The summer of 2004 I was on a sabbatical from my work. That summer I wrote every day. I also created with three fellow writers a workshop-style group. At the beginning of each week, we emailed to one another new sections from our manuscripts. At the end of the week, we met in person to give feedback on the work each writer had sent. It was a good group. We laid ground rules about what was and wasn’t allowed during critique. All the writers were strong, and we all made good headway on our projects. I managed to complete two short stories that summer.
One of the writers in the group was a young woman named Amanda. She must have been about 22 or 23, only a year out of college. She was an assistant at an elementary school and had the summer off, so in addition to our writing workshop, Amanda and I also met weekly to do writing practice. We often did long sessions; sometimes we’d do two one-hour practices back to back. She wrote fast and pressed down so hard with her pen that she often had to shake out her hand.
Amanda’s parents were only about five years older than me, and I think Amanda saw me as a sort of mother figure. She moved to Albuquerque for the job, and I could tell by how much she talked about her parents that she was terribly homesick. Her writing was brilliant. It was fresh and alive. She often wrote in the voice of a young girl, but the things she wrote about were mature. Loneliness. Being lost. Loving the wrong person.
It was Amanda who one day threw out the topic “sleepaway camp.” “What is ‘sleepaway camp’,” I asked. She explained: a summer camp where you go overnight for a week or so with other kids. I agreed to write on the topic but only for ten minutes. I didn’t think it would hold my interest for any longer than that.
I remembered that particular practice when I did a post on my daughters’ recent return from summer camp. I found it in one of my old notebooks and decided to reproduce it here. What struck me was this: I started that practice with no memory of ever having gone to a camp. Yet, by the end of the practice, it came back — I had once attended a Girl Scout camp. It had been lost, temporarily buried underneath a bunch of other stuff. Once I started to unpack the other stuff, the memory came into view.
Amanda moved away at the end of that summer. I called the school where she worked but they didn’t have a forwarding address. My emails to her bounced. I’ve thought of her often. I figure some day she’ll turn up again, probably on the spine of a best-selling work of fiction. I didn’t know her for very long, but she gave me the gift of discovering that my memories will return if I keep doing writing practice.
PRACTICE: Sleepaway Camp
I never went to sleepaway camp when I was a kid. One time, in fifth grade, my mom put me to bed at 7 pm, washed and dried like a poodle, so my dad could wake me up at 4 am and get me to the Alvarado Elementary parking lot by 5 am. We were heading in buses to Carlsbad Caverns.
We wore jackets because it was still cool in the mornings, even though it was almost summer break. Steve McIlheney’s family owned McIlheney’s Dairy, so they supplied the milk, whole and unpasturized. It tasted thick and raw to me, like eggs were mixed in. I didn’t touch mine.
I don’t know if sleepaway camp existed when I was young or if my family was just an anomaly, one of those sleepaway-camp-unaware types of family. I think both. I think some kids went away to camp, but I would wager most of those places were big and not cozy, with chores like shoveling and digging posts. I imagine the rooms to be dirty with rat droppings under the old bunks, which had army mattresses and thick blankets that smelled like dust. I imagine the only kids who were shipped off to these sleepaway camps were on LSD by the age of 12 or sleeping with their mom’s boyfriends.
But I also would wager that there were nice sleepaway camps, camps with tennis courts and horseback riding and swimming in heated pools, camps for kids whose parents thought about such things as developing independence and having their kids have a richer experience than, say, sitting in front of the TV all day and watching Hogan’s Heroes and Star Trek and Gilligan’s Island and eating entire bags of potato chips, the Safeway brand kind.
And suddenly it dawns on me that I was scared on that bus, driving five hours, three in darkness, my stomach empty but for a too-sweet donut. Coconut, burnt coconut, the kind my mom bought when she bought donuts. And how I would have preferred white powdered sugar or chocolate dipped, but how they gave us burnt coconut instead, plus the milk, and how I wanted to sit up near the front of the bus behind the driver, near the teachers but how they only let the feeble kids sit up there, the ones prone to carsickness and how I sat in the back instead.
And now, a distant memory, Girl Scout camp, my God, I did do sleepover camp, I just forgot.
-Ten-minute practice from August 2004