A couple of Octobers ago, before the Great Closing, my Sibs sent me to a writers’ conference in Edmonds, Washington for a big Decade-Birthday present. I was so excited to go, as I’d heard so much about Write On the Sound. The setting was beautiful—Puget Sound stretching blue before us as we sat high on a hill in the renovated school turned community center. It took me back to the classrooms and hallways of my childhood in Libby, Montana—but with the addition of large patios between buildings, and manicured grounds created to take in the view. Information and refreshments were plentiful.
Since my younger sister Sarah went with me as both host and driver for Miss Daisy, we had signed up ahead of time for most of the same sessions. And since she lives across the country from me in Savannah, Georgia, being together was going to be a big part of the fun. She had brought us new notebooks, just the right size for our laps, with bronze spiral binding allowing for easy page turning, a must for us wordy writers who fill pages quickly.
A two-day conference, it was boots, jeans, and jewelry the first day. We headed out with our new notebooks and Yetis full of our hostess’ perfect lattes. The weather was gorgeous. No clouds or drizzly rain, as the Seattle area is known for, just sunshine and white clouds moving across the blue sky. The morning slipped by after a particularly good session on “Writing Middle-Grade and Young Adult Fiction,” the speaker clearly delineating the differences between the two readers and therefore the writing. We were soon making our way down the steep hill with 250 other participants to the little downtown area for lunch. We noticed that we had forgotten our sunglasses . . . and walking shoes. You can see that we had it figured out by day two.
Have you ever sat in a writers’ conference thinking, “I should be teaching this class…”? Not because the person presenting was not capable or engaging or doing a great job, but because you already know all of this, have taught this. But the problem isn’t knowing what to do or how to do it, it’s doing it, sitting down day after day and finishing the writing you have begun. Don’t get me wrong, there is always something to learn from other writers and very early on that first day, even before lunch, we decided to really participate. You know, answer a question, share an experience when asked, affirm what is being said, encourage the speaker. I say “we” because my sister led the way. Can you tell I’m an old teacher? How do you get something out of an experience? Enter wholeheartedly, participate.
At lunch we lifted our heads from our private chatting and met eyes across the table, made new friends, asked about their writing and really listened. We hiked up and down the hills, crowded in an old theater to hear the main conference speaker . . . swallowing the last bites of our sandwich at the door, and later stood smiling and chatting in bathroom lines between sessions at the end of the school hallway. We put our names on mailing lists and talked about our own works in progress, instead of holding them to our chests. And sat down in a session the second day that didn’t last long enough . . . and was worth the entire conference: “Writing Fiction—Plotting.” It was not just words but a blueprint. Life-changing.
When I looked back a few weeks later for what to share in my Thank You to my Sibs for this fun weekend, one of Anne Lamott’s stories from Grace Eventually came to my mind—the story in which she describes the time she and her friend Neshama (a retired professional dancer) were asked to help out at another friend’s dance class for developmentally disabled adults.
So there I was in dance class. There were eighteen adults, of various ages and degrees of disability, in the room at the rec center. . . Karen introduced Neshama and me as that evening's helpers, and everyone murmured and hummed and exclaimed. "The helpers!" They came to shake our hands or to stare at us close-up, with awe. You'd have thought Paula Abdul had arrived. Some of them told us their names, and several asked if we were going to dance. "Yes," Neshama responded, although I had assumed I might help in a more ministerial way . . . After the solos, ensembles of four or five did the electric slide together. I joined in one group. I was great; everyone said so. And then it was time to go. People shook our hands and thanked us. The gymnast gave me a hug with her head pressed into my waist. Neshama and I left feeling elated and surprisingly tired. It had been only an hour, but it was an immersion. It went deeper than I had thought. When Karen and I were hiking a few days later, she told me that after class, one of the dancers had exclaimed, ‘I liked those old ladies! They were helpers, and they danced.’ These are the words I want on my gravestone: that I was a helper, and that I danced.
I thanked my Sibs for the refreshment of that weekend, being able to experience the beauty of the sound and fellowship with my sister. For a weekend where fellow writers reminded me with their words and lives and experiences beyond mine, that I still had plenty to learn, that we need each other, and to sit down and do what I know how to do. Isn’t it odd that we find it easier to be jaded, aloof, impatient to get to the point—than to simply enter in fully and let the experience be what it will be. That has become my new prayer. So much we can learn from those who live unselfconsciously. And yes, I told my Sibs, “Sarah and I were helpers, and we danced.