Monday, September 24, 2018

Nest of Writers

By Clay Snellgrove

On our way to a New Year’s party at the close of 2016, my wife Erin and I discussed our plans and goals for the year ahead. I wanted to put more time into my writing, treat it more like a passion and less like a hobby. After years of wanting to put a local writing group together, 2017 would be the year I found a couple other people to make it happen. I had my buddy Lou committed, but I needed at least two more.

Erin reminded me about two new friends she’d met during her year in Junior League.

“They will be at this party. Jessica published a book and gets paid to do freelance. And Kristin had a funny blog post I read. She put on Facebook she wants to write more.”

Erin pointed Jessica out, and I rushed over. To my delight, she was a quick, “Yes.” My writing group had three. Just one more, and I’d nail my New Year’s resolution two hours before the ball even dropped.

I had to hunt for Kristin. I cornered her and made the pitch. She tried to pass but eventually agreed. I’m guessing she just wanted to get rid of me and enjoy the night, planning to say, “no” later. When I sent the first email to set the date of our first meeting, Kristin balked, politely backing out. I stayed on her, and begged Jessica to talk her into coming.

A few weeks later we met for the first time.

Lou and I arrived, having emailed everybody 10 pages of novels we were starting that reflected the competent teaching our respective graduate programs in creative writing provided us. Jessica, the only professional writer in the group, sent out a clean, easy to read start to a memoir.  Kristin’s submission came in a little short, five pages and some change, with a note, “I’m definitely afraid of this process. Be gentle. It’s been a long while since I’ve written and even longer since I’ve written anything of real length.”

I liked Lou, and while I didn’t know Jessica well when we started the writing group, I’d soon call her a good friend. Reading their submissions was fun and interesting. They possessed solid fundamentals of the craft, and reading their work was like sitting down to have a drink with them, which in both cases is an evening well spent.

When I opened Kristin’s five pages, her stab at a memoir, the experience was different. From the first sentence on, I read Kristin’s work with a clenched jaw and narrowed eyes. Each paragraph reached up and grabbed me by the throat, daring me to laugh or cry. Pretense and refinement be damned. Kristin had game. The submission would have drawn the ire of an editor or English teacher; it was a bit messy. But what a mess it was!

Over the next few months I was greeted by ten new pages from Lou and Jessica every two weeks. Kristin would send five, maybe six, and she even missed sending anything for one group meeting, showing up empty-handed, but still willing to give her thoughts on our work. We begged her for more pages, tried our best to motivate her. I would have said I was trying to hold her accountable, but really, I was hooked. I just wanted more of her story.

Kristin’s voice was savage. A few famous writers including Thomas Wolfe and Lee Child have said good writing comes from the scribe opening a vein and bleeding onto the page. Kristin’s pages dripped crimson from top to bottom. Each new chapter she sent required a large chunk of emotional energy to read, the affecting images and keen insights sticking in my mind and gut for days after.

As summer approached, busy schedules and family commitments made meeting difficult and producing the pages to share stressful. Our bi-weekly meetings fizzled, but my new nest of writers had given me some much needed critique and inspiration with regards to my novel, and I plodded away without their input and finished my first draft. Lou finished, edited, and published his novel, while Jessica scrapped her project, kept freelancing, and went back to the drawing board on a new passion piece.

As for Kristin, I would have said she was burned out had she not always been so funny and full of life.

Our writing group met for drinks one evening. It was the first time we’d gotten together without bringing our work to critique. We toasted as friends and fell into conversation. Before we split up that night I had to ask Kristin if she were continuing to write on her memoir. Lou and Jessica perched closer, eager to hear if more pages might be available. We were all jonesing for a fix.

“I’m too happy right now,” she said. “Writing about that shit just brings me down.”

Her eyes danced. I could tell there would be no more pages. I felt the same touching sadness right then that I experienced watching the finale of Lost. But at the same time, I wanted to cut my eyes at her with a sneer of annoyance, the same look I gave the TV when Journey started to sing and the final episode of The Sopranos went black. Like those TV shows, Kristin’s fifty pages had scored with me. They were cool and affecting and left their mark. Like all great art, her story, the way she crafted it, wore away the calloused skin over my senses, making me feel more human.

A year later a new installment of Kristin’s writing would rattle me. The Facebook post informed me and her wide circle of friends that a rare form of cancer was ravaging her body. Every few weeks she brought her honesty to our newsfeeds and laid it down. Kristin’s updates were grave, but she still had the gift. The writing was raw and gutted me but had me laughing at times through the tears welling up behind my eyes.

There was a moment when I thought about all the pages Kristin will never write; her condition hasn’t improved. But the thought was fleeting. I’m a writer in good health, and everyday stories flash through my mind that I will never write. My focus returned to what I knew she had written, those fifty pages to which only three of us were privy. Great art, masterfully written stories, are worth the effort whether they are read by three people, 3,000, or 3 million.

I’ve written my stories for going on two decades. I spent two years on a novel that I could not find anyone to publish. Only my family read it. Erin told me what she liked and what she loved about that novel one day as we hiked a mountain trail. And that might be the greatest highlight of my writing life.

When Kristin ignored her fear and discomfort to write for our little nest of writers, the result was something awesome and truly unforgettable. On those days when she holds her “dick of a disease” at bay long enough to open herself up to her friends to share her current story online, I am reminded of the power of the written word, and I’m determined to continue writing. Thinking about Kristin, which I often do, I start thinking that everyone should put every ounce of who they are into at least one sentence or one paragraph, into a letter or a story. Then share it with another.

Clay Snellgrove owns and operates Bases Loaded Baseball and Softball school in Middle Tennessee. He earned an MFA from Converse College and is the author of the novel The Ball Player.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.