Dear Fellow Writers:
If Lucia hadn’t been my friend, I would never have taken this Creative Nonfiction writing course. That is unthinkable to me now. As an octogenarian I was sure that my days of attending a class to learn something new, except perhaps how to get my affairs in order, was over. However, with Lucia’s friendship and enthusiasm for whatever she undertakes, I had the courage to join her in this class. I was hesitant. I remember asking her “Do you think I will make myself look foolish?” She assured me that I had nothing to worry about. I love to write, but I hadn’t done any serious writing.
I am now completing my second session of Creative Nonfiction Writing under the wonderful tutelage of Jay Varner, who as an author in his own right, and at his young age, found something in this old woman’s writing to encourage me to continue and even flattered me by uttering those words that every would-be writer wants to hear, “You should write a memoir.”
Going back to school hasn’t been easy for me. I’m a non-techer. It hasn’t been too long since I adjusted to electricity and a flush toilet so the computer world is as complicated to me as hieroglyphics and Sanskrit would be – what with icons, gnat-sized arrows, and tech words like Windows, online, and Twitter – words which have different meanings to me. This made it a very stressful for me.
If it weren’t for Barb, wonderful reliable Barb, I would have had to drop this class. Before the course began Lucia and Barb agreed, that they would welcome me into their homes to use their computers in order to get my assignment in “online” and then make sure that I would get copies of your essays. During a weekend visit, my children took the initiative to go to Walmart and buy me a laptop, which I didn’t want. Before they left the next morning they gave me a two hour lesson on how to use it. It was two hours of total confusion for me. Then they waved good-bye. I wanted my old life back.
I won’t go into a lot of detail, but my brain was in over-load. The sensitive touch on the keyboard caused whole lines of l’s and a semi-colon somewhere in each word, which was then obscured by an ad that stubbornly wouldn’t go away no matter what I pressed. However, my text would delete itself. I picked up the phone and said, almost in tears, “Barb, I can’t make this machine work the way it’s supposed to.” She laughed—she always laughed—and said “Don’t worry, I’ll be right over.” This happened more times than I can count. During one of our sessions she said, “Your screen needs to be cleaned. It looks as if it has water drops on it.” That’s when Bob told her, “It’s Phel spraying the screen with her saliva every time she shouts ‘shit’ at it.
I kept writing – shouting shit – because of Jay and because of you. Your praises and your insightful, helpful editing gave me confidence and taught me to become a better writer. I have learned about finding my voice, passive and active, about tenses, needless words, vague words, punctuation – commas, nix on ellipses, avoid exclamation marks! – I learned about modifiers and metaphors. And through reading and editing your essays I have learned a lot about good writing, about different styles and how many great stories are out there that need telling.
Through her writing Jen introduced me to her husband Elmer and her beautiful essay told me much I didn’t know about hummingbirds. Through Erin’s essay I wanted to personally meet her mother – a lady I could identify with. I feel that I know Fred’s mom and dad and that I learned a lot more about Fred. I learned that Lucia is big on metaphors, and always marked my essay with a check for using a passive voice. I will remember Dale’s devotion and think about her sister Deborah, especially when I’m indulging myself with pity. I was sure that Carole had it all put together until she took us into her confidence and told us about her failed marriage. She deserves her new chance with Keith. I don’t drink wine anymore without thinking about Nica’s self-taught enology and Nica’s rolls which I have already made from her recipe.. I want to visit Linda’s hometown of Hopewell just to see for myself if other residents have her energy and talent for writing; if so maybe Kepone has some good side effects. A class without Barb wouldn’t be the same. She speaks with arm and hand gestures that can’t be captured in the written word. I grew to love her Ernest even though we never met. I will think often about our two youngsters, Allie, losing her innocence much too early and then finding her loyal Jamie. And I feel sadness that kind, gentle Teco lost the sister he loves. Both Allie and Teco are very promising writers. I envy the years they still have to hone their craft.
I remember laughing out loud when I read Erin’s critique of my big essay, “Courtship and Marriage.” In bold handwriting she wrote: “I’d like to see more romance and sex in your piece. It’s different than today.” Well, Erin, it’s pretty much the same except it wasn’t on TV or in the movies and we weren’t in as much a hurry to get there. Foreplay lasted longer – sometimes for weeks.
I knew when Jen wrote on my essay what she liked about it that she meant it, because she had the courage to tell me when it made absolutely no sense.
Fred always sat quietly, listening to everyone’s critiquing before he would speak. He was the smoothie (metaphor) in the class. He absorbed all of our wide range of comments before he turned on his motor (metaphor) to mix the batch and then served us, in his quiet voice, a delectable drink that masked all the ingredients we gave him. It was always good and it was always smooth.
Then there’s our Jay. We all love Jay. In his quiet way he gets the class rolling each session. He starts with the professional essay we have read. Let’s say that its title is “Everything You Want to Know About Cows.” Jay will ask the class, “What do you think this essay is about?” Lucia jumps right in with, “I think it’s a metaphor for exploration of the moon.” We go from there.
I don’t have the words that can tell you how much you and this course have given to me. How pleased I am that my old-fashioned stories are ones you enjoyed reading. I thought that the only readers I had left were either senile or dead, but with your help you have motivated me to continue writing before I become one of the above mentioned. I mourn the end of this class. I don’t like to lose friends I have made, even those of a short duration. You are now a part of my life and I am grateful.
With the risk of sounding like Erin’s mother I say to each of you, who still have many more years to live and write your stories, don’t put it off – write every day – the years will pass more quickly than you can possibly imagine. Write your stories. It’s not important how many people read them. To share them with just one or two will make it worthwhile. Remember that each person claps his praise individually, so the applause needn’t be thunderous.
Should some ask me if I’ve met you, I will proudly say, not only that I have met you, but that I know you. We shared our lives with each other.
With love, Phel
Phel Jacobson picked up writing at the urging of a friend and neighbor, and her stories of life as a Park Service wife captivated her class. She’s not done learning about the world, nor is she done sharing her stories. Lucky us.