National Writing Project

Watching Karen Write

By: Melanie Anne Plesh
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 7, No. 1
Date: January-February 2002

I'm on the sagging gallery of a 100-year-old plantation house in southern Louisiana, looking out on an acre-large lawn divided in half by a walkway that is laid with a thousand bricks, each imprinted with the town's name, Amite, in cursive. Two white chairs face each other there. Karen's in one of them, writing. Her black wool jacket hangs long behind her, between the back and seat of her chair.

She cocks her head, listening in to the world, its afternoon colors, its light between the leaves, in to a gray squirrel's wave-like motion across the lawn, into the flagging steps and wilted silk flowers of this house, into the faded beauty, into the memories of winter. Into the treachery of death. I'm watching as she absorbs and translates the world, as she takes it from the simple realm of the senses into new forms that only she can create. The beauty is that she's writing for us. She sees things we don't see, in ways we cannot know. So it is true of attentive people.

There are fifteen of us here writing and watching from this rusted but still elegant house. It's a bed and breakfast now, with facilities for marriages. There's a white-flower garland ribboned up the dark cypress stair railings inside the house. There's a wrought iron wedding arch on the gallery, at the head of the brick walk, wreathed in dark blue flowers, wound with silk ivy and pollen-yellowed gauze. Some of us are writing at tables covered with white cloths. Others sit on chairs in the sun, or directly in the grass in the shade under the oaks.

My favorite place here is the cemetery grove of Otys Merle Kennedy, who was born at this plantation in 1918 and who died here 74 years later. Her husband, James, a recent arrival, is here too under a temporary metal marker. The soil on his grave is almost fresh. I sit on a cold stone bench that had been covered with months of leaves until I came along, to reflect, to reflect on the myriad angels with fixed stone smiles under the cedar branches among the plastic flowers that have faded from red to pink, everything almost buried with nine years of tree litter. Otys Merle's glazed marble headstone is carved with a passage from the Bible: "The Lord sustains me and strengthens me and gives me peace." And I think about what I would like imprinted on my tombstone.

We writers go out from each other to see, and then we return to show ourselves, and what we've garnered, to each other. Our action resembles breathing. We go out to the lawn, to the graves, to the gallery, to the sun, alone, and we take in what presents itself to us. We inhale, expand ourselves out to take in the air, and our chests grow big with it. When we exhale, we leave the inhaled world translated on paper. We expand with what the world offers us. And we thank the world with our words.

Karen's coming back now. She has folded her jacket and closed her notebook on this world for the moment, and she's returning to give us what she took in. This time what I breathed in was Karen writing. I will call her over so I can give it back.

About the Author Melanie Anne Plesh teaches writing and literature to 12th grade students at Mandeville High School. She also teaches three elective courses, including a writer's workshop for students who love writing. She is co-director of the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project in Hammond, Louisiana, with which she's been affiliated since its inception nine years ago.

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