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Notes on a Coffee Sleeve

posted Thursday November 28th, 2013


I have never considered myself a writer. Not since second grade, when I lost a poetry contest and realized I wasn’t all that — despite what my mother said (constantly).

The first day of graduate school, I moved into a dorm with students from all over the university. “You must be the journalist!” the other J-school (a term that did and does make me cringe) student said.

I turned to look and see who was behind me.

It’s not about the writing. It should never be about the writing. If your reader notices your writing, it means you spilled your bag of tricks on the ground for all to see. And that’s not good. It’s about the ideas, the information. The reporting.

“There are writers and there are reporters,” a woman named Terry Greene (now Terry Greene Sterling) told me my first night on the job at New Times (the kind of place where your new job starts at night, not in the morning, and with a lot of wine). “I can tell — you’re a reporter. That’s a good thing.”

Then she introduced me to the guy who would one day become my husband; he’s the best reporter I know.

Twenty years later, I find myself teaching magazine writing at ASU’s Cronkite school, alongside my mentor, Terry Greene Sterling.  “Get out of the way of your story,” I tell my students. “It’s all about the idea.” They have worked so hard, their stories are so good; I am proud.

But the professional highlight of my week is still Mothers Who Write, a little workshop I’ve co-taught with my dear and super smart friend Deborah Sussman for more years than we can count. (Annabelle is 12, so it’s been about that long.)

The concept is simple: Mothers gather around a conference room table and read their work aloud. Sometimes it’s about motherhood, sometimes not. And here, it is about the writing. We always give them a prompt — “food,” “fall,” “happy endings.” One week we asked them to write a letter to their teenaged selves, and weeks later, I’m still thinking about the pieces they read that night.

I was so touched by one poem that even though we have a mantra — “what happens in Mothers Who Write stays in Mothers Who Write” — I couldn’t resist jotting some notes on the only paper I had, the sleeve from my coffee cup:

“Your path will not be easy. How could it be? You are stubborn but not confident.”

I dug the coffee sleeve out of the bottom of my purse yesterday and smiled at the notes I’d jotted down next to that line: “by end, headache gone” (I’d had a terrible one when I’d arrived at class) and “Mothers Who Right.”

And so this Thanksgiving, while I am indeed thankful for my beautiful family, warm home, and new poodle, I want to give a shout out to Terry Greene Sterling, Deborah Sussman, the kids in my magazine writing class and all the women who’ve taken Mothers Who Write.

You’ve taught me a lot about writing — and things that are even more important. I’m grateful.


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5 Responses to “Notes on a Coffee Sleeve”

  1. and Thank You!

    MWW was one of the most fun and freeing and educational (on many levels) experiences I’ve had. I learned a lot just from your example Amy, from the way you respond and interact with other people and their truths.

    Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

  2. I’m so danged left-brained that my “writing” skills are grammar & punctuation, & I punctuate with math rules trumping English rules. Usually I’ve neither time, nor interest, in developing ideas.

    Anyhow, today I DID notice your writing, but only because of your 4th paragraph’s (unintended ?) dare.

    From my uninvited analysis, here’s what I like:

    * How the story meanders, eventually, to gratitude.
    * How the title and supporting photo related to the conclusion.
    * How dense was the shared information. There’s a LOT of stuff in this story. I don’t read much; don’t have that much time, can’t sit still that long. If great books were written so richly, I’d have read them all.
    * How my friend Amy has an admirable sense of humility.
    * You learn from your students, just like any other good teacher.
    * Two decades ago, Terry introduced you to your husband, the best reporter you know. a) I latch on to that kind of info. b) It’s a story within a story.
    * “Your path will not be easy. How could it be? You are stubborn but not confident.” Wonder who THAT’s about? Yet another story within a story. Rich. Stimulating.

    This Thanksgiving morning, I’m grateful that Ira Glass asked Amy Silverman to read her Sophie story on his show, which touched my heart, that led me to contact Amy via This American Life’s credits, that has grown to these friendships, here, today. Of course that includes you, “Kathymonkman”. <– math punctuation


  3. We’re thankful for you too, Amy :)
    And now I understand why my idea to write articles, in order to earn money as a writer, failed miserably. I’ll stick to the creative side, and continue to enjoy reading stories from the many talented reporters I’ve come to know (like you and your husband).
    Happy Thanksgiving! Much love.

  4. Yesterday, while I was at services at CKS, we were asked to say what we were thankful for. I said that I was thankful for my family, including you and the family that got in touch with me and Dani this year. I also really enjoy following your blog. Thank-You.

  5. oh this made my heart smile. loved my first stab at that wonderful workshop and look forward the the next!

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