Before I took my creative writing class, I didn’t personally know any full-time, professional writers. Yes, there were many I admired, but I imagined them in a world far removed from my own–tucked away in urban lofts or secluded, rustic cabins, typing complex, metaphor-laden sentences on a laptop while sipping on a cup of pour-over coffee.
Then I met E, a successful, well-respected, full-time writer who also appeared to be a normal human being with a fondness for collared shirts in muted colors. During the six weeks of writing class, we writing students got to know each other and our teacher E. She was approachable and seemed genuinely interested in our lives–a deep curiosity that seemed to spill over from her experience as a journalist.
During one of our classes, she told us that a piece that she had submitted to a literary magazine was picked up and would be published the following week. Her excitement was palpable and contagious. My classmates and I couldn’t contain our curiosity. What was the submission process like? we asked. How long did it take to research and write the piece? How did she choose which publication to submit the article to?
Incredibly, E answered these questions in generous, glorious detail while we listened with rapt attention. As she demystified the basics of her draft to publication process, I felt a tingling awareness: Could I do this? Maybe I could do this.
After the class ended, I kept in touch with E. It felt important to keep her in my orbit, like a writerly guru. I wanted her knowledge and experience to rub off on me.
She wrote a recommendation letter for my MFA application, and since then we’ve stayed in touch. The other day, I stopped by her house to pick up some papers. The front door was open and a contractor was on the porch rolling up an electrical cord.
“Is Ms. E here?” I asked.
“She’s right there!” he exclaimed, pointing to a white couch in the middle of the living room.
“Come on in, Lauren!” E called.
I stepped inside the house, which simultaneously balanced an aura that was both stately and quirky. E had her laptop on her lap, newspaper clippings spread out around her. Her little white poodle, half deaf and blind, was curled up next to her on a towel.
We spent the next hour talking about the essay she was working on, a book proposal she was shopping around, and the students and faculty in my MFA program (pausing to check one woman’s Facebook profile to see if I recognized her). The contractor came in to ask a question. E answered, and then asked about his daughter, and they chatted for a few minutes about the daughter’s upcoming wedding. Small talk in the South is an art, a skill I have yet to perfect. While they talked, I stroked the little poodle whose head now rested on my lap and looked around the room. There were stacks of books on the coffee table; Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir lay on the couch among more newspaper clippings.
When the contractor left, E sat back on the couch. “My whole day of writing was shot,” she said. “I’ve been trying transcribe some interviews.”
I imagined the difficulty of trying to concentrate amid the friendly yet constant interruption of contractors, the fumes, and the poodle who was clearly confused by the strangers walking in and out of her house.
The mental image I held of the “professional writer” sipping coffee in solitude at their mid-century modern desk was slowly slipping away. From where I sat on E’s comfortable couch, amid the friendly, organized chaos that seemed to hover around her pop-up work station, I began to retool my mental image to reflect a reality in which the writer’s life is also a normal life, filled with unforeseen interruptions and distractions and small triumphs and occasional big wins when your piece is accepted and published in print. I was getting a privileged peek behind the curtain.
I left the house feeling buoyed by our conversation, by the ease with which E had invited me to partake in the normalcy of her day. Writing is a solitary, self-doubting pursuit. To know someone who is a few decades ahead of me, successful, but still working toward loftier goals is incredibly helpful. What can I say? Knowing a seasoned, “real writer” is magical.
I returned home to my own desk, cluttered with books and scraps of paper and empty water glasses and pens. I wrote in my journal, then realized it was time to start cooking dinner. I also had to feed my dog. And water the plants. The sky was darkening towards dusk. I turned on some music and started chopping onions, thinking of the essay I was working on. This was my real life. And some day I will be a real writer.