And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.
When I turned eighteen years old in July of 1978, I was in a tough spot. I just graduated from high school and I was accepted into the school of my choice, the University of Wisconsin – Madison. More than anything, I wanted to major in English with a creative writing emphasis; that’s what they called a creative writing major in those days. My high school creative writing teacher wrote to the head of the department, Ron Wallace, with a sample of my writing, and assured him that I did not belong in a basic creative writing workshop. I was put immediately into the Intermediate Writing Workshop, and the next semester, into Advanced.
My parents, however, did not want me to major in creative writing. They said it had to remain a hobby, and that I needed to major in something that would pay the bills when I graduated into the real world. They were paying for my tuition and books, and since they said they would not support me unless I majored in something else, I had no choice.
In desperation, I wrote to the man I considered the Writer of All Writers: Ray Bradbury. I loved him, of course, for Fahrenheit 451 and Dandelion Wine and The Martian Chronicles, like everyone else. But my favorite was Something Wicked This Way Comes, a book I still use in lectures today to show how to do characterization. I told Bradbury that more than anything else in this world, I wanted to write. I wanted to be a writer. I felt I already was.
And he wrote back. Here is what he said:
“Dear Kathleen Thomas: Thanks for your letter. If you want to be a writer of course the answer is: write every day of your life from now on…write, write, write: On top of which, stuff your eyes with stories, novels, plays, essays from every field in the world. Get to it. Good luck! I enclose some research materials that may help you. Best from,
August 31, 1978”
I showed the letter to my parents, but it didn’t move them the way it did me. Today, that letter is framed and hung in my office.
I went off to college and first, I majored in Special Education, with a focus on autism (which feels very ironic now, given my daughter Olivia). I nearly flunked out. First semester sophomore year, I changed my major to social work, and I challenged myself to a semester without any creative writing classes or literature classes.
I nearly flunked out again, and I also nearly died of boredom.
This just wasn’t Me.
So I changed my major again, to English with an emphasis in creative writing. I told my parents after the fact and said that if they didn’t want to support me, I would drop out of school and work until I could return. They continued to pay for my tuition and books, but whenever they were asked in my earshot what I was majoring in in school, they answered, “Oh, she’s getting married.” And after I graduated, whenever they were asked what I was doing, they said, “Oh, she thinks she’s writing the Great American Novel.”
Everywhere I went, Ray Bradbury’s letter went with me. I wrote every day (now, I no longer write on weekends). I stuffed my eyes with words of all kinds, and I still do. I live the life of a writer.
But lately, things have felt a little odd. Most people think of me as a fiction writer, and granted, I do write a lot of fiction. But I also write essays and poetry. Lately, my poetry has been getting a lot of attention, and people are surprised.
I have poems out in several current issues of magazines right now.
I won runner-up in Rosebud Magazine’s poetry contest.
I won first prize in the Wisconsin Writers Association’s Jade Ring Contest.
I’m in these places with writers who have devoted their lives to poetry. Who call themselves poets. I don’t call myself a poet, a fiction writer, a novelist, a short story writer, or an essayist. I just say I’m a writer. Because that’s what I do. But I feel sort of squinchy, being on the same roster as these poets.
And yet…and yet…well, I wrote the poems, didn’t I.
This week and next, I am on retreat in Waldport, Oregon, in my favorite little house by the ocean. I’m working on a new book. I have a novel coming out the end of the year. I have a poetry book coming out in 2022.
I’m living the life of a writer. But…squinchy.
I took a break two afternoons ago and drove into town. There’s a great used bookstore there, called Well-Read Books. I wandered around, made sure my books weren’t there (they weren’t), and glanced through the poetry. Then I looked in the collectibles cabinet.
And there was Ray Bradbury. A signed first edition of The Complete Poems of Ray Bradbury.
Ray Bradbury wrote poetry? The writer of Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, and The Martian Chronicles?
He does. And fully unapologetically.
I bought the book, of course. During the day, it sits beside my computer. At night, I read it in bed.
Ray Bradbury is a writer. He writes it all.
And so do I.
Thanks, Ray. (And yes, before anyone tells me, I know he’s gone. But his words are as alive as they ever were.)
And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.