I just did something exciting. I’ll tell you what in a minute, right after I tell you why. It begins, like everything, with a story. In this case, the story is about a time in my childhood that I think of as the “tumbleweed era,” in Casper, Wyoming.
I was in fifth grade, and my dear friend Norah lived in a sprawling Victorian on the edge of downtown Casper, near the Leather Emporium, the Maytag outlet, and the Brass Kettle Bar. It was 1978, and Casper was in a boom. Nora’s gingerbread house was an oddity, with its oddest feature being a “widow’s walk” on the very tippy top of its three-story roof. The widow’s walk was accessed via a spiral staircase and a heavy trapdoor; a decorative two-foot iron fence held back the sky. What, at ten years old, could be better?
The real purpose of a widow’s walk is for sailors’ wives to stare out to sea and will their long-lost husbands’ ships to crest the horizon. But ours was a landlocked vista of rooftops, beyond which lay open fields of sagebrush and tumbleweeds, cattle ranches and oil rigs, and, in the far distance, Casper Mountain. What we did up there was write. Silly poetry, stories, and one masterpiece: a full-length play, Jess and the Genie, which our teacher permitted our class to perform before the entire school. I, of course, was the genie.
We dreamed up our poetry machine, too, while lying on that sun-warmed tarpaper. My job was to sit inside a cardboard box—lugged home from the Maytag outlet—with a flashlight, notebook, and pencil, plus a tape recorder for machinery sounds. For a nickel, I would write you a five-line poem on a topic of your choosing. A dime would get you ten lines; a quarter, fifteen. Hunched in the dark, I’d crank out rhymes and dispense them through the same narrow slit into which you’d slipped your topic: love, school, motorcycles. Coins had their own slot. Our teacher let us bring our machine to school to peddle poems to classmates, and, thanks to Casper being the kind of town where nothing happens, our invention made the front page of the Casper Star. I was on my way—launched into what has become three more decades of intensely gratifying writing, editing, and teaching creative writing. I’ve worked like a damn dog, to be honest, and it’s paid off wonderfully in terms of being able to live the writing life. And in addition to all the journalism and other traditional nonfiction writing I do, I’ve even had the extremely fortunate opportunity to spend years working for publishers who gave me massive room to roam with creative nonfiction and essay writing. I’ve even won a couple of awards. I’ve been blessed.
Here’s the big but. I’ve never written a novel, which—if I am to be honest—is what I really meant back when I announced in third grade that I would grow up to be a writer. That’s what being a writer meant to me, even though I probably didn’t know the word “novel” at the time. So finally, two years ago, I started my first novel. And I am in love with the main character and her story, but, as the months have ticked by, I’ve discovered that it’s damn hard to write a novel in my “spare time” with no deadlines. After so many years of writing for publication and in close collaboration with editors and authors, the unmarked trail of fiction edges at times past solitary to godforsaken. Indeed, entering into a novel is the most confounding and challenging creative risk I’ve taken. Yet … it is absolutely where I wish to be.
On one hand, my novel is like being back inside that cardboard box, hunched and scribbling. Except this time, I forgot the flashlight and no one is on the other side of the narrow slit. On the other hand, it is my beloved widow’s walk, my boundless sky. What I need, I’ve come to know, is that two-foot iron fence. So I’ve applied for an MFA program, to provide me with both deadlines and quality feedback, just as I have benefitted from throughout the rest of my writing career. If I get in, I’ll tell you where! Meanwhile, cross your fingers for me, will you please?
~Upcoming Retreats and Classes~
Write for Your Life Memoir Intensive January 16-18
Square One: Winter/Spring Salon January 22- April 30 (alternate Thursdays)
Ugly, Beautiful: Winter/Spring Salon January 29- May 7 (alternate Thursdays)
Third Annual Summer Solstice Retreat at Stout's Island