Writing Companions Too

Split Rock Memoir Writing Class – 2007

Some people think of writing as a solitary endeavor, and in some ways it is.  Whenever I take a seat in front of my computer keyboard or pick up a pen and notepad, I bear the sole responsibility to, as Annie Dillard has expressed it, “lay out a line of words…”  But I am increasingly aware that writing has a strong community aspect as well–at least it does for me.

In 2007, a group of eighteen writers came together for a week at the Cloquet Forestry Center in northern Minnesota in conjunction with the Split Rock Arts Program.  The topic was memoir writing under the tutelage of instructor Catherine Watson.  Throughout that week we poured our hearts and our lives into each other through our writings.  Our daily classes became sacred times as we each took turns reading aloud to our colleagues the memoirs we had written the night before.  Following each reading, the writer received in-depth resonance and response to her or his work.  As I’ve since come to describe it, most of our memoirs that week “went to the basement” and dealt with matters that really matter.  In the process we drew very close to each other.  We also enjoyed each other’s company in other ways too–hikes through the forest to a nearby fire tower, games of bocci ball and hours of conversation about our writing and our lives.

Following the week together, some of us expressed a desire to keep meeting on a regular basis for the purpose of continuing to encourage and support one another in our writing.  That core group still meets on almost a monthly basis.  In my experiences with adult education, I’ve never been involved with anything quite like this where such enduring connections were made in such a short time.  Something very special happened within us during that week at Cloquet more than seven years ago, and it continues to bear good fruit as we come together to share our writing lives.


Kathleen Odonovan (2010)

Kathleen O’Donovan (2010)
September 16, 1945 – September 12, 2013

…that your work is so meaningless, so fully for yourself alone, and so worthless to the world, that no one except you cares whether you do it well, or ever.                                   –Annie Dillard from The Writing Life

Every writer knows the meaning of discouragement.   For me, the greatest source of discouragement has not been fear of rejection or disapproval.  Rather it has been a concern that, after all is said and done, no one would care that I even wrote.  Such thoughts have sometimes come when I’ve walked into a large bookstore, looked around at the multitude of books and periodicals and thought: “The world doesn’t need another book, or perhaps even another written word.”

But then the truly blessed writers have someone like Kathleen O’Donovan come into their lives.  I first met Kathleen at a writing retreat in 2003.  She, like me, was affiliated with the University of Minnesota at that time, and we soon hatched the idea of offering an “un-program” suited to faculty and staff at the university who desired to write about their lives as teachers.  Over the next six years we facilitated a number of writing groups involving almost fifty of our colleagues.  Through this project we encouraged participants during the process of writing, both as a community of the whole and on a one-to-one basis.  Since finishing my university career, I’ve come to realize that this “Making Meaning of a Life in Teaching” project was one of the most fulfilling things I did during my 33 years on the faculty.  And having the opportunity to work with Kathleen was a large part of my gratification in that venture.

Since completing my time at the university, I’ve been devoting myself to writing personal essays, many of which are posted on this WordPress site.  It’s no exaggeration to say that the single most helpful and influential person for my writing during this time has been Kathleen.  We met often at a local coffee house to discuss my writings, and she was my most faithful and encouraging reader.  Almost every essay bears the marks of her helpful “resonance” and constructive suggestions.

My writings may ultimately be judged meaningless or worthless by the world, but that doesn’t really matter to me anymore.  I have known that Kathleen cared, and that reality is a gift–and it is enough for me.

Thank you, Kathleen, my anam cara.


This piece was written by Steve Robert Simmons in 2013.  All rights reserved.

10 Responses to Writing Companions Too

  1. Katy Perry says:

    Thanks for the essay; your courageous writing and steadfast support sustain and inspire us. Safe travels,

    • steverobert says:

      As one of my writing companions, Katy, I have YOU to thank for so many nudges of encouragement over these past four years. Looking forward to our next writers’ group session in May. 🙂

  2. Julie Klassen says:

    So poignant, Steve. And you’re right that the walk of a writer is so much richer when shared. I’m glad you and Kathleen have walked this path together for so many years. You’ve no doubt enriched her life as well.

  3. Don Coon says:

    Steve, I am not a writer, as you know, but I have to say as a reader, I truly enjoy your writings. I have asked myself a number of times as I have gotten older ( more mature) what legacy I am leaving behind and I can see that your writings will allow you to be remembered long after you are gone. Keep up the GOOD work because there are people besides other writers who enjoy your work.

  4. Andrew Kidd says:

    Thank you for your beautiful reminiscences of Kathleen. She was a great friend and mentor to me as well, and helped me gain the confidence I needed to continue with my own education, writing and career goals. I deeply regret never seeing her again after I moved out of Minnesota and getting to write to her only occasionally afterwards, but her memory and generosity will always live on.

    • steverobert says:

      Thank you, Andrew, for affirming my reflections about Kathleen and her gifts to us through her friendship. I recently came across this John O’Donohue quote that captures well how she continues to influence and inspire our creative efforts:

      Though we cannot see you with outward eyes,
      We know our soul’s gaze is upon your face,
      Smiling back at us from within everything…

      ALL the best in your future work, Andrew.

  5. Beth Waterhouse says:

    Hi Steve,
    We just walked near Excelsior Bay today (May 22) and we spoke of Kathleen. I’m glad I then found this essay. She was an angel for you, to be sure. I suppose you carry on in her memory by being that kind of support for others, now.

    The essay I wrote in yours and Kathleen’s class: Making Meaning in a Life of Teaching, made a difference in the end of the life of my mentor, Dr. Norine Odland. Her son and nephew read it, and I truly believed that it also got through to Norine’s spirit in her final weeks and that she felt my reverence for her, focused as it was in this way.

    So – thanks to Kathleen for all of that and a whole big loving life. Such a pretty lady. / Beth

    PS: To Sage, now you can add your own voice here, too!

    • steverobert says:

      YOU are a treasure, Beth! Thanks for these affirming words–and especially your recollections of dear Kathleen. “A whole big loving life”–you nailed her! 🙂 I’m also glad to know the outcome of your personal essay about Norine. It was a joy to have you involved in the project–and it’s the way that your and my shared journeys in writing converged around our mutual friend.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s