Writing as a Death-Defying Act

February 7, 2022 § 12 Comments

By Karen Traub

It’s June of 2018, and I am sitting at a table in the basement of a classroom building in Newport, Rhode Island, eating a turkey sandwich and getting to know my MFA cohort.

As I pop open my can of lime soda, Katie Moulton and Edgar Kuntz introduce themselves. Katie is a freelance music writer and Edgar is a poet who will be teaching at the Salve Regina University residency this week. Katie has the prettiest dark eyes and a smile so bright and friendly I feel like I’ve known her forever. We talk about the residency and then she asks “so, what are you writing?”

Well, if I could put it into words, I’d be home writing it, but I do my best to answer. “It’s going to be a memoir. My mom died and I tried to help build a library in my town. There was a tie vote, everybody was fighting, and we had to forfeit a grant. Also, I belly dance with my snake, a royal python named Chloe.”

Katie says “Wow. That reminds me of my friend Tessa Fontaine’s book The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts. She joined a circus sideshow while her mom was dying.”

I won’t forget a title like that! I can’t wait to read it.

Katie asks what I will share at the student reading. I have no idea. “Pretty much the only thing I’ve written is the story of a young woman in my town who was murdered by her husband in 1880. I read about it in an old newspaper clipping and it stuck with me as something worth re-telling. I wrote it as a ballad, but I don’t sing.”

Katie says, “Then that would be a death-defying act.” Edgar agrees “Like being the electric woman.”

“Death-defying.” I like the sound of it. After all, wasn’t it fairly courageous to decide to become a writer now that my kids are grown?

The words come back to me throughout the week of workshops, readings and craft talks. I can’t believe I’m really back in school at my age; eating in the cafeteria, sleeping in the dorm, hanging out in the student lounge. Every day, between classes, I stroll along the cliff walk overlooking the ocean with crashing waves on one side and the famous Newport mansions on the other.

By the end of the week, I’ve decided I will sing the ballad. I volunteer to go first so I don’t have time to chicken out. I figure I’m doing my fellow students a favor by setting the bar low. I walk up to the podium in the ballroom of the Young mansion which was built as a rich person’s summer cottage. There are mirrors reflecting the crystal chandeliers, all carved wood and elegance, knowing I am about to humiliate myself. I look out at the audience and see the attentive face of Program Director Ann Hood whom I so admire and want for all the world to like me. Katie and Edgar sit side by side, smiling. Sara gives me the thumbs up and Brooksie leans forward in her seat with a slight nod when our eyes meet. They are telegraphing “You got this.”

As my shaky voice squeaks into the microphone, I renew my resolve to be death-defying and launch in. “My name is Sadie Grover, my story sad and true.” I have no pretentions that this is good. I know it’s bad. When I look up, I see surprise and sympathy on the faces of the students and faculty. I stand straight and tall, knowing that if I can do this, I can do just about anything. I’m not sure I’ll ever write worth a darn, but I know I’ve got passion and audacity. I stumble through it, survive, then take my seat and relax and enjoy listening to the other students read. Afterward, we take selfies and congratulate each other. People tell me how brave I was.  

When I get home from the residency I can’t wait to dive into my readings. Tessa Fontaine’s book is dazzling. I can’t put it down. It’s exactly the inspiration I need. The book is about facing fear, finding courage and your life’s adventure. A line that resonates with me is “The only way to do it is to do it. There is no trick.” 

I need to tell my story, so I will keep writing. Even if I can’t find the right words. Even if it comes out in a shaky, squeaking voice.


Karen Traub, a 2021 graduate of the Newport MFA and natural-born troublemaker, has published poetry and prose in the Brevity blog, Multiplicity Magazine, and Quabbin Quills Anthologies. Follow her as @hadamadance

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§ 12 Responses to Writing as a Death-Defying Act

  • Oh, Karen, your courage gives me courage. Some days I think I’m too old to start doing what I’ve always loved. Today I will carry with me the words you bravely wrote and remember “The only way to do it is to do it. There is no trick.”

  • Phyllis Brotherton says:

    What an inspiration, Karen, on a day when I had pretty much decided to pack it in and stop the madness of striving to publish a book. I’m seven years post MFA, have many essays published and two very good manuscripts, alas crickets and rejections. Baring my soul here. It’s tough to break in. And at 73, one wonders, maybe I should just be smelling the roses in the years ahead instead. But you remind me of the wonderful experience of my MFA journey and the exhilaration of the successes I have had. I’ll be back in my writing chair today pursuing more “death-defying” acts. Thank you for the boost.

  • JL says:

    I am 63. My first novel was published by a small, independent press when I was 57. I hadn’t though of it as death defying, I only knew I had to write it no matter how old I was, how long it took and regardless if it was ever published.
    Now I’m feeling that this second novel is death defying. I’ve had such a hard time committing to it. Thank you for this lovely inspiration to give myself to my writing again.
    And while we’re here, I’ve never once, picked up a book and wondered (or cared) how old the author was when it was written or published. Why is this doubt a thing?

  • Any Element says:

    Writing indeed help you coup up with your life. It helped me a lot. Puts me in a good mood.

  • Marisa Russello says:

    What a lovely story! I really enjoyed reading this.

  • Sue Ferrera says:

    A woman after my own heart!

  • Sue Ferrera says:

    A friend of mine sent me this link, telling me this post reminded her of me… well, minus the ability to belly dance or spend time around snakes. I had to agree. I’m a Wayward Yogini! I plan to begin following you. You can find me at sueferrera.com! Keep up the great work!

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