Laurie Levinger

© Copyright 2010 by Laurie Levinger


Photo of a computer monitor and a hand making notes on a pad.

A new (not young, just new) writer realizes she needs instruction to help harness her creative impulses. She doesn't have time or inclination to get an MFA, and instead seeks out a writing coach. Will her writing improve?

I’m sitting at my favorite table in the diner waiting for her to arrive, wondering, How will I know it’s her? We’d talked on the phone but what she’d told me wasn’t much, just that she was starting this new business, she’d be coming from an hour away, and that she’d been living in a yurt. After that, we’d agreed to get together to talk.

As the waitress brought my first cup of coffee, I asked myself, What do you wear if you live in a yurt these days? I know, I can just see it: long batik skirt, off-white Mexican cotton blouse, sandals with socks because it’s late Fall, just turning cold. But that’s if it’s 1972. I didn’t know about today.

Then standing in front of me, there she was, somehow I knew instantly. Wearing: short black skirt, tight gray turtleneck, black and white herringbone tweed jacket. Coral beads, hair pulled back in the current style.

That’s what they’re wearing in yurts in 2002?

She knew it was me, too. Probably the pad of paper I had on the table in front of me gave me away. “Hello,” she said, and not waiting for a reply, she slid gracefully into the chair across from me. “You’re Jesse, aren’t you? I like that name.”

Let me explain how we arrived at this moment. I’d been obsessing in the Women’s Group, who are, as you know, the people privy to all my concerns--describing how lonely writing is, how after I’ve written something I can’t tell if it’s any good or not (maybe it’s brilliant?) then I get stuck and have trouble getting myself back on track. Kvetch, kvetch. But mostly I’ve been telling them about how I’ve been trying to find someone to give me feedback I can use. That I can really use. I’d tried my brothers—one of them kept talking about how I misplaced commas, that I used colon incorrectly—or friends, who just raved about how brave my writing was. So far no one’s been the right fit. I’ve been looking for someone to help me improve the writing itself. Since I’ve never taken a writing class, I’m plagued by the problems of the self-taught. And since I don’t really want to go back to school to get an MFA, it’s really that I need a coach.

After our most recent group meeting, I got an email from Maggie, telling me about an announcement she’d just received from a friend of a friend; it was from a Barbara, describing her new consulting business designed to help women develop their writing. Technical writing, poetry, short stories, novels, it didn’t matter, Barbara could help. The timing was perfect and, even though it sounded too good to be true, I jumped at the opportunity. Maybe my coach had found me. I emailed Barbara immediately, introducing myself, which is how I came to be waiting at this diner.

Our conversation started smack in the middle; Barbara told me she had gotten an MFA from Iowa, she was a painter and she was a writer. “My writing is sparkling, original, so unique that I’ve yet to find a publisher who recognizes the true brilliance of my art. I am expert at entering into another person’s world and helping bring forth the essence of their story without imposing my own style.”

Sounds just right, I thought, always wary of being told what to do. I wanted help, but I wanted to retain what I thought of as my own fresh voice.

Barbara went on, describing life in the yurt, which, she explained, was a short-term arrangement. “My goal is to help the yurt owner deal with his energy block to get his creative juices flowing again. I can deal with male energy” she leaned forward, confidentially. “I have my space and he has his.” Pausing for a sip of by-now-cool coffee, she added, “We don’t have any trouble. I just tell him when he’s talking trash.”


But where was I in this conversation? I was interviewing her, it’s true, but I hadn’t asked a single question (me, the former professional question-asker). Shouldn’t she want to know about my writing, what I’m looking for? I could try to interject, or I could wait and see what was coming next.

And here it comes.

I’m more focused now,” Barbara said. “When I was younger I was all over the map, I lived in Hawaii and Kenya, as well as the Midwest, Alaska and New Mexico. I guess you could call me a roaming literary artist. When I lived in the Southwest I stayed with Native shamans, they honored me as a visionary. I’ve been married and divorced, two grown sons. I used to be chasing orgasms, but now I’m done with all that. I’ve focused my energy on helping other people discover their creative selves. I offer an Interactive Visionary Landscape Forum, a three-day retreat. It only costs $425, but there are scholarships available if that’s too much. I believe in taking my work to the people who need it most. I can guarantee that it will energize and revitalize your writing. Do you want to come to the next one? I have a brochure with me.”

Uh, Let me think it over. My turn to talk. I tried to slow my spinning head by beginning with the basics: single mother with two kids, two dogs, my partner, Anna. The lesbian part gave Barbara pause for a half-beat and then she cut in, “We all need to develop our other-gendered selves. What are you writing about? I’d love to see what you’ve got there,” she pointed to the red folder I had by now shoved under my writing pad.

Other-gendered selves? I culled through the stories and gave her two that were the least personal. Barbara grabbed them enthusiastically, got to run, another appointment to get to. “I want to read this” waving the folder, “I’ll get back to you within the week. We can discuss my fee then.”

I staggered out into the late October day, bright sun, cool air with winter trailing right behind. Minus my two stories.

Deep breath. What was that?

Just two days later I received an email from Barbara assuring me that an envelope would be arriving soon with my stories and her comments. “Loved what I read. Got some suggestions. When can we meet? P.S.: Spent more than six hours on your work. Can discuss my fee when we see each other.”

The oversized manila envelope arrived, decorated with yin/yang stickers, stuffed with legal-size yellow paper covered in hand-written notes, with comments scribbled between the lines and along the margins in hot, fluorescent pink ink: “You have now told the reader you are examining and sizing-up people--what about embellishing this neurosis--make the writer’s edgy nosy guts more obvious.” Statement, not question. And: “Do you know you compare the awestruckness of girl. Some people let themselves have visions. The WATER SYMBOL.”

Where are the question marks?

Some of this was obviously notes written to herself which I wasn’t’ meant to understand. But in the middle of it all: “Consider showing a bit more emotional tension to add energy to the text.” And: “It’s like you never go inward enough for me to be able to cry, even though I wanted to.” Clanging bell, flashing light: she’s right. Then the clincher, a message that afternoon, “I’ll be available between 2:00 and 3:00. Call then.” They have phones in yurts these days? On the phone she was full of praise. “I feel like I’m getting to know you through your stories, but I’d have to know you better to direct this to grow.The best thing would be for me to come over to your house on Sunday night, and then we can get up first thing in the morning, have our coffee--I love French roast, don’t you?--go for a walk and get started. I find it works well to be outside and moving when we work.”

Thank you, Barbara. But no. What do I owe you for your time?

I got out of it $300 poorer, but at least I didn’t have a new roommate.

Alone again. Just me and my writing.

A couple of days later I called Dorothy. She had been sick, so we didn’t have regular sessions anymore, but still kept in touch. I told her all about my conversations with Barbara, partly to get it off my chest and partly to make her laugh. Once we were done making jokes about yurts and male energy and being a visionary, she had a suggestion. She gave me the name of someone who taught creative writing at the local college. Maybe she’d be available.

Oh, no. I didn’t want to reject Dorothy’s idea out of hand, but I could not risk another Barbara. I thanked her with a noncommital, “I’ll think about it.”

The suggestion simmered, and after a couple of days I realized I had trusted everything else Dorothy had told me, even when it seemed totally outlandish. Why not this? So I went ahead and wrote the woman, this Miriam, who responded immediately, describing her new business working with writers. (Thankfully, she did not mention the water symbol or letting myself have visions--not yet, anyway--so I felt it was safe to take the next step.) Could we get together to discuss a possible working arrangement? She told me how to recognize her, and we agreed to meet at a restaurant near her office. I drove an hour north, found the designated meeting place, sat down at a table to wait.

Miriam arrived, wearing what everyone wears this time of year in our part of the country: jeans, corduroy work shirt, hiking boots. I knew it was her by the writing pad she was carrying, the way she scanned the people sitting at tables, looking for me. She had short, frizzy black hair. We could have been sisters.

This was different. Miriam started by asking about me, what I was looking for. She explained what she could offer. Thank God, she has her own place to live. We agreed to a provisional working arrangement to see if we clicked.

I sent her some stories, she sent me comments, I sent her revisions, she sent me encouragement and more suggestions. She hated my punctuation (you mean Isaac was right, after all?) I started to be able to write more often, enjoying it more, learning from her criticism and the endless rewriting. Energized, my writing revitalized, I discovered I could sit at my desk for hours. I had to force myself to stop, go for a walk.

It clears my head to be outside, moving. When I’m walking my thoughts wander and often I discover I’m chewing over a problem that’s been troubling me. One day, a month or so after I started working with Miriam, I was taking my usual trek in the country, on a high road that winds past fields where sheep graze. As I strode past the sheep, trying to unravel a problem, it hit me; I was having trouble accepting Miriam’s comments. Even though she was sensitive, I’d become bristly. I wanted her to love everything I wrote. Now that we’d gotten past the honeymoon stage, deeper into the work, I needed an attitude that would make me more coachable.

Miriam is your coach,” I turned to the sheep. “Listen to what Miriam says!” I admonished them as they chewed their breakfast, unperturbed. One final shout (but first I made them promise they’d never repeat what they heard). They barely lifted their heads as I walked by at a fast clip, proclaiming, “MIRIAM IS A WRITING G-O-D!”

The next night while I was luxuriating in the bath, mind drifting as I sank into hot water, the telephone rang, jangling me, and I realized, shaking my head, that I had been having a fantasy about a phone call. From Miriam.

My bath fantasy: I would write something so great she couldn’t contain herself, she’d just have to call me up right away. I’d answer: “Oh, Jesse, that’s just a fabulous story. It’s so good I can’t find one thing to criticize. I just had to call you.”

Well, that didn’t happen, exactly. It was a telemarketer asking if I’d like a three-day all-expenses-paid vacation to Disney World. Which I didn’t. (We were both disappointed.)

But what it made me realize is that Miriam is in my head. She may not really be The Writing God, but she’s offering me help I can use, she’s keeping me company and I’m not lonely. Finding a coach has paid off after all.

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