Any writer worth her salt at some point grapples with the idea of whether or not to take a writing class, course, join a critique group, or spend all their money on an MFA course. Some never take them; some take one; some take dozens, and others become writing group junkies, seeking out new classes, new teachers, new, exotic locales to hone their craft.
You hear a lot about the benefits of joining a class, from the discipline you learn to forge, to the great (or not so great) critiques from your class mates, to validating your profession as a writer and discovering your voice and learning how to tap into your own creativity. What you don’t often hear is the amazing relationships you’ll forge with some of your fellow writers. You don’t necessarily realise it at the time, but let’s face it, when you bring in your work to every class, when you bare your soul in your pages, when you allow others to read and comment on your work, you don’t just learn about yourself, you learn about your classmates too. You find yourself opening up about your personal life and/or it spills onto your pages anyway. Sometimes, you don’t realise how close you’ve become to these people until it’s too late. And that’s exactly what happened to me.
Five years ago, I undertook a 12-week novel writing course through MediaBistro, with the amazing Rachel Resnick. Of the 12 or so people in our class, seven of us stayed the distance, and even got together after the class for several weeks to do revisions on our books. I may not see these people every day, but I still hear from them, occasionally get together with them, or keep tabs on them on their FaceBook pages, or through their writings. They’re all amazing, talented brilliant people. You know I’m talking about you: Rachel Resnick, Tom Teicholz, Tommy Tung, Peter Davis and Nancy Farghalli.
There was one other person in our class: Tracey Tressler. Tracey and I connected because we wrote the same style of novel – best described I’d say as angst-ridden black comedies. Tracey was drawing on a pretty angst-ridden life to generate some genuinely poignant, moving, and always funny scenes. Personally, she was unhappy in her career, was going through a divorce and was truly seeking love and happiness. She was smart, funny and always upbeat no matter how crappy her week was. She came to class eager and willing to share. She and I would chat either before or after class and she was one of the best critics of my own pages and I always took her notes very seriously.
A year after we finished our class, Tracey came to see a play I was directing. I hadn’t stayed in touch with her on a regular basis, but we exchanged emails, and I knew she was considering changing careers and going back to school. When I saw her at my show, I discovered that she’d been battling lung cancer for the past year. However, she looked bright and happy – and told me she’d managed to survive treatment without losing her (truly amazing) hair. We promised to stay in touch and again, exchanged the odd email, but nothing further. Life, you know, sometimes takes over. Or not.
Another year or so went by and I suddenly woke up one day last December and said “Gee, I wonder what’s up with Tracey?” I looked to see if she had a FaceBook page and saw that she did. I was thrilled. However, it didn’t appear to have much activity on it, so before asking her to “Friend” me, I decided to do a Google search on her. And that’s when I’d discovered she had passed away.
The information stopped me in my tracks. I was horrified. Horrified that I hadn’t stayed in touch, horrified that not only had the lung cancer come back and taken her life, but that she had passed away 14 months ago. How could I not have known this? How could I not have stayed in touch? I had stumbled upon a blog by Tracey’s husband, recounting the last year or so of her life. It was a blog full of pain and anguish but also of life and love.
Husband? Tracey got married? Yes indeed. In those three years Tracey had finally done everything she had spoken about, written about and poured out onto the pages of her novel in that class. I discovered she did indeed leave her job, go back to school, change professions. She met a wonderful man, fell in love, and had a baby. She married, gave birth and died within the space of a little over a year. I discovered her daughter, Bella, was only 10 weeks old when Tracey died at the age of 39.
I look back at the brief, yet intense bond I shared with Tracey – a bond that I forged with a woman over the course of three months. I’m angry at myself for not staying in touch with her. However, as I look back at her life, I feel such joy that she managed to find the love and happiness she so desperately craved, and richly deserved years earlier. And she’s taught me that relationships forged in writing classes are special and precious and quite extraordinary. And so I say to every writer out there, next time you take a class, don’t just think about the practical advice or the literary lessons you may learn. Think about the incredible relationships you can forge; the people you can connect with if you are willing to bring your true self to class. Not only will it make you a better writer, it will make you a better person.
Thank you Tracey, for letting me meet the real you. It was an honour to have known you.