December 18, 2010

Why I came to writing so late ...

With thanks to Daisy Hickman (Twitter friend and soul par excellence)

I published my first book at age 60. You might argue that I was a has-been before I began. I argue, “It ain’t over 'till it’s over.” Inside that bravado lies a question I was unable to address until my world cratered.

I stood at a distance from this question, I, who began writing with my life’s breath in 1987 when my first piece, an elegiac tribute to my mother, was published in The New York Jewish Week, at the time of year between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—the time of self-reflection for Jews. It was not the best thing I’ve written, but it was a beginning, way too late. 

Freda and Gerson, my mother and father
My mother died in 1990, my sister in 1993, my father in 1999—all from long, tortuous and serious illnesses while I remained well and strong. In 1996, I left my corporate job when I was 50 and went off to grad school to do the work of my life: To write. I now believe that work sat in wait for reasons I had yet to discover.
Ann, my sister, and Mary, me

When I turned 60, The Woman Who Never Cooked won Mid-List Press’s First Series award and was published. The writing of that book I thought—and I thought is the key word herebrought me through the grief that lies inside the stories.

But that year, the year the book was published, my husband left me for reasons he couldn’t explain and that I couldn’t understand. The bottom of my life fell out from under me. I cratered.

My memoir tells the good, the bad and the foolish that was me after he left (I'm still working on the self-discovery this book explores, how I swooned and wept, the ingenue in a romantic comedy of my own making; you'll have to read the book to get that story.) but what I want to explore here is where the writing comes from and why it had lain in wait.

I was on Twitter one day when I saw a quote by Marianne Williamson, posted by someone else, that hit home: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure” from A Return to Love, a book I have now read and found deeply candid. 

Because I grew up in a household of illness—goodness, yes, but linoleum halls were my home away from home—I grew up with the fantasy that my being alive took lives. The child could not understand.

The adult wrote this, when the last of the three was dying:

I think my father knew I wanted to abandon him. Did he know that I asked myself, What has he to offer me now, to give me? That I thought, What he wants from me is too much. My mother’s and my sister’s slow, painful anguished deaths that filled my years with long linoleum hospital halls, while my father sat in the orange chairs in the waiting places for the families of the sick. While he sat distant, apart, I went to the gurneys and the bedsides. I walked down the halls to the elevators that led to the operating room where one day they cut off my sister’s leg and then one day cut off the other—the diabetes. While I held my mother’s hand and felt the blood inside her fingers slow as if the blood that bled into her brain came from that hand, reversed and went another way, took a wrong turn, and that left her hand crooked and bent like his, while I went with her to the room where they put her in a tube to look inside her brain, to confirm the stroke, the bleeding in her brain, while I did that, while she lay in the tube unconscious, he sat in an orange chair in a waiting room.

I think now, Why were those chairs, plastic-leather-cushioned or hard-curved-molded in all the rooms where he waited, all orange? Like the unexplained orange on the forehead in that poem: “the night nailed like an orange to my brow.” My father was nailed to my brow. He sat in his wheelchair with his arm around my head. Bent and angled bones that would not straighten out. I felt no blood coursing through him, no soft flesh pressing down on mine.

No way out.

The way he felt while he sat in the orange chairs?
(from “To Swim?” The Woman Who Never Cooked)

As raw as this might seem to you, it still did not get at the conscious understanding I needed to write the memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story. I had known that aggression must be part of the writing, but I feared what must be done to create: Say the unsayable. I don’t mean that the writer must crush another. I mean the writer must crush herself.

My path to that end was to rediscover the past in the therapist’s chair—not in the writing chair. It took me way too long to get into that chair, but I have to thank for that chair my husband’s announcement, Oh so Greta Garbo, “I need to live alone.” If he had not left me—and he was the straw that broke this camel’s back—if he had not sent me on my journey, I would never have written the memoir that dares to go without fear to the heart of the matter: the question, Who am I?

You have your reasons for waiting or for writing. I have mine. I know this: The little girl in this photo wrote the memoir and she wrote this piece.

And I know this: those of us who choose to create art, whether we succeed or not, must have as our mantra: Bird out of the cage, bird on a wire.

Note: I wrote this essay for the blogger and wise soul Daisy Hickman. Go here to read her intro, her wise words and Natalie Goldberg's on memoir, and then read everything Daisy posts for the heart and soul of this woman.


  1. Mary, your story is so moving and sad yet beautiful. It's the love in the telling of your stories that I most enjoy. Mary Karr said it so well when she talked about memoir writers and said we are finding ways to "love the people who break our fucking hearts."

  2. Ah, ficwriter,

    There's the rub. Here's a quote I love by William Gass. It seems to be about writing, but I think really it's about living. I say this because I think of my parents' lives as masterpieces and my sister's too. Without them, who would I be? Less of a person, that's for sure. Here's William Gass:

    "Gertrude Stein wondered more than once what went into a masterpiece: what set some works aside to be treasured while others were abandoned without a thought, as we leave seats after a performance; what there was about a text we’d read which provoked us to repeat its pages; what made us want to remain by its side, rereading and remembering, even line by line; what led us to defend its integrity, as though our honor were at stake, and to lead it safely through the perils that lie in wait for excellence in a world where only mediocrity seems prized. She concluded that masterpieces were addressed, not to the self whose accomplishments might appear on some dossier, the self whose passport is examined at the border, the self whose concerns are those of the Self (I and My and Me and Mine); but to the human mind, a faculty which is everywhere the same and whose business is with universals. Masterpieces teach that human differences are superficial; that intelligence counts, not approved conclusions; that richly received and precisely appreciated sensations matter, not titillation or dolled-up data; that foreplay, not payoff, is to be preferred; that imagination and conceptual solutions, not ad hoc problem solving, are what such esteemed works have in common. And we, who read and write and bear witness and wail with grief, who make music and massacres, who paint in oils and swim in blood—we are one: everywhere as awful, as possibly noble, as our natures push us or permit us to be." –William Gass, The Test of Time, pp. 117-8

  3. I admire ficwriter very much, so when she directed people to come here and read, I did. She's correct in saying that this is such a beautiful piece laced with sadness and love.

  4. Dear Marisa,

    I am indebted to you and to the lovely Ficwriter for your kind, generous words. The writer writes in solitude and fears that what is let go into the world will be misunderstood. Your words here gift me.

    I am off to find out more about you in the hope that we might connect again.


  5. Thank you for this essay. You look deeply into yourself and then share with us a window to what you see that lets us feel safer living the depth that is in us.

  6. Dear discovereuse,

    Your words join us. As William Gass tells us, "[W]e, who read and write and bear witness and wail with grief, who make music and massacres, who paint in oils and swim in blood—we are one: everywhere as awful, as possibly noble, as our natures push us or permit us to be."


  7. Growth takes place in the ground of oneself--digging, turning over, prying out rocks. Ouch! But the fruit is sweet, as you attest over and over again.

  8. Love the photo of you and Ann, Mary! And in reading this lovely piece again, I'm feeling inspired about the guest post I promised you.

    My hope: to write that in the next few days (while the thoughts are fresh in my mind). I often write when my intuition urges me forward, so even though my calendar says "write guest post for Mary" the first part of January, I think now is the time.

    So I'll plan to send you a draft yet this year, letting you decide whether to post in January or February or whenever! Until then, enjoy the day and a bit of winter sunlight in SunnyRoomStudio (Noah getting stronger all the time). --Daisy

  9. Helen,

    I quote in the post that precedes this one, a poem by Stanley Kunitz, entitled "My Mother's Pears," as I discuss the lyric and the short story. I think you intuitively reference that poem here.

    Or if not, you and Kunitz share much, both of you poets who understand well, deep from the well, where the work comes from.

    Thank you, Helen, for stopping by and taking the time to comment. To read Helen's poems, go here my friends and also see my review and the reviews by others of her poetry:

  10. All those, Daisy, who gift me by visiting this blog will be gifted by your words. This post is dedicated to you because you gave me the space on your blog to write it. I revisit it here with some additions: the photos of my parents and my sister and me (after we'd gotten permanents for our already curly hair--see my story "Sine Die" in The Woman Who Never Cooked, those photos being two of those additions, because this is the right time for me to remind myself of the voice I have and from where it comes, arises and why it was shut down for so long.

  11. None of us would be who we are, who we were and who we could have been without those who came before us. To honor them with tenderness and fluid skill is a great testimony. The road less traveled is often such a road because so few have the courage and determination to forge trails where no one has gone before and also because our loved ones took us as far as life and sweet time would allow them to. Character is a gift and the fruit of labor, what a treasure it is to read it in Mary's work. Bravo darling....

  12. Thank you, Daniel,

    For others, do know that Daniel is a former trucker and now a full-time writer who interviewed me with great skill and candor on his radio show. Be sure to google him and check out his website and radio show. He's not on the air for a bit so that he can concentrate on his writing. So we'll be hearing more from him soon.

    Thank you, Daniel, for your lovely words here, so generous. I am deeply touched by your words.


  13. Your courage in stepping out as a writer at 60 is a boost to all of us in our later years who decide to stretch ourselves in new ways. I love the honesty of this post, the sense of standing at the crossroads between the woman you were, with all the people and experiences who brought you to this point, and the woman you are becoming, as you share your deepest self with the world.

  14. Cathryn,

    The lovely work you do at encourages me to continue in my search.

    When I give talks about both my books--something I love to do: give the story behind the book rather than a reading per se--I sometimes say, The writing is a solitary act and the joys come in the room of my own where I work—small but precious like flakes of snow on a midnight walk. When the work goes into the world, one wonders what will happen to it for fear that what one has done will not be understood, but as an artist I know that I need that closing of the round.

    Your comment here shows your deep understanding of that sentiment and I thank you.

  15. For some folks, this is not the most wonderful time of the year. Especially for those with loss of loved ones. Nice, Mary, bird out of the cage, indeed.

    Daniel, yes the road less traveled is thorny and not well-defined. The price we pay, isn't it?

  16. Elegant and elusive comment: the best of the best. Thank you, Rob Pluta.

  17. Wisdom comes slowly to me, but as I approach my 60's, one thing has become clear: the case of characters in our lives: those we love, those who love us, friends, even foes, is always in flux. The soul is the constant. If we look for love in everyone, we find it it many. At 17 I was fortunate enough to be taught by high school English teacher whose guidance and friendship have stayed with me to a degree that neither of us could have imagined in those days. I try to find the words to tell her that I hope she knows I love her friendship, intelligence and guidance to this day.

  18. Mark,

    How lovely of you to visit this site and write this comment. I hope you will come back regularly.

    You were a joy to teach: so the feeling is mutual. Can you believe that I was a bare 21 when I began teaching? And now you and others who found me when they found my daughter's wedding announcement in the NY Times are all in touch.

    I feel blessed and in your debt.

  19. Dear Mary,
    I did finish your memoir and agree with the others that it is both sad and beautiful. I hope you will keep on writing.

  20. Dear Susan,

    Thank you for the gift of reading my work and the kindness of your endorsement and encouragement here.

    Guest blog soon for me?

    Sending my best for the new year!

  21. Mary, I will give it some thought, but while we were in Europe I decided that online activity needs re-evaluating in 2011. It is such a time sink! I have my eye on a history course I'd like to take. If I mostly give up social networking and Kitty apps I should have time for studies. I'll keep in touch. Maybe I'll be in the mood to write a post later this year.

  22. Susan,

    Take your time but do consider writing a piece as a guest on the experience of visiting the sites of the holocaust and the revelations for you in your own life. On this subject I do think our exchange, my intro of you and other's comments might be worth our time.

    And again thank you again for reading my memoir and for your kind endorsement.


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