When I was fifteen years old, a friend and I attended a writer’s institute at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Plattsburg. That week was to change my life. It only took me fifty years to see it through to fruition.
Chris was my closest friend. She was a year behind me in school, but we were soulmates. Chris was brilliant, insightful, and understood me. We spent innumerable hours listening to Simon and Garfunkel, taking walks near our homes in Keeseville, and talking about life and our future.
In the spring of 1966, we found out that SUNY Plattsburg was holding a one-week writer’s workshop on its campus. The college was offering scholarships to local high school students. We both applied and both were accepted.
Our parents took turns driving the fifteen miles each day up to the campus. We took classes in fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Chris gravitated towards poetry. I was more interested in personal essays and fiction, similar to what I had written for many years.
Since I could remember, I had kept a diary or journal. My first was a little blue book with a lock and key where I kept my innermost thoughts. I am sure my family, especially my brother, read it while I wasn’t around. Our cat thought it was a great chew toy, as the ends were shredded with teeth marks. I doubt if I had many profound insights as a pre-teen. It must have been important to me, however, as I kept it tucked away in my night stand for decades. It finally got tossed when my husband Larry and I did “The Big Dump” in our 2015 move to Florida.
After the first diary was filled, I replaced it with a marbled composition book. Although my actual life in our small town was fairly tame, my narratives were filled will angst and passion. Directly across from my “No Trespassing!” warning on the inside cover, I wrote my first entry dated November 15, 1965. “Life can be cruel at times. It can be bitter, unhappy, and unstable. What you once enjoyed becomes boring; what you thought becomes childish and immature.” Many of the entries dealt with my poor body image. “I weigh 127. I have to weigh 115! Breakfast: 1 egg, 1 toast 1/2 orange.” (“Oh Marilyn,” my adult self says. “Why were you so hard on yourself?”)
A few pages later, the journal recorded one of my first crushes: “I met Jim on the white hills of Paleface Mountain when he was in my ski class.” His face, which I thought would “always burn brightly in my memory,” is a complete blur.
Along with the self-condemnations and the crushes were also attempts at short stories. Most of them revolved around adolescent self-discovery. A teen and her family deal with a sick grandparent. A young man finds the shadow of a mustache. A sensitive soul experiences hurt when a three-sided friendship becomes two-sided, and she becomes the outsider.
One of the longer works was a story about a girl who spends so much time on hair, make-up, and clothing for a dance she forgets the important things—like how to talk to a boy. “Maybe if I had worn the blue dress,” says the first-person narrator as she gets ready for bed after she comes home, “someone would have asked me to dance.”
This was the story I worked on during our week at the workshop. The day before it ended, I shared it with my instructor and the class. After I finished reading it aloud, there was silence follow by loud applause “Please meet our future writer,” said my instructor. “She has a great deal of talent for a fifteen-year-old.”
On the last day of the conference, all the attendees met on a beautiful green lawn on the campus. Awards were given to the adult attendees for best fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. I was given an award for best young writer.
Chris was thrilled for me, and she encouraged me to continue writing. That fall, I entered my junior year reassessing my future career goals. I had always wanted to be teacher, but this experience made me rethink that path and consider getting a degree in creative writing or journalism. My parents, however, strongly encouraged me to major in education. “Become an English teacher,” my mother told me. “You can still be involved with writing, but you will have your summers off. And when you have children, you will be off when they are on vacation.”
Feeling the pressure, I took the safer route and enrolled in the English education program at University at Albany. Chris was disappointed that I didn’t pursue creative writing. Her graduation gift to me was a large blank journal with a black cover. “For your writing,” she penned into the inside cover.
During my four years in college, I wrote innumerable essays for my coursework. For whatever reason, I never took one creative writing class the entire time. After I graduated, I taught high school for a short time. After I finished my masters in reading, I taught adult education classes, preparing people to take the exam for their GED or to have the reading, writing, and study skills needed for college. My favorite part was teaching how to write essays.
In the 1990s, I wrote a few articles for Schenectady, New York’s The Daily Gazette. It wasn’t until I retired that I started writing again. A chance meeting with the editor of the Jewish World led to the opportunity to spread my wings and write personal essays.
To my delight, Chris and I recently reconnected. We shared memories of the summer workshop, which for her provided a “long burning ember from the spark of the experience.” She journals, composes haiku, and develops resources for social workers. Meanwhile, she is thrilled that I am finally following the path we started together fifty years ago this summer.
Barbara Kingsolver, award-winning novelist, poet, and essayist, stated, “There’s no perfect time to write. There’s only now.” And now is perfect for me.