Yeah, that really happened.
It started when my creative writing professor, Dr. Tom Romano, told us to make a list of what he called, “indelible moments.” I was one of many teachers, associates in the Ohio Writing Project’s summer at Miami University in Oxford Ohio. Holed up in a college dorm, untethered from the obligations of teaching high-school English, freed from papers and portfolios, we had the luxury of solitude – though I missed the comforts of home, and time with my spouse and pets. Nevertheless, I explored the liberating practice of free-writing. I marveled at the stories that spilled out.
It was 1990, twenty years since I had climbed over the convent walls (figuratively) and ventured out on my own after ten years as a nun. I hadn’t shared those years – my life as a young nun – with many people. When I did, the typical response was a barrage of questions, expressions of disbelief, and a stereotype overlay that I’d studiously avoided. Still I shouldn’t have been surprised when the “indelible moments” that spilled onto my journal came right out of my years in the convent.
The first piece I wrote depicted the day I ‘took the veil,’ as they say. But it wasn’t putting on the habit that was the indelible part. It was having my head shaved. They hadn’t told us we’d be shaved, only that our hair would be ‘clipped’ so that it fit neatly under the veil and headpiece (called a coif). I relived that moment, step by step, detail by detail. When I read it to the small group I reported to each day during that summer, there were gasps, shouts, even tears.
“That actually happened?!!” they asked. I told them that indeed it did. “This is incredible. You’ve got to keep going,” they urged. “What else happened? We want to know!”
I had an audience. Captive, I admit, since we were all stuck in the college dorm together. But still. Why hide any longer? I began to believe I had a good story, and I needed to tell it. One indelible moment after another emerged and filled my journal: A severe punishment by the Mother Superior. A moment of tender compassion with another novice. A college drama class that demanded bravery. Slipping into those embarrassing clunky grandma shoes for the first time. Eventually (decades later, in my case) I had a novel titled Perfection.
I’m a firm believer that each of us has a string of “indelible moments” waiting to hit the page. The really good stories emerge from – depend upon – truth-telling. Many such stories are enhanced when they find an audience, even better when that audience is a circle of skilled, compassionate, honest listeners and fellow writers. But the best stories, the ones that become indelible – not only for the writer, but for the reader – begin when we can say: “Yeah. That really happened.”