When I was in my early years of high school, I began to discover a cadre of female singer-songwriters whose music and presence undeniably helped me to grow into the woman I am today. At that impressionable age, I was looking for role models. I was quiet, cerebral, desperate to work out how to come out of my shell and express myself. I’d been enamored with Madonna through middle school. She represented all of the ballsiness and bravada I didn’t feel I had. But, her brashness, harsh edge, and public displays just didn’t speak to my soul. Then, I found Mary Chapin Carpenter, and my world changed. She was smart, energetic yet quiet, charming, and expressed herself through beautiful words and music. I related to her in that I felt like my best self might one day look a little like her. From there, I started listening to other artists in the same genre. It took me some time to appreciate the genius of Lucinda Williams (chronicled here), but when I picked up Rosanne Cash’s The Wheel (On cassette. From a store at the mall. Different era!), I was in love.
I mean, seriously, how good is this song?
She was classy, worldly, and bright. I loved her songs. Unlike most of what I heard on the radio, she sounded like an adult. I couldn’t have told you at the time, but that appealed to me so much, as I was yearning to grow into my own adult voice. Most of all, I loved the lyrics. I’ve always had a literary bent, and the lyrics on The Wheel were like a revelation to me. Her words were empowering, yet she was vulnerable, at the same time. I was so afraid of being vulnerable, that this was an act of courage. And, in three minutes worth of lyrics, she could create a story about a time, place, and feeling that I didn’t actually know, but could still somehow understand.
Around my junior year, I built up my courage to write Rosanne Cash a fan letter. I worked on it for ages. It was handwritten – teens didn’t have personal computers back then- many drafts were scrawled and scratched through in a spiral notebook before I finally copied the real thing on proper stationary. I don’t remember what I said, though I’m sure I expressed how much her music meant to me, and I told her that she inspired me because I wrote poetry. My poetry was truly terrible, cliche and lacking much in the way of truth. I didn’t know anything about my truth then, that would come so much later. But, it was a way to at least stab wildly at figuring it out and to channel some of the big feelings that my shy, awkward, nervous self had no other outlet for.
I don’t think I expected any reply to my letter, but some weeks later, I received in the mail an autographed photo from Rosanne Cash. On it, she’d written, “Keep writing your poetry.”
I get a little a teary just writing that here. It was so profound for me. I framed it and looked at endlessly as a piece of validation. I had worth. I needed to keep writing, which really meant that I needed to keep working towards creating something that reflected the real me, the best me.
That, alone, was something special, but the story continues. During my senior year, Rosanne Cash published a book of short stories called Bodies of Water (it’s lovely, you should read it). As part of her book promotion tour, she stopped at a bookstore in Atlanta for a reading and signing. I had to go. Never mind that I didn’t yet drive and, moreover, that I had rehearsal that afternoon. My Mom, in an uncharacteristic moment of deviousness (or probably in an entirely characteristic act of love), gave me permission to make up a story to get out of rehearsal (sorry, Pev!), and agreed to drive me to the bookstore. I sat stunned while The Remarkable Ms Cash read from her book, disbelieving that I was actually seeing her in the flesh. Then, I waited my turn in line to have my copy signed. When I stepped up to her desk, my heart was racing. I wasn’t sure if I’d say it or not, but she seemed so warm when I approached, that I greeted her and said sheepishly, “I wrote you a letter.” What I meant by that was, “your words and music are so important to me that I wrote you a letter.” I certainly didn’t expect that she’d remember. But, she looked up at me, thought for a second, and said, “you write poetry?”
I don’t remember anything about the short encounter beyond that moment, but the depth of her kindness and my respect for her as a human being, as well as artist, has never left me. I felt like, by remembering my letter, she was telling me, “I remembered you because you’re an artist, too, and that’s worth nurturing.”
I am not too terribly sorry to report that I didn’t keep writing my poetry much after high school. But, I did remain in the arts, following the path that literature and theatre paved for me to become a dramaturg. This gave me the honor of nurturing and, I hope, giving my deep respect to the work of other writers. And, I’ve never stopped writing – essays, articles, and now this blog where I try to say things as truthfully as I can. I don’t write like Rosanne Cash or Mary Chapin Carpenter, nor do I live just like they do. But, on my path to becoming a woman and a writer, I learned more than I can say from them about how to be both. Crossing paths with Rosanne Cash the way I did gave me confidence to follow the barely audible whisper inside my young mind that said the person I was growing into could, indeed, be mature, brave, smart, creative, lyrical, sensitive, and ever generous. It’s a voice I keep following.