“Radio: it ties a million ears to a single mouth.” For almost three decades, I was that mouth, or rather one of them. I was a talk show host on Wisconsin Public Radio, but even after twenty-seven years of hosting and producing, I still didn’t think of myself as a journalist. If you had asked me, what are you, I would have said, I am a poet.
A poet maintains dialog with her own heart. She learns to read signs and symbols, recognize patterns, spell out meanings like a sybil. I learned to write poetry from a strict revisionist – Donald Hall at the University of Michigan – and soon discovered that to write is to change your life. Writing is my truth serum.
“Tell the truth but tell it slant,” says Emily Dickinson. That’s great advice. A poet learns to cloak the truth in metaphor and innuendo, blunt its edges, make something intricate and many-layered out of raw experience. I loved it. Then, one day, poetry was not enough.
I wanted more truth and less slant. I wanted to be naked on the page. The course of my life had been so tumultuous, so full of hairpin twists and turns, there were so many stories clamoring to be told, ordeals to be reckoned, mistakes to expose, characters coming back from the grave. I needed prose.
I took a leave of absence from my job to write a collection of essays, mostly about my family, which was published by the UW Press in 2007 as I Hear Voices: A Memoir of Love, Death, and the Radio. People were shocked. They said, “I don’t understand how you could have revealed so much. You were so honest!” Actually, I had barely scratched the surface.
When I retired from public radio in 2012, I told everybody I was going to write a novel, having never written a word of fiction. I read a few books, enrolled in an MFA program as an auditor, acquired a mentor, and set out to tell ‘the rest of the story’ under the guise of an autobiographical novel. I wrote four chapters, the first, a burst out of the starting gate that quickly lost steam. I was floundering.
The coup de grace came when my mentor sent back a manuscript with extended notes, protesting that the Hell’s Angel who roared Natalie (my protagonist) around the Berkeley hills on the back of his Harley would never have dropped her flat once she admitted –still on the Harley – she was a virgin. “Too much responsibility,” he said….”That could affect the whole course of your life.” Impossible, wrote my mentor. A man like that would never say such a thing. It was a painful lesson. The trick with writing fiction, I’d been warned, is that it can’t just be true, it has to be believable. A painful lesson.
I think about writing another memoir, and maybe I will. “But at my back I always hear/ Time’s winged chariot hovering near.” Meanwhile, I am delighting in my new blog. To write simply, with just a little ambition, without artifice or grandeur, seems right at this late-light time in my life. A little harvest of gleanings from the wild garden of my life. And then there’s you. That’s the best part. Hello there. I’m nobody. Who are you?