After a freak car accident, I thought I was too broken to find love

I did it! After I spent the better part of four months working on an essay about how I found love after a deadly car crash left me wounded, and feeling ugly and unworthy, it has been published in the The Washington Post. This piece is not for me alone to read and remember how far I’ve come. It is for all of us who have been scarred and fractured by trauma – any kind of trauma. It is for those of you who still feel lost and alone and afraid. My essay, “After a freak car accident, I thought I was too broken to find love,” is my gift to you.

(Sorry if you have already seen the link to the essay.)

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Past Ten

Below is a piece I wrote at the urging of author, editor, and teacher Donald Quist. He asked me to contribute my reflections about how I’ve changed over the previous ten years to his project Past Ten in which various writers share similar recollections. As Donald says, the personal stories in Past Ten are a “testament to the transformative power of time and the human capacity to turn the unpredictable into art.”


June 21, 2007

It’s 2:06 p.m. The summer solstice. I’m sitting at my desk at the Vermont Lung Association, where I work as an administrative assistant. I’m tapping at the computer keys, logging contributions from donors into an Excel spreadsheet longer than this day. My fingertips turn numb with boredom. My vision blurs from all the lines and rectangles and numbers. Bringg, bringg, bringg. My head thumps with each shrill ring of the telephone. I answer the call from a board member, and pencil his message on a sticky note to be passed on to the CEO. But when I hang up I’ve forgotten his name. Bob? Jim? Ted? My brain’s gas tank is near empty, and I want to lay my head on my desk, nap away this day. I want to sleep off my traumatic brain injury, close my eyes against a diagnosis that still paper cuts my tongue each time I speak it.

It’s been three years since my head smacked against the pavement when a car mowed me down, and no amount of sleep, or even the continuous sunlight on this day can burn off the smog obscuring my mind’s eye from seeing with any kind of mental clarity. I want this day to end. But I must keep tapping, plugging in numbers and names and dates. Filling up the rectangles of a spreadsheet is like filling in the white spaces of my unsure-where-I’m-going-life. How long I’ll pretend I’m happy working here in an office that smells like a basement, with plastic window blinds that clack each time artificial air from the vent gusts its cold breath into the room, I don’t know.

Of course, I’d rather be standing by a newborn’s crib side, where I stood as a nurse for fifteen years. Where I changed diapers, bottle-fed infants their mamas breast milk, cuddled preemies in cotton receiving blankets. But that was before the crash. Now my broken brain couldn’t bear the constant noise of a neonatal intensive care unit: wailing newborns, alarming monitors, dinging IV pumps. That’s why I am here, at this desk, where it’s mostly quiet and I’m asked only to accomplish one job at a time, like filling in rectangle after rectangle. Because it takes all of me to get through this day, I don’t have the mental energy to imagine the formula or function of my future. So I keep tapping.

The planet has raced around the sun ten times since that day. A decade. Another summer solstice has arrived, and I’m still tapping at the computer keys. I’ve figured out my life’s formula, or at least I think I have. With each keystroke, I fill up my own spreadsheet, one I created in 2010, when I enrolled in graduate school for an MFA in writing. That spreadsheet I have replaced with draft after draft of my memoir, with my favorite quotes from authors, blog posts to write, books to read, more books to write.

My brain still must work hard to hold onto names, though, and it still gets low gas mileage. Words and phrases skid away from me, emerge in anagrams, end in ellipses or in incomplete sentences. But I now look forward to the longest day of the year. The sun equals hope; as the days expand, it’s hope that keeps me from tearing up my draft and throwing it in the trash. Hope is the formula and function that carries me through the winter solstice, into the next decade.

Please visit Past Ten to read more inspiring stories.


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What I learned at the Muse & Marketplace Conference for Writers

What I learned at this year’s Muse & Marketplace, Grub Street’s National Conference for Writers:

  1. “Brevity is not the soul of a good pitch.” You need to give magazine editors enough information to help them decide if your story, essay, or op-ed is a good fit for their publication (Adam McGee, managing editor of Boston Review).
  2. Before choosing which publishing path – traditional, small press, self-publishing, partner-publishing – is best, literary agent  April Eberhardt encourages us to answer the following questions: What is my goal? What is my timetable? How much time am I willing to put into searching for an agent? How much money am I willing to invest? How much patience do I have? How do I define success?
  3. Don’t buy a $12 glass of mediocre wine at the conference’s lit lounge event when you could take the elevator seven flights to your room, where you have a $12 bottle of cabernet rated 90 points by Wine Spectator.
  4. Characters in our stories should not fit into neat categories. “Real characters lack perfect insight” (Nathan Hill, author of The Nix).
  5. Go through the first 30 pages of your manuscript, and look at each paragraph, asking yourself where your book really begins (Sorche Fairbank, Literary agent).
  6. When rejections from editors or agents are making you feel like you should never have quit your day job, or you’re experiencing burn out, try writing in a new genre: if you usually write memoir, try fiction, or poetry (Jennifer Brown, author of the debut novel Modern Girls).
  7. Never have a resolution at the end of a chapter; you want to keep the reader reading (Adam Stumacher, author and educator).
  8.  When a Grubbie offers you either a chocolate or a mint before you head into the Manuscript Mart to meet with an agent, ALWAYS choose the chocolate, and do not eat it until after your meeting. Remember: Chocolate is a mood-lifter.
  9. Change the font in each draft of your manuscript you read. Because our eyes become accustomed to the same font, we might not see mistakes. Changing the font helps us to see the narrative with a different eye (Sorche Fairbank, Literary agent).
  10. Even if it takes you 15 years to finish your story, it’s worth it. “Whomever is intended to hear it will hear it” (Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize winner).


Photo used with permission from Grub Street.

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Writing Prompts

writing prompts

I recently attended a memoir writing retreat at La Finca in Vieques, Puerto Rico, where eleven of us gathered in the Caribbean breeze each morning to discuss work submitted by two separate participants. But before we plunged into the nitty-gritty of structure, voice, character development, and so on, we warmed up our brains each morning by spending fifteen minutes responding to a writing prompt provided by Elizabeth Cohen, award winning writer, poet, memoirist, journalist, steadfast writing mentor, and Assistant Professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh.

I like writing prompts, timed prompts; they drive me to write fast, to keep the pen moving, to not fret over whatever it is I’m writing about. Prompts force me to let it all out, to express what I otherwise would second-guess expressing. One of my favorite prompts Elizabeth offered us came from a Mary Oliver poem, “The Summer Day.” In the poem she says, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.” The prompt: “What is a prayer?”

Maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention to what Elizabeth asked us to respond to, because I heard her say this: “What does it mean to pray.” But, hey, that’s the beauty of prompts; they leave room for choice. So here’s what I wrote:

To be still and quiet is to pray. To walk barefoot in the grass, and feel each blade between the toes. To close your eyes against the day’s glare and turn inside yourself and breath out any knots and tangles. To breath in the memory of being carefree, of doing water angels and skipping stones on a midnight lake. To pray is to sing, to write, to call forward that which makes you still, still enough to listen to the sounds you cannot hear. It’s to hold close to you the heartbeat of what matters most to you. To pray is to remember that you are not alone, and that candy breezes have the capacity to carry you closer and closer toward the inside of you, deep into the uterine center of you. To pray is to imagine, to feel, to hold a butterfly in the palm of our hand.

I’d love to hear from others what it means to you to pray. (or if you’re good at paying attention, “What is a prayer?”) What other mind-limbering prompts do you have to share?

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Writing Dialogue

Do you fret over writing dialogue? Do you use dialogue as a filler because you’re not sure where to go next on the page? Well, I’m here to offer some suggestions, that is, on behalf of Rita Zoe Chin, the author of Let the Tornado Come, a brilliantly rendered memoir about her adult onset panic disorder and how she galloped through the storm with unwavering resilience. I met Rita during her writing craft session, “Essentials of Dialogue,” at this year’s Muse and Marketplace in Boston. Since most of us shiver when we hear “rules,” I’m here to assure you that her guidelines are just that, guidelines, though worthy ones I vote for keeping close by on your writing desk.

First and foremost, think of dialogue as having a purpose. Does it advance the narrative, develop the characters, highlight a relationship? When writing the earlier drafts of my memoir, I used to believe I had to get it exact: every word my mother or sister or brother said twelve years earlier. Well, we all know that memories are slippery at best, and what we remember from a dozen years ago may as well be categorized as fiction. When talking about memoir, the best we can do is get it as close to the truth as possible. That said, you don’t need to include every “um,” “uh,” and “oh” on the page. If anything, they’re distracting to readers. Imagine reading this: “Um, I don’t know. Oh, I see. Uh, let me think about that. And, um, I have a story to tell you, um, do you want to hear it?” No. Similarly, salutations like “Hello” and “Goodbye” are not needed. The same goes for nonessential pieces of information like what a character ate for lunch (I suppose if what the character ate moves the story forward in some way then it would be essential). As for accents, this is a tough one. They too can be distracting. And, believe it or not, adverbs do not make for good dialogue. Take a look at this example Rita shared: “She ripped off the wrapping paper and opened the box before he finished reading the gift tag on his. “I love it,” she said, happily.” It’s clear she is happy without having to say so, right? Then there are dialogue tags: I said, he said, she said. Our initial instinct may be to liven up these tags with more active verbs like “I uttered” or “He bellowed.” But, as Rita noted, “let the dialogue do the work.” In other words, get rid of the voice of the narrator. Look at it in the way Rita suggested: “Dialogue tags are there simply to guide us.”

There’s more, but for now, I’ll leave you with a savory tip from Rita: Listen closely to conversations among others: expression, tone, word choice, etc. Pay attention to dialogue when reading, when watching a movie or a play. Read your own dialogue out loud, marking words you stumble over. Maybe there are words unintentionally repeated. And remember: sometimes silence on the page says much more than dialogue.

Hope this helps!




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Under the Gum Tree: Interview with Author Melissa Cronin

under_the _gum_tree_interview

If you haven’t had the opportunity to read my personal essay, “Right Foot, Left Foot,” in issue 17 of Under the Gum Tree, below is an excerpt of my interview with the publisher, discussing the essay, and all its nuances.

Q. Throughout your piece, you allude to the accident that rendered you handicapped. A man named George Russel Weller drove his car into a crowd of people in Santa Monica, allegedly mistaking the gas pedal for the brake. Could you describe the accident in terms of how it affected you? How did it change the way you saw the world and other people?

A. The accident affected me in many ways—physically, psychologically, mentally. Before the accident, I had worked as a neonatal intensive care nurse, but my physical injuries prevented me from returning to that kind of setting: fast paced and physically and mentally demanding.

I was not a writer before the accident; the accident made me a writer. Though the accident was tragic—people died and many more were injured—it offered me an opportunity to see and interact with the world in a much different way. With my nursing career a chimera of my past, I had to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I had kept a journal after the accident, and, in 2009, when my husband returned to school (we married in 2004), I took a writing/research class with him. It inspired me to write. The teacher inspired me. I asked her to work with me as a writing mentor, and, from there, my writing took off. I write every day (or almost every day). Writing has spurred me to be more aware of my surroundings: a falling leaf, a flitting bird, lovers kissing in the park. And I am more open to listening to others share their struggles, whether they are physical, mental, or emotional in nature. Writing human-interest stories for my local newspaper allows me to interact with my neighbors and the broader community. It impels me to listen closely, to learn, to experience much more than my microscopic world.

Q. You used the mantra “right foot, left foot” as both a means of learning how to walk again as well as the title of your piece. Looking at what the phrase meant to you then and today, has its significance changed for you? Do you think the meaning of things can truly change for people, or are these associations stagnant?

A. I do not believe the meaning of “right foot, left foot” has changed for me. I am always, figuratively and literally, putting my right foot forward then my left (or vice versa). Whether I am out for a walk, climbing the stairwell, crafting an essay, revising my memoir … I am placing one foot forward then the other. That’s how I move ahead—one step at a time. Sometimes the steps are daunting ones, like when I returned to school at age forty-three. Eek! That was scary!

Yes, I do think the meaning of things can change for people. We grow up (or not), we meet new people, we face expected, and unexpected, challenges; the world changes and forces us to adapt. In that way, the meaning of things change for people.

The entire interview, along with other creatives, is now live on the magazine’s website.


Thank you, Janna Marlies Maron, Robin Martin, and the rest of the staff at UTGT for giving me the opportunity to share my story “without shame.”

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