Pierre, Pat, and Marina: A Writer’s Journey
Chapter 1: Pierre
A little girl snuggled into her father’s lap after he returned home from work. She peered into his shirt pocket and retrieved a piece of Juicy Fruit gum which she wildly unwrapped and popped into her mouth. Then she breathed in a deep lungful of Old Spice, settled in and listened as he read her favorite story. The name of the story alone was enough to captivate her. It had a certain mystique that made her feel connected to the world beyond her family’s home at 943 Populus Place.
Pierre, A Cautionary Tale in five chapters and a prologue, by Maurice Sendak. When she first learned to read it by herself, she twirled around her room, her flowing brown hair bouncing down her back, her long, lean limbs flaying about. She loved that it was a chapter book. And none of her other books had a prologue. Just pronouncing that word “prologue” made her feel important. She delighted in those opening words every time she read them.
There once was a boy named Pierre
Who only would say, “I don’t care!”
Read his story, my friend,
For you’ll find at the end
That a suitable moral lies there.
The little girl loved words. She loved rhymes. She was just plum crazy about suitable morals. She adored Pierre. She carried that book around with her for five decades, from apartment to apartment and from house to house until it came to its current resting place in its cozy Nutshell Library on her desk, which was nestled in the kitchen, between the pantry and the cat station. As a grown-up sitting at that desk, listening to her cat, Juliet, crack and crunch her kibble, she thought to herself, “If I could find a way to write something that makes someone feel the way I feel when I read Pierre, I will have done a most amazing thing.” She did not know that many years later she would enroll in a writing program in a city near hers that would give her some tools and loan her the confidence she needed to take that challenge.
However, in the beginning, the little girl was a slow reader and a reluctant writer. In school, she read only what was required of her. Often times, she found herself reading and re-reading pages from novels and text books that neither commanded nor demanded her attention, and she was distracted by her own stories, that were swirling and swimming in her head. This lasted for years. In 11th grade English, for example, she remembers only that her teacher was from Great Britain and that he had a fabulous accent. She loved how he said the word, “right.” “Ro-ight,” he repeated with a drawl. “Ro-ight, then.” Instead of listening to the content of his lectures, she kept a tiny tally at the top of her notebook and ticked off every time he said, “Ro-ight.” “Ro-ight, then.” She imagined him saying “ro-ight” to his children at home, to the clerk at the grocery store, and to everyone in the little English country village that he must have been from. At the end of each class, she had a fantastical story in her head and a circled number in her notebook. 12. 17. 23. Oh well. She was better at math anyway, and eventually the little girl grew up and went to college to study finance.
Chapter 2: Pat
In the business world, the little girl, now a young lady with permed brown hair, was good at talking. She walked on her sturdy, shapely legs into a career in sales and stayed there for twenty years. Interestingly, she did a lot of writing in that career, and it was the writing that she liked best. She began to read a little bit, too – just for the fun of it. She liked Scott Turow and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Laurie Colwin. She even began to do a wee bit of stream of consciousness writing. But it was mostly just to dump the constant dialogue that danced around in her head. Another decade passed and with it came marriage and children and a couple of moves. Change was everywhere.
One day she woke up and found herself living in a new town, divorced, with two small children, a full time job and not very much time for things like reading or writing. Nonetheless, she discovered in her new town a wonderful independent book store in which to browse. It was peaceful and nurturing, and she always found a sweet picture book or two for her children. On one occasion she noticed a poster in that independent book store advertising an author visit. Pat Conroy was coming to do a reading and have a book talk about his new memoir, My Losing Season. “I’ve read Pat Conroy,” she thought to herself. “I’ve read The Prince of Tides and Beach Music, and what was that other one?” She decided she wanted to read the new book and meet Pat Conroy, so she bought My Losing Season and signed up for the book talk. His visit was only three weeks away. Due to the fact that she was still a slow reader, she worried that she would not finish it in time. But she had forgotten that one of her best qualities was her ability to make a decision and take action. So she focused and even skipped a few episodes of American Idol, which, at the time, was fresh, fun and talent-filled. She read that book on her lunch break and after the kids were in bed, and by the grace of God or someone powerful, she finished it the night before the book talk.
She was a little jumpy sitting in the cold, metal chair in the independent book store listening to Pat Conroy read and talk and answer questions, so it was not surprising that she didn’t make a peep. These were literary-ish people, after all, and she was – well she didn’t know what she was – but she was not one of them.
After the discussion, she rose from her chair and positioned herself in line to get her book signed. When she arrived at Mr. Conroy’s table, she suppressed her nerves, shook his hand, looked into his baby blue, bloodshot eyes and told him how much she loved the book. Then, somehow, she was moved to confess that she didn’t belong to a book group or anything like that and that it was a modern day miracle that she had read the whole thing in three weeks.
“You read the whole thing in three weeks?” he said to her with a twinkle.
“Yes,” she replied.
“All by yourself?” He asked.
“Yes,” she said again.
“Outstanding!” he said. “And congratulations.”
“Thank you,” she said as she straightened up just a bit, tucked her shiny, straight hair behind her ears and pranced away with her signed book and an unexpected shot of inspiration.
Before she left that independent bookstore, she bought another book and signed up for another book talk. And she began to purposefully fit reading into her life. Soon enough she would purposefully fit writing in as well.
Chapter 3: Marina
Another decade passed and now the young lady was more middle aged – she was completely middle aged actually, but she was not finding it easy to admit. She now had two teenagers, a new husband, dyed brown hair, and a keen interest in writing. She started off writing children’s picture books, like her old favorite, Pierre. She attended a few conferences on craft and how to get published and quickly learned that the action of submitting a manuscript had an equal and opposite reaction called – The Rejection Letter. She could not deny that what she needed was some old-fashioned schooling. What exactly is the difference between a simile and a metaphor? If I like telling stories so much, why do I have to show them? And, how do I write something that is not total crap? These questions needed to be answered.
She Googled and Bing’d around the Internet for several days until she found what looked like a suitable program not far from where she lived. They offered an open house where she could get the inside scoop and hear from others interested in writing. She listened to a teacher from the program who read an excerpt from one of her fiction stories and who would, in the next year, publish her memoir. This teacher, who had a marvelous asymmetrical haircut and natural curls, would be teaching an introductory fiction class starting in a few weeks. “Hmmmm,” she thought. “Maybe. . .”
The middle-aged woman with the dyed brown hair was jumpy again. “I might not fit in,” she thought. But she reminded herself of her best quality and signed up for the class, and although she was intimidated to the point of terror, she read her work in front of the other students. Some people smiled politely at her while others said things like, “I don’t understand what your character wants.” Even so, when that class ended she signed up for another one, and then another one and then another one. In short order, she became interested in all sorts of writing: short stories, both fiction and non-fiction, novel writing, memoir and essays. She wrote a poem. Still, everything was new to her. Unlocking the mystery of effective writing to her was like being a ten-year-old Ninja Turtle on Halloween after a successful night of trick-or-treating, splayed out on the living room floor sorting a gigantic bag of candy. All the usual packs of M&M’s over here, all the somewhat valuable mini Three Musketeers, Milky Ways and Snickers Bars over there, and all the cherished king-sized Butterfingers lined up and closely guarded from thieving siblings. Prior to enrolling in the writing program, it was like she didn’t know that although the Good-N-Plenty’s are all shiny and pretty in their little, pink, white and black outfits, all they are is nasty licorice that end up getting spat into the kitchen sink. Prior to enrolling in the writing program, she didn’t know what she didn’t know. Her ignorance had been – quite comfortable.
“One class at a time,” she said to all her friends who wanted to know when she would finish this program.
“We’ll see what happens,” she said to those same friends who wanted to know when something would get published.
“I’m not really a blogger,” she said to the hundreds of people who advised her to become one. But she never said “never” about the blogging.
After she finished the program, she spent the summer reviewing and sorting through the body of work that she had acquired in the process, looking for her most creative pieces, the ones that she should focus on. She was grateful to one of her teachers who mentored her and helped her set a plan of action. “Honor your gift,” that teacher had said to her. That was good advice.
Out of absolutely nowhere, the middle-aged woman turned 50. Her dyed brown hair thinned. She had her writing plan and pushed it along, but she had doubts that she could ever write something that would make someone feel the way that she felt when she read Pierre. “I feel like a poser,” she thought. And to make matters worse, she discovered spongy patches of cellulite on the backs of her thighs.
One day she picked up a book of short stories and essays called, The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan. Marina, a 2012 Yale graduate, died in a car accident five days after her graduation. At the time of her death, she was already an award-winning author as well as a journalist, playwright, poet, actress and activist. The fifty-year old woman read Marina’s book in three days – a personal best. The short stories were riveting. The personal essays – touching.
In her essay, with the same title as her book, Marina Keegan, at the tender age of 22, told her Yale classmates:
What we have to remember is that we can still do anything. We can change our minds. We can start over. Get a post-bac or try writing for the first time. The notion that it’s too late to do anything is comical. It’s hilarious. . . . . . We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have.
The 50-year old woman sat at her desk. She thought about her writing program, all the talented writers she had met, all that she had learned. She took hold of her little book, Pierre, and hugged it to her chest. She thought about Pat Conroy and couldn’t help but smile. She picked up The Opposite of Loneliness and studied Marina’s picture on the cover. Her strong and healthy auburn hair framed her fresh face and fell just below the collar of her bright yellow pea coat. Her sparkling eyes had a confidence and knowing that pierced the older woman’s heart. Marina was beautiful and fearless.
“I am fifty years old,” the woman said to herself. “I’ve changed my mind. I’ve started over. I’ve completed a post-bac. I’ve tried writing.”
She stood up from her desk chair and looked around her kitchen. Her cat, Juliet, was minding her own business at her cat bowl, cracking and crunching on her kibble.
“I am writing,” she said to Juliet. And then slightly louder, “I am writing essays. I am writing fiction. I am writing children’s picture books in rhyme.” And then in a booming voice that was just tough enough that it really meant something, she said, “I am a writer!”
Juliet didn’t care. She licked her paws, groomed her tail and headed over to her sunny perch in the living room. The 50-year old woman said it again, in a hush, to no one but herself, “I am a writer.”
The 50-year old woman, who suddenly felt more like a 30-year old, carefully placed Pierre back in his worn and tattered Nutshell library, she tucked her Pat Conroy into its place on the bookshelf above her desk, and she paraded over to her 18-year old daughter’s bedroom and placed The Opposite of Loneliness on her bed with a sticky note that said, “Must read. Love, Mom.” Then she sat back at her desk, turned on her computer, pulled her unmanageable hair into a bumpy ponytail high upon her head and opened up a new word document. But first, she celebrated her life that day, the way she did practically every day, by grabbing a bag of Ghirardelli 60% Cacao bittersweet chocolate chips and popping them one by one into her mouth.