An Abundant Friend
This is the second in a series of weekly posts from Accidental Mentors subscribers about one of their accidental mentors. Today's guest writer (and my writing mentor) is Anne-Marie Oomen.
Anne-Marie Oomen’s memoir “As Long As I Know You: The Mom Book” won AWP’s Nonfiction Award, Michigan’s Notable Book Award, and a silver IPPY. She co-authored “Lake Michigan Mermaid” with Linda Nemec Foster (Michigan Notable Book), “Love, Sex and 4-H” (Next Generation Indie Award), and edited “ELEMENTAL: A Collection of Michigan Nonfiction.” She teaches at Solstice MFA at Lasell University (MA), Interlochen’s College of Creative Arts (MI) and lives near Traverse City, Michigan. Her newest, “The Long Fields,” is now out.
In the eighties, the high school where I taught sponsored my attendance to the National Conference of Teachers of English to learn about and bring back “writing across the curriculum.” From Michigan to San Antonio, no less. I knew it was an honor, but I had no idea what I was doing except that maybe by studying this, I could resolve my own struggle to teach writing—could learn what really helped a student write better, and just maybe help other struggling teachers. But behind that professional endeavor ran a secret longing: could I begin to address my own off-the-record impulse to be a writer.
That first evening, at the invitation of a friend, I entered the hotel’s river level restaurant where a bright-voiced woman gestured with a glass of red wine and simultaneously held rapt her two table mates. She had an engaging smile and blue-blue eyes (she was wearing blue contacts at the time). She wielded a vigorous intelligence with charm and incisiveness, and she embodied a confidence that had always failed me. I wasn’t used to it, this kind of person, her utter insistence that this moment and this thing we were discussing (no matter what it was) was without doubt the most important thing that could be discussed right now.
She told stories of her youngest students’ first attempts to write, her excitement permeating research statistics and case studies and raising what could have been monotonous detail to the level of high suspense. Ruth Nathan turned out to be a reading-writing researcher with a passion for teaching teachers as well as children. She held a Ph.D. and had co-authored a book with the famous researcher, Charles Temple, “The Beginnings of Writing.” She had pages (in her handbag no less) of children’s first attempts at writing, and powerful ideas about how children learned to write and how teachers could help. She was spilling drops of wine on the pages as she spoke: here, here is the evidence.
She seemed to have a finger in every literary research project from the National Writers Project to the exact children’s poems to help them connect letters to sounds. She was, more than anything, an advocate for children’s literacy, and her message that night was one that would go straight to my heart: teachers who wrote themselves were better able to teach children of all ages to write.
I heard it this way: the best way to teach writing was to be a writer yourself.
So it began. From that first conversation over red wine, I became a fan. I watched how in every exchange, in every panel and presentation, she insisted that teachers discover and exhibit best practices, especially as they applied to teaching writing and reading. She asserted that we could teach children to write better if we practiced the same tools in our own writing. She didn’t simply recommend I write, but fostered me as a teaching writer, both creatively and professionally, in order that I might better teach my students and help other teachers teach writing. That insistence would encourage my own earliest personal essays, poems, and finally some rough scholarship of my own. Word by word, that rare confidence grew. I followed her lead with a hope and assurance I hadn’t previously felt about my teaching, and that I’d never felt about my writing. When Ruth and I worked together, I came to it like fish to water.
She too was writing—in a much bigger way—doing creative research and scholarly articles that could set children on the path to love reading and writing, but she and I also exchanged more personal writing. She wrote her first poem about the American flag, and I wrote my first chapbook about weeds. We supported each other’s drafts and slowly began to work together on educational projects. She taught me the pleasure of thinking, and occasionally I was able to add material to her panels. I was thrilled the first time she asked me to present with her. Eventually we shared panels at state and national conferences. She did everything she could to help me find opportunities to publish—though I sometimes didn’t understand why I was worthy of that. I was and continue to be grateful.
Along with the professional endeavors, our friendship thrived. We both loved to cook, so we made up literary recipes—fun and food. We had this idea for a book of recipes, but life moved fast, and we were on to the next thing before we could finish a manuscript. When she visited, she would throw dinner parties where she prepared the best of the best with an open-hearted delight just because she wanted to offer friends the lushness of abundance. From tomahawk chops to three-day marinated shish-ka-bobs to fish poached in home-made tomato sauce, nothing was beyond her capacity to prepare in my kitchen. We set tables for a dozen in my front yard, trees rustling their songs overhead, or we gathered at my dining table with candles and linen napkins. Always, we set beautiful tables and instead of blessings, we read poems—a tradition I have carried on. She spread literary joy. She talked about books, and listened deeply to my literary dreams. She was generous, warm, dramatic, sensitive, excitable, energetic, incisively intelligent—I felt lucky when I was with her. Still do.
When she and her family moved to California, I feared our friendship might fade, but we continued to exchange books, stories, and life experiences. Every year or two, she returned to Michigan, and we found each other. She suffered a bout with cancer, and then her husband also; I experienced a series of difficult relationships before meeting my husband who she understood immediately and embraced wholeheartedly. We don’t talk as often as we would like, but when we do, real life surfaces quickly—we are back at the table, reading to each other, telling each other about our work and passions.
From that first evening, drinking red wine on the Riverwalk, she has guided me in ways I would not have otherwise found, and she has supported me in the wonder of writing. She has believed in me, and that has become a model for how I hope to teach developing writers. Now, every time I am invited to read from one of my own books (seven and counting) or talk about the value of writing, Ruth is at my shoulder, Ruth’s word are in my mind. I feel her insisting on my best. I may not always meet her expectations, but I wouldn’t even have them without her voice in my being.
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