Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Tribute Tuesday: Melissa


Sorry it's been so quiet on the blog front lately! I'll be rectifying that soon :)

I'll shake things up and do a non-family tribute today, although I still have plenty of family (both family of origin and family by marriage) to honor and thank.  But today, I'm going to pay tribute to someone without whose influence there probably would be no blog at all.

This person was one of two women who told me that I was a writer; furthermore, a good writer; and therefore, a writer who ought to publish.  I'm speaking of Melissa Madenski, herself a published author who was the writer-in-residence at Arbor School and worked with me when I was an apprentice in the ACT program there (then known as the ICCI) from 2006-2008.  We had seminars twice a week and every so often the seminar would be in the form of a writer's workshop, led by Melissa.  Oh, how I loved those days! Inevitably, they would start with a poem or prompt of some kind, some time of "writing our way in" (i.e. free writing to leave behind the thoughts and concerns of the classroom we had just left and prepare to write more deeply), time to share, more writing exercise focused on a topic (personal essay is the one I remember best), more sharing time…it was wonderful.

I know some of you reading that might shudder rather than sigh wistfully at my description.  Perhaps you hate writing.  But I can't think of a single person who would still hate writing after being in one of Melissa's writing workshops.  At the very worst, a person might go from hating it to tolerating it as a benign nuisance.  The vast majority of writing haters, though, would emerge their time under Melissa's wing with a renewed perspective on what writing can be and that they actually are better than they thought.  It seems to me that most people who say, "Oh, I hate writing," are mostly just afraid of it and feel bad at it.

This is where Melissa's genius comes into play.  Melissa is so warm, so gentle, so humble, so down-to-earth, and so genuinely interested in whatever you have to say.  She really can see the potential in the most feeble attempt and she always seems to know just the encouragement you need.  As a teacher, I now know how very difficult it is to give feedback that motivates the writer to improve, rather than just coming off as drudgery.  The key, I think, is to see and sing the praises of what is good, even if that accounts for 1% of what is on the page.  More than that, though, the key is to believe the best intentions of the writer.  It is hard not to slip into cynicism as a teacher who grades papers; at least, it was hard for me. "Is this really the best so-and-so can do?  I doubt it," I would often think.

This is where I never saw Melissa lose her compassion and optimism.  Even if she knew something wasn't the best we could do, she never scolded us for it.  Sometimes I turned in writing that was slapdash because I had forgotten about it.  When I admitted this, she would put her hand on my arm and look into my eyes and say, "I totally understand, Jenny.  I know how incredibly busy you are in this program."  That was it.  No judgment, no passive-aggression, nothing but love and understanding, which was a far more effective means to spur me on towards better things.

Melissa used to have lunch with me during my time in the program.  She would bring me different flavors of Yoplait yogurt to try: Boston Creme Pie, Apple Turnover, Strawberry Shortcake.  We sat in those tiny kindergarten chairs of my classroom and talked for half an hour.  I don't even remember if there was an agenda or something that we were trying to accomplish in those meetings.  When you're with Melissa, you know that you have her full and undivided attention, so whatever it is that you are talking about takes on a elevated importance without losing its comfortable conversational tone.  It's hard to describe, but she makes you feel as if you are genuinely her top concern at that moment.

Think about how rare that is nowadays.  Think about how many times you've been preoccupied while talking to someone by your phone going off, the radio on, the TV on, FB announcing some new must-see meme…I know I am guilty of this often.  It is a gift to give yourself fully to someone, and Melissa gave that gift in abundance to everyone she talked with.

I don't know that I would ever have thought of myself as a writer if not for Melissa (and Annmarie, but I'll get to her another time!)  I just thought that I liked writing, but didn't really see it as a gift or talent or even anything out of the common way.  Melissa encouraged me to keep writing, no matter what, and to try to get something published.  I have so far had a few personal essays published (two in the Oregonian, two on Burnside Writers Collective) and of course, I have this blog.  I'm excited to see where my journey of writing will take me, but even if no one ever reads another word I write, I'll still write.  It's just how I think.  Melissa is the same way.

I'm not in frequent contact with Melissa, but a few times every month, she sends a poem to me (and a lot of others, I'm sure) by email.  They are poems she has found, treasured, and pondered.  One of these days I will share one with all of you on the blog.  I love that poetry is so interwoven into her life that she's always finding new poems to share.  It's kind of like when I share viral Youtube clips of cats doing ridiculous things, only a billion times more literate and intelligent.  Maybe someday I'll get there.

Melissa, thank you for being so compassionate, gentle, wise, and encouraging.  I would not be the writer I am today if not for your presence in my life.

Melissa, speaking at our apprenticeship graduation ceremony

The apprentices and their beloved Melissa!




Life in the Cookie Jar

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