Jane Underwood, my writing teacher, died in February after an 11-year battle with breast cancer. Her life will be celebrated in the AIDS Grove in Golden Gate Park tomorrow morning.
I’ve been trying to write this post all week.
My relationship with Jane was complicated. I met her the summer of 2002, when I signed up to take a Personal Essay Writing class she was teaching. I’d been writing essays for almost 10 years at that point, but I wanted to know how to do it better. How to do it right. The week after the class began, my brother died suddenly. I flew back to Michigan overnight. I told Jane I needed to drop the class and hoped I could get a credit to take it again another time, since I didn’t know how long I would have to be away, helping my parents clean out Allen’s house and settle his business.
To say I was shocked, stunned, and writing was the last thing on my mind would be to understate it. Even so, Jane wouldn’t let me drop the class. She encouraged me to write, whenever and whatever I could, as a way to work through my grief. She would be my partner, reading my work, offering gentle suggestions and careful criticism. It was some of the rawest work I’ve ever done. One of the pieces I wrote in the haze of grief became the introduction to Morbid Curiosity #7.
The Writing Salon was Jane’s business, her baby. She didn’t give refunds or credits. Once you paid your money, it was hers. Knowing how flakey writers can be, I appreciate that. She could have simply pointed me toward her “no refunds” policy and been done, but she let me vent at a time when I needed it desperately. She showed me how to spin pain so deep I couldn’t see into words. It was one of the turning points of my life.
Over the years, I took more classes at the Salon, some with Jane as teacher, others with Jane as a fellow student. I came to admire her candor and her diplomatic skills, her graceful writing and bravery in choosing topics. The Writing Salon introduced me to public speaking as a skill to study, as well as crafting a nonfiction book proposal (and I credit that class with netting me the bidding war for Morbid Curiosity Cures the Blues), blogging as a business, and podcasting.
I even worked for the Writing Salon for a couple of years, walking around San Francisco to put up flyers to advertise its classes. In return, Jane let me participate in her Round Robin classes for free. In the end, I took the Round Robin (or served as an alternate when Jane needed a sub to step in) 27 times. I used it to write short stories for both Haunted Mansion Project books and Demon Lovers, as well as the story I just sold to Fright Mare: Women Write Horror. I’ve written essays which have appeared in Wish You Were Here, Writing in Cafes, and in my blogs. I used the process to finish The Dangerous Type and work on The Shadow of Death, my work-in-progress. (A new session is starting on Monday — and you don’t have to be in San Francisco to take it.)
Jane also gave me my first opportunity to teach. I’ve struggled for years with learning how to read my work in public. Jane let me teach Reading Your Own Work for the first time in July 2012. It didn’t draw many students — and I would have taught the class for free. But Jane gave me my first teacher’s paycheck. It meant the world to me.
All of this was spooling out while Jane fought breast cancer. She was diagnosed in 2005 after she found a lump in her breast. Her insurance company dropped her — just as she was on the verge of chemotherapy — because it believed the cancer must have been a pre-existing condition. I was horrified by their callousness and galvanized into doing the Avon Walk twice to raise money for research.
Jane’s honesty when it came to her disease gave me a whole new admiration for her. She wasn’t content to pursue treatments that the doctors insisted were necessary. She did her own research, consulted experts, and put together her own regimen. It wasn’t an easy road: completely overhauling her old life, adopting a dog, moving in with her boyfriend, studying photography, all the while continuing to run the Writing Salon, without the benefit of health insurance or a “real” job.
Jane touched innumerable lives. She could be prickly and plain-spoken, stubborn and fierce. I never knew her well, but I knew she would always be honest with me. When she took one of my ideas for a writing class and gave it to other teachers who had a bigger draw, I was stung and separated myself from the Writing Salon for a while. I understood why she made the choice she did. It still hurt.
In October last year, I swallowed my pride and wrote to tell her I’d thanked her and the Writing Salon in my space opera trilogy. Over the course of all those Round Robins, I’d learned how to sit down and do the work. I wanted to acknowledge how much Jane had taught me. At that point, the cancer had spread to her bones and she was housebound, “doing my best,” she wrote, “to walk that tightrope between remaining hopeful/optimistic and being accepting/realistic.” She was still running the Writing Salon and trying to complete a collection of poems.
I knew Jane for the better part of 14 years. I learned an immense amount from her, even as she sometimes frustrated me. I am so sorry that she’s gone, but I’m glad her suffering is over at last. She will be missed.