And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.
This might be kind of a weird one.
Monday was my first day back into reality, following a two-week trip away to the Oregon coast. I didn’t just step back into my roles, but I dove in immediately over my head, with Monday encompassing six clients, a class, and a book festival meeting, as well as numerous errands.
My 11:00 client canceled at the last minute. My husband was out grocery shopping and I was supposed to pick him up (he doesn’t drive) around noon or so. I decided to just take a quick nap, only for an hour, and then get back to it.
I sank very quickly into a deep, deep sleep. I dreamed I was walking along the Fox Riverwalk here in Waukesha, one of my favorite places. I heard my name called and looked over to see my friend, Kelly Cherry, sitting at a picnic bench. “Hey!” she called. “Come on over! It’s good to see you!”
Now here’s the thing. Kelly passed away on March 18th of this year.
Kelly Cherry was my first creative writing professor when I came to the University of Wisconsin – Madison in the fall of 1978. Our relationship started in a bad place – she wasn’t happy she had a freshman in her intermediate creative writing workshop, which was for upperclassmen, and I wasn’t happy that she wasn’t happy with me. My high school creative writing teacher emailed the head of the English Department on my behalf, including my work and saying that I could not be in a beginner’s class. The head agreed and plunked me into Kelly’s class. I was the first freshman to ever be there.
Up until that time, I’d pretty much been placed on a pedestal, in regard to writing. I published for the first time at the age of fifteen. I was raved about, lauded, told the world was my oyster, whatever the hell that means, as I’m allergic to oysters. Kelly was the first person to ever shred me. And shred me she did.
Luckily, I’m a pretty stubborn person, and I just kept coming back.
Because of my start with advanced classes, I proceeded more quickly than most through the program. As a result, I ended up taking the intermediate workshop twice, the advanced workshop three times, and doing independent study twice. The second time I had to do independent study, that same head of the department and I sat down to figure out who I could do it with. I’d worked with so many, it was going to have to be a repeat.
“How about Kelly?” he said.
I flinched, but said, “Sure.”
We went out in the hall to find Kelly. He asked her about doing an independent study with me. Kelly flung up both hands, proclaimed, “I’ve done everything I can with her!” and flounced off down the hall.
I did my second independent study with someone else.
So how did she and I end up being friends?
Over the years, I realized I found great value in being pushed by her. She taught me to be tough, to let things roll off my back, if they couldn’t be applied, and to sit quietly and take the criticism if it did. I truly did not understand Kelly’s value in my life until much, much later.
In 2014, I was (and still am) working with the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books. We were looking for a keynote. Kelly had a new book out. I suggested her, she was accepted, and I reached out. She remembered me immediately. She praised me for what I’d done (turns out she’d been following me), accepted the keynote, and we reunited at the festival. We remained fast friends until her death this last March.
I think we most remember the teachers who built us up. But I remember Kelly because she built me up by tearing me down. She made me try harder. She made me prove her wrong. Which was what she was after all along.
So in this dream, I joined her at the picnic table. She reached across and grabbed my hands. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you,” she said. “Look at you!”
“Look at you!” I said. She looked wonderful.
She smiled. “You need to keep looking,” she said. “You need to see.”
I shook my head. I didn’t know what she meant.
“You know now, don’t you.” When I shook my head again, she said, “It never gets any easier. We wait for it to, but it never does. No matter the publications, no matter the awards, no matter about anything, it’s always hard, and we always think we’re not good enough. Always. We’re rough on ourselves, so we push ourselves to go further, so we can get away from the rough.” She sat back. “Like I did with you. Like I did with myself.”
I felt my eyes fill. My latest novel was turned in to a publisher months ago; it comes out on March 7th. I didn’t write for months after finishing that book. I honestly thought I was done, and I had no idea how to deal with being done.
“You’re not done,” she said. “Your brain just needed a rest. You know that now.”
In Oregon, I’d sunk fully into a new book. By the time I came home, I was sixty pages into it. The doubts are there, as they’re always there. But I wasn’t done.
I suddenly woke up with a gasp, tears still on my cheeks. I was disoriented, unsure why I was in bed. Then realized my alarm hadn’t gone off – it was 12:30, I was supposed to be getting Michael from grocery shopping.
It was one of those dreams that didn’t let me go for awhile. I felt underwater for the rest of the day.
But I saw Kelly. And she taught me again. The doubts never go away, not even 14 books later. Not even hundreds of short stories and poems and essays later. Not even awards later. But you plow through them anyway.
And I’m not done.
And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.
(And a special note – the 13th annual Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books is coming up on November 4 and 5! We have an absolutely stellar line-up this year, and I’ll be the Saturday morning keynote, along with my daughter, Olivia. Check out the book festival at www.sewibookfest.com!)