The reason I went to Provincetown for the first time, in the summer of 2006, was to take a class from Pam Houston. I owe her for the rest of my life for that alone. Over that winter she read the novel I was working on, my first novel. In 2007, I went back to take her class again. That summer, she introduced me to the breakwater, which I had somehow missed during my first summer. As we walked on the giant boulders, I began shedding things. Later that same year, I joined the writing group she led, and over the years, we’ve become the best of friends.
Here’s how she fictionalized that real time on the breakwater in Contents May Have Shifted.
Last year, on that same long walk across the breakwater, Willow left behind first her sweatshirt, then her shoes and eventually even her giant purse, which contained six hundred dollars cash and her brand-new Vaio computer, which is the exact effect P-town is designed to have on anybody who is willing to let it.
But really, the story starts years before that, back when I was a reader without the first thought of writing.
The kids were little, and in those days, after they went to sleep, I stayed upstairs and read in bed. Early in January of 1992, late one night, when Cal arrived home from a business trip, he came into the bedroom holding a scrap of paper. “You have to get this book,” he said, handing me the paper. “I heard her on NPR.”
On the paper, of course, Cowboys Are My Weakness, Pam Houston.
I adore Pam’s sentences. Look at these two from Contents May Have Shifted:
Henry is the only man I’ve ever known in my life that I knew how to love well, and as luck would have it, we were never lovers (6).
See how she repeats love in the noun form of lovers. And notice the rhythm of the sentence. Now, take a look at this one.
We were each locked inside our individual sorrows, didn’t know each other well enough to share, but we agreed, out loud, that like moose, pelicans were surely put on earth to act as suicide preventers, agreed we’d never kill ourselves within the sight of one (8).
Notice the multiple could-have-been-single sentences contained in one sentence and how the compression creates such a lovely rhythm.
Some of you know that Tidal Flats is actually the fourth novel I’ve written–all of them about marriage. Here’s what Pam has to say about that, from her essay collection, A Little More About Me.
There is only one story of our lives and we tell it over and over again, in a thousand different disguises, whether we know it or not.
Currently, Pam is on tour for her memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, which was published in January.
Here are some of the lines from Deep Creek that I love most.
It’s hard for anybody to put their finger on the moment when life changes from being something that is nearly all in front of you to something that happened while your attention was elsewhere.
This passage means so much to me because I had a moment like this–when I finally lifted my head as my last child left for college. Here’s another one.
You have to be a certain age, I think, to understand longing as scarcely distinguishable from pleasure, and my love affair with the ranch is defined by a thousand leavings and a thousand returns. It’s the only place I always miss, no matter how fabulous my temporary circumstance. When the road turns to gravel and bends with the river into Antelope Park, every single part of me takes a deep breath.
All I need to do is substitute Provincetown for the ranch, the ocean for the river, and the Pilgrim Monument for Antelope Park…
Here’s one more. Pay attention to the symmetry and the juxtapositions and the rhythm.
Sometime in the last twenty-five years, the ranch changed from being the thing I always had to figure out how to pay for, to the place I have spent my life.
Her sentences, I’m telling you. And I’m still on the first essay. Actually, I’m only on page 10. I won’t spoil the end of this essay, but I will tell you I underlined the last two paragraphs.
I don’t know where in the world I’d be without Pam. She has shaped me as a writer and as a human being. Her writing and wisdom have set the bar high, high, high. I’m grateful for her and her writing and for her support of mine.