He came up to me in the lunch line, sidled in, taking cuts as we used to say in high school so we could talk. He told me he’d taken time out from our writing roundtable to finish his memoir. He was thinner than I remembered, not having seen him in a year or so, but conversational and so interesting. He was a writer I connected with in our group at Red Oak Writing. He was smart, agile as a storyteller, very descriptive in his writing but not cumbersomely so, able to toggle back and forth between his youth and his agedness in an introspective, almost celebratory way. I liked it immensely when he told me, just as we were next in the buffet line, that he really liked my writing.
We were both at the Wisconsin Writers Association annual conference, gathered up at a monastery – maybe former, maybe not, not sure – outside of Madison. I’d come to the conference because I’d won a 1st prize for humor and an honorable mention for nonfiction in the WWA annual writing contest called the Jade Ring. I actually won a jade ring. I could choose between receiving the actual ring or $100. I chose the ring because it seemed more durable than the hundred bucks which I would have used to pay the gas bill or buy ‘high performance’ dog food for our sled dog who doesn’t pull sleds anymore.
I loved getting the ring, I have to say.
After the winners were announced, the Association President asked who wanted to read their pieces to the group. Of course, I raised my hand. We were cautioned to only read a few paragraphs of our winning pieces so that’s what I did. It bothered me that I had to stop before the really funny parts. There were smiles when I stopped but no guffaws. It wasn’t a guffaw kind of piece, though, subtle humor it was. Really subtle. But prize winning, just the same.
Then my friend who had joined me in line got up to read his piece. And I listened. Listened hard. But I was in the back of the room and had to strain because, you see, even though I have a cochlear implant and a hearing aid, I’m not fully capable when it comes to hearing and there are times that whole lives are described right in front of me and I come away thinking someone sailed to France when they really sold shoes at the mall. It’s happened more than once.
But I heard him.
He read his cancer treatment story, of buying LED light bulbs, how long they would last versus how long he would live. He did the math – he might outlive the bulbs but he would be very old. And lucky, it sounds. Very lucky. His essay revealed the peril he was facing but in a way that was quiet and matter of fact, a calculus of time, of odds. It was a remarkable, understated piece, clear and frank.
It is the magic of writing – people showing the hidden parts of themselves in small slivers of words that become art. After my friend and his LED bulb/cancer story, there were poets and humor writers and storytellers, all of us reading our words like perfect apples just picked from a tree. If you never read your work to other people, if you stay to yourself and hide what you have written, if you are afraid of what people will think, you won’t ever hold all that perfect fruit in your hands. I say that as one writer to another.
That was the beauty of today.