Sunday, October 2, 2011
In their faces I see the person I once was, though I was nearly twice their age, married, and a mother when I enrolled in my first writer’s workshop. We’d flown to Spoleto, Italy, for a family vacation, and we’d climbed hills and slipped inside churches and sat beneath rooms where pianos were playing. There were nuns on the hills, ropes at their waists. There were market flowers wilted by sun. We’d arrived late at night and settled into a stranger’s flat (the plates still draining by the kitchen sink, a cloud of smoky moon in the front window), and the next day I’d hauled myself up the stairs of a round-cornered building and sat in the back of the class.
I’d brought a blank book with gray pages, its cover hieroglyphically embossed. I’d read the works of our teachers, Reginald Gibbons and Rosellen Brown, and beyond the window, deep in the hills, was the Roman theater and the turreted castle, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, the shop of silver trinkets and cards from which my toddler son would soon (almost) catastrophically run as a Fiat hurtled by. The poisonous wasp that would balloon my husband’s hand was out there. The pizza shop with the festoon of paper flowers at the base of the hill. The slinking arm of the aqueduct. The basilica in pale light, its beauty explained by my husband with two words: forced perspective. The cemetery where soon the class would go to imagine the lives of those whose names we’d find scratched out of headstones and buffed by a woman bearing (in broad daylight) a candle flame and white handkerchief.
But at that moment there was only the classroom, the squeak-footed chairs, my blank book, the other students, Rosellen, and Reginald, and it was Reginald who began: “Every difference makes a difference.” Word for word, I transcribed him. “The craft of writing is to describe something so that someone else can see it.” Soon Reginald was quoting Henry James—“Be one of those upon whom nothing is lost”—and then Rosellen was speaking: “I like the sentence that begins romantically, then de-romanticizes itself.”
The sentence that de-romanticizes itself.
I had been a closet writer nearly all my life—my poems stuffed in boxes, my short stories boomeranged back to me via return-envelope mail. I was taking my first lesson in craft, and what I learned in Spoleto, what I chose to value or come to believe about myself, would shape the way I thought about stories made and lived every thereafter day of my life.
It would make me want to find a way to pass the knowing down.