Scaffolding & Hope

Since spring has made its presence known, my mind has been occupied with two things, scaffolding and hope. If you missed it, the last post dealt with Choosing Hope, and somehow, while writing that, I neglected to include the following Emily Dickinson poem:

Hope is the Thing with Feathers

spring-robin_21176883  by, Emily Dickinson
Hope is the thing with feathers  
That perches in the soul,  
And sings the tune without the words,  
And never stops at all,  
And sweetest in the gale is heard;          
And sore must be the storm  
That could abash the little bird  
That kept so many warm.  
I've heard it in the chillest land,  
And on the strangest sea;         
Yet, never, in extremity,  
It asked a crumb of me.


So, hope. Hope and scaffolding, I said, had been my pre-occupations recently.

If you see your life as a work in progress, an ongoing construction and learning project, what is your scaffolding? What supports you?

I experienced a long winter, battling depression and feeling unmoored, ungrounded. In a conversation with a friend and pastor, she brought up the idea that I was feeling “unscaffolded.” It was the perfect image for me to latch onto and ponder.

There have been times in my life when I chose to blindly “go it alone”, and nearly caused my life to collapse in a heap of hedonism, perhaps even hubris. This was true after the sudden death of my father, when I was eighteen, the perfect age to turn to booze, pot and self-indulgence to avoid my grief. It took nearly crashing and burning to help me regain my footing, to allow my existing scaffolding to help me go on. I became a wife, mother and teacher, parts that allowed me to receive and to be scaffolding. When I left teaching at forty-one, the fact that I had two boys at home to continue parenting provided the structure I needed. My personal calendar was synced with their academic calendars and their extra-curriculars, sports, music, theater.

Memorial Day weekend of 2008, I heard the dreaded, “I’m sorry to say that you have cancer.” Two weeks later, my youngest graduated high school.

What was my scaffolding in those days? I faced breast cancer and an empty nest, but while I was sad, I still felt anchored. My scaffolding? Faith, family and friends. It was clear and simple. Later, after surgery and radiation, I found the focus and energy common to survivors. My new-found attention to my writing yielded results. Within my first year of survivor-hood, I stared down my fear of submission and published stories. I began a blog – supporting and encouraging other writers.

As my sixth year cancer-free birthday approaches, I’m wondering why I’ve struggled so this last year with depression, with feeling scattered. At times my collapse has been visible in my home. Unable to move, piles of mostly unread books, literary journals, bills, quarterly statements grew, then spread out and scattered, puddles of undone unknowns. Their presence shouted “loser” at me.

Guilty as charged, I conceded.

But even then, a tiny seed of hope stayed with me. It’s with me still. Maybe I was born with it. Maybe.

But I believe it was planted by family before I have memory. When my parents smiled at me, held me and loved me, they didn’t know they were also giving me the seeds of hope.

I recognize that hope is a weight-bearing pole in my scaffolding. The other three poles? Faith, family and friends. I’m not the artist in our family, but here’s a rough rendering of how I see this scaffolding now:



On the platforms, I see the names of different people and communities who have helped me in this construction project of my life. I haven’t written them in, because actually, I envision them more as pictures, decoupaged onto the platforms. My scaffolding is full of smiles in my mind. I’ve been blessed with too many wonderful family, friends and coaches to begin singling anyone out here. Sorry to my extra special ones! Hoping you know who you are.

In my writing, the platforms between the scaffolding poles (not the other kind of platform writers seek), has been the Red Oak Writing studio in Milwaukee, WI. I’ve made life-long friends there, as well as finding writers whose opinions I value….writers who are not afraid to say when something is not working in my words. Writers who would never offer, “that’s nice,” or “I really like that,” as their only comment on my work. Instead, I’ll get “this chunk slows for me,” or, “is that the right word? It tweaks me a lot,” or, “does the story actually begin here? Were you clearing your throat on the first two and a half pages?” Those are the comments a writer needs!

I’ve also gained writer friends and mentors from writing conferences — especially the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, Tin House, NY State Summer Writers Institute, Aspen Summer Words and Bread Loaf in Sicily. With this blog, with my coaching at Red Oak and with my responses to requests from writer friends, I try, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, to be a strong member of other writers’ scaffolding. The examples of my great teachers and coaches — Judy Bridges, Kim Suhr, Amber Dermont, Robert Boswell and Luis Alberto Urrea — have shown me the importance of being a giving writer. We all need strong scaffolding, but in a field that requires solitude in the creation, it can be challenging to find – and then remain tied to our scaffolding.

Seek and you shall find.


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Choosing Hope

Yesterday in my northern clime that’s had a brutal winter, snow visited us again. It’s not surprising, really, but it felt like too much. I had posted on Facebook once this winter during one of our many horrific “polar vortices,” that we’d love to open our windows and scream, “We’re mad as hell and we can’t take it anymore,” but we couldn’t, lest our tonsils freeze. That post brought many happy likes and replies. The snow felt like another unnecessary assault yesterday — somehow personal. I had learned that morning that a church friend had died after a brutal speedy visit from the vicious C word. But, as the world grew white out my picture window, I chose hope and posted this,

Snowing. Hard. But the daffodils have poked up from the earth. The grass is green. This snow is merely pretty rain, and my friend who passed from cancer last night is no longer in pain. I choose hope….even when the world is cold and my soul is sad. Choose hope, sometimes that’s enough.

The response to that post surprised me. It clearly struck chords near and far.

Here's what my daffodils looked like today, after yesterday's snow. They're still reaching skyward.

Here’s what my daffodils looked like today, after yesterday’s snow. They’re still reaching skyward.

Choosing hope can be difficult, there’s no denying that. In the darkest moments of tragic loss, or severe physical or mental pain, choosing hope may not even feel like a choice. But it is.

In the creative process, writers try to make something — something meaningful — out of pain, grief, loss and sadness in their characters’ worlds. At the Festival of Faith & Writing, I attended a session called, “Loss Illuminating Hope: A Conversation. Authors Andrew Krivak and Shannon Huffman Polson spoke about how their personal losses informed their writing. I give you some of their thoughts to consider:





(Paraphrasing from Andrew Krivak)— I have thought about the requirement of the writer to take in all information and create an amalgam, a distillation of language….turning horribleness into the beauty of language — accurate and yet beautiful.





(Paraphrasing from Shannon Huffman Polson) — Whether its fiction or nonfiction, the author faces the importance of telling a true story, being authentic – finding the truth of the narrative. …..I wanted to show the rawness of grief and to do that I needed to slice away what was not critical.



I’m afraid I got so wrapped up in the discussion that my notes were not great! Sorry I had so little to share above.  Following the session, I immediately bought both authors’ books. I picked up Shannon’s first because a friend had already recommended it to me. I could not put down North of Hope. The structure, the writing, the unflinching dive into loss and grief is a masterpiece. And, in the end, with Shannon, I still choose hope. (And, I’ll be opening The Sojourn soon. :-) )


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Precision in Descriptions — or, Two-timing Girlfriends and Five-day Drunks

“Precision is the most important element in crafting a piece of prose and in crafting a poem — in fact, in crafting any piece of writing, from an obituary to a grocery list to the name we give a new file on our computer.” Thus began the description of a session at the Festival of Faith & Writing held April 10-12, 2014 at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, MI. Novelist Bret Lott, would be presenting this session entitled, “In His Image: Why Precision Matters.” I had enjoyed Lott’s Jewel, and, thankfully for me, the workshop title didn’t scare me away.

Some of Lott’s talk was pulled from an essay on how important precision is to story. That essay is part of his new book, Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian. It’s high on my must read list!

I’ll paraphrase a few of Lott’s comments from my notes here — maybe some will resonate for you.

Bret Lott on Precision in writing:

Precision starts with life, the real, the experiences you’ve had….

…’d better pay attention to all the things happening around you. ….better have ears to hear and eyes to see….

Writing is a matter of living. Writing is a matter of being.

(You will be) steeped and scoured in self-doubt.

To write precisely, you must be there…..You are there – you are paying attention.

Lott shared the story, 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 by Richard Brautigan from Ramparts, December, 1967. From it, Lott focused on what he feels are two of the best descripitive sentences ever written:

“My entrance into the thing came about this way: One day I was standing in front of my shack, eating an apple and staring at a black ragged toothache sky that was about to rain.”

Have you had those moments when you’re reading something and a description or a sentence makes you set the piece down, shake your head and wonder if you’ll ever write something that perfect? A black ragged toothache sky??!!

“The novelist was in his late forties, tall, reddish, and looked as if life had given him an endless stream of two-timing girlfriends, five-day drunks and cars with bad transmissions.”

The rhythm in that list builds to a slam-dunk description. The reader has a fantastic image of who the novelist is in Brautigan’s story.

The precision required for every choice the writer makes — the words, the sounds, the images — calls for attention, as Lott spoke of, but also perseverance. Precision requires practice and practice, well, like the old saying says, “Practice makes perfect.”





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Feel Good Friday

The weather – this horrid, hard winter – has been slow to leave us in Wisconsin. Today is dreary and relatively cold. The signs of spring are around us, but a little difficult to appreciate when the skies are gray and gloom is everywhere.

Today, on my Facebook feed, I saw this Facebook Story post. It filled me with joy and hope. If you are needing some joy and hope too, give it a watch. Lift your eyes and say thank you to whatever you do or don’t believe in.

He’s getting his work published!!!

It’s getting done!


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Writing the Personal Essay

Publishers Weekly has a fabulous, you don’t want to miss it, article in today by Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams.

In How To Write A Personal Essay“, Jamison brings us into her process in marrying private experience with a broader public experience — or, as she more eloquently puts it:

Photo credit: Colleen Kinder

Photo credit: Colleen Kinder

I’m interested in essays that follow the infinitude of a private life toward the infinitude of public experience. I’m wary of seeking this resonance by extracting some easy moral from the grit and complication of personal particularity: love hurts, time heals, always look on the bright side. Instead, I’m drawn to essays that allow the messy threads of grief or incomprehension to remain ragged, to direct our gazes outward.

And isn’t that what a great essay can do? Created from the author’s personal experience, the essay resonates with readers for a variety of personal reasons and may draw their “gazes outward.” Suddenly, readers realize the connected-ness of their experiences to others.

In writing about the personal experience, Jamison talks about the need to consider the complexities of life surrounding that experience. She relates great examples by Joan Didion, Eula Biss and John Jeremiah Sullivan, and talks about her explorations in Empathy Exams. In the essay subject, Jamison asks us to consider what is the role of historical events on the personal experience? Are there greater connections to explore in the world around the experience? If those threads seem important and relevant, how they are used will determine their worth in the essay. “This is one of the central imperatives of combining personal material with history or criticism or reportage: each thread must do some work that isn’t being done by another; that can’t be done by another,” she writes.  Or, what is beyond the “false cloister of private experience” and how can writers connect that privacy to “everything beyond it”?

Jamison’s essay here is well, well worth your time if you have, or think you might, write the personal essay. In addition, she has truly piqued my interest in her collection, published by the impressive Graywolf Press. They have never let me down.



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Submit Something!


Time for a re-run. Submissions – and fear of rejection – are something all writers need to contend with now and again. In my experience, the “fear of rejection” monster seems to be particularly, well, monstrous for women. Perhaps these thoughts will resonate with some of you and better still, may help you move from paralysis to action. If it does, let me know, you can make me smile. I enjoy my role most as writing coach and cheerleader when I hear that my posts have proven useful to someone. 

Rejection is Just a Word: thoughts on submitting from an “emerging” writer

By pam

December 9, 2009 | Edit   (With a few updates, March 20, 2014)

I’ve sat in the hallowed writing studio at Red Oak Writing in Milwaukee feeling like a fraud. Could I, should I, call myself a writer with zero fiction credits?

We all know the answer is yes, I could and should have considered myself a writer without the credits.  But, let me tell you,  after winning the emerging author lottery this fall and getting three acceptances, it feels a whole lot better to have the credits, so, if you’re waiting for the day, I have some simple advice for you:  read, write, banish, send and share.

Read, Read, Read

While it should be a given that all writers read, are you researching markets as you read?  Are you checking out literary journals where you might submit your work? (Many journals have online excerpts and you may know a writer you could swap copies of different journals with, so don’t let cost hinder you.  If you can afford to subscribe to literary journals, please do, they need us as much as we need them.) If you’re trying to write short stories, are you reading them?  I was not until recently.  I have a strong preference for novels.  I’ve had to work to make myself read short stories, and, while I still prefer novels, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for short stories, and a greater confidence in my own ability to write them.  And, yes, I’ve found markets where I could see my stories fitting in.

Write, Write, Write

I was once the queen of excuses – life, family, everything conspired to prevent me from writing; but, the fact is, I could have carved time for myself to write regularly and I didn’t.  I journaled consistently, because that’s necessary for my sanity, but didn’t faithfully work on my stories.  And, yes, I could have.  How?  What if I had committed to one page a day for all those years?  Just one page!  I mourn those pages I didn’t give birth to, so if you’re at the life stage where finding time is difficult, find a way to write.   Don’t let the years vanish with your stories unwritten.

Besides letting life dictate my time spent on writing, I also struggled with “slow cooker syndrome.”  I wanted my writing to be strong, every word, from the get go.  I misunderstood the value of the first draft, the true first draft.

Have you given yourself permission to write crap?  Do it.   A technique that worked for me to breakthrough to producing true first drafts was doing NANOWRIMO .  If you can, next November, join the lucky people who produce a 50,000 word novel in a month.  I did it in 2008, following radiation and the accompanying fatigue –  I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I did.  And, in the process, I learned to give myself permission to just plain write, to not fret about, “Is it roundtable worthy?  Is it anything worth pursuing?”  It shut off those questions that had in the past made me write very slowly.  But, NaNo’s not for everyone.  If you need a different strategy for breaking through to increase your story production, maybe challenge yourself to increase your word count production by 500 words from week to week?  Or do a page increase challenge?  Put stickers on the calendar, eat a mega-good piece of chocolate cake when you finish a story, you can figure out how to bribe yourself.   Find what will work for you!

Banish, Banish, Banish

Banish what?  Your fear of rejections, that’s what.  Have you let it paralyze you, preventing submissions?  I used to dread the rejection boogie monster.  I let it loom mythic like something in a Tolkien world, raging and spewing and shrinking my puny confidence into nonexistence.

But, then life taught me to banish the fear of rejections.

Many of you know I had cancer in 2008.  There’s nothing quite like hearing your doctor say, “I’m sorry to have to tell you, you have breast cancer,” to shake up everything you’ve ever thought about fear.  Cancer is a word that deserves some of the fear that accompanies it.  Rejection is not.  Even though you may think rejections will kill you, they won’t.  They only have whatever power you give them.  Now when I get them, I seize the opportunity to either rework the piece, or, if I still believe it’s publishable but hasn’t yet found a home, I send it off to someone else.

Send, Send, Send

I’ve changed how I approach submitting.  Now I think about the markets I could submit to in three categories, similar to approaching the college application process:

*Top Tier – the “Very few people get in, but it’s worth a shot” category –  these are my dream journals, GlimmerTrainTin HousePloughsharesParis Review, etc.

*Middle Tier – “My grades are good enough, but what will the committee say?” – for me, this market includes many small literary journals that don’t pay, but produce good writing.

*Safety schools – These are journals I’d be “okay” with having my writing in, but they’re not my first, or even my second, choice, but they give my work an audience, and me a credit for my next submission.  (Important:  Never submit to a journal you would be embarrassed to have your name in.)

Some writers subscribe to the “blitz” method of submissions, but I’m not sure that’s helpful for any of us.  I’ve been sending each piece to five or six places, sometimes less.  I pat myself on the back when rejections come:  Good for you, getting the work out, try again.

Are you ready to submit?  Reading lots?  Writing lots?  Banishing fear?  Then, remember this:  Volume increases your odds.  I was trying to get to ten different pieces out before the end of the year (a HUGE increase from my past production), but when I was at seven submissions, I got those three acceptances, so I had to work hard to get more out.  I use to track my submissions and help find markets. (They charge a fee since this post first ran, but for me, it’s worth the money — $50/year or $5/month.)  I also highly recommend

Share, Share, Share

I’m part of a marvelous writing community at Red Oak Writing. If you can’t find anything involving human beings in your neck of the woods, don’t forget, there are online communities too – some writers find what they need at Fictionaut. Go to Google university and see what else is out there. Find a support group if you don’t have one, and then, be a giving part of that community.  Remember, we need each other.  The writing life can be a lonely life.  We struggle with our insecurities.  When one of us succeeds, we all are thrilled.  When one of us feels down — because let’s face it, rejections still aren’t going to be fun — we can prop each other up.  So, share your successes.  Share what you learn in your rejections.  Share journal suggestions with fellow writers.  When we support each other, the odds increase that we will all persevere until we reach our individual writing goals.

Never give up.  Your writing deserves, and will get, its audience.  Believe it.  Read, Write, Banish, Send, Share.  Get to it.


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P,Q,R,S: Pizza, Quality, Revising, SUPERBO!

A note from Pam — Many thanks to my friend, Kathy Lanzarotti, for providing this great post (and pizza recipe!). It will give you things to think about in revising, as well as make you hungry. Don’t miss the recipe at the end – I can’t wait to try it. 

P,Q,R,S: Pizza, Quality, Revising, SUPERBO!

By, Kathy Lanzarotti

Every writer has a system for revising, the one method that gets the job done for that writer. It’s unique for them, calling on lessons gleaned from others. I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, but I only started cooking twenty years ago, after the birth of my first daughter. I realized that the poor little girl could not eat Kraft macaroni and cheese every day, so I’d better start learning how to make a meal. What I found out was that cooking is also a creative pursuit — one where each recipe or dish screams for you to leave your own individual mark on it.  There is so much freedom with cooking, much like writing fiction. You can add a little bit of horror, a little bit of mystery, some romance, all within the broad category of literary fiction.  Making a pizza at home is a lot like writing a short story. Let’s take it step by step:

Step One:

Whether you make your own, pop it from a can or purchase it at the grocery store, you will wind up with a big hunk of dough, all cozy in its little ball or seized up in a rectangle in the center of your baking sheet. It is not even near ready. This is your first draft. Those nascent thoughts and characters; bits of dialogue you’ve been hoarding, and the chunks of text that came to you in traffic. Plop them all down.


Step Two:

Using the tips of your fingers push down into the center of the dough and spread it in an even layer to fill up the pan (don’t forget to patch any holes!). Do the same with your words. Those skimpy sentences need to be filled in with detail and spread into a cohesive piece. Find the holes, find the gaps too big for a reader to leap across and provide the transitions.


Step Three:  

In order to make your pizza tasty you need high quality olive oil, kosher salt, cracked pepper, and some good Italian seasoning before you even think about toppings. Same with your story. You need the best words you can find, some fun and original plot hooks, and  strong characters.  You want your reader to be hungry for what you have to say.  You don’t want your readers, or your eaters, to leave before the whole thing is gone.

Step Four: 

Now for the good stuff. These are the finishing touches that in this stage of writing is what makes your story, yours. This is your homemade sauce, your choice and combination of cheeses, the fresh basil (which is a must –but add it after it comes out of the oven otherwise your fresh herbs will end up sad, droopy and black). You’re almost done!  In this stage of writing revision, you’re giving the manuscript another go over — any weak characters? Spice them up. Any weak words or sentences — this is the time to fix them.


Step Five: 

Bake that baby. This can be tricky. This is the last stage and where I myself enter the murky territory of overwriting. Yes, folks, there can be too much of a good thing, and both your story and your pizza will be overdone, and nobody wants that. So keep an eye on it!


Obviously, I’m talking about revision here. I understand that nobody writes a good story in five easy steps, but you get the idea. It goes without saying that the more you write, or cook, the better the results. I’ve ended up with crusts that were soggy or burnt, I’ve incinerated basil that was supposed to go on after cooking (see above). But now after years of making pizza I’ve got it down to a science. Same with writing, if I may paraphrase the old saying that compares another activity to pizza, even if what you write is bad, it’s still pretty good, because you are actively writing, and honing your skills, and that is half the battle. You are getting practice, and wonderful little bits of scenes and dialogue, and characters that you can use wherever you wish.  Whatever it is — writing, painting, playing an instrument or making a pizza — it’s a labor of love. And it’s important. You will be rewarded for your patience and care.  Now go grab a pizza cutter, open a nice bottle of Chianti and mangia!


I love this quick and easy recipe for Margherita Pizza  from Bon Appetit Magazine( Feel free to embellish as you wish!:

1 13.8-ounce tube refrigerated pizza dough

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 12-ounce bag cherry tomatoes, stemmed

1 garlic clove, pressed

1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, coarsely crushed in plastic bag

1/4 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper

1 4-ounce ball fresh mozzarella in water (ovoline), diced

4 ounces whole-milk mozzarella, diced

1/3 cup chopped fresh basil leaves plus small leaves for garnish

Position rack in top third of oven and preheat to 425°F. Unroll dough on heavy large baking sheet; pull to about 12×8-inch rectangle, pinching any tears to seal. Fold over edge of dough to make border.

Heat large skillet over high heat 2 minutes. Add oil, then tomatoes; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sauté until tomatoes are charred and beginning to break down, about 5 minutes. Transfer to large bowl. Mix in garlic, fennel, and crushed red pepper. Using back of fork, crush tomatoes in bowl, leaving large chunks intact. Season mixture with salt and pepper. Toss cheeses and chopped basil in medium bowl.

Sprinkle cheese mixture evenly over dough, right up to border. Spoon on tomato mixture in dollops, leaving some cheese uncovered. Bake pizza until crust is crisp and brown, 25 to 30 minutes.

Loosen pizza with metal spatula and slide onto board. Garnish with basil leaves.


Kathy Lanzarotti lives in Delafield, WI with her husband and four daughters. She won the Wisconsin Writers Association's Jade Ring contest for short fiction with her story, "Have You Seen Me?" She is currently working on her first novel. She previously posted at PamWrites about  Writers and Haunted Hotels.




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Pete Seeger: Back to the Old Brown Earth

Pete Seeger, social activist and folk singer, died yesterday.  One of my favorite singers, Bruce Springsteen, is a big Seeger fan, and so of course, I adore this picture:


I love Seeger’s version of “How Can I Keep from Singing, ” especially the  first two verses. Click on the verses and you’ll hear him sing the song:

It’s occurred to me often that all creatives can substitute their own passion in place of singing…. How can I keep from writing? …drawing? …..dancing?  An echo in our souls calls us to do that which we love most. Thank goodness Pete Seeger responded to that echo with his own brilliant voice.

And, one last song from Pete, because naturally, he gave us the best eulogy of all.



To my old brown earth
And to my old blue sky
I’ll now give these last few molecules of “I.”

And you who sing,
And you who stand nearby,
I do charge you not to cry.

Guard well our human chain,
Watch well you keep it strong,
As long as sun will shine.

And this our home,
Keep pure and sweet and green,
For now I’m yours
And you are also mine.

Words and Music by Pete Seeger (1958)
(c) 1964 (renewed) by Stormking Music Inc.

Adios, Pete Seeger. Thank you for sharing your gifts and encouraging so many others.

#happywriting (or dancing, singing, drawing) :-)



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New Year, Old Issues: Depression and Writing

“It’s only words, and words are all I have to take your heart away….”

Some readers of PamWrites know that since my cancer diagnosis in 2008, I have struggled with clinical depression.  I’m in a boggy way, at the moment, for lack of a better term and so, I come to the blog, not to whine, but to battle my way up. Writing is as necessary to my physical and mental well-being as breathing. Yet, I haven’t been doing my morning pages consistently, I haven’t been sharing my thoughts about writing here, I haven’t been consistently working on new work and revising other work.

I ended 2013 with a crazy amount of travel, some “good” – meaning palm trees and margaritas were involved or precious family members were visited, but some “bad” – meaning a dear one was laid to rest, and precious family members were visited, as well as emotional issues were re-visited. In that time, I let my writing life slip in importance. So, I am here to say that I know, for me, I must get back to the pages, the keyboard, the writing groups. I must acknowledge — publicly — that I am ashamed of the time I have wasted playing ridiculous computer games. Does that mean I’ll instantly stop? Probably not. I also acknowledge that I’m human and weak, in many ways.

But time doesn’t stop even when depression seems to make my brain stop wanting anything meaningful. So, well aware that moments are precious, I return to PamWrites in the hopes of reconnecting with myself, with you and with words — and to paraphrase the BeeGees, “it’s only words, and words are all I have, to save my heart today.” Have a listen if you have another few moments, and #happywriting, or at least, hopefully, #writing.



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Thankful for Dedicated Coaches

A friend of my youth, from my gymnastics days, has finished an exceptional coaching career at Westfield High School, in Westfield, MA. In her own right, Joanne Egan Hewins, is a marvelous person. She has managed to share her passion, her competitive drive and her hard work ethic while inspiring others and assuredly, transforming lives. Last week, before winning Western Mass — again — MassLive posted an excellent article about the career and dedication of Joanne – or, to me, always, EGAN!!

We met in a gym at the Westfield YMCA, back in the early 70s. Our first coach, Joan Hicks, challenged us, inspired us and loved us. And somewhere, in the grown-up world that I wasn’t privy to, Mrs. Hicks pissed off someone’s (or many) parents….and she was gone. Just like that. Our mentor disappeared. Rumors flew, but all I cared about was how much I missed her. (Later she coached at Yale University and now, sadly, she is truly gone.) Next, we were coached by a fine young man, Percy Hill. And again, we were challenged and inspired and cared for. Below, from the Percy days, is a shot from the Westfield Evening News of our team after a big win. I’m third from the left, Egan is fourth from the left, and yes, we have similar hair, glasses and leotards on. That was bff-ing in 1974.



The primo  gymnastics school in western Mass. then was in Springfield, Pioneer Gymnastics, coached by Leo Leger. When Percy was ready to move on, many of us moved from the Y to Pioneer. Where Mrs. Hicks and Percy had guided us from the beginning ranks to intermediate and, in some cases, advanced, Leo was coaching all levels, including elite. Indeed, one of our teammates, Marcia Frederick, was destined to go on to the US Olympic team, where she amazed the world…..but only the world who watched the boycotted Olympics of 1980. During those years at Pioneer, high school and boys crept in. My high school, Hampshire Regional had a team, and a fine coach, Diane Parker. I competed for both Pioneer and my high school; suffering a severe ankle injury at the Regional Junior Olympic qualifying meet for Pioneer.

Gymnasts are never strangers to injury, but some injuries are weirder than others. Joanne cracked a vertebrae in her neck in a freak accident at Pioneer. She left the gym for a long time and our worlds separated. Her high school, the one she later coached to numerous state and regional titles, did not have competitive gymnastics in those days, so we didn’t even have the chance to bump into each other at meets. Back in the seventies, it was possible to lose a friend, even a good one. In recent years, thanks to Facebook, we’ve found each other again. I know of her long-held dream of owning her own gymnastics studio, of her regrets that dream never came true. I know of her adoration of Leo as a coach, of her deep, deep sadness that he has slipped into the clutches of Alzheimers. I’ve learned, without surprise and with so much thankfulness, of her amazing career at Westfield High. Indeed, last week they won their seventh straight Western Mass title!

Joanne Egan Hewins created a program at Westfield High School. She gave her school and her community the one thing she would have loved the most in her youth. She owned a gymnastics studio there, even if only now she’s realizing it.

You owned it, Egan. Own that.

Her decision to retire from coaching was not easy, but the online and media love-fest happening for her must ease the pain a bit. As I see the pictures of Joanne (Joj to her athletes, Egan always to me), I feel the presence of Mrs. Hicks, of Percy and Leo. I know that their excellent examples served Joanne well. I know that someday, one of her former athletes, will be positively influencing some other young lives. And I think of the words of Ray Bradbury:

“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.

It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

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