Today, I am reveling, writing in Edith Wharton’s house, The Mount. It’s quiet. The facilities manager let me in as he knew there would be “A WRITER IN THE HOUSE,” as noted on his calendar. The staff members are working from home.
I love being here alone. I’ve been asked if I get scared or nervous, but I don’t. I am sitting at a small table in front of a window in the room on the third floor that was Henry James’ bedroom. I can see the snow-covered gardens, fountains, the lawn, and the frozen pond. The evergreens are deep emerald, lined up and perfectly shaped as if in formation on either side of the promenade below. The sky is brilliant with a few wispy clouds. The bright sun makes reading my computer screen challenging. It’s okay, I am happy to just sit and ponder the serendipity.
I knew I wanted to write from an early age but lacked the courage to pursue my dream. I was a born reader but that didn’t mean I could write. It’s not that easy. Shortly before I retired at age sixty, I signed up for a women’s writing workshop, a single afternoon class where I met a woman who provided what I needed—encouragement.
The class began with introductions and brief bios. I was the only one in the class without a pedigree. When it came to be my turn, I confessed I didn’t go to college and it was my first writing class. As intimidated as I was, I stayed in the chair.
The common advice is to “write what you know,” so when the writing prompt was given “I remember when…,” I put pen to paper and wrote about when my adult son was happy, before he relapsed into a devastating alcoholic abyss. A short piece written in fifteen minutes. We shared our writing with the group and when I read, I cried through the whole thing. It wasn’t just the story. It was the release of longing I had squelched for so long, constantly doubting myself and my abilities.
At the end of the class, Margot Welch, a fellow attendee, an educated and professionally accomplished woman, approached me. She told me to keep writing. I had a story to tell. I cried again. We exchanged contact information and met for lunch a week later. Serendipity.
Margot leased a small studio in Egremont, her getaway for solitude and writing. To me, a virtual stranger, she offered her loft she dubbed “The Treehouse,” to use whenever she wasn’t there. I retired shortly after our meeting and accepted. For the next year I went to The Treehouse as often as I could and wrote whatever came to mind. It was liberating. Not a single completed essay but a whole lot of practice.
When her lease ended, I had gained a forever friend and was ready for the next chapter. It was time to write about my journey as the mother of a brilliant alcoholic. I set a goal of five essays and created a list of potential titles, then rented a furnished condo for six months to write three days a week. I worked on the first story for all those months, never sure if it was any good or if anyone would care. It was a vulnerable place to be.
About that time I was introduced, by a good friend Magda Gabor-Hotchkiss, to the Director of The Mount, Susan Wissler. Susan and I hit it off. As she knew of my fledgling writing career, she invited me to attend a dinner at The Mount with their Writers-In-Residence. I was seated next to the current Editor In Chief of Refinery29, Christene Barberich. Christene and I found scads of things to discuss. I spoke of my story as a mother, and she shared her struggles to become one. She was using her residency as a time to work on a personal essay about infertility. She allowed that if I wrote my story about being the mother of a brilliant alcoholic son, and she liked it, she would publish it. I did. She did. Again, Serendipity.
When I submitted my story to Christene, she assigned me to an editor. At the time, I didn’t realize the magnitude of her generosity. I had been writing business correspondence for years and had no idea prose was dramatically different. I was not familiar with the term “creative nonfiction.” It was a revelation that I could write in the first person and tell the intimate details of a story in my own words as I experienced them. The editor assigned to work with me, Laura Norkin, drew out descriptive details from me, as well as had me research facts to include in the story. I think there were at least six versions before we were ready for publication. We both celebrated my success. The story came out in October of 2017. I was a published author!
My writing journey has been propelled by women who believed in me when my confidence faltered and I got scared. I signed up for a ten-week writing workshop with Patricia Lee Lewis in Westhampton and joined the Straw Dog Writers Guild. All the while my son continued to struggle, I continued to write my story as his mother.
In addition to writing, I began to read differently. Not critically, but with curiosity. Descriptions, vocabulary, points of view, beginning sentences, and conclusions all took on a new meaning. I was being educated and entertained at the same time. Serendipity, maybe. I started to read poetry and joined a poetry class at the local senior center.
My class with Patricia provided inspiration and a community of writers. As much as the act of writing is primarily a solo activity, being in the company of like-minded others is motivational. I listened to their work and they responded to mine, as per the method pioneered by Pat Schneider, author of Writing Alone and With Others. Her approach is based on positive feedback about the writing—not the writer.
From prompts offered by the group leader, I wrote multiple pieces using this technique. One story, “Black Leather Boots,” was based on the prompt, “Things in Your Closet.” It was a humorous short story published by the WriteAngles Journal, an online outlet for the WriteAngles Writing Conference held annually pre-Covid at Mount Holyoke College.
My time spent with writing workshops was positive and a way to meet other writers who influenced my writing. I had learned the value of a good editor from my Refinery29 experience, so I started to inquire about editing resources. Patricia Lee Lewis suggested I reach out to Diana Gordon.
We met for tea to discuss the possibility of working together. It only took the time it takes to drink a cup of tea to realize I needed her skills. And it felt like she “got me.” We agreed she would review my next essay and we would see how it went. Serendipity.
Diana encouraged me to pay attention to my senses, to leave out what wasn’t needed, to tell my story without clichés or generic descriptions. The content was there, but the form needed work. I grew as a writer under her tutelage. Diana asked me to read my work out loud—not easy, as I always want to edit or rewrite as I read. I learned to print a story and sit on my hands while reading it. My writing improved exponentially. I share my success with her, not only as an outstanding editor, but a gifted writer, and now a treasured friend.
As a part of my process, I researched literary journals for submission. I read mission statements and previously published work to help identify where it would make sense to submit. I found The Write Launch and submitted my second essay, “A Matter of Touch,” which was accepted and published in December 2018. Sandra Fluck, the founder and editor, discovered something in my writing and my story that resonated with her. She believed it was a good fit for her readership. Sandy continued to support my work and subsequently published three additional essays and two poems. Serendipity? I think so! It was a gift to meet yet another woman and forge a friendship in an industry full of writers, readers, editors, and journals. I am blessed.
Every essay Diana edited has been accepted (six all told), along with a few poems. As well as Refinery29, The WriteAngles Journal, and The Write Launch, my writing has also been published by Brevity and Entropy. The last essay about my journey with my son was published by Chaleur Magazine in 2019.
The pandemic has altered my writing life significantly, but once again, I’ve been gifted with a unique writing place. Susan Wissler offered The Mount, as the building is shuttered. Only a handful of staff members are working in the house. I’ve jumped at the opportunity! The librarian has set up a folding table in the “Sewing Room,” also known as “The Red-Light District” due to the red lamp in there. She put a dozen books on the table for me to peruse. I hadn’t read much of Wharton’s work beyond Ethan Frome, but here is the author I want to learn about. I’m starting with her autobiography, “A Backward Glance,” and I’m hooked.
I walk the halls and visit all the rooms searching for inspiration. The house is said to be haunted, but the ghosts are not identified. Wharton believed in the paranormal, so my curiosity is piqued. For me, my writing life is all about a matter of serendipity. It is time to change direction and try a new genre—fiction. Who is haunting the house now?
Read selected works of poetry and creative nonfiction by M. Betsy Smith at The Write Launch.