In the fall of 2004, I entered Ellen Bass’s Thursday afternoon writing class in Santa Cruz for the first time with trepidation. Although I wasn’t entirely new to the experience, having driven to Oakland every Wednesday evening the previous ten years to meet with an amazing and talented group of women writers, I was anxious nonetheless. Ellen was a published author and poet whose work I’d read and admired. I wondered if her response to my poetry would be favorable. Yet, I desperately wanted to learn from her and to improve my craft. I was ready to be challenged.
That’s exactly what Ellen did. During the first few months, I gave her copies of my poems and she asked, “Connie, can you find a more appropriate metaphor?” Or, “What did you discover? Every poem has a turn leading to a discovery.” And, most important, “Perhaps you might explore the subject further, beyond the parameters of poetry. What is it that you really want to say?”
I realized I’d been proffered an alternative universe—prose, deliciously expansive and ripe with potential. So I bought a college-ruled Mead notebook and wrote whatever came to mind. Simple vignettes in the beginning, then full scenes with characters, dialogue, and description. Soon I had pages of material with a sense of connectedness: a family with three siblings and working parents; a girl who substituted perfectionism for love; a domineering mother who instilled fear in her youngest daughter; and a mother diagnosed with dementia-type Alzheimer’s.
It was my story, of course. At times I was stunned by my recollections. Did that actually happen? Why is it important? What did I learn? Satisfied I was remembering to the best of my ability, I pushed on. Some memories were easy to get on paper. Painful ones, however, held me hostage until I found the “right” words and the “best” details to accurately convey my meaning. I was still a perfectionist. Ultimately, most of the first draft of what would become Don’t Leave Yet filled multiple blue and black notebooks before being transcribed into a word document on my laptop.
The role Ellen played (along with my fellow classmates) was huge. She encouraged me to focus on voice, pacing, and the arc of my story. She helped me overcome my basic insecurities revolving around not being a good enough writer. I hadn’t abandoned poetry altogether, publishing a poem here and there in literary journals. But memoir was the form that could hold all I wanted to say. I told myself I could do it. I told myself it was important.