Going There


Good Morning from the Ocean, Nancy:

It’s Sunday morning, over the midway point here in my time by the sea.  Last year, in this same house, I wrote you about days by the sea being like skins being shed, one by one by one, until we are able to arrive at the selves we often forget.

This year, the sea seems to come to me in discoveries.  Day of the cove by the bay and the moss in the shallow water.  Day of the turtle shell June fetched from the marsh.  Day of the stand-off, dog and ghost crab.  Lesson from these days here, from a Neruda poem I read this morning:   If we were not so single-minded/about keeping our lives moving/and for once could do nothing/perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness/of never understanding ourselves….

This week of quiet I have remembered so many days of ocean.  Thirty and camping by the sea with my lover and staying up all night to watch sea turtles.  The phosphorescent shine as I touched the sea turtle mother giving birth.  Then I was almost forty and renting a room for the summer by myself on the Gulf Coast.  Long runs along the shoreline with the little dogs I had then, Jenkins and Rufus.  Ending our run just before the national park marker and standing by the waves and saying, over and over.  I forgive you.  I forgive you. Over fifty now and walking along the beach and reading tattooed words on the ankles and backs and arms of the women I pass.  Lucy.  Serendipity.  Anemone.

The first time I saw the ocean at all I was about nineteen.  I was with my father and step mother and we’d driven the million hours from Kentucky to Florida, stopping for nights in Motel Sixes, for fast food suppers and hour upon hour of saying almost nothing to each other.  What do broken and pieced together lives have to say?  I spent the days stretched out in the back seat of their Pontiac, teetering on the edge of rage, at them, at me, at the whole rewind, stop, rewind, repeat effort on all our parts to Vacation like a Normal Family.  We were all shell shocked with the consequences of our actions.  Their divorces from their partners. Their marriage.  Their genuine wish to love and be loved and the furious daughter in their backseat.  What to do with her?  By nineteen, I had been a runaway.  I too had been married and divorced.  I had given birth to a son and surrendered him to social services for adoption.   I had already lived what felt like a whole life, though I wasn’t entirely aware of what I felt at all.  I was numb, angry, spinning with rage and the cornucopia of drugs I’d done and the doors I’d slammed shut forever and the son I’d never seen even once.  I had no idea what grief meant, and yet it wrapped its little arms around me so tight and rode me down, mile upon mile.

We stopped along the shore somewhere on Sanibel Island and we all got out and stood looking at the quiet reach of waves.  I have a photograph of that moment.  Nineteen and ninety pounds of girl in her itty bitty swimsuit wading into the reach of wave upon wave.

And here, Nancy, is where this all swings back around to this trip to the sea, and to your last letter to me, one I’ve read again and again.  Isn’t it our job as teachers of writing, you ask so well, to help guide a beginning writer into how to tell a story, how to make a stranger care…if it’s not our job to care that a story is told well, then what is our job?

I have been rightly told more than once that my stories are heavy with sadness.  That I am the Queen of Darkness.  Shiva.  A teller of beautiful pain.  And I know it’s all true.  I’ve walked along the shoreline this very week and filled my pockets with thin gold shells and told myself, over and over that the next book I write, why, it will be filled with so much joy the cover will shine a blinding light.  Not likely.

What I try to tell my students is that stories DO matter.  They matter in all their blood and scent of birth and sex, in their portrayal of the rush and quietude of love and the scariness of dying, in their kindness and bluntness, their anger, their ordinariness and amazingness and terror and, sometimes, their forgiveness.  They matter over and over and over.  And to get to those stories I believe we must, as Dorothy Allison says, be willing to write the stories that are hardest to tell, the ones we are most afraid to write.  Until we are prepared to tell those hardest truths, she says, our stories won’t be worth a damn.

The question for myself as a mentor of course, is HOW to encourage writing that reaches for hard truths, for honesty. I know that my writing workshops strive to be about intentions of the work as well as about craft.  I do not like workshops that rip pieces apart at the seams, especially without a sense of how we can also find shape.  I know that I encourage vulnerability, my own as well as that of my students in my classes, paired with discipline and responsibility (both internal and on the page).  I encourage risk-taking with stories, and that is often a tightrope walk as we consider saying enough, saying too little, presenting hard-earned truths that are shaped, revised, revised again.

Some days, though, what I want to offer up is something I don’t know if I can teach at all.  I want to say, rest. Lift your head to the wind and wait.  Push aside the rule of days and expectations and voices and even pages.  Listen.

Yesterday storm clouds swept in over the sea and I prayed for it.  Thunder and hard waves.  I raced into the ocean.  It was cold and it took my breath and I ran back out again and shook myself off like a dog shaking her fur.  And this morning, more lines from Neruda:  For once on the face of the earth/let’s not speak in any language/let’s stop for one second, and not move our arms so much/It would be an exotic moment/without rush, without engines, we would all be together/in a sudden strangeness.


Yours with love,



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