by Carole Duff
(excerpted and adapted from a faith memoir in progress)
After retiring from teaching, I signed up for a how-to marketing class titled Social Networking for Writers, offered by The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. That Saturday morning, about a dozen attendees gathered in the Center’s experimental theater, aptly named since most of us were experimenting and trying to act like writers. I mounted the tiered steps of the black, stage-lighted space and took a seat in the second row, off to the side.
The young instructor, seated below us on stage, glanced up from her Twitter feed. She could have been one of my students. One of my recent students. The instructor told us her name, professional background, and class goals.
“Now introduce yourselves,” she said, “and in one word or phrase or sentence tell us what you’re writing.”
I chewed my lip.
“Who would like to go first?” the instructor asked. “Give us your elevator speech.” Elevator Speech? She must have noticed the puzzled looks on our faces because she added, “You know, three minutes about who you are, what you’re writing, and why people want to read it—like pitching to an agent or speaking to your target audience.”Target Audience?
I slunk down in my seat hoping the instructor wouldn’t call on me. It had never worked for my students all those years when I was the teacher, but I slouched anyway. Thank goodness, someone volunteered and pitched a nonfiction project in her area of professional expertise.
“Excellent,” the instructor said. “How about the rest of you?”
The room became silent again until another member of the class bravely spoke up. “I’ll go next,” she said. “I don’t really have a pitch.”
“That’s okay,” the instructor said. “Just tell us who you are.”
When it was my turn, I said, “Carole Duff, former teacher, writing a memoir, I think…” I took copious notes during the class without absorbing much. Still, I learned something valuable: I didn’t know who I was or what I was writing about or why anyone would want to read it.
The following month, I enrolled in an eight-week course for writers of literary nonfiction, taught in the evening by an instructor about my age. As a veteran history and social studies teacher, I’d taught my students to write essays and other academic writing—deductive, expository, and researched-based. Since I was also a published technical writer in education, I felt confident that literary nonfiction would be a natural step toward reinvention.
Early one hot, sticky night in June, we gathered around a table and read an excerpt I thought represented my best work. My first workshop submission. A story about my new husband’s daughter, who died by suicide before we met, with hints of connection points in our childhoods, mysterious parallels I had yet to fathom. Only much later would I come to realize that those connections were key to my faith journey.
“Who is the protagonist?” a classmate asked after we finished reading. I’d never written much about myself and didn’t know that in memoir the protagonist is always the narrator, me.
“All will become clear later in the book,” I said, thinking I was supposed to answer questions. I also didn’t know the rules of workshopping.
“What is the plot, the conflict, the story arc?” Questions continued, as did my parrying.
“Carole, be quiet and listen,” our teacher said. I resisted temptation to clutch the printed pages to my chest.
“Why did you write this? What is the story really about?” I felt like a kid chosen last for a team, limping to the end of the line. Everyone seemed to know how to play this game but me.
“I guess I still don’t know,” I murmured. Yet another unknown, that not knowing is typical for memoir writing, especially in the early stages.
To conclude the workshop, the instructor asked if I had any questions. “No,” I said, then added, “thank you for your feedback.” By saying that, I hoped to rescue myself from complete humiliation. In truth, I had expected accolades and was far from grateful.
Cloud-to-cloud lightning from an approaching storm streaked across the night sky on my drive home to Alexandria. I gripped the steering wheel and attended to the road while self-pity and failure rained down on me. I’m not good at this kind of writing, I thought. Inductive. Personal. Beyond the realm of rational control. For over three decades, I’d been a sage on the stage and guide on the side. Now I was nothing.
Why does it have to be this way? I asked God.What do you want of me?
I parked in our numbered space, grabbed my belongings, and ran through the pelting rain toward our townhouse. Heathcliff greeted me at the door with his exuberant Tigger dog dance then followed me upstairs. Fearing the thunder, he curled in his nest bed on the carpeted floor of our bedroom.
With storms rattling outside and inside my head, it took me a long time to fall asleep.
The next morning my husband poured me a cup of coffee while I made his lunch. “How’d it go last night?” he asked.
“I thought I knew how to write,” I whined like Winnie-the-Pooh’s gloomy friend Eeyore. “But I don’t have a clue what I’m doing…”
“That’s what creativity feels like, Sweetheart,” he said, cutting me short. “You’re a novice again. Have fun with it.”
“Yes, yes, I know. Just like when I was student teaching.” I sighed and handed him his lunch along with a tired smile.
I showed up for every class, every day a novice, just like everyone else. Humbly seeking who, what, and why. Sometimes Tigger-dancing, sometimes Eeyore-whining.
That’s what creativity feels like.
Carole Duff is a veteran teacher of young women and now a writer of creative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes from Vanaprastha (http://caroleduff.wordpress.com), has written for The Perennial Gen and Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, and is working on a book-length faith memoir. Carole lives in Virginia with her husband Keith Kenny, also a writer, and two large overly-friendly shelter dogs, Heathcliff and Freya.