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When I was in sixth grade, I had a teacher who convinced me I could be a writer. It was 1966, Mr. Hartman’s first year of teaching. A calm redheaded man with pale pink skin, he came fresh from Peabody College with an inclination toward the arts and freedom of expression. We were encouraged to make up plays and use the classroom furniture for sets and props. We painted a mural around the top perimeter of our otherwise nondescript room depicting the culture of ancient Greece. One day, a few of us were sent out to the parking lot to retrieve a box of art supplies from the trunk of Mr. Hartman’s car where we found an adult size leotard and black tights. Given that Mr. Hartman was the only male school teacher we had ever known, and the men in our lives — our fathers, uncles and brothers — wouldn’t have been caught dead in a pair of tights, we didn’t know what to make of our discovery, so we buried it, along with our confused suspicions, deep in the back of his trunk.
When the end of the school year and our graduation from elementary school to junior high came around, Mr. Hartman arranged a formal matriculation ceremony. I was chosen to be the class scribe; I would write a prophecy of where each of my classmates and I would be 20 years hence. I worked on the piece for weeks, carefully scrutinizing my classmates’ skills and interests and translating them into future careers. I fancied myself a writer of children’s books, working out of a book-lined library in the home where my perfect husband, my four adorable children and I all lived.
The part about the four children was the only part that came true. At 32, I was the mother of four, the two youngest newborns, in a rundown old house we couldn’t afford to repair, where if I was lucky, my daily reading might include a quick glance at the newspaper. I was firmly entrenched in children’s literature, but not any I had written.
I had nursed my literary ambitions through high school, writing bad poetry and short Tolkienesque fantasies. Senior year, a piece I wrote for AP English was chosen to be read aloud on student achievement night. I don’t remember the piece or anything about that night, except the back-handed compliment I received from a guy named Mike, the smartest kid in our class, a big geek who looked 40 at age 17 with his scraggly facial hair and lumpy body. He came up to me and said: “I didn’t know you knew how to use such big words.” I wanted to slug him, but instead I squirmed and eeked out a shaky thank you.
I didn’t know it then, but I realize now that, as a writer, one rarely gains more confidence than that.
Last weekend, I heard one of my literary idols, poet and memoirist Mary Karr, speak in Denver. Karr is brilliant and beautiful and tough and between dropping names of literary contemporaries and tossing out critiques of their work, she cusses like a sailor. She told us how she threw away 2,000 pages while writing her most recent book, and how those were just the 2,000 she’d gotten good enough to pass on to her editor. She figured each of those 2,000 had probably already been rewritten four or five times.
Then she told us she spent 18 months writing the first chapter of her first memoir, just to make sure that every sentence was good enough.
Karr was daunting. I took dutiful notes and filed away the single comforting fact that though she doesn’t look it, she is exactly my age — well into the deep middle distance, not one of those under-40 upstarts.
Two days later, I drove to the mountains where, through a dear friend’s generous gift of shelter and uninterrupted time, I was to begin a self-imposed writing retreat. I settled in for the first winter snowstorm and an infinite stretch of quiet writing time.
I paced and fiddled and cooked and read and sorted through files and did pretty much anything but write the first day. Then I remembered Mary Karr telling us how much she hates and dreads the actual writing and locks herself up and cries and prays and shuts out the rest of the world when finally, she can’t avoid her true subject any longer.
On day two, when I started crying, I knew I was making progress. Just as Mr. Hartman promised, I too could be a writer.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.