Last year, I enrolled in a creative writing class at Madison College. It was 16 hours of emotional torture, and I’m really happy I did it.
My intention, or hope, was to unlock something in my brain, a jumpstart give my non-fiction copywriting more spark. On the first evening, my classmates—all women, a variety of ages—took turns introducing themselves. They all arrived with a distinct backstory and purpose for being there. Some had big ideas they wanted to publish and just needed a little focus. Others were there to enjoy the exercise of writing itself.
By Week Two, I felt a deep panic start to ripen in my gut and glide through my veins and sweat glands. Our instructor gave us one exercise on main character development and another posing “6 Big Questions To Create Your Story” and the realization slammed into me like a semi: the rest of the class had fantastic plots and interesting characters percolating, already looking forward to the final assignment of sharing one page of their story with the class. I was starting from scratch, armed with experience in deftly rearranging words to fit someone else’s brand guide or a 30-second voiceover, but without any stories of my own to tell.
For the next few weeks, I played along. I furtively scribbled worksheet answers, changing my story every time: from a political campaign manager with a #MeToo secret, to a horror/thriller, to an elderly woman blackmailing her neighbor into committing a jewelry heist. As my clever classmates shared incredibly creative dialogue and beautifully drawn tableaus, my voice dropped by decibels and I crouched further down in my seat.
Finally, by Week Five, I landed on a story, something that had made a few brief laps around my mind over the years and then scattered away to some private waiting room until I was ready for it.
That release from stress and worry also made the class more fun. The instructor assigned a worksheet to match a series of quotes with a series of characters. Instead of making obvious pairings, I just thought of what would make my husband and me laugh (matching the quote “Your future depends on the decisions you make today” to the Pot Smoker instead of the High School Principal or giving 7-Year-Old Colin the quote “I just got my first break-up text today”).
On Week Eight, each writer read their pages aloud to the class. I was blown away by how much care and thought everyone put into their piece, how original their plots and settings and characters were, and how they infused their distinct personality and, in some cases, very personal life stories, into their words and their new worlds. (Bravo, my fellow writers! Bravo!)
The class wrapped on Dec. 13, 2018, and it’s taken me an entire year to feel brave enough to share my one little page. Please enjoy.
- This is set in late 1945 California. Mae McCoy and her cousin, Irene Hayes, have left their home in Wisconsin to seek adventure in glamorous Hollywood. They live with the Millers, family friends who opened their home to the 19-year-olds.
- To fight off homesickness, Mae and her mother, Leigh, have been diligent pen-pals, trading letters back-and-forth that appear at the beginning of each chapter. Now that it’s November, everyone on the farm is getting ready for winter. The little ones are bundling up to get to school, cousin Irene’s father has been ill of late, and the neighbor’s cow just escaped.
- While in California, Mae and Irene take in the best (and sometimes worst) of the sunshine state. They also witness the end of World War II and a new sense of optimism; they find jobs—Irene as a secretary, Mae an assistant at a movie studio—and encounter widespread workplace sexism typical of the times; and Mae find a mentor (and boyfriend) in the handsome head screenwriter George Barrett.
“That son of a gun,” Mae hissed as she flew off the bus and onto Juniper Ave., drawing a raised eyebrow from the prim woman sitting closest to the door.
Mae charged down the sidewalk at an angry clip, each click of her stacked heel on the sidewalk keeping time with the tiny, angry vein pulsing just below the skin of her temple she recalled George’s cruel sneer, amused by how easily she’d fallen for him, trusted him.
“A dull no-talent skirt from small-town nowhere,” her mentor—her lover—her married lover!—had smirked.
She roughly wiped a tear from her cheek, then, remembering herself, slowed to a stop around the corner from the Millers’ to retrieve from her bag a handkerchief, embroidered with an “L” and an “M.” Her mother’s.
Taking a deep breath and chiding herself for such a public display of emotion, Mae neatly folded the hankie and returned it to her purse. She shook her head as if to wipe George and his family and the studio clean out of her mind.
She mustered a neutral expression as she reached out to open the white gate at the front of the house. As she reached behind her to click the lock shut, she noticed Irene sitting quite still on the front porch, a feat in that oversized rocking chair.
“Gee, am I glad to see you,” Mae called out. “You’ll never in a million guess the day I’ve had.”
The anger, shock, and hurt began to bubble up again. “George—yes, George! George, well, I nearly don’t have the words to begin. He asked me to have lunch with him, but not at the commissary, which I didn’t think was strange at the time, but now—”
“Mae,” Irene interrupted.
Mae looked up and looked more closely at her cousin and was surprised to see her solemn and serious, eyes rimmed in red.
“Why, Irene . . .”
“Mae.” Irene, couldn’t find any more words to say, a chatterbox momentarily closed up tight.
She slowly stretched her arm toward Mae to hand her a small piece of paper, sitting on top of a coarsely torn envelope.
Mae scanned the telegram. The address block, Wisconsin. News from home. Irene’s father?
Then, her eyes flicked back to the top and she began to take in each word, each precisely typed serif letter becoming permanently stamped in her mind and on her heart.
Mother has died. Heart attack. Please return home at earliest. Funeral Thurs.
Mother? Mother, who’d written just days ago of finishing her rock garden in the front yard and shoring up the chicken coop for winter?
This was impossible.
She looked up, over the telegram, eyes locking with Irene’s. At the sorrowful sight of her cousin—her sister, really—staring back at her, unblinking, Mae’s knees buckled and she sank to the porch floor, subconsciously tucking her legs under her, still a lady even in her deepest moment of grief.
Irene rushed to Mae, lowering herself to the floor. Mae’s stomach turned, her awareness foggy and unable to grasp the reality transmitted over two-thousand miles of telegraph wire. As they sat, she watched the paperboy pedal by. Watched Mrs. Jones across the street tend her orange-red fuchsia. Watched an ant—a single, solitary, lonely ant—crawl along the inner wall of the porch, dodging a minute paint chip. Watched as the world went on, not sure how the world could go on, feeling apart from everything: Irene’s perfume, the soft evening breeze, and the heavy rumble of the city bus.
* * *
Mae blinked. Startled, she realized she was sitting at the kitchen table, hands neatly folded on the lap of her rayon dress, a cup of tea in front of her. She reached for the tea, anxious for its warmth, disappointed to find it has grown tepid. She sipped it anyhow.
Irene turned from the sink, narrowing her eyes with curiosity. “You okay?” she softly asked.
Mae breathed as deeply as she could, difficult what with the heavy iron weighing heavy on her chest, and nodded.
“Are you going home?” Irene continued.
Turning toward the calendar hanging on the cabinet to her left, Mae began to consider her travel plans. “If the funeral . . .” she paused, then cleared her throat. “If mother’s funeral is Thursday, I’ll have to leave on the first train tomorrow. That should get me to Spring Green by Wednesday night. Perhaps in the meantime you could write Lloyd for me, let him know when I’m arriving. Of course—“
“Mae,” Irene interjected. “I meant . . . I meant, are you leaving California? For good?”
So many moments from the past seven months—good and bad, happy and funny and terrifying—rushed over Mae all at once.
A wave of sunshine the smell of salt the first time she visited the ocean, shopping with Irene and paying for an honest-to-goodness store-bought dress with her own cash. Bumping straight into George at the commissary. Sneaking into the archives, their first kiss behind a rack of period costumes while hiding from the security guard. But also Irene’s mugging. The sound of Mr. Turner’s roaring laughter. The violent studio worker’s strike. George’s secrets and lies.
Mae brushed her fingers across her breastbone, grazing her mother’s necklace, and knew without a doubt.
“I’m going home.”