I turned 44 just before I attended my first Juniper Summer Writing Institute at the University of Massachusetts last month. Almost exactly 22 years before — half my life ago — I graduated from Hampshire College, just down the road from UMass, having spent the previous four years studying, writing, breathing, eating poetry. Degree in hand, I began submitting my poems to literary journals, determined to become a real writer. I quickly stacked up a dozen generic rejections and, feeling bruised, shifted my creative attention to writing songs for my fledgling band, an indie rock three-piece in which I played guitar and sang.
After five years, my band faded, my new career in marketing and communications amplified, and I spent less and less time writing my own work, looking instead for creative outlet in ad copy. From time to time, I would think about my undergraduate mentor who encouraged me to go straight to grad school for poetry, but I would brush it away. In the meantime, Joanna, my best friend and roommate from college — a fiction writer — had moved to New York to work in publishing. She introduced me to Juniper when she came back for the event to represent the journal she was editing. For years, I would meet up with her and other writers during their dinner breaks and join them for the occasional reading, but I never considered participating.
Joanna introduced me to Lori, an organizer of Juniper with whom I would join a small writing group of poets and try to kick-start my writing life again. We had several grand months of getting together to discuss our pieces over wine and cheese, but things dissolved over time, as they do. Perennially, I would try other writing groups, but they never really clicked — one was full of fantasy writers, another did 90-minute free-writes (so long!) — so I would move on.
And then, when I was 35, my big brother suddenly died.
A friend at work who knew I was a writer and that I was suffering suggested a “bereavement writing group” that she had attended. I wrote around a table in a library at a retirement center with eight others mourning some loss every Tuesday night for 10 weeks. I did it only for my own sort of therapy at first, but discovered something much bigger there: as we read to each other, people in the circle “got it,” and I realized that my writing — at least for the right audience — even about most personal things, my darkest anger and grief, could connect, soothe, teach, heal, comfort.
It was the reason I had always read. Isn’t that the age-old adage that we read to know we aren’t alone?
And yet. It had taken a long time for me to realize that what I had to say, at least now, could matter to someone else.
When I introduced myself the next three times I went to the bereavement writing group, I referred to myself as a repeat offender. At some point I realized I had to make a decision about what I was really doing, so I applied to an MFA program and asked my writing group facilitator to send one of my two letters of recommendation. This was far from the traditional route to get to grad school, but I had been slapped with the realization that life could end at any time, and I felt I had to seize my new writing momentum now or never.
My graduate experience turned something awful into something beautiful. It reintroduced me to myself and reaffirmed the notion that I might have something to say. A year ago, MFA in hand, I again considered myself armed and ready to embark on a great new literary journey, ready to put myself out there. I had so many plans! I had goals, and a blog, and a strategy. I had what a professor had forced us to create, before we graduated, a Writer’s Contract! But life now included mortgages and work and family.
So I finally applied to Juniper. A whole week of writing and learning and rebooting (again), nearby, a commutable distance, I told myself, and Lori still an organizer.
While there, one of Lori’s and my former poetry group members had become a teacher/presenter/reader, her newly published book in hand. I was equally proud of her and ashamed of myself. As I walked around the campus that I had haunted half a life ago, I thought about my former poetry mentor there. I missed Joanna. I also missed the safety of my MFA cohorts, though I was trying to connect with my wonderful new group, my wonderful new mentor. I still felt like an interloper.
Despite my lonely moments, the theme of the week felt like poetry — and music. Even in our creative nonfiction workshop, we discussed form and white space and pauses and breaks. We talked about cadence and rhythm and structure. I drafted an essay I liked that my husband described as “under the influence of something new.” It felt good.
And Lori was there. She was the friend I passed when I went to lunch, after readings, before panels. A touchstone. Her presence reminder me who I was, who I am. A writer.
It took everything out of me not to take the youngest member of our workshop — a bright-as-a-star, maybe 22-year-old who worried he hadn’t lived long enough to have anything to say — by the collar and shake him, to tell him to harness all his young wisdom and energy, that magical cocktail of smarts and sparkle, that enthusiastic bravery to push boundaries and be so honest and fresh, and to run, run, run with it! I never want him to feel like he abandoned himself.
I felt like a mom — attempting to advise, to have him learn from my mistakes without saying as much, to save him from future pain — when I hugged him hard the last night, and pleaded, “Please, please don’t ever stop writing!”
Don’t ever stop writing.