Years ago when I was feeling creatively stunted and questioning my ability as a writer, I stumbled upon Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I was utterly convinced of my lack of talent and hoped her book might work as some magic elixir. It didn’t transform me instantly into the writer of my dreams. I’m still working on that. What it did, however, was teach me some things about the creative process.
A lot of Cameron’s New Age ideas were hard to digest at that time and place in my life. She talked about asking your Higher Power, whomever or whatever that might be, for help. “Once you accept the idea that it is natural to create, you can begin to accept a second idea—that the creator will hand you whatever you need for the project,” she wrote. “The minute you are willing to accept the help of this collaborator, you will see useful bits of help everywhere in your life.”
The idea of such synchronicity at work seemed as likely as having George Clooney show up on my doorstep. (Sorry, Hub. Just needed an apt analogy there.) In the real world it takes hard work to succeed or a lucky break, or maybe some combination of both. For years I believed that with such ferocity that I would frequently tell people, “I make my own luck,” which was true on some level.
Here’s the problem with my former worldview: When real synchronicity occurs, there is no mistaking it. It’s only in recent years as I’ve made a serious commitment to my creative writing that I’ve witnessed this force at work. The Historical Novel Society, of which I am a member, has kindly included my essay about one such instance as part of their Stories of Serendipity series.
As I complete my first novel, I’m awestruck by the help I’ve received seemingly out of nowhere. Still, none of it was going to solve my lack of confidence—or so I thought until this past summer. My husband and I were vacationing in July with his family in Sicily. Staying in a picturesque, yet remote coastal town, we hadn’t heard another American’s voice in almost two weeks. That is until one day when my husband was hanging laundry on the line outside his uncle’s apartment, and below him were a couple of lost, English-speaking tourists. He called down to them and soon learned one of the two was from New Jersey, just like us. They laughed at the coincidence, he gave them their directions and they went on their way. Several hours later while my husband and I were having a late-afternoon espresso at a café in town, he spotted the couple on the piazza. Sure enough they started walking our way, so my husband waved and they came to our table.
“We sure are a long way from New Jersey!” said the man. “And Brooklyn,” added his female companion.
That’s when I perked up. “Brooklyn?” I said. “I’m from Brooklyn.”
The next words out of her mouth floored me: “I used to teach at South Shore High School.”
Now what are the chances of running into someone more than 4,500 miles from home who happened to teach at your high school? (One of hundreds of high schools in New York City, by the way.)
It turns out she taught English, though she left about six years before I arrived. But still she had my attention because for years I’ve been looking for one of my high school English teachers, Jane Fields, the person who had the greatest impact on me both as a reader and writer. In Jane’s class (of course we called her Ms. Fields back then) we had the good fortune to delve deep into English lit, as far back as Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In our second semester, she introduced us to American classics including, The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises. I also wrote my first piece of fiction for Jane. The assignment she gave was to emulate Hemingway’s journalistic style by writing three chapters in the first person about life as a Brooklyn teen. She loved my piece so much that she asked for a copy to keep. It was the first time anyone offered me such praise for my writing. Though being 16 and a far worse procrastinator than I am now, I never got around to giving Jane the copy she requested. It has haunted me ever since.
Unfortunately Jane was long gone by the time I sought her out, and my Internet searches for her were fruitless. Now sitting in a Sicilian café with possibly one of her former colleagues, I figured it was worth a shot.
“Do you happen to know Jane Fields?” I asked.
“I just spoke to her this morning,” the woman replied.
It turns out this stranger—who incidentally was staying in a town two hours away and was visiting our village only for a short while—was best friends with the first person to recognize my gifts and believe in me as a writer. And that was how I got to thank my 11th-grade English teacher after almost a quarter century.
I visited Jane last month at her lovingly restored brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn. We enjoyed an alfresco lunch and a leisurely conversation, alternately reminiscing, catching up and getting to know one another anew. She pulled out pictures of our class trip to The Cloisters, back when I had my big 80s hair and wore a garish, oversized purple varsity softball jacket. She also gave me a tour of her historic house and beautifully tended garden. It could not have been a more perfect visit.
Before I left, I gave Jane the work of fiction I had promised her all those years ago. We sat on her sofa and she laughed aloud and nodded frequently as she re-read the assignment I had written for her. I did the same while perusing some of her recent poems and bitingly humorous vignettes.
There’s nothing more assuring than watching someone engage with your work. And if I could accomplish that as a first-time fiction writer at age 16, I certainly am capable of it today.
That was all I needed.
I understand now what Julia Cameron meant when she wrote, “I have learned, as a rule of thumb, never to ask whether you can do something. Say, instead, that you are doing it. Then fasten your seat belt. The most remarkable things follow.”