WHY I WRITE: Meet Kelly Thomas

I was still pretty green as a human being during the spring semester of 1998. Hadn’t been exposed to a lot of what the world had to offer, and my horizons didn’t stretch very far. 

By that point, I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I wasn’t sure what kind or how to go about it. Then I took a class called Creative Writing: The Essay at Trinity College – now part of the University of Vermont campus – taught by Kelly Thomas, and I learned that a big part of writing isn’t so much the what or the how. It’s the act itself.

That lesson has carried me through a lot of tough times. These past few weeks, for example. It’s been tough to stay focused on revising my manuscript, and I’ve fallen back on writing about whatever comes to mind (like recalling one of the best professors and friends I’ve ever had). 

My muse is not my boss or my editor. My muse wants me to write, and that’s what ultimately feeds a writer’s soul. The act. I learned that from Kelly.

My time in Creative Writing: The Essay is composed of memories more than lessons, though. And those memories spur me on as much – sometimes more – than the things we learned from Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay anthology, our primary text. 

In no particular order …

Closing my eyes for the first time to meditate. Kelly had a set of Tibetan singing bowls that she’d play before starting a new piece of writing. She encouraged us to close our eyes and clear our minds, and I did. This wasn’t the first time I’d been in a situation that offered this opportunity, but it was the first time I felt safe and secure enough to do it. I still think of Kelly every time I see or hear singing bowls.

Speaking of singing, there’s Tom Waits. I’d never heard of the guy before Kelly. At the start of one class, she asked us to switch things up and draw a scene, rather than write about it. Then we would describe what we drew. This sent my anxiety through the roof. I’m a writer for a reason, you know? Please don’t ask me to draw. I don’t even remember what I scribbled out and babbled about. But I remember Kelly sketched out a picture of herself soaking in a tub, with a radio on the shelf next to her. I think there was a cat somewhere in the picture. Almost certainly, knowing Kelly. Then she described her work and talked about listening to Tom Waits and how his music relaxed her. I went to the local record shop the next day and bought The Heart of Saturday Night.

Taking chances with myself. Trinity College was primarily a women’s college, with a few adult male students enrolled for various classes. I was one of them (the adult part was arguable; still is). In Kelly’s class, I was the only guy. Without the social pressure of “what the other dudes will think,” I was able to be more vulnerable and adventurous with my work, and that’s something that’s carried through to what I’m doing now. Kelly patiently nurtured those qualities, letting them ease into my creative soil to find steady purchase. 

The Columbine shooting. My memory of this is outside of class, taking place the next spring. I was a new dad with a three-month-old son. I heard the news, I bundled the little guy up, and I sought out Kelly. I remember sitting in her office, holding my baby, and crying. The safety and security I felt the first time I heard those Tibetan singing bowls came full circle, and I went back to where I knew I could grieve. And she joined me in that grief.

I could go on. There’s the class book Kelly put together for us with pieces from each student (I wrote about that here a bit.) And Kelly talking my then-wife and I through the painful situation of needing to put down a beloved pet. 

Instead, I’ll close with this. 

I don’t see Kelly nearly enough. Not by half. One of the last plans I made with anyone before things really went to hell pandemic-wise was to meet for coffee with her sometime soon. And even though I connect with Kelly in various ways every time I sit and write, that’s not enough. There are lots of things I hope to do sometime soon when all this is over, but family stuff aside, coffee with Kelly is at the top of the list.

The end-of-the-year compilation of pieces Kelly made for our class. Kelly is kneeling at the center of the picture. I’m second from the right.

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