You’re Going to Make It After All

Sandy and the Mary Tyler Moore table plaque

Over twenty years ago my best friend in graduate school, Sandy Yannone, handed me a jadite Fire King mug filled with coffee and made me a waffle. Her fat tabby cat, Wally, aka Chew, sauntered between the legs of the vinyl stool I was sitting on. I don’t remember what prompted my angst that morning, but I know Sandy cheered me up. She drew, on a piece of paper I still have somewhere, the talent-discipline matrix, which showed that if I persevered in my writing, I could overcome any lack of innate talent.

Sandy was, in my opinion, the best writer in our M.F.A. class, a poet whose lines were both shimmering and tough. I didn’t envy her work because I loved her so much, this generous woman with an easy laugh, so prone to contagious obsession: kitschy 1950s dishware, Houdini, the Titanic. I seem to remember her writing about oranges a lot one year.

But I worried about my own abilities. Did I really have the discipline to keep writing? Could I write something worth reading? Worth publishing? Or was my attempt to write simply an opportunity to scorch my wings and fall back to earth?

While Sandy and I talked endlessly those years about writing and our professors and our possible writing futures, we also had a lot of fun. We poked through flea markets and antique stores, visited tacky Christmas light displays, and made a pilgrimage to Polly’s Pancake Parlor in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Much of the fun I had in graduate school was in her company.

Last weekend Sandy came to my college to attend a conference, and we ate dinner in the suburban elegance of the Des Moines Anthony’s. Over panfried oysters and salmon cakes, we talked about how we feel about our writing careers now as we stroll toward our fiftieth birthdays and watch the odds of becoming the next Adrienne Rich or Margaret Atwood diminishing to zero.

We’re proud of the work we’ve written and published, and we have dreams of writing and publishing yet more. But we have discovered that what Anne Lamott said in Bird by Bird is true; it’s the satisfaction of the work itself, the everyday word-by-word, bird-by-bird — sometimes pleasurable, sometimes hard — that matters. And other parts of our lives matter, too, at least as much as our writing careers, if not more: the students who love to come into Sandy’s college Writing Center because she’s furnished it with formica tables like their grandmothers used to have; the work I do helping faculty be more culturally responsive; our partners, our friends, our parents and siblings and pets.

Cheryl Strayed, suddenly famous for her amazing book Wild, recently commented on the idea that she came out of “nowhere”: “There is a strong and vibrant literary culture that exists and thrives in this nation,” she wrote, “and it does not exist in a place called nowhere, whether you know about it or not. It’s the place where the writers work.” Sandy and I live and work in that place, and we will probably stay there. But it turns out that as much as our writing means to us, as much as our identities are entwined with our poems and stories and essays and the audiences that read them, we now see writing as just one element of our lives, and not always the most important. Sometimes it’s more important to meet with a student, at a desk or a formica table, and help her grapple with her own sentences.

When I think back to all the years I’ve known Sandy, the most memorable moment was not giving a reading together or sharing newly published work, it was the day I took her on a tour of Mary Tyler Moore locations in Minneapolis. When I followed my then-partner to that city in the early 1990s, I tried to find a guide to places associated with the television show of my childhood, but there were none. I had to go to the library and look up newspaper articles from the days when the producers came to town to film the shots that would become part of the opening montage. I peered at the microfilm, writing down the address of the house that stood in for Mary’s, the corner where she tossed her hat, and the lake where she fed ducks. When Sandy arrived with her friend Kate Flaherty, I took them on the tour, surprising them with the last stop: the restaurant table in a downtown atrium where Mary and her friend Rhoda ate lunch. A plaque marked it as the “Mary Tyler Moore” table. Sandy was so excited, she ran downstairs to an office supply store to buy tracing paper, and we made tracings of the plaque in blue, red, and orange crayon.

I look at our young selves, just straddling thirty, in the pictures from that day, and feel a tremendous gratitude: that we found our callings — all of them — and that I’ve shared mine with the incomparable Sandy Yannone.

About allisongreenwriter

Author of The Ghosts Who Travel with Me, a memoir, and Half-Moon Scar, a novel.
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5 Responses to You’re Going to Make It After All

  1. kitschlandia says:

    Wow! Thanks for sharing this reflection, Allison. Our conversation affirmed for me that we are doing exactly what we’ve both been called to do, and we do our writing in the company of and with others, instead of at the expense of them. And, yes, we did have a ton of fun. Nevertheless, it’s obvious to me now that we also solidified the values that would carry us through our careers.
    I’m grateful for everything we’ve made and for our good fortune to have shared the path along the way. Crayon rubbings and all! xo, Sandy

  2. I love that: writing with others, instead of at their expense.

  3. kateflaherty says:

    Oh wow! I still talk about that trip and your amazing tour. And I still have my Crayola rubbing of the brass plaque . . . somewhere! It was a terrific tour and trip and Thanksgiving–I was grateful for a lot that year, not least of which was also having Sandy as my best friend in graduate school. I’m glad there’s enough of her to go around.

  4. kateflaherty says:

    Reblogged this on Fact or Fiction and commented:
    I still remember the weekend I went to Minneapolis with Sandy. It was the fall of ’92 and we drove there from Lincoln, Nebraska, with a brief stop in Elk Point, South Dakota where we ate a late lunch in a bar that also served as the local bank–it was empty when we showed up and packed by the time we left with people cashing their paychecks and getting an early start on celebrating their long Thanksgiving holiday. It was the perfect way to begin our own weekend.
    In Minneapolis, Allison was such a great host! I have no idea how long it took her to create the Mary Tyler Moore Show tour, but it was FANTASTIC! It had been one of my favorite shows as well–what girl wouldn’t love a show about a woman of the world with a fabulous job living in a fabulous apartment with her best friend just a floor away? We reenacted the scene where she throws her hat in the air on the street corner, and we visited the Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Brugge “Spoonbridge and Cherry” sculpture you can see in the opening credits and we rode down the escalator in the mall leading to the aforementioned “Mary Tyler Moore Table.” And while the restaurant usually didn’t take reservations, Allison, with her creative skills, talked them into allowing us to have lunch there. I still have a crayon rubbing I made of the brass plaque, and I still have memories of that visit though I haven’t been back to Minneapolis since then. I suppose it seems silly now–there are so many shows about girls on their own, living independently, but that wasn’t the case when I was young. There was Mary Tyler Moore and there was Laverne and Shirley, and let’s face it, Mary had the far better job. . . Thanks Allison for reminding me of this weekend! And believe it or not, a few weeks ago I was feeling a little nostalgic and so I played a few bars of “You’re Going to Make it After All,” as my voice mail greeting. . .

  5. Pingback: A Little Mary Tyler Moore and Minneapolis Nostalgia « Fact or Fiction

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