Monday, September 30, 2019

My First Time: Nancy Freund Bills

The First Time My Creative Writing Was Affirmed

My undergraduate experiences at Colorado College and then at Montana State University were frustrating. As an English major, there were so many required classes and few opportunities to read or write anything of my own choice. My memory is of reading, reading, reading and then writing essay after essay. By the time I began taking classes at the University of Rochester, I was a wife and mother of a young boy. My husband’s work on his doctorate always took priority over my studies. I probably volunteered to edit and type his doctoral thesis in psychology. That was typical of me in those days.

My master’s degree in Humanities, specifically Twentieth-Century American Literature and Art, offered me more freedom than I had ever had in an academic setting. I loved being able to take an art history class and a film class at the Eastman School; my husband and I went on outings to nearby art museums. But what I remember from those days is the weariness of feeling overwhelmed with the juggling of being a good mother and wife and being a good student. And once I determined the subject of my master’s thesis, I felt hemmed in again. I loved my topic at first but by my thesis defense, I was exhausted. As I look back on those experiences, I am amazed that during those years of hard work, I had little to no chance to do any creative writing. After writing endless essays about the classics and contemporary literature, and churning out a master’s thesis about Saul Bellow’s early novels and Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, my initial enthusiasm had waned.

I won’t write about my second master’s in clinical social work. By then, I needed to be employable. I wasn’t expecting a professor to ask me to write a poem or short story. Once I had my MSW and LCSW, I held valuable credentials. But during my twenty years as a psychotherapist and a psychiatric social worker, my only creative outlet was when I wrote in patients’ charts!

My chance to write to my heart’s content came when I moved to Portland, Maine. I was nearing retirement and working part-time. My first forays into creative writing included a memoir class through Portland’s adult education, a library-sponsored writing group, and continuing education classes through the University of Southern Maine. The feedback I received was encouraging, but somehow I doubted that I had anything special to offer.

By age 60, I gave myself permission to take a “real” writing class and registered for a memoir class at USM. My professor was a woman my age, but all the students were college juniors and seniors in their twenties and thirties. I began work on a story about my younger son who was hit by lightning. The piece was not directly about “the lightning accident,” but instead about how art has the capacity to be a healing force when individuals are faced with unbearable loss. “The Emptying and Filling of the Drawer” began as a short memoir piece, a story about a 20-year-old son told from the perspective of his mother. The reader only learns about the accident and the death of the father indirectly; the focus is on the son’s building of a sculpture or an assemblage.

The son who is named Teddy begins with an empty drawer and adds one carefully-chosen object at a time over a number of days; each has significance for him, and the reader is invited into his intimate space. The objects include a broken turntable, his father’s favorite record that he breaks, one of the father’s running shoes, a snapped lacrosse stick, and a medal from WWII, a gift from his grandfather. The last item is a teddy bear’s nose that he had saved. When the son is done adding items to the assemblage, he spills black enamel over the contents of the drawer. With the son’s permission, the mother adds the white silk and seeds of a milkweed pod. The sculpture is complete.

As a therapist, I knew the writing of the piece was cathartic for me, but I didn’t know if it would hold any interest for the members of my class, and I didn’t know what my professor would think about my writing ability. We had a habit in the class of sitting in a circle; when I read my piece, the class members were quiet and attentive. One young man seemed to get tearful. After my reading, the students told me they had found my work moving; they congratulated me on writing my first “real” memoir piece.

Near the end of the spring semester, our professor surprised us with the news that there would be an end-of-year celebration and that each writing class would be choosing one member to read his or her work. After our coffee break, she asked us to consider who we wanted to represent the class, to read in front of a gathering of all the English classes. As we sat in the circle, I looked at the young men and women around me; each student had found the courage to write about a significant life event and each had written well. Our professor asked me to begin, and I suggested a young woman whose work was articulate and brave. The other members of the class smiled at me. And then each and every one of them voted for me. I was genuinely surprised and honored. My eyes filled with tears of appreciation. These fellow writers, all younger than I was, wanted me to represent the class. And so I did.

On the evening of the readings, I was excited and anxious, but I managed to rise and read my piece with feeling. The experience marked a turning point in my writing life. I began to believe in my ability to affect others.

Nancy Freund Bills is the author of The Red Ribbon: A Memoir of Lightning and Rebuilding After Loss, released earlier this year from She Writes Press. She is currently on the faculty of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Maine where she facilitates the fiction-writing workshop. “The Myth,” Chapter 19 of The Red Ribbon, received first place in the memoir/personal essay category of the 83rd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. Her memoir, fiction, and poetry have been published in Reflections, The Maine Review, The LLI Review, and The Goose River Anthology. A member of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, she lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, with her two Maine Coon cats. Find her online at

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

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