My friend and colleague Ali McKenna passed away earlier this week. Ali has been in my thoughts, as has her family. Not only has Ali inspired many high school students, but she was my teacher as well, and she had a real and lasting effect on my path as a writer, so I wanted to write a short piece in her honor here.
When I signed up for Ali's teacher-writer retreat, I'd been writing fiction for about a year. But just about no one beyond my immediate family--and only a few of them--knew I'd started writing. I wrote like crazy as a kid, and even as a teenager, but somewhere along the way, I stopped. Even when I started again, tentatively at first, but with a growing velocity, I was reluctant to admit that I was a writer, for that seemed a very foolish thing to admit. When I read the description of Ali's class, a writing retreat for teachers to be held on the grounds of a boy scout camp a few miles from town, I knew I wanted to go. At the same time, I was terrified. I signed up anyway, in no small part because I trusted Ali.
I still look back at that weekend as the weekend I "came out" as a writer. And it wasn't just because I signed up and showed up. It was because under Ali's guidance, I allowed myself to take risks and write like it mattered to me, because it did. With her warmth and humor, Ali created a place where I felt safe enough to admit that I am a writer. And with Ali, and the amazing group of teacher-writers who gathered around her that early June weekend, that didn't seem foolish at all. It actually seemed pretty awesome.
On the second afternoon, Ali pulled out one of her many writing prompts: a gigantic garbage bag filled with all sorts of random objects from masks to scarves. We all had to pull an object out of the bag, and we were to use that object as fuel for a piece of writing. I reached in and came up with a fishing reel. No pole or string, just the reel.
"I don't even fish," I said to Ali.
"Do you want to pull something else?" she asked evenly.
I looked down at the reel. "No," I said, even though I kind of did.
We had a decent length of time to ponder our objects and write our pieces. Some people started writing immediately. Others turned their objects over in their hands. I took my fishing reel and walked out of the cabin.
Though it was many years ago, I remember that afternoon so clearly. The beach was slightly damp, and the ocean slightly roiled with waves. It was windy, and a little drizzly, but not soak-your-bones wet. The sand slowed my gait. I walked until I lost sight of the cabin, of the people, of everything. And all the while I spun the handle on the fishing reel. Clickclickclickclickclick.
Eventually, he arrived. A dark-haired boy with old leather boots and scuffed jeans. A boy who carried a fishing reel--clickclickclickclickclick--as he walked across the playground blacktop. A boy with a story to tell.
That was the first time I wrote about Tommy Coast. I wrote about Tommy many times afterwards, and what started on that beach became my most personal piece of fiction, the first time I ever allowed myself, my greatest fears and wonders and pains, onto the page. And while I've moved on to new stories since "The Fishing Reel," it taught me so much about writing, and bravery and truth. And it was inspired by a teacher who believed in writing and bravery and truth, a teacher who believed in me. And so, just as that fishing reel, that clickclickclickclickclick, is still a part of everything I write, so is Ali.