In a lovely little chapel on the campus of Houston Baptist, I received kind words, a pen, and a pin. This was the last Friday night in May. I had taken the classes, put in the work, and completed requirements for my MFA.
Now, I hear Frank McCourt in my head, and he says, “Stock your mind. It is your house of treasure and no one in the world can interfere with it.” I notice his two polysyllabic words and the strength of his monosyllables. Now, I will work with my tools, read books, study language, and hone my craft. I will put my bloody manuscript in a drawer and let it rest. Same for me, sans drawer, just rest. I’ve learned that good art takes time.
Even though my angel mother grew up in the Baptist church, the “B” in HBU filled me with trepidation. I leaped with faith anyway. God played a role in my story, and I wanted to do Him justice. Still, I never imagined I would find my tribe of like minds at HBU. Now, I see God’s plan. I’ll be forever grateful for these people—my cohort and professors. They became my friends and family, encouraging and inspiring me with their ideas and insight, persistence and growth, love and prayers. All of this without judgement. Even their criticism was kind.
At HBU, I’ve learned to make time and space for my writing and for me. And I’ve realized we all feel like imposters sometimes. I’ve learned to be scared and do it anyway. And I’ve realized the power of continued progress. Anything is possible with belief and persistence. I’m still learning trust and patience in God. At the same time, I believe He is using my story in a way I never could’ve imagined.
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”
That’s Nick Carraway in the first sentence of The Great Gatsby. Last spring break I lounged on the beach with a beverage in one hand and Gatsby in the other. “All the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had,” I read. People judge, I thought. Nick refrains because his father said so, or he tries. I remember my mother trying, too. She would stop herself mid-criticism and say, “I’m not going to say that. It wasn’t very nice.” And Philippians 4:8 comes to mind about thinking on excellent, praiseworthy things.
Speaking of excellence and praise, what about this one for its sheer lyricism? “It was dawn now on Long Island and we went about opening the rest of the windows downstairs, filling the house with grey turning, gold turning light. The shadow of a tree fell abruptly across the dew and ghostly birds began to sing among the blue leaves. There was a slow pleasant movement in the air, scarcely a wind, promising a cool lovely day.” I want to write like that—grey turning, gold turning light. How poetic! Fitzgerald makes writing seem effortless. Writers know better.
That March day, I soaked up the Florida sun, snapped a few photos, and tapped a few phrases into my phone. In three sentences, I attempted to be Fitzgerald. It was spring break now on the Emerald Coast and we went about lounging on Crystal Beach, filling the day with a wave of sparkling sunlight, turning glittering foam. Tides of translucent sea rolled rhythmically on the sand and the gulls floated on wings and Sunday prayers. There was a peaceful simple luxury in the pause, scarcely a word, promising more of the same.
Back in the classroom, I picked another passage for my students to try. I’ve used this one before. “That’s my middle-west—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”
Thomas Miller was one of my juniors in AP Language and Composition last year. His mother is Vietnamese, and his given name is Thien. He was a funny kid, tardy almost every day, but he knew I had a soft spot for him. Kids like Thomas inspire me, and he graduated last week. In response to the Gatsby passage, he wrote, “That’s my Vietnam—not the jungles or the fields or the cramped southern cities but the soothingly tranquil rains of my youth and the cold dawns and quiet afternoons in the murky light and the gathering of family members drawn by enticing banquets on clean floors. I am part of that, a little energetic with the feel of those wet summers, a little slovenly from the year I spent in a towering townhome in Saigon where townhomes rule the cityscape. I see now that Aunt Suzy, Mimi, Bambi, Vivi, Titi—they all represent a period of equilibrium and peace in my life. That’s my Vietnam.”
I’ll never forget the first blog post I ever read: “When Ripples Collide” by Baron Batch, March 29, 2011. Baron Batch was a football player at Texas Tech, and the Midland Reporter-Telegram published him as well. If you have some extra time, click the link.
I’ve read quite a bit this semester, and we study author’s style. Short stories by Flannery O’Connor and Isak Dinesen, Mavis Gant and Denis Johnson and Raymond Carver, Chekhov and Hemingway. Memoirs and novels, most of it assigned, some of it not:
How Fiction Works by James Wood
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Beauty in the Broken Places: A Memoir of Love, Faith, and Resilience by Alison Pataki
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
Even the Stars Look Lonesome by Maya Angelou
Jewel by Bret Lott
All the Pretty Horses (The Border Trilogy, #1) by Cormac McCarthy
Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger
I’m finishing Glennon Doyle’s Untamed now, and by my Maymester I will need to finish Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.
The texts chosen by my professors serve as mentors and models of how to write. Practice and discussions help, too. I see my style and revision efforts evolving. Each of those books set in motion by authors sending out their ripples and transforming me in some small way.
My class this semester is all online. I submit all written assignments to an on-line forum, where my classmates and I respond to each other’s assignments in writing. We write in response to our assigned readings and each of us is working on own personal writing projects.
I’m writing a memoir of a mom advocating for her mentally ill son on the continued quest for help. Ironically, my son had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and had just been released from his second hospitalization when I read Baron Batch’s blog in March of 2011. Here is where my ripples collide.
I have seven classmates in my program, and they’re honest. Add in my professor, and I receive excellent constructive criticism. They show me where my stories have holes and question me in places where I can develop scenes and clarify ideas. On top of that, they support and inspire and encourage me with responses like these:
“You have a real talent for making everyday life compelling…There’s something about the raw realism of this story that makes it hard to stop reading.”
“I’ve gone through a range of emotions in one reading: laughter, crying, frustration, anger, disbelief. I’m all over the place, and I know I’ll be thinking of this for days.”
“Every time I read your stories, I always envision you sitting in a chair on a patio telling this story to me like an old friend. You make the reader feel so welcome in your world.”
“You write about your life with humility and honesty, and you never shy away from telling us how you feel about something.”
“Best and thank you for sharing your story—not just because it is difficult, although I admire you sharing for that reason—but because it is written so well, and I cannot wait to see what you do with it and its final incarnation.”
“Holy cats! This is compelling. I was disappointed to stop reading. That is about as good of a compliment that I know to give.”
And what if we had never moved? Would I even be a student again? Would I ever have met these awesome people who are literally cheering me to the finish line of completing the book I feel compelled to write? A memoir of a mom advocating for her mentally ill son on the continued quest for help.
“Maybe it’s all luck and chance…maybe nothing we do matters at all…but…what if everything does?” (Baron Batch).
“I’m working on my memoir,” I typed on my laptop and scoffed, an audible huff through my nose. I feel like a fraud to say it—still I plan to persist. During the summer of 2011, I attended a two week summer writing institute through Plano Independent School District, where I taught sophomore English at the time. I wrote a piece about my son Drew’s paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis and how that came about during his first psychiatric hospitalization. This episode begins the story I must write.
I attended this same professional development opportunity nine years earlier in 2002. At the time I was a novice seventh grade English teacher and hardly a writer, but the course required a final written piece to be shared with our class on the last day. In all truthfulness I lacked the vulnerability to share anything real and the creativity to write believable fiction, so I wrote about writer’s block. Isn’t that ridiculous? Looking back, I would give anything to have written a slice of life involving Drew and Lauren. They were twelve and ten at the time, a cellist and a soccer player. But no, I wrote about writer’s block. In my defense, my piece was connected to my teaching and learning empathy for my students who struggled with their words on the page. And this course transformed my approach to classroom writing assignments—more mentor texts as models, more creative opportunities, more choices, and portfolios to track progress.
By 2013 I landed an opportunity to launch a Creative Writing elective class at my high school. While developing lesson plans, I adopted the philosophy that writers must be readers (and we took time for that) and that writers must write—every day. I remember feeling like a hypocrite, not unlike now, and forcing myself to write—(almost) every day, journaling bits of dialogue and scenes, keeping notes in my phone for later, and writing each assignment alongside my student authors. I’ve taught some truly gifted kids over the years, and my efforts often paled in comparison. Still I persisted. I started my memoir in secrecy during class and in my spare time and as inspiration struck. At some point, I knew I had a story to tell although the words written in 2013 remain really rough. Tell it I did, much more than showing. At the moment I have 53,834 words, single spaced in an 11 point font, on 101 pages, but as Anne Lamott would say, “It’s a shitty first draft.”
In the summer 2016, a job transfer for my husband brought us south from Dallas to Houston, I lost my beloved Creative Writing class and the convenience of good friends nearby, and I discovered a void. I didn’t write much for a while, instead drinking copious amounts of alcohol to fill the growing hole. Fast forward to August of 2017, Harvey, the hurricane, flooded my family out of our house and into a pet-friendly La Quinta for the next ten months. Not only had I saved my laptop, but my laptop saved me. I typed the story of our evacuation and sent my words for the first time into the blogosphere. I typed other stories, too, and again and again, I tapped the blue button in the upper right corner, the one that says Publish. Seventy-nine posts later, I see growth, and this growth encourages me to return to those shitty first drafts.
And in 2020, at age 50, I went back to school for a graduate program in Creative Writing, and my professor wanted to know what I plan to work on this semester and why. So this is it. “I’m working on my memoir.” And still, I shake my head and laugh.
One day this past summer I found myself alone with my thoughts in Galveston. From my beach chair near the shore, I soaked in the sun to the crashing cadence of the surf until I couldn’t take the heat. I stood up and walked into the waist-deep waves and said, “Take me down, Motherfuckers! You can’t fucking do it.” And I laughed out loud in the face of wave upon wave and walked in a little deeper.
Galveston saved me, and this week I return. This week’s writing retreat begins my new MFA program at a beach house nearby. Each morning through the sliding glass door of my condo bedroom—the golden orb rests for a moment on a blanket of orange and yellow and then rises into the blue. The waves advance on a new day and a new life. Each new dawn reaffirms my decision to be here. Each new chance to begin again—a gift.
I have a story to tell, and I have to tell it. For so many years, I thought the story was about my son Drew and his severe mental illness. I realize now it’s a story about me. It’s about my reactions and my coming to terms and what I’ve learned and how. It’s about my reality and my hope. It’s about sharing to help others and letting people know they are not alone.
So now I face the waves that crash into me. I stand my ground and let them hit, and I laugh out loud because I’m still standing tall with a smile on my face and a “fuck you” for anything that tries to take me down.