A Week Changed My Life

This article originally appeared in The Curator, September 10, 2010.

“I’m alive and I’m livin’
in a place where the world’s crust has shifted,
and the stars in the Milky Way,
they’re giving a party for New Mexico.
Yes, I’ve come to the desert just to find my way to forever,
and you are so welcome here, if you’re ever in New Mexico.”
—songwriters Mitch McVicker and Rich Mullins

A good friend bugged me for at least four years to make a pilgrimage to St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the IMAGE journal’s Glen Workshop. Having read IMAGE for a decade or so, I always wanted to go to this Mecca for artists, but it was either a timidity or monetary issue. The emotional and dollar sign-stars aligned this year, though, so I took the plunge right before I scheduled one of two surgeries. I signed up for Lauren Winner’s Spiritual Writing class for a few reasons. One, Lauren is a favorite author of mine, especially her book, Girl Meets God, which was an early clue to the mystery that not only did I, look-at-the-floor shy, want to be a writer, but I also wanted to write creative memoirs with an honest, spiritual current. Two, when I mailed off my registration information, I didn’t know many writers in Houston — two at the most. Seeing as I felt brave this year, I craved sitting in a room with a great author, fellow writers, and yes, even the possibly harrowing workshop experience.

I trudged through a three-year health saga, survived two surgeries to remedy severe endometriosis, and then a stained glass window of St. Catherine of Alexandria caught my eye at church, so as best I could, I weaved Catherine’s story and mine into eighteen pages, gulped, and e-mailed them in on the deadline day by the skin of my teeth. Only two weeks prior did all the anesthesia and pain meds cooperate with my brain enough to write something. It was my first workshop, and my first time to write a long-format essay, so I knew I’d receive some constructive criticism, but I looked forward to it. I wake up every day wanting to be a better writer.

On August 1st, my husband took me to the airport and helped me check in. I hadn’t hopped on an airplane alone in what, seven years? I believe the last time was to see a friend in Nashville. As we snaked around the long, long line to check in my bag, I felt a pang of fear. I was so accustomed to an environment and routine of illness in our beautiful home. But as of that Sunday, the second successful surgery was 9-10 weeks behind me. I took a deep breath, kissed my husband goodbye, and reluctantly took off my TOMS to walk across what I’m sure was a germ-infested floor of the hellish airport security protocol. I found my gate in plenty of time, squirmed my way into a middle seat between two nice people on a Southwest airplane, and buckled my seat belt. New Mexico or bust!

Photo: Jenni Simmons

When we landed in Albuquerque, I wandered around the airport, passing kiosks draped with New Mexican kitsch, waiting on my aforementioned friend. I ordered an overpriced snack and a paper cup of green tea, sat down to rest, and people-watched. Then I received a text, “I’m here!” and met my friend in baggage claim. As we stepped outside to secure our rental car, the weather made me swoon. It was in the 80s, but a cool, dry heat — even a breeze. I wasn’t in Houston anymore. And I saw mountains. I believe quite strongly that I’m supposed to live near mountains, but the only such things in my home state of Texas are the Davis and Franklin mountains out west, so I suppose my mountainous conviction is one of those divine mysteries; Houston has skyscrapers, not large, natural elevations of the land’s surface.

Photo: Jenni Simmons

We drove an hour through clusters of adobe buildings to the college in Santa Fe. As we caught up on our lives over the past five years, I was paying attention to my friend, but also staring slightly slack-jawed at the Sangre de Cristo mountains as we pulled up to campus, fragrant with piñon, sage, juniper, and lavender — some of my favorite smells in the world. Those mountains were painted with hues of brown, gray, pink, orange; others in rich, brick red. The land offered a bleak, stark beauty; it cleansed the palette of my busy mind. Hummingbirds flitted about, and the New Mexico sky and clouds took my breath away. Have you ever noticed how skies are different in every state? My native Texas boasts amazing sky-vistas, but I now tip my hat to New Mexico as well. My friend and I checked in and found our separate dorm rooms. I unpacked, peeked out my window, and marveled, Am I really, finally here?

It was a whirlwind of a week of creativity and fatigue. Within hours, I felt like I was around “my people” — not just writers, but artists: people who strived to always improve their craft, and spied inspiration in odd locations. I met both new and old online friends, such as The Curator’s Alissa Wilkinson, who somehow survived rooming with me for a week, even when I had “happy insomnia.” That’s when I couldn’t sleep because I was processing all of the fascinating speakers: B.H. Fairchild, Rodney Clapp, Barry Moser, Lauren Winner, Jeffrey Overstreet, Joel Sheesley, and Mary McCleary. There were a few other presentations I missed when my still-healing body insisted I trek up what seemed liked a million steps back to my dorm room to rest. That climb left me literally panting; I never did acclimate to the altitude.

The irony for all of us with little magic boxes called iPhones was that our cell reception sucked on campus. My husband packed a nifty contraption in my bag to legally rig my dorm room to be wireless, so after I caught my breath each night, we’d video, audio, or type-chat on my MacBook — whichever happened to work.

Photo: Barbara LaneEvery morning, I’d step out of my dorm building to a cool breeze, a soft morning sky, and native flowers such as the shy Jimson Weed, which Georgia O’Keefe often painted. It unfolds in the early morning and folds back inward mid-morning. The walk downhill to the dining hall was much easier, and I made a beeline for the cafeteria coffee. I was warned beforehand that I’d drink a lot of coffee, a truthful prediction. I even carried a to-go cup to my 8:45 am writing class in Santa Fe Hall. I’m not a morning person.

I didn’t know what to expect from that class. I’d never had the opportunity to learn to write from a favorite author. First of all, Lauren Winner’s vintage glasses were awesome (in the vein of Flannery O’Connor). She was intense about teaching, very challenging, sarcastic, funny, kind, and empathetic without having to say a word to display it. I can count on five fingers the great teachers I’ve had in my life, and Lauren is surely one. She began each class with a prayer (it was a spiritual writing class, after all), or some breathtaking poem, such as one by Mary Oliver. She’d also begin every morning with a writing exercise, but not just any writing exercise. My “favorite” was to write something, anything with only one-syllable words. It is harder than you think, but definitely exercised the writing muscles in my brain. I then realized I sorely lack writing discipline. A singer sings scales, right? Then a writer should write or type the equivalent every day. I’m determined to do just that.

Our teacher, Lauren Winner. | Photo: The Glen Workshop

We even introduced ourselves with one of our writing exercises, “Why I Write.” Here is mine, which I quickly scribbled on the pages of my Moleskine:

I feel called to, a calling I could never ignore. I write to witness — capture and share what I see, believe, feel, love, hate. I write because it is my voice, much more than my spoken voice. I write because it is the way I think, much better than I will ever verbalize. I write because I love words, sentences, paragraphs, and so on. I love stories and want to participate in that Great Conversation; again much “better” than I could ever verbalize in this room. I write to hopefully , one day, help. And to create and imagine.

I used to fear writing until I had no choice but to do so. I write to become a better writer. To learn a stronger voice, both written and verbal.

Our class consisted of about 13-14 diverse people, but we bonded, often sitting together during meals, I think because we poured our guts out to each other as we critiqued one another’s very personal manuscripts. Initially skimming these writings, I noticed several regarded some form of suffering, which I suppose is no surprise in a spiritual, Judeo-Christian writing class.

And did I survive the critique of my manuscript, “Me and St. Catherine”? Well, the night before, my courage wore off with bleary-eyed fatigue, but as each person went around the table and critiqued my work the next day, I swear to God I enjoyed every minute. Everyone was honest, but also respectful. They started with the positive aspects (a strong writing voice, and occasional humor), and also rehumanized my spirit by telling me what to improve, such as, “There is way too much of St. Catherine at the beginning of your piece. The parallels need to be stronger. Take it apart and put it back together again.” I have a lot of work to do, but I can hardly wait. Those eighteen pages are destined to be either an essay, or expanded into a memoir. I won’t know until I revise it.

I have so many good memories I’m afraid I’ll forget: dark chocolate, red wine, the Psalms, and prayer with two new friends in my dorm room one night; breakfast with Mary McCleary; meeting Gregory Wolfe; my crazy day off with three friends (another forthcoming essay); The Teahouse; the infamous late night Thomas Parker Society in the Overstreets’ apartment (I vowed to read next year), and the Over the Rhine concert, just to barely name a few. When I arrived home in Houston, I felt an inexplicable sorrow, even though I was thrilled to see my husband’s face at the airport. I quickly befriended everyone I’d met at the Glen on Facebook and Twitter, and pored over their photographs, wistful. I felt like I missed my new family.

I felt oddly uncomfortable. Through Lauren Winner’s excellent writing class, the entire week, and all of the people, I saw a vision of a standard of excellence I craved, yet one that I’m far away from. A week really can change a life because now I’m ready to work my tail off until I reach that standard, then climb to the next one. See ya next year, Glen.

Jenni Simmons is the editor of the Art House America Blog, assistant editor and staff writer for The Curator, a drummer's wife, caretaker of two cats (Harley and Milo), freelance writer, coffee/tea/bourbon-drinker, bookworm, music fanatic, and a lover of the great outdoors.

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