Monday, September 29, 2014

Reads for Writers: Gail Caldwell Provides a Masterclass

From Kate's Writing Crate…

As a reader, I always love finding books that appeal to me. As a writer, I am twice as pleased when the authors also provide masterclasses within their books.

Masterclasses take place when performance artists and musicians work one-on-one with students. Writers don’t generally have this option, but I have found some books to be masterclasses for characters, backstories, plots, settings, voice, and/or creativity.


This is a companion piece to last week's masterclass post about writer and author Caroline Knapp.
Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship, written by Caroline Knapp's best friend Pulitzer Prize winner Gail Caldwell, tells their story—one I never expected to know and now can't forget.
Right from the start, readers know that Caroline died. What they don't know is how she lived as a writer and became best friends with Gail. "Everything really started with the dogs." (page 15)
As both were writers living alone, recovering alcoholics, and serious dog owners, they had a lot in common including dedication to a sport—rowing for Caroline and swimming for Gail. They tutored each other in the finer points of these activities even planning on entering a double (two-person/one boat) race.
"Because we both possessed that single trait that makes a lifelong rower—endurance—we declared that we would row the Head together in our seventies, when the field had thinned sufficiently to give us a fighting chance." (page 104)
The friends had strict writing schedules followed by daily phone calls and long walks with their dogs, Lucille and Clementine. The title of this book comes from Caroline telling Gail, 'Let's take the long way home' when driving back from their walks so they could continue to talk about writing, life, the dogs, and everything else of interest to them.
"Finding Caroline was like placing a personal ad for an imaginary friend, then having her show up at your door funnier and better than you had conceived…We had a lot of dreams, some of them silly, all part of the private code shared by people who plan to be around for the luxuries of time." (page 13)
For years, they rented a summer vacation house that allowed dogs together with other writing friends and Caroline's boyfriend, Morelli, a photographer, who captured many moments of fun and friendship. Photos treasured, but, sadly, some lost over time.
In the winter of 2002, Caroline, a smoker, began to cough. She was treated for pneumonia, tested for tuberculosis, and then, in April, diagnosed with stage four lung cancer that had metastasized to her brain and liver.
"…Caroline [was] crying as I wrapped my arms around her, after they brought her back up to her room, when the first thing she said to me was "Are you mad at me?" It was the voice of early terror, a primal response to bad news, and to this day I don't know whether she meant because we had fought about the smoking or because she knew she was going to leave." (page 128)
Morelli became Caroline's husband in an early May wedding planned by their friends. Gail guided ring-bearer Lucille up the aisle.
Despite the joy of the wedding, the reality of Caroline's illness couldn't be denied. "Accepting a death sentence is like falling down a flight of stairs in slow motion. You take it one bruise at a time—a blow, a landing, another short descent." (page 144)
"That great heart—of course it took her a long time to die…Caroline lived for eighteen days from the night she had the [brain] bleed. Morelli had all but moved into her hospital room, bringing Lucille with him." (pages 143-144)
Caroline died on June 2, 2002 leaving everyone to deal with a new wave of grief.
"My life had made so much sense alongside hers: For years we had played the easy, daily game of catch that intimate connection implies. One ball, two gloves, equal joy in the throw and the return. Now I was in the field without her: one glove, no game. Grief is what tells you who you are alone." (page 3)
Heartache caused by death is not easy to live through, much less write about, but Gail manages to do both gracefully. Framed by a friendship we would all like to have and the grief felt from diagnosis to dying—only a seven-week journey for Caroline and her friends and family—it's all the more devastating.
"The only education in grief that any of us ever gets is a crash course," notes Gail. (page 150) "Death is a divorce nobody asked for; to live through it is to find a way to disengage from what you thought you couldn't stand to lose." (page 153)
Let's Take the Long Way Home was published eight years after Caroline's death. Through most of it, readers are right there as things happened, but at the end Gail looks back through time to share: "I know now that we never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder creatures. Sometimes I think that the pain is what yields the solution. Grief and memory create their own narrative…We tell the story to get them back…(page 182)
I only wish Lucille's entire story was also included as Clementine's was. Caroline had asked Gail and Morelli to promise to walk the dogs together once a week forever. (page 130)
Did they?
I'd like to think so for the dogs' sakes at least, but it might have proven too painful for the bereaved best friend and husband or too private to share.
What Gail Caldwell did share in this book is a gift to all of Caroline Knapp's fans and those who have lost best friends—as well as provided a masterclass for writers.

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