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Spirit, You Know The Way (How I Became a Writer)

I wrote myself a letter in 1960 when I was seventeen to be opened ten years later.

I predicted "You'll probably still be living in San Diego, because I can't imagine you living anywhere else. You'll be married, have 2.5 children, and be vaguely unhappy."

I did not, of course, want that. But I didn't know what I did want, had little self-confidence, a father tough on my self-esteem, and no real-life models other than teachers for anything else. The adults I knew were working class people like my parents. A generation upon whom the Depression had befallen, they had all come to Southern California from somewhere else for better jobs and lives. The women were mothers; a few worked, but none had professions. Aspiring to something beyond motherhood was nearly taboo.

I was a senior in high school, living with my family on the outskirts of San Diego, and knew that I would be commuting to San Diego State College the following year. Tuition would cost only $42 a semester. My parents couldn't afford to send me away, and my B+ average wasn't enough to get a scholarship. The only thing I had ever excelled in was writing, but writing itself was not a subject of study, and, in comparison to my brilliant older brother's straight-A performance, not particularly remarkable.

I'd had a boyfriend for a year, but in my senior year I kept breaking up with him. He was just a regular boy. I had wanted to "go steady" like all the other girls, with a ring dangling around my neck. It was during one of these periods when I had broken it off again with him, or perhaps started it up, when I was looking forward to living at home and attending San Diego State - although I ached to explore and experience the world, with an ache akin to spring fever, a fever I'd not yet known, since I had never experienced winter --- that I wrote the letter to myself.

The next year, my freshman year, my life began to change radically.

I was startled by the real-life discoveries I was making in my sociology class, taught by the only black professor I'd ever had, or in fact, ever would have. I majored in sociology.

That spring I fell in love with a wild, troubled, gorgeous boy, a surfer, captivating enough to keep my attention for the next five years.

In the summer, I flew for the first time and lived in Denmark with an older cousin for four months. Then a high school friend and I borrowed money from our parents, bought two-month Eurail passes and Europe On $5 A Day, and traveled all over Europe.

I returned home to find my boyfriend in a prison for juveniles. With several counts of petty theft and drunk and disorderly already on his record, he had been given the maximum sentence for a final offense, assault. For a year twice a month on Sundays I rode up and back with his father to Los Angeles to visit him. Visitors had to be with a relative. He was released the following December, on my birthday.

Nine months later, in August, my parents sold our few acres for enough money to buy a 250-acre farm near Fayetteville, Arkansas, where my father was from. Since my relationship with my boyfriend was volatile, and I was unable to support myself because I was still repaying my father for my European trip, I moved with them and my sister - my brother had joined the Army -- to Arkansas.

It was 1963. Kennedy was shot that fall. The black students on our Fayetteville campus lived in separate dorms. The football team was not integrated. The drinking fountain at the University's medical school in Little Rock, as my sister and I discovered when we double-dated to a football game there, said "White Only," and the restroom "White Women Only." My sociology classes were boring. In my theory class, I asked the only black student to be my partner on a team project. When he and I entered the library, all heads looked up. When we walked down the busy street to the house where my sister and I lived (the Yankee girls living by themselves off campus, tsk! tsk!), cars slowed, drivers stared, spat, yelled "Nigger!" and "Nigger-lover!" I was truly afraid, in Arkansas, for the first time in my life.

My heart was already on the left; my experience in Arkansas moved my body there and I joined Martin Luther King Jr.'s march from Selma to Montgomery.

That summer, my sister and I drove back to San Diego, rented an apartment, and searched for jobs. We finally found work as nurses' aides at a nursing home. I'd never seen people so helpless. I'd never seen such callousness as from the director who put profit and appearance as her priority, or such coldness as from the head nurse, or such a daily grind of care by the nurses' aids' staff, care restricted by time and money to the custodial.

I was thoroughly discontent with sociology by this time. Theories, statistics! What had they to do with visceral human suffering, with the institutions of prison, racism, and nursing homes in which I had been thoroughly immersed in the space of a few years, which maimed people in specific and terrible ways? With the escalating Vietnam War? With President Kennedy being shot?

I was enraged, despairing, overwhelmed. These things were not what I had grown up knowing or expecting of the world.

My last semester of college, I took the courses I wanted to take, including creative writing.

The teacher, William Harrison, had come straight out of University of Iowa's Writing Workshop. He told us we needn't worry about writing anything worthwhile; we wouldn't.

A story was due. I procrastinated. Then I began. Soon the only thing I wanted to do was write it. I did not go to classes. I wrote my story. It took five days, and grew to thirty pages. There was a man in a nursing home, a young woman who worked there, and her able-bodied, troubled boyfriend. The man dies. The young woman is "an open sore of tenderness." She wanted "to take humanity by its shoulders and shake it fiercely and scream into its face: "See? See? Can'"

When I got the story back from my teacher, it was marked "A" with a respectful note: "Come see me anytime."

I made an appointment. I went to Bill Harrison's office in Old Main. He was so excited about my story, he paced. No one in all my life had ever been excited by something I'd done, let alone paced over it.

I walked out of his office split in half: my body felt divided, exactly down the middle. I knew my life had just changed. I wanted someone to tell all this to, and tried, but it was impossible to explain. I walked home, stunned. My left half seemed bowed in, was dark, sad, and mourned. The right side stepped out. It seemed to speak: "You always knew you could do it."

Bill Harrison told me there was a short story contest the next week. He said there probably wasn't enough time for me to revise my story for smoothness and consistency to turn it in by the deadline.

Three boys had invited me to the gala Cotton Bowl weekend in Texas. I stayed home, edited my story, handed it in by the deadline, and won first prize.

I consulted Bill Harrison again. This has changed my life, I told him. I detest sociology. What should I do now?

He said, Well you could stay here in Arkansas, get an assistantship in the English Department, an MA in English, and keep writing. Or you could apply to the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop.

I applied for the Workshop. I bought a Greyhound bus ticket with my $25 prize money, and with another girl, headed to New York City.

It was the worst summer of my life. I looked for editorial assistant jobs, discovered my B.A. was useless, and got down to a nickel. The director of the youth hostel where I stayed finally hired me part-time as a secretary. I thought I was pregnant (from a sudden rendezvous before leaving Arkansas with that same boyfriend I could neither part from nor abide). I did not receive notice from Iowa about whether I was accepted at the Writers' Workshop. My father decided against paying tuition.

I felt lost in New York. I knew that without support the sunburst of writing that story and winning first prize would not be enough to sustain me towards actually becoming a writer. I hadn't the knowledge, practice, or confidence to do that myself. By summer's end, I was desperate.

A guy staying in the hostel was hitchhiking to Chicago. I asked if I could hitch with him. I had $30, enough for bus fare from Chicago to Iowa City.

On the Greyhound bus from Chicago to Iowa City, a guy and his girlfriend with "U of I" on their sweatshirts sat in front of me. I told them my predicament. They suggested possibilities to live and look for jobs, and offered me a place to stay until I found one.

The next day I discovered I had been accepted at the Writers' Workshop. I rented a room and found a waitressing job. At day's end, I called my father and asked if he'd loan me that semester's tuition. He said he would. That was 1965. I was twenty-three.

By my twenty-seventh birthday, I was living in Michigan, had my M.F.A. in Fiction Writing and a full-time job teaching composition, introduction to literature, and creative writing. But I had never forgotten the letter I had written to myself when I was seventeen. It was stored at my parents' farm. On the visit prior to my birthday, I retrieved it.

I did not think there would be any surprises when I opened it. "You'll probably still be living in San Diego, because I can't imagine you living anywhere else. You'll be married, have 2.5 children, and be vaguely unhappy," it would read. I remembered that, I remembered my mood.

There was that paper, from that cheap tablet. Yes. And there those words were. Yes.

Then I got to the last line. It said, "I think you should write. Love, From Another Susan."

There she was, beside me, that seventeen-year-old who had never been anywhere but San Diego, never fallen in love, that naive virginal girl aching to explore life, who only knew what she did not want.

Or so it seemed.

That other Susan.