Featured Writers

Featured Writers 
from Laura’s Classes

Becky Hall: Hair

becky-hall

Becky Hall is a member of the Thursday night Feedback Group where she’s been working on a memoir for the past year. This excerpt of her work in progress reflects her strong narrative style and unique voice.

I am not one for long good-byes. I wanted to just get it over with, to know that I was the one in control of saying farewell to my beautifully long locks, rather than bear a slow, painful witness to their gradual disappearance.   I couldn’t stand the thought of my lovely healthy hair being tainted by poison, as would inevitably happen once the drugs entered my bloodstream and traveled to my hair follicles. If I couldn’t spare my body the assault of chemotherapy, I at least wanted to spare my hair. I would shave it off myself.

I was scheduled to start treatment two days after my last final of the quarter, and so, the weekend before finals, when all but the genius, insane, or pathologically confident were safely locked away studying day and night, I decided that my hair deserved one last night out on the town. My naturally wavy tresses wanted to be styled and straightened and tossed flirtatiously from side to side one final time, and who was I to deny such a request? I called my friends.

 

“Let’s go out.”

 

“No way! It’s finals week. I need to study.”

 

“Come on! It’s my last weekend with hair!”

 

Pause. “Fine.”

 

I was well aware of my blatant manipulation, but I did not care one bit. Sometimes, the cancer card is for playing.

 

I had spent the past few weeks falling asleep and waking up crying, but that evening my despair morphed into a manic state of determination to have fun. This was my last weekend with hair. It had to be amazing.

 

We went out for sushi and sake bombs followed by more drinks at the local dive bar. I was the only girl in the group, and while being the only female among five rowdy boys is not always my idea of a good time, that night I was perfectly content. The fewer the girls, the more attention my shamelessly flirtatious hair tosses received, and I soaked it up.

 

But as the evening progressed, I couldn’t shake the sadness that everything I did was the last time I would do it with my hair. This is my last night to feel girly, I thought. I was convinced that being bald would make me look fat and boyish.

 

No matter how hard I tried to have fun, I couldn’t stop myself from seeing everything through this Last Supper lens, and once I did, the night became clouded with a heavy sense of impending doom. I started to doubt my decision. Maybe I should wait and see what happens once I start the chemo, I thought. Maybe I’ll get lucky and it won’t fall out.

 

The next day, no longer absorbed in my nighttime revelries, I realized that the anticipation of saying goodbye to my brunette beauties was starting to consume me. Rather than taking note of every last event with hair, I needed to just shave it off. If I hadn’t been completely sure of my decision before, I was now.

 

When finals ended a few days later, I headed back home to my parents’ house for winter break. Three of my childhood friends, Alexis, Stephanie, and Lauren, offered to come over to hang out, and I was grateful for the company. The four of us had grown up together, but we hadn’t gotten together as a group for years. Still, when I called each of them to tell them about the cancer, it was as if the past few years of distance and sporadic contact had never happened. They all headed down to Santa Cruz to see me. It was the day before my first chemo infusion. If I was going to shave my head, it was now or never.

 

I hadn’t warned any of them of my agenda for their visit, but once they arrived and I asked if they would help, they enthusiastically agreed. The house had a reverse floor plan with the main level on the second story and my bedroom below, allowing for a modicum of privacy. The four of us gathered in my downstairs bathroom while my parents sat upstairs in the living room watching American Idol, completely unaware of what was about to take place.

 

I had been too scared to tell them that I was even thinking about shaving my head. I didn’t want them to try to talk me out of it, and deep down, I hadn’t been entirely sure that I would go through with it. If I chickened out, I didn’t want to have to explain that I didn’t have the courage.

 

I had decided to donate my hair since it would no longer be any good to me. All of the organizations required hair to be neatly collected into a braid before mailed in. For those with hair like mine that barely met the eight-inch length requirement, they recommended sectioning it out into lots of tiny braids to maximize the amount of hair that is long enough for a wig.

 

The girls got to work braiding my hair. We sat on the floor drinking red wine, eating chocolate chip cookies, listening to the radio, and reminiscing about high school. We tried to lift the mood, and for a while, it worked.

 

“Remember that old decrepit golf cart we used to drive around the farm?” I said to Alexis. Her family owned the stable where we all rode together.

 

“Oh my god that thing was awesome! We felt like such bad asses,” she said, laughing.

 

“Yeah, right up until we decided to go off-roading in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter, and got stuck in the mud. What were we thinking? Your dad was so pissed!” We all laughed.

 

By the time the girls were done with their criss-crossing and rubber banding, I looked like a gangster rapper from the 80’s with tiny braids popping out of my head in every direction. We took silly pictures of me trying to appear thuggish with my new do.

 

It started to get late, and as Lauren sneaked a look at the time I knew that I was going to have to take the plunge. Everyone had a job to get to early the next morning, and Lauren and Alexis both had to drive over an hour back to San Francisco that evening. We were responsible young adults now, and our days of pulling all-nighters off-roading in golf carts were long gone.

 

Realizing that we couldn’t procrastinate the looming task at hand all night, I was no longer able maintain my efforts to be upbeat. The mood shifted into a more honest, painful place.

“I’m never going to feel beautiful again,” I told them. “Who will I be without my hair, without my breasts? I’m single. I’m 25. What guy is going to want a bald, breast-less sick girl?” I began to cry.

 

“But you have a great ass,” Alexis tried to reassure me. “Who needs boobs when you’ve got a butt like yours?”

Robin Morrisette: Recipe for a Successful Cooking Lesson With My Mother

Robin-Morisette

Robin Morrisette has been a member of the Wednesday morning writing practice class. This is the third in a series of three responses to a prompt I gave last spring–Give me a recipe that has family history embedded in the instructions. The writing was varied and vivid in response to the prompt. You may want to try it. I especially loved how different the responses were for one single room of students! –Laura

RECIPE for a successful cooking lesson with my mother

“I don’t know…. I just did it.”

(my mom’s response whenever you ask her how she made or did something)

Trying to Learn to Cook the Way My Mother Does…

1st: forget the apron, put on your tough skin.

2nd: the key to this, and all her recipes is to remember:

… I am sharing a moment with my 97 year old mother, treasure the time, and, hope that hunger will be the best sauce.

Set the oven temperature – but know the kitchen will get emotionally hotter than that oven.

Equipment: she can also teach you how to sharpen knives, as “Pepere” taught her, but nothing will get as sharp as her comments to you.

Your knife guard from her comments is to realize when she gets sharp with you, most of it is because she can’t remember the details (hard to believe from a woman who never needed a recipe) and she is also frustrated that she can’t do it herself (she never was one for explaining” how to,” she honestly never had the patience to teach, she was a doer.)

You are her equipment; you are her eyes and her hands, as well as, her opportunity to have an opinion  (now that Roy does all the shopping, meal planning & cooking).

Prepare ahead of time: for the inevitable: she will accuse you of doing something wrong, because “it doesn’t taste right,” “that’s not the way I made it.”  It’s either her memory or her taste buds, or a combination of both,  -neither  work like they used to.

Carolina Román: Making Tamales

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Carolina Román was born in Los Angeles, California. She attended U.C.S.C. and relocated to the Santa Cruz mountains with her three children after graduating. She obtained her teaching credentials and taught in bilingual classes for thirty years. In 2004, she obtained her Masters of Arts in Education at CSUMB. She is developing her writing, something she promised herself she would do when she retired. Carolina prefers memoir writing and poems. In addition to writing, she spends her days playing with her four miniature poodles and taking walks in the redwoods and by the ocean.

One struggle that has been her passion for forty years is the elimination of the injustices as a result of the existence of racism and to promote bilingualism in the United States. Carolina is a breast cancer survivor and has learned to appreciate the simple joys that each day brings. 

Carolina wrote this piece last spring in response to the prompt: “Write in the style of a recipe and in the process, reveal something about the life of the person doing the cooking or providing the recipe.”

 Making Tamales

1. Soak the hojas, or dried cornhusks, that you bought at the El Pueblito Market, one or two packages depending on how many tamales you will be making. You never know if it will be enough until you run out of either masa or hojas. If you didn’t buy enough hojas, you will have to run to the store and buy more. If you’re lucky and you run out of masa, you can save the leftover hojas for next year.

 

2. Put the hojas to soak in warm water. Separate them and pull off any corn silks left, “pelitos,” as my mother called them. “You don’t want people who eat your tamales to think there is a hair in their tamale and not want to eat them,” she always told me. “They will not tell you, but they will find some way of discarding it without you knowing.”

 

3. Knead the masa. The masa is store-bought at the same little market where you bought the hojas. In years past, masa preparada (prepared masa) was made with lard, something that in today’s world has been shown to be very unhealthy. It can be bought “sin preparar,” which means the lard has been left out. Instead, you can canola oil, which is a little healthier, or coconut oil. which gives the tamales a tropical taste. The masa has to be kneaded until soft so the tamales turn out light and fluffy. I remember my mother’s wrinkled, arthritic hands, the last few years she was with us, amasando the masa vigorously. She made sure to take off her rings, the ones she wore every day; a diamond engagement ring given to her by Mr. Costa, the man she kept house for. We lived in his house for eight long years from the time I was four years old. I was not upset when we left and that she did not marry him. In fact, I was very happy. She kept the ring, though, but that is another story for another day. My Aunt Hilda kept the ring after my mother passed away. She was always the greedy one of the family.   The other ring that my mother always wore was an Alexandrite, a stone that changes colors, emerald by day and ruby by night, a very expensive ring that Mr. Costa also gave her one Christmas. About seven years after she passed away, I was cleaning house and took the ring off and put it in the pocket of my bathrobe. I didn’t want to lose it since it was a bit loose on my finger. Forgetting it was there, I took the bathrobe to the Laundromat and put it in the washing machine. I didn’t realize it was gone for a couple of weeks, but by then it was too late. I can almost see the disappointment on my mother’s face for having been so careless with something so valuable and so meaningful to her. I will never forgive myself for having lost it.

Test the masa to see if it is light enough. My mother would keep a glass of warm water next to the masa, and every now and then, she would drop a little bit of masa in the glass to see if it was ready. If it sank to the bottom, the masa needed more kneading. If it floated to the top, it was ready.

Stacy Mitchell: Making Apple Crisp with Grandma

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Stacy Mitchell has been in Laura’s Wednesday morning class for less than a year, but has been writing since 6th grade. She is currently working on her grandmother’s life story (the inspiration for this writing piece) and other family history projects.  Stacy has four grandchildren under the age of 3, enjoys reading, photography, and loves to travel, especially with her husband Chad. She wrote this in response to the prompt: “Write in the style of a recipe and in the process, reveal something about the life of the person doing the cooking or providing the recipe.”

My grandmother was a fantastic cook, living in a small farming community.  I wanted one of her recipes, so I asked, “Grandma, can you show me how to make Apple Crisp?”

“OK,” she replied, “let’s go pick some Granny Smith Apples out back.  Can you climb that rickety wood ladder?  I used to, but I’ve been told not do anymore.  About six apples will do.  Did you know we planted these trees when we moved to this house?  Too bad you missed the pie cherries and peaches.  Apples are the last of the season.  Have them?  Alrighty, come on down.”

“First you take the apples,” Grandma said, “and slice them.  Cutting board?  No, I just use this metal table here.  I think it’s enamel or something.  Which knife?  Any will do, but I like my machete best.  It does everything.  Put the apples into a bowl with a little lemon juice so they don’t turn brown.  You see a worm?  Well, just cut him out, he won’t hurt you.

Caroline Bliss-Isberg: How To Survive A Cancer Diagnosis

Caroline and Temi

Caroline Bliss-Isberg is a student in my Friday feedback class and a four-time cancer survivor. I first met Caroline because she was my “cancer mentor” when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer almost six year ago. Her incredibly grace and compassion and wisdom were great stabilizing forces for me at the beginning of my cancer journey. When she brought this piece to class, I knew I had to publish it. I hope you will spread it far and wide.

–Laura

Four times since November 20, 1996, I have sat across the desk from a grave-faced physician, knowing in my heart that the next words I heard would be: “I’m sorry, the biopsy was positive, you have breast cancer; your breast cancer is back; you have a tumor in your lung; I’m so sorry, the polyp in your colon is malignant.”

Receiving a diagnosis is the first step in a cancer journey. It’s the moment you step off the plane onto foreign soil. Everything looks, smells and sounds strange. You are confronted with an entirely new language. The plane has circled and taken off again and you are there, stunned, alone, even if others are physically present.  Where do you go, do you even dare to move?

Over the years, after hearing each of my four cancer diagnoses, I knew I would lose a piece of my body, and maybe even my life. But, with each cancer journey, I gained something too: a bit of spirit or a new piece of my soul that would surface at just the right time. Always, like any traveler who visits a place repeatedly, I learned the contours of the terrain. And, since the memory of the terror of my first-time visit remains fresh, I am always willing, if asked, to serve as a tour guide for first-time visitors.

Laurie Mikulasek: Magic, Memories, San Miguel

I left behind three kids’ schedules and my worries about whether or not I’d written instructions about which flavor of Annie’s Organic fruit gummies to pack in their lunches. I left behind my doubts that I wasn’t good enough or qualified to be going to a Writer’s Conference. And I left behind the last days of my 30’s before ringing in my new decade in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

I took the red eye into Leon, a city on the far west side of the Mexican state Guanajuato, then took a 90-minute daybreak shuttle ride east, smack dab through the middle point of Mexico, to San Miguel on the eastern side of the state. I arrived at the hotel disheveled and tired, hoping I didn’t offend the driver with my American-dollars tip, let alone the amount.

As I stood in line to check in, I heard a squeal and felt a familiar fierce hug grab me from behind. My sister Stephanie had arrived! She immediately took over the check-in, Spanish words prancing from her fluent mouth, explaining that I was her hermana and could our rooms be closer together? No such luck, but no worries. It was Mexico and we were here. We were here!

Soon we were seated at breakfast with our teacher, Laura, and two friends from previous writing retreats—more screams and hugs! It’s amazing how bonded I felt to these familiar faces when encountering them so far from home. They had signed up for a day outing to tour the local pyramids, so Stephanie and I decided to explore San Miguel on our own. We traipsed the cobblestone streets, catching up on our lives, while passing bright bougainvillea flowers wending up mustard colored walls. We stopped for pictures along the way and bought fish sandwiches, fresh carrot juice, and mangos at the Mercado. We talked philosophy and politics, childhood habits and parenting dilemmas. And dreams. Of course when in Mexico those tendrils seemed easier to grasp. We came across an open house and toured an upscale home, giggling and plotting what it’d be like to live here with our own private courtyard and retractable ceiling, open over the stairwell to let in the 80-degree February warmth.

Four and a half hours later, we had hit many of the city’s highlights—churches, plazas with historical statues and plaques, the markets—and came back to get ready for the first keynote speaker, Cheryl Strayed.

 

The blond-haired author of Wild spoke unabashedly about her life as described in her memoir, as well as her experience writing it. She made the point that having an experience doesn’t make a story, but having a perspective, a type of awareness about your experience, is what makes it a story. She talked about how badly you have to want your book in order to do all the hard work, and how it’s the hard-working, more than the most talented people who get to see their books published.  

Sarah Savansky: The Support Group

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Sarah Savasky has been a long-term member of Laura’s Friday morning feedback class. She has won awards for her writing (often in the humor department) and is currently working on a novel about a protagonist coping with chronic illness. We all love Sarah’s protagonist, Amy, and the dilemmas she faces. This piece is an excerpt of her novel in progress–Laura

Amy has one foot in a sensible shoe and one foot in a stiletto.  This makes it difficult for her to move forward, or in any direction for that matter.  She is walking a fine line: trying to grasp the subtle difference between resignation and acceptance, self-compassion and self-pity.  She has heard that the journey is more important than the destination but, so far, this has not been her experience.

Today, Amy is trying to make up her mind about going to a support group for people with chronic illness. She’s still recovering from yesterday’s doctor’s appointment and last night’s sleeping pill. And then there are the voices in her head; the two sides to every story she tells herself. Part of her wants to be with others who understand and part of her dreads it. Amy and Michael, her therapist, have talked about this; the fear she has of over-identifying with her illness.  She doesn’t want to be one of “those” people. Amy doesn’t want to be a victim.  This is where acceptance and compassion come in; this is also where resignation and pity live.  So far Amy has given herself two choices: over identify with her illness, or pretend that she doesn’t have one.

This is also why Amy has trouble asking for help. She doesn’t want to be a burden to anyone. Amy tries to save it all for Michael. He can take it. He’s getting paid to take it. And Michael has a way of making her feel special without making her feel pathetic. He’s an expert at walking the line.  He encouraged her to go to the support group, just to check it out. He reminded her that she doesn’t have to go back. He told her she can even leave in the middle if she wants.  Amy is thinking at the very least, going will make for good conversation, later, with Michael. And so she decides to go. Amy calls her husband, Steve, at the restaurant to let him know where she’ll be. He says he thinks it’s a good idea. Amy takes this to mean that he thinks it’s better if she talks to other people about her problems. Amy makes a lot of assumptions about what Steve means.

The support group meets at a local doctor’s office. Amy is early but there are already ten other people there, sitting in chairs that form a circle. One of the perks of having a chronic illness is that you don’t really have anywhere else to be. And chronically ill people seem exceptionally eager to talk about themselves. The best she can hope for is a good facilitator. It has to be someone who’s not afraid to keep things on track and cut people off. Amy doesn’t do well with monopolizers.

As soon as the empty chairs are filled, Lorraine, the facilitator, introduces herself and says that she is going to lead the group in a visualization to help everyone relax and “get present.” Amy immediately tenses up and “gets annoyed.”

Elizabeth Duff: Ode to My Bicycle

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Elizabeth Duff is a new member of the Wednesday morning writer’s group and the yearlong Memoir Intensive. She has a wonderful knack for writing from the child’s point of view, something she does marvelously in this evocative response to the prompt, “Write an ode to an ordinary object.”

Ode to My Bicycle

I take a deep scared breath and
Know this time he will let go
I will wobble for a bit then straighten out
I will glide or coast
As soon as I balance around the pine tree
I will have become a new free bird.

The pedals are large, but don’t feel big enough
The handlebars are close, but I am reaching
The seat is uncomfortable, but I settle down 
The chain is pulling me, but how will I stop?
I will need to stop
It is the stopping that worries me most
What if I can’t?

It is the tires I love the most
They continue and continue as if unasked
Yet I know they are my will
I watch the front tire go round and round
As I gain my balance
I watch the pavement change
And my freedom is hard-fought and heartfelt

I travel the world 
Down my driveway
I pass churches and bakeries
India and Africa
Sometimes I am on ground level
Other times I am in flight
I have left the quiet craziness of my life behind
I am someone else – perhaps never to return.

My bike and I roll faster and faster
And see more and more
Imagine the spaceships and rodeos
The bike gangs and dances

And once, hastily forgetting my new-found love
I turn it upside down
I throw stones and pebbles between the back tire and bumper
and pump the pedals fast
The pebbles spit out all over the place
and laughing, I beg my siblings to come buy my popcorn

Doña Bumgarner: A Conversation with My Frigidaire

Dona-Stella

Doña Bumgarner writes in the moments in between raising a toddler, buying groceries to feed a hungry teenager, and cooking (apparently) delicious meals for her family. After a few years in a practice class, she found the courage to commit to Laura’s Thursday Evening Feedback Class this fall. This piece is in response to one of Laura’s all-time favorite prompts: “What my refrigerator would say about me.”

A Conversation With My Frigidaire

Oh, hello you. You went to the store? You have more food? Did you not think to check in here first? Where, exactly, do you expect to put that gallon of milk? I’m full.

Oh, well. You might want to check the back. There’s probably some expired stuff. There are a couple of Tupperware containers that are letting off a foul odor. No, further back. But yeah, check that yogurt, too. I don’t know why you buy plain. No one here likes it. Yeah, back there behind the mayo. Thanks. Whew! Those were rank.

While you are in there, can we talk about the pickles? What were you thinking with the fermented pickles? The pickle guy doesn’t seem to like them. He’s being nice to you but he just ate that one piece while you were standing next to him and I haven’t seen him since. And there are six more bottles back here. Maybe you could give these away? Have a pickle party? Because I noticed that you don’t actually like them, either.

And speaking of vinegar, you can toss the bottle of dessert wine. It has been open for three months. No, not three weeks. Three months. Yeah. I know it was expensive, but now it is bad. Let it go.
Hey, look at that. The milk fits now.

And you know, I do want to say you’ve been doing pretty well with leftovers recently. I used to cringe when I saw those coming but you must be getting better at cooking. Even the teenager has been eating the leftovers recently and he used to only eat the white stuff. White bread, plain pasta, milk. Oh, and that awful cheese that comes in individually wrapped slices. Even I have lost track of how old those slices are but they are still fine, as far as I can tell. That stuff is scary.

 

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