When I decided it was time to retire at the age of 59 in large part because I had enough of my thirty- something boss, I was at a new juncture, a youngish senior, trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. I had volunteered extensively in the Jewish community over the years taking significant leadership positions, even as the first woman President of my Orthodox synagogue. I found several different volunteer jobs right away including teaching English as a second language to Chinese seniors and working with children in a low-achieving school in East Oakland. However, I knew I needed something more. Exercising, shopping, going out to lunch with friends also lost its glitter rather quickly. I needed to feel alive with my mind and senses engaged. What would open the gate to lead me on a journey where I had not ventured before?
I had always liked to write, and as a history major and English minor I had done endless term papers, but I never had attempted any serious creative writing. It was beshert for me to find a daytime writing workshop, Lakeshore Writers in Oakland, which had a spot in their spring class. The class met Thursday mornings for two and a half hours. I was willing to give it a try. I told myself, just one class…it couldn’t hurt. If I hated it I just wouldn’t continue, lose the deposit, whatever.
I got to the class early that Thursday morning, chatted with the facilitator as the other women rolled in. We eyed each other. I was the oldest. What am I doing here? I was filled with doubts. I sat down on the mismatched chairs, clutching my lemon ginger tea listening to the instructions. The class used the Amherst method. We would write on three prompts during the class time, read our work out loud and give positive feedback to each other. We were to treat everything we heard as fiction. My first prompt, I still remember it, was… “write about hair.” At first I panicked, I’ve got nothing to say I thought. Then I took a breath, gulped my tea, stared at my blank lined notebook page. Then it came to me. I could write about my daughter’s thick mane of wild curly hair which had always been a source of drama for her. It had a life of its own, and I had my story telling about the day she came home from college when she had cut it all off and I had to go to bed to recover from the shock.
And that one class was all it took. I was hooked. Who would have every believed that I had words, and sentences, and images and memories waiting to burst forth out of me. It was as if I had new glasses on and could see for the first time. I started to look at things differently. I started to hear snippets of conversations everywhere which I incorporated in my work. I found colourful characters lurking in the supermarket checkout line, on the BART train, in the jury pool when I had jury duty. I went back to my old San Francisco neighbourhood in my head, remembering the poppies Mrs. Mialocq used to give me over the fence, Mrs. Hetrova the piano teacher who hid her money in her hat, the neighbours down the street who had a drunken brawl, and my tap dancing class on Fulton St. And I remembered the smell of my mother’s glorious lilac tree. I wrote it all: fiction, non fiction and found I had a real gift to write poetry.
I had discovered a new world like some intrepid explorer, stumbling upon the universe of literary magazines, on line submissions and contests and a whole new vocabulary of “simultaneous submissions” and “flash fiction.” I started to submit all over and was in a writing frenzy. I was like an addict hooked on a drug which gave me a fulfilling high, and I wrote and re-wrote my work every day. In the beginning I had some surprising successes even placing in the Writer’s Digest contest with an honourable mention. I didn’t realise that was a pretty big deal. There were other first place and second place wins, and it was a thrill seeing my work published. Then came the rejections…there were plenty of those.
It was hard because I had to learn to believe in myself. I had to learn to call myself a “writer.” Early on, a dear friend and mentor who has encouraged me tremendously over the years held a Salon for me to read my work at a tea. It was a thrill to share my writings with a rapt and appreciative audience of friends who raised their eyebrows quite stunned that I had this latent literary talent.
Over the years I have taken many classes and workshops and several intensive writer’s boot camps in a variety of writing genres, from memoir to poetry, children’s books, playwriting and creative non fiction.Every week I work with the same writers in two workshops which we diligently continued on Zoom during the pandemic. I continue to publish my work widely and never lose the thrill of seeing my name on the page or in online publication. During the last years, my emphasis has been poetry. Writing poetry has helped me get through difficult times in my life like my diagnosis of breast cancer and when my husband had a serious illness. It has been my lifeline, a way to express my deepest thoughts and fears.
I write poetry that is relatable and often deals with current events such as the pandemic. I recently published several poems: one was about a homeless encampment watched over by an imperious giraffe in a mural on the wall of the freeway underpass; another was about the tragic random shooting on a freeway of a toddler sitting in his car seat. My poetry questions the inexplicable, tries to find meaning in the tragedies and absurdities of life and celebrates beauty and wonder
While I was home sheltering in place during the pandemic, I had an epiphany that life was slipping by like sand in an hourglass and everything felt very uncertain. People were getting sick from Covid and death was everywhere. It felt like this was the right time to gather my poetry and put it in a book which is what I did. I was also facing a big birthday and wanted this book to be a legacy for my children and grandchildren. I entitled my book, My Runaway Hourglass, Seventy Poems Celebrating Seventy Years ( Poetica Publications 2020, joannejagoda.com. ) It was an amazing experience to organise the book, edit my poems, work intensively with the publisher. I was very proud when I completed it and had a book launch on Zoom. I have sent my book all over the country and have received many wonderful comments. When I hear from readers they were deeply touched by my words, I am gratified that I have been able to pierce someone’s heart with my poetry.