When the Crazy Child Writes…on Memoir, Loss, and Letting Go

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 “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” –Maya Angelou

On a February Sunday in 2016 I sat calm, spent on the shore of Sidi Kaouki.  Two of my closest friends, Kate and Ritchie, were with me eating salads by the sea. We were aware that our time together was short—a hazard of expat life that bonds people fierce and fast. I had told the school I wouldn’t be returning to Morocco in the fall. When offered another contract, I was tempted to stay longer because leaving the kids, friends, and country would be so hard and no job had opened at home. But I missed my kids and though they were adults, I felt they needed me.

We had completed a writing workshop at the Blue Kaouki hotel in a rural area twenty-five miles south of Essaouria. Jason, a writer and our co-teacher, had led the workshop of faculty members. He and his fiancé often surfed at the quiet beach town, so we stayed at their usual hotel, which had a terrace and sunroom where we could meet shielded from the February wind.

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We had left school on Friday and while the ride through the rural countryside was beautiful, my gut churned. A policeman stopped the van and climbed aboard, asking us one-by-one where we were from and where we were going. Satisfied with the driver’s papers and our answers, he waved us on. I checked my phone again to see what was going on, and it seemed a terrorist cell had been discovered and members had been arrested near there a few days earlier. Even so, this was not what upset me. After living in Morocco almost two years I knew the country’s vigilance against terrorism — the teamwork of the people and the police meant eyes and ears were always protectively watching and listening. No, I was worried and felt sick about what was going on at home.

My plan had been to return to the same address of twenty-one years after my time abroad, but circumstances had left my house standing empty for a couple of months. I’d hoped to get a renter until I could move back in late June, but no one was interested in such a short lease. I couldn’t afford to let it set empty until then, and I didn’t want the stress of renting it for a year, leaving me with nowhere to live. Given the upkeep of a large yard and an old house, I wondered if it was time to downsize. After months of praying and discussing with my family, it seemed time to let it go.

In 2014 before I left the US, I read an article written by an expat that said there would be great gains from living overseas. I knew I was meant to go to Morocco, but the article said there would inevitably be losses, too. I never dreamed our family home would be one. Today, almost a year since the house sold, I am thankful and believe God worked out all things for good, but I still sometimes wake from dreams where I’m on my deck with my dog or in the kitchen with my kids, and my heart hurts.   A year ago… the heartbreak seemed unbearable.

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Ritchie, who is now teaching in Russia

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I hated that the huge job and burden of getting the house ready to rent or sell had fallen on my brother-in-law, sister, and daughter—months of fielding phone calls; meeting potential renters/buyers; cleaning; hauling; painting; upgrading; waiting on installers, repairmen and inspectors. A back-breaking and agonizing feat, a sacrifice of precious time–all for which I will be forever grateful and humbled by.

I also hated that I couldn’t say goodbye.

So when Jason sat us down and explained we’d be writing from the part of us called our “Crazy Child,” I felt grateful for release and terrified of what would surface. The last two months I’d cried into my prayer journal—pages of countless question marks and pleas for answers from God. The day before we left for the workshop, I prayed He would strengthen my family over the weekend for the final phase of preparing the house to be sold. I asked for stronger faith for us all from the outcome—whatever would ultimately happen. But as my guilt for being away mounted and grief grew, I felt physically sick.

Jason held up a book by Clive Matson, Let the Crazy Child Write!: Finding Your Creative Writing Voice, and we read aloud some excerpts:

The Crazy Child is an aspect of your personality that is directly linked to your creative unconscious. It is the place in your body that wants to express things. It may want to tell jokes, to throw rocks, to give a flower to someone, to watch the sunset…

To convulsively weep and throw up simultaneously? I wondered, hoping so, because that was what mine was about to do.

The Crazy Child is also your connection to the past. Everything in your genetic history, your cultural history, your familial history, and your personal history is recorded in your body—in your nervous system. Your Crazy Child has direct access to it all. Everything you have done, and everything that has been done to you, is in its domain…

When the Crazy Child writes, it’s a raw, truthful part of you that reveals itself. It has not been civilized…Your Writer and Editor …are valuable aids to writing. But the Crazy Child—your creative unconscious—is the source.

I had thought the workshop would be good for me. I was thankful for a chance to focus on creating something rather than losing everything.

I knew the “Editor”—the critical voice—all too well. It always spoke in “shoulds” and kept reminding me that I should be home in Tennessee this weekend, though logic told me there was no way I could get there and back from Africa in two days. So when Jason sent us off to write from our Crazy Child—not the Writer who wants to organize or the Editor who wants to polish—I felt relieved. Alone I could cry and cleanse my stomach of everything souring there. There would be time to revise the draft others would see later.

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When we reconvened I felt weak but better. The dry heaving had subsided. But then, to my horror, Jason said we would share THIS PIECE…NOW. To reassure us, he read from Bird By Bird written by one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, on the value of what she calls “shitty first drafts”:

Now, practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea ofshitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go — but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.

Normally the “Mr. Poopy Pants” part would have made me laugh, but I just wanted to cry. Again. I felt as I had so many years ago—naked and exposed. My paper was worse than undigested food mixed with stomach acid.  Following Anne Lamott’s lead…I told Jason my draft was not only shitty. It was liquid diarrhea. How could I not clean it up? It was sure to smell up the place. As the sharing began I realized I had no other choice but to let it go. To let her go. My Crazy Child would wait her turn, then share like the others.

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One-by-one we read.   Around the table our crazy kids showed themselves. They were from Canada, France,  Australia, The Philippines, England, and the US. Collectively they made us giggle, laugh, nod, sigh, and weep. We asked them questions and repeated back their words—their wisdom, their courage—as their writers took notes. When I finished reading, some were crying and Ally, our guidance counselor and one of the most sensitive souls I’ve ever known, got up, walked over, and hugged me from behind. We all left lighter that day because we carried home something of substance—of ourselves and of each other. Our sharing made us vulnerable, and for that we left stronger.

Yesterday I saw on Pinterest writing prompts my daughter had pinned. She and her brother are doing great, and that makes me happy. Recently I took the online class by Brené Brown, The Wisdom of Story, and have finished the first chapter of the memoir I’ve needed to write, it seems, my whole life. I get up at 5 AM before work and continue after school till I can work no more. Glennon Doyle Melton, Brown’s co-teacher, says we must write from our scars, not our wounds. This morning I reread what I wrote at the workshop a year ago. It was stream-of-consciousness–the gushing flow of multiple losses over many years, allowed to surge when the locks were lifted on the dammed pain. It will be there– in my book—because it covers chapters, decades, of my story.

In some ways I’m where I was a year ago. And not. Then I had no idea I’d end up teaching in The Dominican Republic. I’ve told the school I’ll be moving home this summer to be with my family, though no job has opened there. Whatever happens, I know I’m to continue working on my memoir and that my Father loves and  has a plan for this Crazy Child, Gypsy, Writer, and Southern Mom–all me.

*I know many of you have told me you want to write your story, too.  I have also found these resources to be helpful:

Story Structure to Die For: P J Reece–an alternative plot structure

Anything by Laura Fraser–her memoirs serve as great models and she mentors, too

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Celine, Kate, and Ritchie at lunch on Saturday

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True Blue

I’ll have a blue Christmas. But not the kind Elvis sang about.

I had those blues all spring as I fretted over fall when my nest would empty. I’d always said that when my chicks left, I’d fly away, too, preferably to anywhere under the Tuscan sun. Or, if I stayed in town, to a bungalow in East Nashville. But when the whole Metamorphosis- thing finally came, it left me feeling more like Kafka’s Beetle-Boy than Skynyrd’s Freebird. Rather than soaring on wings I felt upside down, feet flailing. After living with parents, a college roommate, then a family of my own, I’d never flown solo. Existential choices over where to go and what to do made my Hamlet head spin. Wings felt…well, weird. Trying another metaphor, I repeated the mantra: “Leap, and the net will appear.” I asked Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, her thoughts on the matter. After all, she created my gypsy girl, Vianne, and lived the true artist’s life. Harris’ advice: “Try it over water.”

As with every summer, I found peace. I spent days on the deck–writing, reading, praying, swinging. I decided I would stay on Jenry Court. Like Amanda Wingfield, I made “plans and provisions” but not for a gentleman caller. In this old house I’d hosted daily, though often unaware, what Williams called that “long-delayed but always expected something that we live for.” As Cole reminded me, I’d raised him (and his sister) to adulthood and as he put it, “It has been a fun ride.” So happily I painted outdoor furniture for a family sendoff for him and my niece, Abby. The night after I took him to college, I cooked an Italian dinner for friends. We gathered in a celebration of change.

Inside I colored my world with what makes me happy–Tiffany blue–alongside my ubiquitous rich reds and punchy pinks. What a difference a can of paint can make.

I vowed to stay true to what I love–entertaining and writing–and claimed a room with a view. My dining area doubles as my writing space and from behind my computer I see pictures of good times with friends and family. My easel waits patiently in one corner while the grandfather clock I bought with money my dad left me ticks off time in another. Engraved inside the glass door is Psalm 90:12: “Teach us to number our days, so we may present to thee a heart of wisdom.”

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Nick, our neighbor, came home from his college on Thanksgiving break and played Xbox with Cole. Last night Taylor, Mom and I saw the final movie in the Twilight series. Tay and I thought it was the best of the bunch. We finished leftovers today, and Cole and Mom are watching Home Alone–the original–downstairs. Thankfully, some things don’t change.

There Is a Season


They say they built the train tracks over the Alps before there was a train that could make the trip. They built it anyway. They knew one day the train would come. Any arbitrary turning along the way,and I would be elsewhere. I would be different. What are four walls, anyway? They are what they contain.The house protects the dreamer. Unthinkably good things can happen, even late in the game.
Under the Tuscan Sun

Last spring among my lilies and lilacs, heirlooms from Mama Lou’s garden in Kentucky, I planted lettuce, cilantro, basil, rosemary, lavender, blackberries, and tomatoes. There were no visible weeds, but I knew nothing short of exorcism could free the bed from the dormant Bermuda grass that lay beneath. Cole helped me buy and spread mulch but went on record saying he thought it silly planting a garden since he’d be leaving for college in August and I’d just have more upkeep.

He pointed to the branches of the twenty-year old English rose that looked like legs of a giant spider spread across the ground. A storm had snapped my antique trellis in half, so making do, I moved another into its place and tied the climber across it. Though iron, it leaned back from weight and skepticism. The eternal optimist, I smiled at the neatly planted herbs, fruits, and vegetables against the black canvas. Staking my claim to the sunny season ahead, I stuck my new, shiny red cage over the tiny tomato plant, anticipating the day it would be needed to hold up the fruit of my labor. That was April.

By August, Cole had gone to college. I’d thought for years that when my children left the nest I’d fly away, too. I’d watched Under the Tuscan Sun so many times and dreamed of starting a new life in Italy. But last spring, I found myself, of all things, nesting. I painted my living room, dining room and front hall. I redid my deck. I cooked, cleaned, mothered more than ever…perhaps as an attempt to deny the inevitable. My children were moving on and as thoughts of an empty house stalked me all spring, my roots reached deeper. Rather than packing up for an adventure abroad, I settled in. Strangely, it felt like I wasn’t settling.

Last week, two days before Halloween, as I went to the mailbox I noticed something in the garden.

By May the rabbits had eaten all my lettuce. By June the Bermuda and spider grass had chased my herbs back to pots on the porch. All that spring-green optimism had been burnt by fall. Cole had gone to school and so had my niece, Abby. Her sister and my daughter, now all grown up and working in the “real world,” had been under my roof at school since the four were in kindergarten. They’d lived one street apart since they were babies. They were our babies no more.

I’d spent months in refinance purgatory and had my car worked on twice–oil, then steering fluid bleeding out– bleeding me dry. My Classic Coup shirts had done well again at the Southern Festival of Books…but a wind storm took out five booths, closing them down on the last day. One was mine. I’d planned to take a group to Ecuador in May to continue work started there last summer. It had been postponed. In August I’d met someone who I thought could be The One. Our first date was the week after Cole moved to college, so the timing seemed perfect and meant-to-be. Turned out again that things are not always what they seem.

I’d turned to a new season–like it or not. Like always, fall brought fun with friends and family–at Italian Lights, Celebrate Nashville, The Italian Market. Peace prevailed in being grateful for simple things–closing on the mortgage, finding no more leaks on the garage floor, riding on new tires. Texts from Cole, picture texts from Taylor. Quick visits on weekends. Cole staying late enough to watch The Walking Dead, Taylor dropping by during the week.

All fall I’d spent grading essays like a fiend but also genuinely enjoying my students. Still I wasn’t excited about facing Halloween alone. Laughing kids running through leaves to my door would sound too much like four little goblins who my sister, brother-in-law, and I had walked through the neighborhood for years. Abby as Austin Power, Emily as Superstar, Taylor as Marilyn Monroe, Cole as Darth Vadar.

What I saw last Tuesday wasn’t the Great Pumpkin. It was something red. All summer I’d picked only two tiny tomatoes–rejected by the birds who had pecked holes in them, then flown away. It was apple season, not tomato time. Yet on the ground I found twenty ripe tomatoes. I laughed aloud, went inside, and made myself an almost- November BLT. Three days later, our first frost came.

Fruit on the vine rewards sowing in faith, but more than that, if affirms that even when I’ve given up on the season, God is still at work. It reminds me that things aren’t always what they seem, that my timing is not God’s timing, and that for everything there is a season.