The Things That Come In Threes

1) I fear driving at night. Sweaty palms, racing heart, clenched stomach fear. I’m not a fan of driving in general; how I managed four years as a study abroad road warrior cruising the freeways of northern and southern California, Colorado, Washington, Arizona and several states that start with an “I” in search of institutions of higher education – all in the days before GPS and the Mapquest Lady – baffles me. Who was that intrepid chick in the rented Ford Focus, clutching printed Google driving directions to the steering wheel, hopping across the Bay Bridge en route from the Academy of Art in San Francisco to Cal-Berkeley? That’s right. Yo.

Screwing my courage to the sticking place, I registered for an evening information session about an MFA in Creative Writing offered by a local university. It was the last session before the early February application due date. The session was held way the crap north of Seattle, in the suburban hinterlands beyond the tip of Lake Washington. At night. You got that part, right? Rain showers. I gave myself an hour to get there. I’d planned for rush hour traffic, but silly me, I forget that Seattle drivers are touchingly unaccustomed to driving in the rain. Because, you know, it’s such a RARE occurrence here. I also hadn’t planned for the thirty-seven Metro buses which apparently had the same destination as mine. The drivers took great glee in pulling out in front of me at every opportunity, then stopping. The confused and snotty Mapquest Babe took equal pleasure in shouting from my iPhone: “Make a slight left onto Lake City Boulevard. NOW!” I could hear the smirk in her voice as she occasionally muttered “Recalculating.” Ironic Bitch.

I don’t do “Late.” Teutonic blood runs thick in my veins. I do “Early” and “Stinkeye at people who can’t organize themselves to be on time, the fools.” By the time my trembling hands turned the steering wheel into a parking space, I was fifteen minutes into stinkeye territory. Then I realized I had the correct general location, but the wrong end. Back into the car, I flipped a U-turn (and a finger at Mapquest Bimbo), found where I thought I should be, had a minute of indecision whether to pay for parking, got the parking spot number wrong (it was dark, it was raining), finally got the pass attached to my window… Christ, I am so late. Then I pulled a Quasimodo limp-run up a hill and three flights of stairs. Did I mention I’d run a half-marathon on Sunday, in total pain, on a bum right leg? No? Well, it hurts to walk. Hurrying brings tears. At this point it was closing in on 30 minutes past the hour. Perhaps there would be enough people there that if I did happen to apply to the program, my crashingly late entrance wouldn’t be remembered.

Two women were seated at the tables arranged in a square in the large art studio: the academic director of the MFA and the program’s administrative manager. Just waiting. On me.

Forty-five minutes later I floated out of the building while visions of sugar-plum seminars and symposia danced in my head. The drive home was peaceful; I sang along to The Head and the Heart. I knew my route home, so I muffled the Mapquest Wench. Even the rain eased to a sparkling mizzle.

In the cold light of the following day I knew the whole proposition was folly. What the heck would I do with an MFA? Provided I could pay the tuition. Provided I had more than a snowball’s chance in hell of being admitted.

2) I swam that afternoon. Sitting in the parking lot of the Queen Anne Aquatic Center, smelling like chlorine and hair conditioner, I checked e-mail. There, in the little inbox displayed on my phone’s screen, was a subject line which read “Your fiction submission.”  Great. Rejection. Bring it on. I’m curating a personal collection.

The opening word of the message’s body was “Congratulations.” People. Who needs the winning Powerball Lottery ticket when they have a publication acceptance from a national literary magazine?  I write because I don’t know what else to do with stories that press at my heart. But I submit my writing because I believe as Priscilla Long does: the story is not finished until you have attempted to share it with the world.

3) Saturday I attended the semi-annual Write-O-Rama at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House. This is a day-long series of writing workshops with super-serious writerly themes like Genre Variant: Essays & Found Material and less serious but equally compelling topics such as Build a Killer Author Platform. You listen, discuss and write in hour-long blasts that challenge, engage, terrify and inspire. Most sessions have one or several periods when attendees write to a prompt(s) and opportunities to read their work to the class. This was my fourth Write-O-Rama in two years and I think I might be getting somewhere with output and courage.

I have never written easily on demand. I freeze, my mind a sheet as white as my face. Spontaneity is not my strong suit. Remember that Teutonic blood? Deliberative, thy name is Julie. Yet, because I’m now in the habit of timed, non-stop writing every morning on my manuscript, either freely – to work on a scene, or to a prompt  – to generate new material, I found the challenge of writing in the fast and furious atmosphere of Write-O-Rama playful instead of Purgatory. I could write without lifting my pen to stare into space or to run a thick line through the drivel I’d just penned. No, I wrote with confidence and purpose, accepting the silliness and magic that is birthed in the pressure cooker of a group write. I even sucked it up and read a few pieces aloud. I’m sure my voice trembled and my face flushed, but who cares? My street cred was tucked away in my bag, on my phone, where an e-mail read “Congratulations.”

That MFA? The classes are held at night.

The Things That Come In Threes.

Crossing borders

I learned of Richard Hugo House last year while scouting out writing classes. The catalog of workshops and seminars made me weak in the knees with desire, but I was far too intimidated to pursue even the most fundamental. These are programs for real writers; those who come with manuscripts bursting from their hard drives, with poems filling tattered notebooks, with screenplays spilling from their bike bags. These are serious classes, with enigmatic titles like “Fleshing It Out: Breathing Life Into Our Fragments” and “Ain’t Look Right, That There: Stories in Odd Shapes”; Master Classes in poetry and prose; classes to help fine tune plots, characters, and dialogue; classes on finding an agent and a publisher once your manuscript is burning in your hands.

I was just hoping for some guidance and inspiration to move beyond “It was a dark and stormy night.”

At the end of the summer, I scrolled through the online Fall quarter catalog  and espied an afternoon workshop on travel writing. I thought, “Okay, my passport’s been around the world, maybe I wouldn’t embarrass myself too badly.” I made a mental note to think about registering.

Some brain worm awoke earlier this week and nudged my selective memory. I was certain the class I had chosen to forget about had already taken place or was full. But no, the class was three days away, Richard Hugo House was happy to take my late registration, and there was time enough for the instructor to send me an e-mail of what to bring and how to prepare. Oh God. I have to prepare? Oh well, it’s only an afternoon –  I can suffer anything for a few hours. I enrolled.

The instructor’s instructions were simple: bring a few mementos, such as photos, postcards, art objects, money,  and maps to use as memory triggers and writing prompts. I chose a Pāua shell from New Zealand, a rice paper parasol from Kyoto, a necklace with a Celtic pendant from Ireland, a portfolio that held a series of woodblock prints of Chambèry, and a CFA franc note from Chad.

Then it occurred to me. I haven’t traveled all that much. I’ve lived abroad, in extraordinary places, but I’ve never Eurailed through thirty-seven countries in three weeks, I’ve never bicycled in Southeast Asia or gone on safari in the Serengeti. I’ve never been to Disneyworld or the Yucatán, I haven’t touched the Great Wall of China or seen Old Faithful spew. I haven’t labored up the steps of Machu Picchu or cruised Norwegian fjords. And this was a class on writing for travel publications. What was I thinking?

There were ten of us in the class. One woman spent seven years with her husband sailing around the world. The pierced and tattooed Millenial next to me had just returned from two years in Lima where he worked at a kick-boxing studio. A recent retiree dressed entirely in purple intended to write about painting workshops in Greece.  A thin, elegant social anthropologist was writing a memoir of her experiences in East Africa in the 70’s. A handful had taken writing classes; others, like me, were complete novices. We held pens to blank paper, hands trembling in anticipation.

Sandwiched in-between brief explanations by the instructor and a bit of group discussion was the meat of the workshop:  a series of directed, timed writing prompts. Then we read our words aloud. I guess I had realized that sharing was a part of writing workshops, but after our first writing exercise when the instructor asked us each to read what we had written, my stomach dropped and my face flamed hot. Suddenly the afternoon loomed long and dark. I braced myself, breathed deeply and  thought – “It’s okay, I never have to see these people again.”

Round-the-World Sailor was first to go. She was the only one who brought technology greater than a ballpoint and sheets of 8.5×11. She tapped away at her HP Notebook through the instructor’s entire introductory remarks, then admitted that she had spent the first writing exercise working on a scene for some unrelated project. Right. Well. I guess it’s your money, you can spend your time any way you choose. She never did read any of her work aloud.

And so we went on. Six writing prompts in all; four of these became the beginning, middle, middle-end and end of a complete piece. Some people read aloud once or twice, then remained silent in the remaining hours. Others plowed on with emotion or humor, and all with an amazing ability to create vivid settings, characters, tension, emotion and resolution in five to fifteen minute writing slams. I read each of my segments aloud, my heart slamming, my face pounding with heat, my voice stumbling through the words I had scribbled on the page with a hand squeezed around my pen, cramped in an unfamiliar pose. No one laughed at me.  I saw a few heads nod in encouragement and agreement as I read. The instructor congratulated me on first describing a character by their hiking boots and the sound of their voice, not with the usual hair color and body build; she pointed out some stylistic choices I made that took the narrative in an unexpected direction (I did? Uh, do I let on that I was totally unaware of making any choices? I was just writing as fast as my Pilot Pen would go).

At one point, when the instructor told us to finish the sentence we were on and set down our pens, I realized I had lost myself on the page. It was like losing myself in a run – the point when you stop thinking about running, about the miles ahead of you, about the pain in your hip – everything slips away and you become running machine. And I was writing like a runner – I was gone into my words, into my heart, I didn’t want to stop.

I’m suddenly crying as I recall this moment of pure writing abandon. How often are we ever completely of and in a moment, doing exactly what it is that we are meant to do? How much of our lives do we waste pushing away our dreams because we fear the failure of our own possibility, because we can’t afford the luxury – the time, the money, the neglect of responsibilities to family, job, community – of answering our questioning hearts? For a moment, just a moment, I was there. I touched the possibility.

It struck me that no one was at this workshop to write an article for Condé Nast Traveler about the best hotels on the Adriatic coast or the newest yoga and wine spas in Napa or skiing holidays in the Atlas Mountains. We all had personal journeys to share, emotional borders that we crossed during our travels, an aching need to illuminate our scrapbooks with the light of our words. One woman related the story of traveling to Korea to meet her adopted daughter. Her description of the foster mother’s last moments with the baby had several of us wiping away tears. The retiree in purple used humor to describe her deep disappointment in accepting that she would never be the painter she dreamed.

I wrote about a trip to Germany Brendan and I took in the early years of our marriage, when we were struggling to find our way as individuals and learning how to be partners. We traveled to Bavaria to visit René and Marie-Thérèse, the brother-in-law and sister of the family Brendan had lived with in France before we met.

René and Marie-Thérèse met at the end of World War II. He was an 18-year old German prisoner of war assigned to work at her father’s estate in western France. She fell in love with his hands – his long, tapered fingers and trim, clean nails. They waited ten years to marry, when the scandal of a French girl marrying a German soldier would be softened by the forgiveness of time and the growing Western European solidarity against Communism. She moved to Germany, not speaking a word of the language, and lived with his parents in a small village deep in the Bavarian Alps while he set up his design business in Munich. Grasping the enormity of their story, told over the course of dinners that stretched for hours into the summer twilight, was like a balm on the growing pains of our young marriage. The trip became the honeymoon we hadn’t yet taken.

The story of René and Marie-Thérèse’s extraordinary marriage has been a small seed in my heart for many years. After yesterday’s workshop, I feel it starting to grow.