The calendar on the ledge above the coffee pot still says June 27. He tore off the previous day’s page when he got his first cup of coffee that morning. He was dying then, but he didn’t know it. June 27 was the last day he poured coffee in our kitchen and the last day he spent with me in the home we built together.
He had a head full of thick, black, curly hair — only a few strands of gray. He shouldn’t have died.
Right now, I would give anything in this world to have one of his hugs. He was the best hugger in the world. I could sink into him and stay there, and the world would melt away. I fell in love with him after just one hug. That, and his voice. It was deep and strong, yet soothing. I fell asleep many times listening to him during long conversations.
Aortic dissection is a catastrophic thing. His aortic artery ripped and tore apart from throat to groin and he bled and threw clots and vital organs were deprived of oxygen. The doctors said he had a five percent chance without divine intervention, and God didn’t save him.
I had two final seconds with him. He was in surgery and I was two stories up in a crowded waiting room focusing on the bright lights on the ceiling. All of a sudden a serene warmth enfolded me and I felt his presence and I heard his voice, though not out loud, saying urgently, “I’m going, I’m going.” He wanted to be the one to tell me.
A half hour later, his surgeon rushed in to get me. The doctors and nurses had asked me for thirty-something hours if I needed or wanted anything. I finally thought of something. “If my husband isn’t going to make it, I want to see him one last time.” I knew he’d be cremated and I’d never get to see or touch him again. The doctor granted my request. “We’re losing ground,” he said. “Come now.” He ran down the hall and down two flights of service stairs with me trying to keep up. He’d discouraged me at first, saying it was bloody and messy in the OR, and I probably didn’t want to be in there. “Yes,” I said. “I do want to go in there.” He took my hand and led me into the room. It was bright and there were red, yellow, and blue tubes like coiled wire that filled the room and people were standing around in scrubs and my husband was lying there covered in blue with a screen at his head and I decided not to look around, just to look down at the floor. The surgeon led me to a little round stool that I sat on, and he pushed me up to the back of my husband’s head, and I touched his hair and told him he was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Then I walked out of the hospital without him.
People told me I had to build a new life. I was offended. I hated to hear that. I hated them for saying it. I didn’t want to build a new life. The old one was just fine.
Lee Gutkind put it better when he signed a book: “Best wishes for happiness in your new world.”
It is a new world. I’m not happy in it yet — HAPPY is not in my vocabulary any more, it just doesn’t apply to life now, I mean, what is there to be happy about? — but I’m settling into the newness. It has been three months. I play and laugh with the dog, I work, I walk, I ride my bike, I mow the yard, I hang out with friends, I go to meetings and events, I write and edit, I drink a little wine, I’m getting used to the loneliness, the aloneness, the quiet, the void.
Four days ago on my six-in-the-morning walk, I looked up at the sky for the first time in three months. I’ve been looking down, struggling to make my legs move, focusing on getting the right foot forward, then the left. I know more about what aggregate looks like than the workers who laid it. I had forgotten what the lightening Prussian blue sky looked like. It was crisp, the air was cool, and there was a pearl sliver of moon low in the sky. It felt good to look up. It was somehow a turning point.
Lee Gutkind sent me a signed copy of his book Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather because it sold out at our “5 R’s of Creative Nonfiction” workshop last Saturday before I could buy it.
Anyone who knows me knows I do not approach things in an ordered way. Even books. I will first hold a book in both hands, cup its spine, squeeze it somewhat for depth, caress its front, hug it to my chest. I know that what’s inside the book will have an impact on me, will change my life in some way. I will look at the book’s front cover, the back cover, the back flap, the front flap — maybe not in this order — and then I will glance at the Acknowledgments and flip through the pages, stopping on a sentence here and there. I breathe in the smell of the pages and let my eyes land on words as though they are pieces of a puzzle…and really they are. I can get a feel for the work just by taking in random words. Then I go to the Contents page. I get a sense of the book and the author by the titles there. I will first pick a title or two that might interest me, read those stories first, and then go back and approach the book from the beginning.
Anyone who is familiar with the contents of Lee’s book and who also knows me knows exactly which title I picked first to read. “Dog Story.” Of course. I have my own dog stories, two about Molly and one about Chaeli in Pink Butterbeans, my book of essays. You don’t know a person until you have read his words, his thoughts and feelings and until you go through with him the experiences he has lived and hurt and pushed through and feel the impact of those. This is true of anyone, even the Godfather.
There’s a thread that links the reader to the writer, the reader feeling the emotions, identifying with the writer in similar situations and picking out the pieces in her own life that spark the same feelings as those of the writer.
The writer of creative nonfiction must strike a universal chord to make his personal work relevant to others. We all write because we have an idea inside our hearts that what has happened in our own lives will have an impact on others. Others will take our work to heart and be affected by what we say and how we say it. Readers will naturally feel close to us, one with us, they will feel as though they know us in a personal and intimate way, and because of our expression in words and works, they will have a better understanding of themselves and their horizons will be extended.
In “Dog Story” Lee shares his experience with Icy, a beloved German Shepherd who changed in personality after Lee’s divorce from his first wife. Icy displayed aggressive behavior, attacked a child, then an adult friend. Icy couldn’t be trusted. Icy went to work with a K-9 unit, grew more vicious, and had to be euthanized.
As the reader, I found chords in the story that linked me to the author, experiences I could relate to, things that brought feelings surging to the surface.
First of all, there was Buffy, my family’s first dog, when my boys were little. Buffy was a mix of Collie and pit bull and was the smartest dog I have ever known. She was playful and happy and chased leaves in the fall and fire sparkles on the Fourth of July. She came into season before she was a year old, and I was unwise then and put a pair of my panties on her to keep her safe and left her tied up outdoors one night. The next morning she was gone, and the panties were crumpled on the grass. She had gone to the creek with Bullet and Chainsaw. She was like a child; she played with us when we played. And then one day as I was gently swinging my one-year-old around in circles, Buffy nipped at his feet. I thought she wanted to play, so I picked her up and swung her around, too. From then on she seemed jealous of the baby. She didn’t want me to carry him. We lived in a town where there were no leash laws, so Buffy wandered the neighborhood. One day she lost patience with a barking dog on the next street and lit into him. It took hundreds of stitches to repair the dog. Buffy started barking at children who came to play. I began chaining her on the patio, so she could be outdoors but she wasn’t a threat to people. One day she barked viciously, jumping and thrusting and pulling at her leash, all her teeth bared, her voice straining in a new and different way, trying to get to Chad and Chan who came over to play. She would have killed them both if she had broken loose. I knew then that Buffy had to go. My yard was often filled with little children, and I couldn’t take the risk. We found Buffy a home way out in the country with an older couple. I couldn’t watch her go, I couldn’t follow up, I hoped she did okay, but I had my doubts, and it hurt.
Lee says that Icy was more loyal than his first wife, who cheated on him. My first husband cheated on me, too. I know the feelings associated with that and even though I determined he was weak and insecure, it was not enough to negate my feelings of being unworthy and of being not enough.
I had a dog euthanized once, too. Molly, my beloved golden retriever who got cancer at the age of eleven and couldn’t swallow, was put to sleep to end her suffering.
The doctor arrived at noon. I spread a blue flannel blanket on the patio, looked into her weary eyes and said, “Come lie down, Molly. It’s time.” She knew. And she lay down on the blanket beside me. My husband held me, and I cradled her in my arms. The next seconds were a teary blur of pink fluid injected into her leg and my repeated assurances: “I love you. Go rest.” I wanted her to go hearing my voice and feeling my touch. I was the first human she ever heard or saw and I wanted to be the last. The doctor said her heart had stopped. She died right there in my arms. Death came quickly and quietly. As significant as life is, I couldn’t tell when hers ended. There should have been a spark, a flash of light, the sound of a trumpet, an indication that her soul had departed and drifted heavenward. How could she slip away so easily and peacefully without my knowing? [Pink Butterbeans]
Personal and private stories become public stories, writer and reader sharing a common bond, common emotions, common feelings, magic moments and those that are bittersweet or poignant or gut-wrenching.
Twins. Two healthy babies. Two strong heartbeats.
Due late April.
Did I say twins?
This morning I slept late. 5:12. After the first cup of coffee and the chapter titled “Clarity” in Lee Gutkind’s book of essays, I slipped into yesterday’s soft-worn jeans and pink shirt, pulled on my Chacos, put the dog’s seat belt harness on her, grabbed an essay to edit just in case, poured another cup of coffee in a 3COM thermal cup, and headed out in the six o’clock darkness down Hillsboro Road in the Outback with a quarter of a tank in it. Looking for gasoline, doggone it. Not the way I want to spend a Sunday morning. The Mapco at the bypass intersection was totally out. I went in and asked if they knew where I could get gasoline and learned that the Mapco on Moore’s Lane had some as of two hours ago and Home Depot had some yesterday and the Publix on Royal Oaks was supposed to get a truck last night. So I headed around the bypass and up Franklin Road and across Moore’s Lane and noticed that the Shell at Mallory Lane was open and had a supply with no line to speak of. After all, it was 6:18. I went to the next stoplight and waited for a green arrow to make a U-turn. I got impatient — there was no traffic and these are desperate times — so I ran the light, made my way back, and jiggled my way around until I found a pump and position on the same side as my tank. There were signs on the pumps, so I asked the man in front of me currently getting gas if there was really any in there. There was only the lower grade — 87 — which I use on any given day. I waited a moment for my turn, slid my credit card, punched the yellow grade square and pumped and watched the numbers roll. I am full and satisfied. My week now has a little clarity.
Saturday night, and here I sit. I can’t go anywhere.
I have two cars. One is flat on empty, the needle hugging the E line. The other has a quarter of a tank of gasoline, which I must conserve so I can get to work Monday…and Tuesday. Nashville has no gasoline. Franklin has no gasoline. A panic started Friday. Stations ran out and closed. Others that had a supply had lines of cars a mile long waiting. I checked four stations in Cool Springs and two in Grassland this morning and struck out. I don’t know why this is happening. Rumors. Panic. My friend Currie’s husband Colin heard about Nashville’s gas shortage in Sweden where he is on tour singing.
My son called and suggested I go out and do something. “I can’t,” I said. “No gas. I’m stuck here. I can’t do anything. I can’t go anywhere.” Then I sang to him.
Well, it’s another Saturday night and I ain’t got nobody. I got some money ’cause I just got paid…
He interrupted me with a very pleased laugh, so I sang it again.
Well, it’s another Saturday night and I ain’t got nobody. I got some money ’cause I just got paid… I put all I had into it.
“You should call Casey [his friend who owns a recording studio] and sing that for him. He might want to make a song out of that. Really. That’s pretty good.”
“IT IS A SONG!” A little 1963 Sam Cooke that went big on the charts.
“O-o-oh, I didn’t know.” He laughed again, a little embarrassed this time. “I thought you were making it up.”
“Yeah, from back in the day. My day.”
So I’ll stick some chocolate chip cookies in the oven and watch Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality a-gain and hum “Another Saturday Night” and then I will settle in and nibble on Lee Gutkind’s Forever Fat.
In a group of 110 people — as at the CWW Fall Workshop with Lee Gutkind this past weekend — you encounter all sorts.
It is a given that some will be hot, and some will be cold. The temp is set at 68, and we hope for the best. But with that much creative energy and hot breath, who knows? Late morning, Nancy grabbed my arm in the hall and said, “I want you to take a picture of that woman with the thick coat and hood on.” We laughed and I snapped the picture.
Before every workshop we host, I send out an email telling people to layer. Wear a sweater, I say, or a jacket that you can take off if you get hot. Sometimes it’s cold, sometimes it’s warm. If you’re real cold-natured, bring an Arctic parka with a hood. She took me at my word…and was probably glad she did.
A man came to our door with a wool blanket in hand. “My wife called and said it’s cold in this place…told me to bring her this.”
Meanwhile, the sweat rolled down my forehead, I saw Angela fanning with a program schedule, and I watched Ginger zoom by barefooted with a box of Miss Daisy’s lunches in her arms.
I headed to the bathrooms to re-stock toilet paper. It takes a village to put on a workshop and everyone in the village doing odd jobs.
“You got paper in Stall 2?” I asked.
I handed her a roll under the door. Angela and I refilled all the rolls in the stalls and wiped the countertops clean and dry. Should you hear a rumor…it’s absolutely true. Yes, Kathy Rhodes went in the men’s restroom…and stocked it with toilet tissue. The men don’t seem to use as much.
Speaking of restrooms, during the morning session there was a rash of people parading one at a time to the bathroom. Up during the speaker’s presentation, out the door on the left, slam, bang. Back in, slam, bang. Why didn’t people pee before the event started? I did, whether I needed to or not. If I can hold it, anybody can. Maybe they drank too much coffee. Maybe they wanted to browse the Book Tables and buy Lee’s books during the break. Whatever the case, the slam, banging got distracting, so Michael and I decided he should park himself in front of the left door; we had to keep it closed because of noise in the working part of the library, which hosted our event. When people tried to go out, he pointed them toward the right door, which we kept open. Michael is formidable, and there was no more slam, banging.
But quickly, Michael got tattled on. I was standing in the hallway and people passed me on their way to the bathroom saying, “There’s a man sitting in front of the door and he won’t move and let anybody out and you need to tell him to move!”
“I put him there,” I said. “The repeated closing of the door is distracting.”
Another woman. “That man sitting in front of the door is against fire codes.”
“I assure you he’ll move if the building catches on fire.”
“Those boxes of lunches by the other door are against fire codes, too.”
“They won’t be there long.” I should have assured her we knew exactly how many inches of space we needed to pass fire codes and we were well within it, but I just smiled instead.
With 110 people you have to smile a lot. And you hope the speaker is so good the attendees won’t remember the cold moments, the hot flashes, and the threat of fire.
And Lee was that good.
“I write stories,” he said.
This man with a turquoise earring and a passion for venti Starbucks Pike brews and old “Law and Order” episodes awakens at 4:30 every morning — because sleep is a waste of time — and writes a story every day.
“I’m not sure I’ve told you yet,” he continued, pacing his syllables as in a chant, a glint of mischief in his eyes, “but the building blocks of creative nonfiction are scenes and stories.”
He’d said it at least eleven times. It was a point he wanted to make.
“The smart writer sucks the reader in and manipulates the reader.” He paused for emphasis. “Catch the readers, tell them a story. Make the story as good as you can, make the readers want to hear the end. But don’t tell them.”
Black marker in hand, he paced to the left, then to the right, his steps in cadence with his words. He wore a black mock turtleneck and a dark gold linen blazer — was it planned, did he know Vanderbilt’s colors, should he have worn orange on a fall Saturday in Tennessee? Oh God, not even I remembered to wear orange. (Wait. This is a tangent. Let me stop here.)
“Stories are elastic. Pliable. Sometimes a story can be stretched out so much you can put other stories in it. Nine, ten, twelve, fifteen stories can be framed within a story. The frame is your container for all the other stories.”
I gripped my pen. I scribbled the words across the blue lines of my notebook paper, so fast they slanted left instead of right. I held my breath so I could write faster.
“Have some idea of where you want the story to go. But let the story take you where it needs to go.”
I smiled and nodded agreement. It happens all the time to me. The story takes over the wheel, pulls away left or right, ventures off down its own path, and I’m holding on to the back bumper, laughing at it, letting it go, stumbling along happily with it. It surprises me every time, and I love it. It’s what being a writer is all about.
Lee Gutkind led the Council for the Written Word‘s 15th Annual Fall Workshop, and there were 110 people in attendance. Lee taught the workshop in the same way he encouraged us to write creative nonfiction — in scenes and stories. Because the building blocks of creative nonfiction are scenes and stories.
Lee Gutkind is a pioneer in the genre of creative nonfiction. He taught the first college course in the genre at the University of Pittsburgh in 1973. He founded the creative nonfiction program and MFA degree in the genre at Pitt—the first in the world, copied by universities nationwide. He is the former director of the writing program at Pitt and currently professor of English there. He has traveled worldwide to conduct workshops and to introduce the creative nonfiction movement in spots all over the globe.
In 2007, he brought creative nonfiction to the South — to Oxford, Mississippi. In 2008, he brought creative nonfiction to Franklin, Tennessee. (And I got to introduce him!)
Lee Gutkind coined the term creative nonfiction. Lee Gutkind is the Godfather of creative nonfiction.
Lee Gutkind writes stories. Because the building blocks of creative nonfiction are scenes and stories.
Friday evening a few of us enjoyed dinner at the Boxwood Bistro at The Factory in Franklin. We ate shrimp and grits and popcorn ice cream in a private dining room and talked till midnight.