In Between Books
When I was nine my first short story was published. My mother completed the copy-edit on her Smith Corona. She stapled my drawing of Kathleen Richard’s missing diamond ring on the cover. She was happy to do the typing. I was happy she was my mother. One day in grade five Language Arts I discovered the word millstone in a jumble of adjectives and verbs. Mrs.Politeski said it was a noun. I said a millstone was all three. Metaphors became a kaleidoscope.
Later that year we dropped blue dye into glass jars. Our science teacher told us invisible molecules choreographed the underwater ballet. Physics and chemistry became art.
Ever since then my life has been spent between books.
In Grade Six, after the literary flourish of my previous two years Mrs. Distracted-Teacher became the editor to crush my authorial dream with one flick of her too-long-for-her-age black hair. She dismissed my query about the low numbers she’d scrawled on my short story. Seventy-two was very far from one-hundred. I wanted to know why but she didn’t have time to tell me. I was dismissed along with my dreams. It’s very possible Mrs. Distracted-Teacher was having a bad day. She probably didn’t intend to eat my writer, but she did. Teachers get hungry. It's a long day. But I went home with less of me than I’d walked to school with. My mother noticed. And I never forgot.
Now I’m a teacher. I try to remember to pack snacks. I don't want to eat what isn't mine. For the past eighteen years I’ve worked in the Department of Art at Pittsburg State University in Kansas. For the past ten summers I've taught ceramics to middle and high school students at the Hawaii Preparatory Academy. This year I get to teach creative writing to middle school students. My motto for any classroom “is do no harm." And yet it’s the easiest thing to. Adults have a lot of bad days. And students sometimes eat my snacks.
The tween before teen is an age to test the boundaries of the universe. I wanted to see if there was room to include all of me. But I touched the limited edge before I could see the infinite beyond. The branding began. I’m not this. I’m that. My teacher told me so. I turned away from writing while at the same time I looked to my narratives for direction. One of my characters was an artist. She had success showing her portfolio in New York at a publishing house. I liked to draw. I excelled in Grade Twelve drafting. Placing the trees beside the house was ample reward for all of the straight lines. I should have won the graduating award but girls didn’t win those in 1981. Kirby wasn’t accepted into the best architecture program in Canada, but I was. And I didn’t go. Winnipeg was a long way from Saskatoon when your parents get divorced the year you plan to leave.
A local architect suggested I do my undergraduate degree in Saskatoon and transfer to UBC for my graduate work. I didn’t understand how you could graduate from university and still be “under” something. No one in my family had been to college. But he was a kind man and pretended he didn’t notice the blood trickling down my knee during our interview. The recalcitrant lip of concrete had sent me sprawling before their glass exterior. The windows went all across the building. I went all across the sidewalk. We matched. Grade Twelve graduation had lasted all night. I should have been smarter and scheduled an interview about the rest of my life on a different day. At least I was going to have a life. The cut was only skin deep.
Wisdom and bravery rarely belong in the same age group.
I entered a student art contest during my first year at the University of Saskatchewan. They accepted my drawing and the printmaking professor asked me to be his lab assistant. The political science professor said I had a creative mind and that I could think on my feet. Professor Heasman thought I should be a lawyer. He tapped on my transcript with his pipe. My math mark wasn’t very high. It was lower than the grade on my story in grade six. He told me my buildings were going to fall over. His British accent was very convincing. For one year I was in pre-law. Then I met a guy from a reggae band. In between music sets he revealed a truth that made sense to me. He told me that for every law made there would be one less freedom. I was nineteen. He was right. And I couldn’t be a lawyer. But neither could I be a starving artist. And then I was. In 1985 I graduated with a BFA degree. Thirteen years later I left for graduate school. Now I understood the difference. It was some thousands of dollars of earning power a year. Paper routes and working at the cheese shop on Broadway Avenue didn’t pay very well. The eight galleries that sold my prints didn't pay often enough. An MFA might give me employment options with a dental plan. And I'd gathered some wisdom. I had stories to tell young artists so they could learn from my mistakes and make less of their own.
In 1998, a mere month before moving, I wrote my first art essay for the Saskatchewan Craft Council. My one publication proved to be a finger on the door. In 1999 the editor for the Australian publication “Ceramics: Art and Perception” came to visit my university in Tennessee. I had experience. My second essay for Janet Mansfield was about my professor Sally Brogden. My third essay was for "Sculpture Magazine." It was a good to diversify my publication profile. Since then every essay has been about art work I wish I’d made. My words are a grateful offering to the artist. If I get them right we both learn something. Over time I came to notice writing was the place where my creative efforts had a chance to be both wise and brave.
Ten years ago I was in the middle of a downward-dog. I stopped my yoga practice to write the first paragraph of Cashmere Comes From Goats. My partner Tom suggested I write a second paragraph, and then a third, so I did.
However, a novel is made out of more than accumulated paragraphs. The principles and elements of art would have their equivalent. I thought it would be a good idea to attend the Sage Hill Writing Experience where I studied with Kimmy Beach and John Gould in the Beginning Writers workshop. The next year I attended the Summer Literary Seminar in Montreal with a small tuition award scholarship and my new Sage Hill writing friend Rebecca. Alison Pick was our workshop leader. I had no idea who she was, but she called my writing sample spectacular. Ever after I’ve that I’ve called her goddess. When I found out Alison taught for The Humber School for Writers, my “someday I’d like to attend Humber,” became I must apply to Humber and work with Alison. I came back from Montreal and applied to Humber and found out my mother was diagnosed with cancer.
In 2015-2016 I worked full-time, wrote seventeen hours a week for Alison and tracked my mother’s chemotherapy appointments on a calendar. My final Humber manuscript was being coil-bound to ship off to Alison while I sat near the bedside of my mother in Saskatoon. A few weeks later my mom shipped herself off to wherever we go when we die. I spent the remainder of 2016 and all of 2017 missing my mother and rewriting Cashmere Comes From Goats.
A good portion of the story is set in the Languedoc province of France. This past fall I travelled to Mirepoix where I could visit my friend Karen and experience the region for myself. Years ago she loaned me a travel book about the Cathars. Her friendship and this travel guide has made all the difference. She and I worked together at the Broadway cheese shop. Back then Karen bought some of my prints. She fell in love with my early ceramic sculptures, and she taught me to knit. This year she taught me how to drive on French roadways. In February I spent ten days at the Saskatchewan Writer’s Guild St. Peter’s Winter Retreat. I worked through the recommended revisions in response to Alison’s December 2017 editorial commentary. Karen drove me back to my dad's house.
An entire decade has passed since that downward-dog. My first novel is finished, and my first life as a writer has begun. Again. Cashmere Comes From Goats is proof that coming-of-age doesn’t only happen when you’re twelve. Now I’m in between books. Again. It’s the best place to be. A lot goes on. And I'm never alone.
Everyone is in between something.