Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Mystery Lady's Disciple: Deborah Owen & The Creative Writing Institute

It wasn’t a prominent article, just one of those stories that you more or less stumble across on-line, writer Deborah Owen recalls. The woman in it was dying of cancer and had decided to use what time she had left to do something she’d “always wanted to do – write. At first, just a couple of times a week. Then short stories that painted new worlds into existence. Before long, she realized how much she looked forward to writing every day, and she wrote daily.” Owen’s fascination with her subject is almost tangible, drawing me in. “As she did so, her mind released the stress of her illness. She didn’t know she had stumbled across a scientific method wherein many have found total healing.”

“The Mystery Lady,” as the Indianapolis-based Owen came to think of her, experienced a complete recovery. What was more, she returned to the hospital and began talking to other cancer patients, encouraging them to write to, and commenting on their stories…in effect, holding out the same lifeline to them that had saved her.

What really intrigued Owen wasn’t the woman’s story, gripping as it was. No, the photo was what caught and held her. “It wasn’t her features. It was her smile. And I thought, ‘What would make somebody smile like that?’ Her smile just said something to me. It drew me. And she had found a total healing from cancer through writing.”

Neither the Mystery Lady nor her story would leave Owen alone. The seasoned writer kept thinking about this unknown woman who, even though she’d never taken a writing class, had accomplished so much. So, why couldn’t she do the same? Owen demanded of herself. She tussled with the idea nightly, not entirely sure why it was bugging her so much. “One night -- I think it was the seventh night – I thought, ‘I can make a difference. I already have the experience she didn’t have – I was building the website – I was building the school. I have the wherewithal.’”

That epiphany led Owen to come up with the Creative Writing Institute, a non-profit writing school that would sponsor cancer patients. The institute, which was originally intended for the underprivileged, has a three-pronged approach: professional material is presented “in a practical and simple method”; private tutors work with students on-line; and the students receive thoughtful, thorough evaluations of their work plus recommendations regarding “the next best choice on their ladder of learning.” Students range anywhere from their teens to their 80s. Owen is also looking to more with kids – picture books for very young ones and writing classes for older ones.

And while cancer patients are the main focus (both Owen’s father and brother died of cancer, and her 93-year-old mother has breast cancer), she wants to expand the school to include the blind. This idea was “completely sparked off by this blind man writing to us. He had written to two writing schools, and they had refused him because they didn’t have the screen readers.” So she modified one of the institute’s programs: “We had to be able to show him where the commas went, even though he couldn’t see them. All the punctuation marks….We had to find out what his screen reader could do.” Since then, another blind person has approached them about their program.

It is, Owen admits, “somewhat like fumbling in the dark. Eventually, I am going to hire a blind person to teach the class because only they can understand what their students are going through, what their needs are. But that’s what we’re learning now.”

As for teaching courses herself…well, Owen has pretty much retired. She still does the occasional bit of tutoring, but her position “is growing so much, I don’t have time to teach. That’s why we developed the volunteer team. If not for these people, I could not do it. There is so much extraneous work that has nothing to do with writing or teaching – the website, newsletter, keeping up with three social-media websites.” It “gives beginning writers a chance to learn the writing business from the inside out” – an opportunity that Owen wishes she had had when she started out.

And then there’s old-school networking, which is what Owen is currently doing with representatives at cancer facilities in Greenfield and Indianapolis, Indiana. It’s an ongoing dialogue, she says – one that comes down to dealing with all “the red tape we need to go through to be actually and legally associated with them.”

Dealing with all this – trying to keep all the balls in the air, so to speak – requires tremendous energy and determination. Owen has plenty of both, as her story about landing a job working on The American Legion Magazine’s 75th anniversary issue demonstrates. But the job wasn’t just handed to her. No, in fact, at first, it looked as though she wasn’t going to get it at all. She called the editor, John Greenwald, only to be told they didn’t have any positions open. Called again the next day – same story. On the third day, she picked up the phone again…only this time, she had what she wanted to say already written down. So, when she heard the familiar refrain, she coolly countered with, “I understand that. But I have this win-win proposal. It’s too much to go into over the phone, but if you take me to lunch one day this week, I will be happy to explain it.”

And it happened. Greenwald didn’t realize that Owen was semi-handicapped, and she ended up walking two blocks to meet him when she “could hardly walk from the car to the sidewalk. I didn’t tell him I hadn’t been able to walk two blocks in years.” But she managed to do it. She was that determined. And she told the editor, “I will work for you free of charge, and I will be the best employee you ever had. All I ask is a chance.”

Greenwald listened. Then he said, “Mrs. Owen, report to my office Monday morning. You will draw a paycheck like everyone else. You know why I hired you? I hired you because of your persistence. But never offer your services for free, or someone may think you’re not worth anything.”

It was her first big writing job. She not only got in on the anniversary issue but also developed two sections of it, including the “Remember When?” one. She drafted (read “ghostwrote”) 38 to 42 articles. She began doing research for the American Legion. She’d always hated research before, but now she found herself fascinated as she read first-hand accounts written when the Legion was formed back in 1918. “It just seemed like ghosts came out of the pages,” she reflects, getting caught up in the memory. “The musty smells…the yellowed, tattered pages….It was almost like touching the people. It was like going back 100 years and almost being there.”

Other writing jobs followed, including a gardening column in the local paper and a column on World War I in The Torch, the national newsletter for veterans. The creative talent had always been in her – she just hadn’t gotten any encouragement other than winning third prize in a writing contest when she’d been 13.

“I teach my students not to expect support from family and friends and do not share your work with them,” Owen observes with characteristic bluntness. “The family nine times out of 10 will cut your story down and take pleasure in doing so. Now, there are exceptions to the rule. My husband supports what I am doing – my children support what I’m doing.”

And that is really what Owen is trying to do through the Creative Writing Institute: give support to the cancer-stricken and the blind, the young and the elderly. If that sounds a little Statue-of-Liberty-esque…well, maybe the comparison’s not so far off. As Owen herself says, “We did end up dedicating the Creative Writing Institute to the underprivileged, but it came about in a way that I never would have suspected. Thank you, Mystery Lady, wherever you are. You have changed my life, as well as the lives of others.”

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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Last Light

A slightly different "Sketch People" post.  Remembering my mother, Shirley Banks  (3/25/1927 - 3/29/2008).


The cold early-spring light swept through Mom’s convalescent-home room, chasing away its dinginess and making it almost pretty. It brought to life the watercolor hummingbird hovering over the eternally blue morning-glory…touched the crewel embroidery and stained-glass bluebird hanging in the window…and finally settled on the rag doll and the white toy Angora cat that an old family friend and I had picked out for her. Mom had always loved dolls (she’d only had two growing up, and she wasn’t allowed to play much with the nice wax one) and fluffy white cats.

And Mom herself was having a good morning. She sat up in her chair, talking or, at least, trying to. In addition to her dementia, there were problems with her throat. Because of its narrowness, she had always choked easily: a lot of scar tissue had built up over the years, and a recent stroke had made it impossible for her to swallow on her own – ergo, a feeding tube. It also meant that her voice had a gurgly under-water quality that made it difficult to understand what she was saying.

But she was smiling, and her dark-brown eyes were shining. Her prettiness had come back to her, and her words – or what passed for words – tumbled eagerly out of her mouth.

So I listened and tried to keep some sort of conversation going. We had always had a rocky relationship, all highs and lows, no middle ground. We had argued our heads off, said hateful things, and made each other miserable. She had guilt-tripped me, and I had shut her out of my life so often and so loudly, the slamming of that particular door still echoed in my head, haunting me as we neared the end.

The light in the room was spilling onto Mom’s face. Or was it the other way around? I saw again the woman I had loved in between the fights. The one who’d gone antiquing with me, passing along her love of old and pretty things to me. Who’d rejoiced with me over the publication of my first novel and who’d listened and handed out what comfort she could after a bad break-up. Who had, despite the dementia creeping up on her, managed to slowly make her way through one of my stories and say simply, “It’s beautiful….”

“I’m proud of you,” Mom said now. Suddenly. Clearly.

And then, just as suddenly, the clarity was gone, and she could only make those strange gurgly sounds again. I stayed a bit longer, then rose to go.

“I’ll be back Tuesday for your birthday,” I told her. “Would you like me to bring you a violet?” Dad had bought her violets, knowing how much she loved flowers; and after his death, she’d taken to collecting china with violets on it because of the association.

When I came back with the violet a few days later, the picture had altered horribly, and there was no light anywhere. Mom was breathing shallowly, and her feet had turned blue – all signs that she was sinking fast, the nurse told us. My brothers and I sat there for several hours, talking quietly. Mostly to each other but once in awhile to Mom, just to let her know we were there. That it was OK for her to go.

Two days later, she took us at our word, slipping away while it was still dark. My sister-in-law and I came by later to clear out her side of the room. We left behind the clothing, the afghans, the doll, and the toy cat. We packed up Mom’s few remaining treasures and got ourselves out of the ugly, empty place as quickly as possible.

In Raymond Carver’s short story “A Small, Good Thing,” the couple that has just lost their son find unexpected comfort from the man they thought was harassing them. The walls break down between them as they sit there, talking with him in his bakery, and for a little while, their pain abates. The story reminds us that no matter how great the grief, there is always a gift, even if we don’t recognize it right away…something that gently, kindly nudges us from one moment to the next.

The hummingbird painting went home to my uncle, who had painted it for my mother, his oldest sister, many years before during one of her greatest griefs. The stained-glass bluebird went to a great good friend. My sister-in-law kept the embroidery piece, and I kept my mother’s words, the not-so-small good thing she gave me during that last conversation, before the light went out.


Mom on her honeymoon in 1948 and again a few years before her death in 2008.