Dressed in black, unadorned by jewelry, the lean woman stands in front of the class like an exclamation point, a dark stroke in this bland room. We students sit and face her — ten women who’ve come here to the Mendocino Writing Conference eager to learn about nonfiction from an author we admire, Eleanor Cooney.
The first thing we notice is our instructor’s long brown hair, straight, sleek and youthful. I find it inappropriate, as if she’s posing as a girl instead of a mature, wise writer. Authors, it seems to me, wear glasses, have short haircuts. Cooney looks exotic. Her two-foot mane swings from side to side while she talks, as if her switch of hair propels energy. It’s her shield and muse, moving around her face, covering and animating. The dizzying, hypnotic effect unnerves me.
We student observers don’t look like Eleanor Cooney. We’re short-haired women shielded by colorful sweatshirts and parkas, adorned by earrings and wedding bands. Gathered in an expensive writers workshop on a foggy, ocean-smelling August morning on the California coast, we’re amateurs who hope to publish our articles and essays some day. I hope we’ll get to know each other, become a troupe of writers telling our stories with clever literary techniques. I expect Cooney will supply handouts, tips on the construction of nonfiction, especially notes on the wonders of memoir.
The room is too quiet for friendly talk.Our attention is fixed on the front of the class. How this awesome woman can be a teacher surprises me. She looks like a long-nosed Amazon, a warrior-woman who doesn’t live indoors, certainly not in a classroom. I imagine she wants to be alone, staring out at the infinite Pacific Ocean. I don’t have anything like that solitary Cooney temperament. I don’t know if I’m brave enough. But I know I want to learn what she has to tell me. We listen wide-eyed, fearful, like captives held at gunpoint.
Instead of lecturing, Cooney takes our manuscripts, sent in ahead of time, and reads parts of them aloud, with no preamble or criticism. She’s chosen only the parts in the essays she likes, and we’re riveted by her voice, that swinging hair, our words read in that musical way. We get what she’s emphasizing: how honesty is everything. She has no need to condemn the sloppy stuff. She explains how the truth of our feelings and experience is what we must use to touch people who choose to read what we write. Nothing else matters, she says, and bends over the desk, retreating for a moment behind her hair until she pulls the brown partition back and looks at us again.
Cooney explains her process of writing her memoir, Death in Slow Motion, an account of the death of her mother from Alzheimer’s disease. She tells how she stripped the story of everything pretty. “Alarming,” our deep-voiced leader says. “I like alarming, disturbing, irreverent writing.” The words describe Cooney herself, disturbing and alarming. She makes me feel shallow and frivolous. I wish I’d worn plain clothing, understated, so I could take on this rich, exciting idea: wear the truth and nothing else. I wish I had the courage to let my hair grow long.
Gazing into the distance, Cooney smooths her hair with her right hand as if to polish her speech. I look away too, alarmed by the invitation — to be like her. She has a Bronte look, I think. She belongs on a horse, waving a sword. In a sense she’s used a sword — herself — to cut through civilized manners that get in the way of truth-telling. The morning haze, a Pacific fog, blurs the room, thank God, so I don’t have to confront what this teacher represents.
What would happen if we became disturbing and irreverent, and wrote as Eleanor teaches? What if we contrived strands of words that grew powerful, swinging dark and wide? The thought stuns me. I’ve never considered letting the irreverent come into my writing. Could I dig into the dark places? The guilt I’ve felt for my own inadequacies? The hopelessness I felt as a mother? The despair of a failed marriage?
I have to glance away from this teacher whose black form challenges and frightens me. She might conjure and change the reality I’ve created, a safe place where I can be the polite, smiling lady I present to the world. Could I abandon that persona in my writing, and tell the truth?
The sea outside our window churns and murmurs, a backdrop for the unease that moves through the room as each of us feels tempted by a sorceress.
Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years.