Just Another Writer–Chapter 5

I had the whole book, in piles of two or three pages, sometimes five or ten, spread out on the floor of the living room and dining room of 3322, putting it together like a jigsaw puzzle. The collective had a much larger floor than I did in my small apartment on Buckingham. I worked all day long, trying one order after another, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. At times I’d sit on the maroon velvet Victorian couch and just stare. People walked in and out, said hi but didn’t interrupt. Somebody asked me if I’d be finished before dinnertime so the collective could eat. I said I hoped so, but I’d pick up the piles whether I was or not. I don’t remember how that afternoon turned out. It blends in with all the other afternoons, as well as the mornings and evenings that we worked on a book we had thought was finished.

Linda Lee was a great editor. We worked on the book for several months after we signed the contract, bringing it up to her standards. She accepted without reservation the approach we had taken and the voice we had created for the book, and she worked with us to make it what we wanted it to be. That’s a rare thing and an important quality in an editor. Too often, they work–and pressure you–to make your book what they would have written themselves. Considering that Linda went on to be a writer, this quality was particularly remarkable. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe writers are more likely to be respectful of the purposes and intentions of other writers. Linda set us to doing more thinking, more writing and, definitely, more organization. Her gentle demands taught us both a lot about putting together a book.

That last year was in some ways far less difficult than the first two, but we were wearing out and had less resilience. I was still keylining, and Andra was now working as a photo retoucher. We were finding solace in the clean, tangible, unambiguous work of the technical artist. But the rest of both our lives had been bruised by increasing depression and anger.

One day, Andra came over to my apartment and found me in a kind of dull-eyed malaise. We worked a little and talked a little. Before she left, she asked me what was making me happy those days. I’m sure I answered with a thin, bitter smile. She asked me if I could think of anything, anything at all that would make me happy–something I could do myself. I told her I’d like to make music, but I didn’t know how to play an instrument. We went on to other possibilities and at last she left me there, just as dull-eyed as when she came in.

But the next day, when I went to work, I was reminded that I had keylined a catalog of supplies for classrooms, including musical instruments. I dug out a printed copy of the catalog and found, among the castanets and tambourines, the autoharps. Anyone can play an autoharp, not like Maybelle Carter, but well enough to get out a tune. Only teachers and school systems could order from the catalog, but Bob talked to his client, and I was able to buy my salvation for sixty dollars. For the next eight or nine months, I came home from Bob’s and, when I wasn’t working on the book, I wrote songs. I wrote dozens of them, with dumb three-chord melodies and funny lyrics. Every Friday evening, I went over to the Women’s Center, which had now moved up the street, and sang my latest songs to women who liked anything that made them laugh. Andra was right. I really needed something, anything, that dependably made me happy.

The day finally came when Linda said we were finished. The book was ready to go to the printer. Andra and I thought of it as ‘out of our lives.” As Mary Roberts Rinehart would say, “Had we but known.”

In the meantime, I had started helping a woman I was crazy about on a wonderful project. Eunice Hundseth, a medical photographer who also visually chronicled Chicago’s women’s movement, had decided to open a restaurant. Since she had little more capital than I had when I opened the bookstore, she settled on a soup restaurant. She had two homemade soups on the menu each day–one meat, one vegetarian–served with homemade bread, and with fruit soup for dessert. She called the restaurant Susan B.’s and decorated it with feminist art. It was open to everyone, but a feminist sensibility reigned, and it became extremely popular.

First, however, the space she had rented had to be transformed. To give you an idea of what that entailed, I will simply say that while we were cleaning the kitchen, I asked Eunice what kind of seeds the former owners used in their cooking. They were everywhere, all over counters and floors and far back into cupboards. Eunice managed to stop laughing long enough to tell me they were mouse shit. In spite of my rubber gloves, for the next few days I washed my hands like Lady Macbeth.

The day of Susan B.’s grand opening, a half dozen of us were still painting and polishing when Eunice suddenly announced that she didn’t have any soup recipes. She didn’t know how to make soup. Fortunately, one of the other women made a knockout vegetable soup and I had a recipe for sausage lentil given to me by that long-ago gourmet director of the Press. There was soup that night, and Eunice started her recipe file with those two, which were still on the menu when she closed because of too much success several years later.  (That’s another story, and Eunice should write that one.)

When the dust of the grand opening celebration settled, I decided to get out of town, do a little traveling, think about something besides the book and my, by then, failed relationship with Eunice.

I bought a train ticket that let me get on and off the train wherever I wanted. They don’t sell that kind anymore, but it was a great ride while it lasted. I made a special compartment in my backpack for my autoharp, which weighed easily twenty pounds, and headed out. I planned to look in the phone book wherever I ended up and call whatever women’s organization was listed. Then I’d ask for a couch for the night. We’d lent our couch many times at 3322. That’s how we got Molly. I certainly didn’t have money for hotel rooms.

My first stop was in Iowa. I was changing trains there and had an overnight layover. I was off the train, and it was headed into the distance, when the station master announced that he was closing the station for the night. It was midnight. I certainly wasn’t going to find a women’s center at midnight in Burlington, Iowa, but there was a hotel across the street from the station and if there was one thing it didn’t look it was expensive. There were two women standing near me in the station, and I asked them if that hotel was safe. One of them shrugged and said, “We stay there.” So I crossed the street, paid my two dollars, and was given a room key. I got lots of stares, but no one bothered me. (And yes, it took me a while to realize what the two women’s occupation was.)

The room was classic film noir, down to the neon sign shining through the window and the cigarette burns on the worn chenille bedspread, which I lay down on top of. Then I realized that I had no alarm clock, and this was not a place with wake-up service. My connecting train left at seven. So I sat up again, got out a book and read through the night.

That was the beginning of my rest and relaxation journey. I couldn’t have asked for better. A couple of stops later, I arrived in Denver. The phone book yielded a place that turned out to be a women’s shelter. I wasn’t their usual sort of patron, but they let me stay for a couple of days. Then one of the volunteers who worked there offered me a couch. I met a number of her friends and we traded news about what was happening in the women’s movement in various places I’d been and the places they’d been. I told them about the book, and one of the women asked if I’d like to have a real rest. She owned a mine shack up in the mountains. She’d fixed it up, but it had no electricity or indoor plumbing. She and her partner would go up there with me, check things out, and then leave me there for a week.

Of course I accepted the invitation and we left the next day. The place was in the mountains above Golden. It was one room, with oil lamps, a couple of comfortable beds, a nice chair or two. I don’t remember it very clearly.

I remember the silence. No cars or people for miles around. I remember the view. The mine shack overlooked a meadow, with more mountains in the distance. Sheer, vast beauty. I remember the tears that blurred the view as I began to cry, for everything in the damned world that wasn’t like this.

After awhile I started walking up the hill behind me until I was tired and hungry. Then I went down into the shack and put together some dinner. I was reading as I ate when I realized that the light was going. I lit the oil lamp, but soon there was too much darkness outside for it to overcome. It was nowhere near time for me to go to bed and I couldn’t keep reading. I played my autoharp for awhile, but I couldn’t see to write down a new song. I felt a kind of panic just from being alone with my thoughts, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I lay down. What I didn’t want to think about would take possession, move in like a visitor in a Pinter or Albee play, smirking and threatening.

It was a difficult night, but I woke up with the sun and wore myself out walking and the next night was better. The next was better than that. After a few days, I was beginning to like the idea of being awake when there was light and asleep when there was darkness. I did a lot of healing in a short time, but there was a lot more to do. At the weekend, my hostess came back up, with several friends in tow, and announced that we were going to make a garden.

A patch of meadow soil had already been turned in preparation for planting vegetables, and a small ranch nearby had provided fertilizer from its pasture–thoroughly dried cow manure. We all sat down in the dirt and started breaking apart the crumbly cow patties, working them into the soil. The sun was warm and, after awhile, one of the women took off her shirt. A few moments later another followed suit. It was as completely unselfconscious as guys taking off their shirts to play volleyball. Soon, we were working in the sunlight bare from the waist up. And if you don’t think that was a transcendent moment for me, you just haven’t crumbled enough dung.

We all went back to Denver the next day, and I got back on the train. I got off at Cheyenne for awhile and a couple of other places. And then I was in San Francisco. I would end up staying with a really lovely woman and her daughter, but the first night I treated myself to the YWCA. I dumped my stuff in the room and headed out to explore, making one of my irregular phone calls back to Chicago.

There was news. Farrar, Straus had called and left a message. We had our first review, in Publisher’s Weekly. James had no idea what it was like.

Of course I had to find it. I headed straight to the library, but the issue was too new. They didn’t have it on the shelf yet. I went into newsstands, where I was told that PW is not sold on newsstands; I had to find a bookstore. There are a lot of bookstores in downtown San Francisco, but every one I went into said they didn’t have that issue yet. Finally, in one last bookstore, a young man told me that he thought it had just come in the mail. He dug into a stack on his desk, while I stood waiting, barely able to stand still, and then he handed it to me. It took me a moment to find the review, but there it was, with a box around it. This is how it began.

“Sharp as a karate chop…..”

They were all like that, all the reviews. They came out one by one in the weeks to come, as I traveled to Los Angeles and then to Flagstaff and then, finally, back to Chicago. Farrar, Straus sold out three printings before the publication date, more than twenty thousand books.

Click here for Chapter 6

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8 Responses to Just Another Writer–Chapter 5

  1. Healy Thompson says:

    You know, when you’re growing up, you love your aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents, etc. because they’re kind and funny and fun and family. You love and admire your Aunt Dean because she carries you over her shoulder like a sack of beans for the brief period in your life when you’re small enough for that. And then as you get a bit older, you love and admire her because she takes you on adventure hikes in Oklahoma with your brothers and cousins and then helps you set up a “museum” at Toppy Hill afterward with all of the artifacts from your adventures. And you love and admire her because she and Michael have cool costume stuff in their house and make a mayonaise/mustard dip for grilled chicken as an appetizer and play improv games with you.

    As you get older, you’re able to read her newest books as their published starting with “Feeding on Dreams: Why America’s Diet Industry Doesn’t Work and What Will Work for You.” And you appreciate when she gives donations in your name as a birthday present and organizes a holiday gift program with proceeds going to various community/non-profit organizations. And so you start to learn about the work that she’s doing and the fuller person that she is.

    Then you study women’s studies in college and learn (from your parents probably) that your Aunt Dean wrote a groundbreaking book about rape. Then you study history and women’s studies in grad school and use her books on black women (and her suggested reading lists, as well) in your school work. And then you flip through the pages of a “Gay Chicago” coffee table book at the Toronto Women’s bookstore and find a photo of your Aunt Dean and a write-up of Pride and Prejudice. And you read the sections about your Aunt in “Finding the Movement” and wish that someone would just focus more on her and write more than a few paragraphs or a few pages about it. So then you figure that you might just have to find the time (and convince your aunt to find the time) for you to do an oral history. And THEN she decides to write her memoirs and you may not have to do that oral history, after all. (Although, I’m guessing there could be an entire memoir for any one of these chapters, so there’s probably still work to do . . . )

    Anyway, all of this is to say, Aunt Dean, that I think you’re pretty darn rad, and it’s really fun, as an adult, to learn about you in a whole new way. (I also think the rest of my family is pretty darn rad, and when they write their memoirs–or you ghost write them for them?–I will tell them, too.)

  2. Healy Thompson says:

    eek! “their” should OBVIOUSLY be “they’re” in the second paragraph of my comment. . . .

  3. Christine says:

    Frankly, my dear…. it makes me cry. For all the ways this, and you, and the history is so …. Real. And. I’m not sure. Honest? Clear? Oklahoma?

  4. Olga says:

    Kathleen, wow! this is just amazing. Life is full of stories and you have an enriching way to tell them. I love your writing.

  5. susandl says:

    Your writing is open, frank, and carries the reader along in exploration. Thank you for sharing!
    Healy’s comments attest to the impact you and your writings have in her life.

  6. Carolyn W says:

    You tell your adventures and struggles in such a way that the reader truly shares them. Tremendous. Thank you.

  7. PJ says:

    Kathleen – thank you for weaving this beautiful and moving tapestry of words. Each Chapter has been a gift, and I can’t wait to unwrap the ones still to come.

  8. Pingback: Just Another Writer Chapter Five Is Up | kathleenthompsonwriter

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