Victoria Noe

Award-winning Author, Speaker, Activist

My Writing Teacher

[caption id="attachment_1238" align="alignleft" width="201"]12509109_10208757183711409_886550567393457791_n My writing group - Jo on the left[/caption]

I took this picture of my writing group a few years ago. I was the youngest in the group, by about two decades, though you couldn’t tell based on the energy during those meetings.

In the fall of 2006, I signed up for a Life Story Writing class at Swedish Covenant Hospital here in Chicago. My father had died the year before, and I wanted help preserving family stories. I didn’t consider myself a writer (still don’t on some days). A few months earlier I’d promised my friend Delle that I’d write a book about people grieving their friends, but I wasn’t convinced it would ever happen.

Almost everyone there was older, including the only man among a dozen or so women. Jo Stewart, former creative writing teacher at Northwestern University, led the group. It was a supportive group, thanks to Jo. After someone read their essay, we had to open with what we liked about it and why, before saying anything that smacked of criticism. It was a very positive way to run the group. To say that I had no idea what I was doing would be the understatement of the year. But I was determined to give it a shot. Hearing other people’s stories helped me more than I realized at the time.

When the class ended, it was clear that some of us didn’t want to stop. Jo proposed meeting outside the hospital setting, and so a few of us gathered at Penny’s apartment. There, over the next six years, I heard stories of Penny’s musician husband and how he carried two photos with him when he went off to World War II: one of Penny, one of Billie Holliday. I heard of Alice’s young years in St. Louis and Chicago, with the pain of a missing father. I heard Jo’s poetry, Helene’s hilarious pet stories and Birgitta’s tales of emigrating to the US and joining the Salvation Army.

I learned a lot from them, not just about writing. I learned about perseverance in the face of tragedy, about living alone with dignity, about giving of themselves and being grateful.

Eventually, the group shrunk. Birgitta moved away. Penny’s health, always the most fragile of the group, took a turn for the worst. Early in 2013 I sent her a copy of my first book. It was just a printed out pdf, because the print version wasn’t available yet. But she was able to read it – and see my acknowledgement of our group at the end – before she died.

The group broke up. I kept in touch with Jo on Facebook. Alice and I met for lunch. I felt their absence so strongly, a hole that couldn’t be filled.

A few months ago, Jo asked me if I’d like to join another group. I jumped at the chance to work with her again. It’s a good group, but it didn’t feel the same. It was stupid to think I could recreate that first group, even with Jo there.

Her health had declined quite a bit, but at 91 (maybe 92, not sure), she was as sharp as always. A week before Christmas we met at a restaurant for a holiday lunch. Jo was accompanied by her daughter.

We sat in the noisy, crowded restaurant and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I would never see Jo again. Her son who was her primary caregiver had died suddenly in November, and it had taken a toll on her. It wasn’t that she’d given up, but the fire was gone. When we left, she took my hand and told me how much my writing meant to her. I thanked her and smiled, but by the time I got to my car I struggled not to cry.

New Year’s Day I received an email telling me that Jo had died in her sleep that morning.

Jo may have been the person who has had the most impact on me as a writer. I began knowing less than nothing and thanks to her, I know a little. She was supportive, fair and tough. There were times I left our meetings wondering what truck had hit me. But I always knew she was right (even when I didn’t want her to be).

I think it’s only fitting that my first post of this year is for Jo. All writers should have a Jo in their lives. I just wish she could’ve stayed around a little longer.




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