Back then I was still scrambling to recover from an ugly divorce and custody battle and the subsequent loss not just of my kids, but of their respect as well. After four years, the wound was still raw, but I had begun to realize life could go on despite the bleeding.
One of the ways I tried to pull the pieces together was to get serious about my writing. I started a freelance business and began work in earnest on a novel that at that time was called Killing Me Softly. That manuscript went on to be titled Teach Your Children Well and was the birth of Jo Sullivan, the heroine in my currently published novel, Painted Black.
Freelance work was even less lucrative then than it is in today’s internet age, so I had very little money even with an hourly job on top of it all. Which made it ridiculous for me to even dream about the possibility of being able to do nothing at all but write, and write on MY work, not some article on the City Council for 50 cents an inch.
I finally found an opportunity to do just that, however, by winning a resident fellowship to an artist’s retreat in Lake Forest Illinois called Ragdale. After submitting samples of my writing and a description of my current project, I was invited to spend two weeks living with other artists and writers. And do nothing but write on my novel.
The visit was pivotal to my career and personal life in many ways. Ragdale is where I fell in love with bagels, connected for the first time with other professionally creative people, and read a newspaper article that sparked the idea for my first published novel–you guessed it, Painted Black.
The thing is, I didn’t actually get much writing done during that time. Ragdale for me had more to do with inspiration and growing and healing than it did writing. It’s where I gained confidence in myself as an artist, and made friendships that mean a lot to me even now. Even though I’ve lost touch with most of those people.
James T. Anderson is a musician and composer who wrote me a letter from Norway once. Kathleen Spivack is a poet who studied with Robert Lowell and met people like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Jean Zaleski was an artist who is famous for her paintings of cows and was one of the inspirations behind my trip to Malta a few years ago because that’s where she was born. And Pat Smith is an artist who came from Morris Illinois, not far from my own home, yet lived in Italy and traveled regularly to exotic places like Yemen.
Pat and I found each other again thanks to Facebook. She still lives in Italy and posts beautiful pictures of her paintings sometimes. Jim and Kathleen I’ve lost touch with but I still have Jim’s letter and a poem Kathleen read to the group one evening. Jean, I just learned, passed away two years ago, but I know her cows are still chewing their cud in galleries and homes across the country and probably the world.
It’s strange how people can still be tied to your life with invisible strings long after the last time you ever see them. Strange and wonderful.