Was It Meant to Be?

There are perfect moments in life when all the confusion falls away and things become clear. You see how everything fits together; every loss, every disappointment—they all led to the happiness you feel right now. With its infinite complexity, the universe can’t help but hold all you’ll ever need. The trick is knowing how to find it.   –“Lost and Found”

With my parents in 1988. I surgically excised my toxic boyfriend from the photo after we broke up.

This is an excerpt from a chapter of my memoir that tells the story of a wonderful thing thing that happened as a result of a painful loss. It’s a fancy way of saying, “It was meant to be,” or “Everything happens for a reason,” neither of which I necessarily believe.

I spent most of my 20s being furious at my parents for fucking up my life. They were good people and I know they did their best, but their best was sorely lacking. They lived in a perpetual state of learned helplessness that informed all their decisions. The opportunities they missed to get help for themselves and for us had long-term consequences that affect me to this day.

I used to drive myself crazy imagining what my life would have been like if my dad hadn’t drank, or been stuck supporting his sick parents, or my mother was well enough to teach. But worse than the typical things I missed, like ballet and music lessons, were the pivotal things that impacted my growth and success as a young adult.

I had a lot of emotional problems when I entered high school. One of the administrators suggested that I get counseling from an agency that, as it turned out, I unwittingly ended up at seven years later anyway. The other recommendation came from my uncle, who said my parents should have me apply to small, private colleges instead of large state schools. He said the small schools would want me and would offer financial aid. I only know this because my mother told me years later — like, when I was in my 40s and clearly too old to do anything about it.

Because I had a slow start my freshman year of high school, it didn’t matter how many “As” I earned the next three years. My cumulative gpa was permanently fucked. That meant no scholarships, which was a disaster for a kid with no money who also had parents with no money. My two years of earnings from McDonalds evaporated halfway through my second semester at Bowling Green. I cobbled together the remainder of my tuition with work-study and a Perkins loan, which I got to spend the next two years paying back after I dropped out of school.

Being out of school meant I had to get a job, so I spent a year temping at various offices in downtown Cleveland. For a sheltered, sensitive kid who had never planned on anything but an academic life, it was brutal. I spent those days feeling alone, confused, and terrified that everyone would learn how stupid I was and fire me. For all my book smarts, I knew nothing about the real world. Temping in a city was a crash course in survival.

Eventually I got a full time job as a secretary — a profession I’d spent four years in college prep to avoid. I bought a car and moved out. I was broke and unhappy and deeply ashamed of what a failure I’d become, but I made the best of it. I took every computer class the bank offered. I became a Wang database administrator. Then I learned about relational databases and took classes in Paradox. Later, I took a minimum wage job at an internet provider and learned HTML. Those skills got me contract work and better paying temp jobs when I returned to college full time.

Unfortunately, the stress of adapting to student life after so many years of being a professional triggered severe depressive episodes. I was barely able to function. I spent three years failing and dropping out of classes before I finally graduated with a cumulative gpa of 2.76. It was humiliating for a former Honor student, but after eleven years of aborted attempts to get my bachelor’s degree, I was thankful just to have the damn thing.

The gpa was an issue when I applied to a master’s program at the same school but they admitted me on a probationary basis. I got a lot of help from professors who knew me from undergrad, especially when I told them about the depression and explained that I was now under a doctor’s care and on medication. Upon learning that I knew web design, the department chair offered me an assistantship as the department webmaster. I kept my own hours and worked offsite. Ultimately, my boss didn’t care how much or how little I worked as long as the work got done. This enabled me to get my graduate degree while also holding several part-time jobs, and it paid the mortgage on my house.

I graduated just shy of a 4.0 (stupid B in 20th century Irish Novel and Film!) and I defended my thesis at the same time I finished my course work. My advisors and the department chair told me that was almost unheard of, but I didn’t really have a choice. I couldn’t afford to pay tuition on my own, so I had to get everything done by the end of the assistantship.

With my master’s degree I was able to teach English classes. With my writing skills and computer background, I was able to create technical manuals and user guides. With my knowledge of internet applications, I understood how to create and leverage online content.

All of these skills are requirements for the work I do now, which is Instructional Design.

This profession did not exist when I graduated from high school in 1983. And it did not mature into a web-based discipline until the 00s. Colleges eventually caught up and began offering master’s programs in instructional technology; I just got there the long way.

It’s a high-paying field, especially in manufacturing, where instructional designer jobs are hard to fill. My employer had to go out of state for our last hire. So no matter what happens in my current job, I will always be able to find work, and I will always make a livable wage. It’s a very good place to be at this time in my life, but I wouldn’t be here without all the obstacles that forced me down this path.

I don’t know if that means this was meant to be. I only know that I ended up in a job that is perfectly suited to my temperament and skills. But more than that, my twisted career path exposed me to different industries and enabled me to work closely with all kinds of people: corporate VPs, blue collar workers, creative staff, tech guys, academics, and students of all economic levels. Those experiences have given me insights into people that I might not otherwise have met.

For a writer, that information is invaluable. A fiction writer needs to understand other points of view, and it’s a lot easier to do that from experience than imagination! In a very real sense, the losses and disappointments I had made it possible for me to achieve my dream of writing a novel.

All I need to do is finish the damn thing. 😛

Sister Patty Ann, I Hardly Knew You

“Like most teenagers, I was the center of my world and thus believed that I was the center of everyone else’s, too. I was convinced that Sister Patty Ann hated me.”

When I wrote my memoir in 2004, one third of the book was devoted to my student days at Lumen Cordium High School. It was a beautiful place and it transformed me from a disconnected and indifferent student to an active and engaged young women with a passion for learning. There was only one blot on the otherwise perfect four years that I spent there.

Her name was Sister Patty Ann.

She taught Biology and was the subject of many tearful entries in my Sophomore year journal. Like all nuns, she looked ancient but was probably not much older than I am now. She was irritable and impatient and did things that, to a sixteen-year-old girl, seemed petty and vindictive, like making us outline entire chapters from our biology textbook, and then taking points off for a missing period behind an enumerator. She was the only person who ever called me Terry — a nickname I despised — and I was too afraid of being yelled at to correct her.

Like most teenagers, I was the center of my world and thus believed that I was the center of everyone else’s, too. I was convinced that Sister Patty Ann hated me. I dreaded Biology class and spent every moment in that room filled with anxiety that Sister Patty Ann would call on me and then yell at me for being wrong.

It all came to a head in the Spring of 1981, when I had to meet with her during a free period to make up a lab I’d missed when I was out sick. I had to prepare a slide to look at something under the microscope. Sister Patty Ann spent the whole time hovering over my shoulder, micromanaging my every move, and loudly sucking her breath through her teeth any time I touched the slide.

It was too much for a sixteen-year-old girl to bear.

I turned around and shrieked, “Would you just back off already??? You’re making me so nervous, I can’t concentrate!”

Sister Patty Ann was startled. “I’m not doing anything,” she said in a surprisingly reasonable voice.

“Yes, you are! And I’m sick of it!”

Now Sister Patty Ann looked bewildered. “What are you talking about, Terry?”

“I try SO HARD but NOTHING I do is ever good enough for you!” I started bawling my head off. “AND STOP CALLING ME TERRY!”

Sister Patty Ann waited quietly for a moment. “I’m sorry, Terry,” she said. “I didn’t realize you were such a sensitive girl.” Then she told me to go splash water on my face so we could finish the lab.

After that she was nice to me. One day she was waiting outside the classroom. As I entered, she threw out her arms and gave me a bear hug. My teenage brain nearly exploded as I realized that The Dragon Lady actually had a heart.

As the school year was ending, Sister Patty Ann told us a story about the early days when my high school was founded. All the nuns at the convent got to choose which subjects they would teach. Sister Patty Ann loved history and wanted to teach it, but a nun with more seniority got it instead. No one wanted to teach biology, so that job fell to the nun with the least seniority, one Sister Patricia Ann.

I left class that day feeling incredibly sad for her. She’d wasted twenty years of her life doing something she hated. I felt sad that I hadn’t known about it sooner, because maybe I’d have tried to be more understanding.

If nothing else, maybe I would have hugged her back.

The Stories We Tell

“I have a repertoire of stories involving me trying to run over ex-boyfriends with my car.”

When I entered graduate school in 2002, I knew that I wanted to write a memoir. Even though by age 40 I hadn’t accomplished much of anything, lots of crazy stuff had happened to me. I had a repertoire of stories that I fell back on to entertain new acquaintances, most of them involving drinking. There was a special category of stories involving me trying to run over ex-boyfriends and overly persistent suitors with my car. (They lived.)

The stories from my younger days are crazy and funny but probably should be viewed as cautionary tales of what not to do. The older I get, the more alarmed I am by how reckless I was. And yet, even at my most self-destructive, none of the problems I created for myself held a candle to what was in store for me when I finally became a responsible adult:

  • mental illness
  • job loss
  • foreclosure
  • bankruptcy
  • divorce
  • cancer

I tell those stories too, but much less often and with very little relish. They’re not much fun to tell and typically, the person I’m telling them to has just experienced something awful.

These days, I don’t really have any funny stories from my personal life. I’m old and tired and boring, so I’ve had to turn to fiction to entertain people. But that’s okay. In the end, everyone still loves a good story, whether it’s true or not.

How Would You Tell the Story of Your Life?

“Even if my memoir is never read by anyone, I’m still glad I wrote it. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself.”

My memoir is sitting in the proverbial “drawer,” although in these modern times the drawer is a flash drive. My thesis adviser, who oversaw the entire MS, urged me to get it published, so I spent two years after I finished it trying to find an agent. I disliked the process intensely. It felt too much like job hunting, which I’d been doing without success for three years by then.

There he is: the one and only “Brown Jesus” my mom beat the crap out of.

But even if the chapters of the memoir are never read by anyone, I’m still glad I wrote it. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. For one thing, it was cathartic. At the time I wrote it, I’d spent 10 years in therapy trying to undo the damage from the first eighteen years of my life. We barely scratched the surface.

The memoir forced me to confront memories of traumatic experiences that I’d never fully processed. I was fortunate that my mother and two of my siblings were willing to talk about the things that happened. Getting their version of the stories helped to jog my memory and it helped me to portray the people and events more empathetically. Some of it was painful, certainly. The chapter that made me cry as I wrote it was from the absolute lowest point of my childhood. I wrote it last. That was a strategy I learned from Alice Seibold, who said that she waited until the rest of her memoir was completed before writing the chapter about her brutal rape.

How many of us have happy, smiling photos from the most painful times of our childhood?

The second thing I got from writing the memoir was the understanding that some of the things that I believed when I was young were wrong. I’d misinterpreted or simply ignored the signals that were so obvious to me as an adult. For instance, at the time it happened, I never wondered what my father was doing when I caught him hiding liquor bottles in the basement ceiling. Children want to make sense of the world and will invent reasons for the unexplained. I also saw times in my teen years in which people reached out to me and wanted to be friends but I was too self-absorbed to notice.

By the time I finished the book, I had faced down my demons and gained a better understanding of the world I lived in as a child. It diminished memories that were painful simply because I had remembered or interpreted things wrongly. In the end, the process of writing the memoir gave me a sense of peace and perspective for the first time in my life.

I highly recommend it.

EXERCISE: Good or bad, what is your most vivid memory from your childhood or teen years? Write about it in first person as if you were there. When you look over your story, what does it tell you about yourself? Share your thoughts and excerpts in the comments.

Would You Let Someone Else Write About You?

“In the end, I decided that I could only be as hard on other people as I was on myself.”

When I was writing my memoir, I approached almost every person who was a main character in the book to let them know what I was doing. I asked if there was anything that was off limits. After all, they didn’t ask to be in the book.

Me  at age 19.

Without exception, each of them said, “Write whatever you want.” Even my ex-boyfriends were cool about it. (I didn’t contact all of them, of course. The guy who stalked me until I put him in jail probably wouldn’t have liked what I wrote about him.) I sent the former boyfriends copies of what I’d written and they were incredibly gracious. The only person who objected was one of the wives, who took it upon herself to read the manuscript and email me an unsolicited review: “I think the book is very bizarre!” There also was some stuff about her son being in a very exclusive private school and how she didn’t want my book ruining his precious little life. I wasn’t sure what to write back, or even if I should write back. I compromised by forwarding her email to all of my friends, with the subject line, “What a BITCH!!!”

Finally, I told my mother and father they were in the book. I warned them there were several chapters about the sickness and drinking. (My parents were long in recovery by then.) My mother said, “We were such bad parents, we probably deserve everything you wrote about us.” My father was thrilled about the book and ended up being my biggest fan.

I  was not necessarily unkind to to my parents in the memoir; rather, I was honest. It seemed wrong to sugar coat things. What happened happened and lying about it changed nothing. Still, I didn’t want the story to be one-sided.

In the end, I decided that I could only be as hard on other people as I was on myself. So I looked for opportunities to highlight my flaws. And the weird thing was, I loved doing that. Enough time had passed that I could look at my earlier life dispassionately and see how unbelievably fucked up I was. Given everything that had happened to me growing up, that wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was that considering how well they knew me, my friends and family still trusted me to tell their stories as I saw fit.

EXERCISE: How do you think your friends and family would react if you told them you were writing about them? Would they freak out or would they be flattered? Would they want to collaborate with you on some of the stories? Share your thoughts in the comments.

It’s All about Me

“Some of the things I wrote in my high school diary were so ridiculous, I howled with laughter as I read them. Young idiot me was funny.”

I loved writing my memoir. It gave me an excuse to haul out fourteen years of personal journals. I wrote faithfully every day — sometimes multiple times a day. I was a lonely and troubled soul and the journals were a great comfort to me. They always listened and they were always there for me to read when I needed company — even if the “company” was simply myself.

I was a natural for writing memoir because I was (and still am) my favorite topic. In graduate school, I struggled to discover my “voice” as a writer, when there it was all along in those journals. The young selves of many of my friends were captured in those pages as well.

I loved all of them so much. They were the center of my world and a significant part of my journaling was simply to preserve moments in time with them. Reading my journals from 1979 to 1992 was like having a reunion with those people. When I finished the journals, I sat on the steps and cried because the people on those pages were every bit as wonderful as I remembered them.

The other joy of writing the memoir was turning myself into a character. I loved poking fun at my naive, histrionic teenage self. What a pain in the ass I was! As I was writing the book, I asked my friends and former classmates if they could remember any annoying stuff I did back then. They all said they didn’t remember anything bad. I think they were just being tactful.

Some of the things I wrote were so ridiculous, I howled with laughter as I read them. Young idiot me was funny! The more I made fun of myself, the more enjoyable the writing became.

I’ll leave you with this gem. It’s based on a God-awful poem I wrote after breaking up with my first boyfriend.

Years from now, students will read this poem in their literature books, I tell myself. I imagine my bio in the margin, telling how modern literature’s most sensitive, insightful, heartbreaking poem was inspired by my high school boyfriend dumping me. The bio would give his full name, so readers would know who to blame (and possibly send hate mail to). Beneath the bio would be a picture of me, really old, like in my thirties, but I’d still be totally beautiful. In the end, I’d have realized that breaking up was the best thing that could have happened to me. How else could I have written a world-famous poem that made me the envy of writers everywhere?

I’m not a world-famous writer — yet. It could still happen. But I promise you, that poem will never see the light of day.

Who Am I?

“As a writer, sometimes you have to know who you are not before you can decide who you are.”

When I was in graduate school, my program was creative non-fiction with a focus on memoir. I read lots of memoirs because I wanted to write my own. Of all the memoirs I read, my favorite was The Boys of My Youth by Joann Beard. I loved how everything in her world was alive, from the gravel on the road to the house she grew up in. The descriptions were rich and layered and the tone ranged from wistful to irreverent. When I finished the memoir, I had found my role model. More than anything, I wanted to write like Joann Beard.

As a writer, I felt most comfortable with exposition, but like anyone who has taken creative writing courses, I knew that exposition was BAD. It was boring and lazy, a crutch for hacks and wannabes.  In Joann Beard’s memoir, everything was written as a scene with little to no exposition. The reader was placed immediately into the story, sensing and feeling everything along with the author.

I had already put together a list of stories to include in my memoir. With my Joann Beard-empowered voice, I set out to write the story of my first date. I’d written about the event in detail in my high school diary. I just had to convert my description to a scene.

I don’t remember how long it took me to write it — much longer than it should have. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. When I was finished, the piece was heavy on clever rhetoric, but in no way captured the magic of that day, nor did it represent the voice of a fifteen year old girl. I had face the fact that no matter how hard I tried, I could never be Joann Beard.

It was disappointing but in the end, it was liberating. I went back to my high school diaries and studied them. I’d written the diaries the way I thought and spoke. The voice in the diaries was my voice as a writer. And even though there was a lot of exposition, it was thoughtful and funny and sarcastic.

It was a major turning point in my growth as a writer. I learned that sometimes you have to know who you are not before you can decide who you are. From that day forward I have have written with full commitment to my own process. In the end, it doesn’t matter what your style is as long as your reader is engaged.

EXERCISE: If you had to describe your authentic self, the one you keep tucked away for fear of judgment, who would you say that person it?  What are his or her secret thoughts? What drives those thoughts? Now write something as that person. Hold nothing back. When you read what you wrote, what have you learned about yourself? Share your revelations below, or share a bit of what you wrote.