include a little bit about our daily lives and our interest in writing. Some had published editorials, essays, and books. A few were professionally paid writers, on a full time basis. One was a Vanderbilt descendent, one was an editor for a well-known music publication, and most had clearly been through this sort of workshop before.
Now I was mortified, and fully intimidated. With widening eyes, I listened intently as we were told the plan for the day: each of our ‘manuscripts’ would be work-shopped by the group as a whole. All, with the exception of the first one, would get about thirty minutes or so of time and attention, so that each one of us would have some constructive feedback on our writing efforts.
Uneasy feeling beginning in the pit of my stomach.
My gut began to turn as I heard that the first manuscript (that word again!) would be the focus for about ninety minutes or so, because “this is a huge story, with a very unique POV” (writers lingo for Point of View). She never glanced my way, but as she was speaking I was silently shrinking away.
Please don’t let this be my essay! PLEASE don’t let this be my essay!!
Suddenly she stopped speaking. With dead silence, I quickly glanced over at her. She was looking directly back at me.
“Ann, we’re beginning with yours, ‘Trying to Forget, In Order To Forgive’. Can you read us a paragraph or two? Start where ever you want.”
WHAT? Just like the painfully shy child I used to be, I straightened up in my chair, and became speechless. I looked down to my lap, to my leather portfolio, where I had a copy of my essay along with a copy of everyone else’s work. WHY is she zeroing in on mine?! I wanted to magically disappear. I slowly pulled out my papers. There was complete silence as I fumbled with the pages of my essay, neatly stapled at the top left corner. Like a child about to defy the teacher, I looked up at her, with that expression of Really? You’re kidding, right?
“How about starting where it begins ‘When JJ was about four months old’…”
I flipped my pages over and scanned down. I saw the words through emotional eyes, blurring in the tears that threatened to spill over if I didn’t quickly get a grip. But couldn’t seem to find my voice. After a very pregnant pause, I took a deep breath. In a voice I barely recognized, I slowly began. And then abruptly stopped.
Unable to get through the first sentence, finally she took pity on me and stepped in, reading aloud on my behalf, as I sat silently wiping tears from my eyes with the Kleenex I had stashed in my pockets. “Sorry” I whispered after she paused. “I told you this was too emotional for me”.
I knew it would be hard, But I hadn’t anticipated the searing pain I felt on that morning. After more than forty years, it was still so raw. I felt totally and completely exposed. She pushed hard, dragging details from me that I didn’t want to divulge, and for the first time in my life, I had the thought “So this is what therapy must be like”.
When it was finally and mercifully over, ninety minutes had passed. I was emotionally drained, and physically exhausted. Horrified at my own meltdown, her reaction to my essay and blatant encouragement to write the entire story left me rather dazed. “You have to write this story. It’s huge”, she said.
As the day advanced with the spotlight on others at long last, I became aware of an emotional lightness, like I’d passed through some sort of personal challenge, and a burden of some sort had been temporarily lifted.
It was an intense ten hour day, with painful probing for others as well. They were truly gifted writers, each one of them, with compelling stories to share. I felt victimized in a bizarre sort of way, having gone first and taken the worst of it for an extended period. I vowed never to take another writing workshop again. Ever.
As requested, I submitted feedback for reference: “I knew this day would be a difficult one for me, and had hoped to keep my emotions in check, but obviously I wasn’t terribly successful. I could not have mustered the courage to do this with anyone BUT total strangers… and I have to say, you were the BEST group of total strangers I could possibly have encountered. I so thoroughly enjoyed reading your amazing manuscripts and essays. I feel incredibly enriched by all that we shared together today.”
I must admit, there is something safe about being in the intimacy of strangers.
I signed up for a six week writing seminar, believe it or not, with the same harsh, but talented writer. I observed as others took her brutal barrage of questions, pushing hard for further information that would enlighten a reader. And, I’ve taken to writing more frequently…about random, yet memorable experiences in my life. Poems, essays. I’ve even joined a monthly writing group. All this with the hopes that I might one day be able to expand that original essay.
I’ve started, and stopped. And started, and stopped.
When the tears blur my vision and trickle down my cheeks, the disruption for Kleenex makes me jump right out of my chair and just walk away.
I’m thinking I might need to replace that chair…and get myself a rocker.