Sabrack’s Rules to Live By

This spring has become an informal lesson on the craft of writing, thanks to several books including Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. (In case you’re wondering, my next read is an illustrated version of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style recommended by Karen Maeda Allman of Elliott Bay Books.)

For the first Saturday evening in months, I stayed in last night simply to read. It was brilliant.

Tucked inside a broken-in nook on my microsuede green sofa with a heavy throw and a cushy pillow on a cold, blustery night, I couldn’t help but laugh at the chapter titled, “Radio Station KFKD.” In it, Lamott warns,

I need to bring up radio station KFKD, or K-Fucked, here….

If you are not careful, station KFKD will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop in stereo. Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is.

Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything that one touches turns to shit, that one doesn’t do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and on.

Where was she when I needed her in college? Flipping to the front, I noted the copyright date: 1994. Smack dab in the middle of my college years. Ah, well.

In all honesty, Lamott’s work never had a chance of making it on my required reading lists. My science professors at The University of Arizona were addicted to the journal Nature, and my medieval literature profs preferred dusty white papers to contemporary books on craft.

If she had published Bird by Bird a few years earlier, Lamott and I might have met. My high school English teacher, Jeannie Sabrack, was the kind of writer –and the kind of woman– who would have brought Lamott’s book to class as an extension of her own life-and-writing lessons.

Mrs. Sabrack was the kind of teacher everyone loved because she told the truth. I was lucky enough to study with her nearly every semester of high school, since she taught senior capstone classes as well as beginning and intermediate composition. We also liked her because she didn’t dress like other teachers; she wore leather jackets, off-the-shoulder tops and high heels, the kind of clothing we thought writers –legit artists– wore.

To those of us who stayed with her for four years, she passed along life lessons that other teachers didn’t dare confide. She talked with us like the cosmopolitan friends that we assumed she had: ones who smoked cigarettes on her back porch, staying up late drinking red wine and sharing stories about adventures they had at 2 a.m. in Paris and London.

One crisp January afternoon, while comparing doomed relationships –Heathcliff and Catherine, Romeo and Juliet– she tossed a dog-eared copy of Shakespeare across her desk where it skidded into a pile of papers that needed grading.

“Let me just stop here and say something about sex to all of you young ladies,” she began.

I was sixteen at the time, and I didn’t know much about sex, since I hadn’t done it yet. It was the middle of my junior year; my mother had died a month before during Christmas break.

My mom wasn’t someone who I asked direct questions of anyway. Unlike Mrs. Sabrack, my mother didn’t give spontaneous advice, either –we weren’t the kind of family who did things that put us in advisory roles, like travel or read political magazines — but she did tell wonderful stories. “Tell me about the first time you fell in love,” I’d say while curled up in her lap, and off she’d go, a living memoir.

My early teens were fraught with intense mother-daughter struggles on top of her terminal cancer, so losing my virginity was the farthest thing from our conversations. Still, I had tons of questions that the bullshit sex-for-teens book with paper doll figures that my parents gave me didn’t come close to answering, but I couldn’t ask her. Not the way I wanted to, at least.

Then she died.

Naturally, I found myself leaning forward in Mrs. Sabrack’s class that day. She knew she had our attention, so she sauntered back to her desk, using her arms to push herself to sit on top of it. She crossed one black-stockinged leg over the other, swinging them back and forth as she adjusted her striped boat-neck top on her shoulders.

“Here’s the thing, ladies,” she said, conspiratorially. “We’ve read these books for the last three years, and they essentially get at the same thing, right? The struggle for this one important moment?”

Our heads bobbled silently with agreement. Even the boys were intrigued.

“Meanwhile, your parents and teachers are cautioning you to wait. There is all this build-up about a single act. Heavens will tremble, horns will blare. You’re wondering what it will mean. Suddenly, your lives will change, but you can’t guess how. People have written and will continue to write about THIS VERY THING forever.”

She paused to sip coffee, torturing us. “Let me tell you,” she continued. “You’re going to do it eventually, and all of you girls are going to think, ‘THAT’s it? THAT is what my parents were so scared of me doing? THAT is what inspires poets to write sonnets? THAT is why Romeo and Juliet killed themselves?”

“It’s not, by the way,” she added as we broke out into boisterous laughter. “Those stories are about love, and you’ll discover that sex can be –and often is– something different. Sometimes, like the first time, it ain’t great. The truth is, the physical act itself is Not. A. Big. Deal. The build-up will feel like a lie.”

She leaned back, waiting for us to quiet down. “I will also say this: ladies, when everyone figures out what they’re doing, sex can be totally amazing. Love –and the physical expression of that love– does inspire poets. One day, if you’re lucky, you’ll find yourself saying in a very different way, Oh, THAT is what she was talking about.

I scanned the room to see which girls nodded, wondering if any understood her truth for themselves.

Four months later, I spilled my own realization into the receiver of our house phone. I was more surprised by the banality of my first time than I was in shock over the significance of losing my virginity that day after school.

“She was right!” I exclaimed with disbelief to my best friend. Jackie, who went to a different school, had never heard any of Sabrack’s Words to Live By, as her advice and prognostication was known. “After it was over, I thought, THAT’s it?! just like she said.”

Jackie reflected on her own first time, which had occurred the previous fall. “Now you know what I mean,” she sighed, relieved that I finally understood the joke whose punchline she silently carried. She had been tight-lipped about her experience, much to my chagrin; now I knew why.

Our inexperienced bodies and minds simply aren’t in sync at sixteen. An adult wrote Romeo and Juliet, after all, not a scramble-headed teenager fueled with uncontrollable lust. It took decades of maturity for Shakespeare to accurately portray the physical and mental urgency of teenage love.

Like most, it was a lesson I would learn over and over again myself, rediscovering that the act alone was as lackluster as Mrs. Sabrack foretold, leaving a trail of “THAT’s it?!” surprisingly far into adulthood. When I finally experienced the other THAT‘s it!, a little grin played on my lips. Snuggled against my boyfriend that night, I recalled Mrs. Sabrack’s prophecy as I fell asleep.

The woman knew of what she spoke, both literature and life.

At the beginning of my senior year in college, when I changed my major from molecular and cellular biology to English, I wrote to Mrs. Sabrack for advice. As with sex, my parents had always cautioned me away from seeking a career in literature; science was much more lucrative, they insisted. I had no one to turn to, so I wrote to say what a strong influence Mrs. Sabrack had on my love of writing and language. I mused about becoming an English teacher like her so that I could help students like me.

A few weeks later, I received her affectionate but staunch response: “I’m glad that you’ve found your way back to writing; I always enjoyed having you in class. As for following in my footsteps, you’re much too talented a writer to ever become a teacher. Best of luck.”

I was crushed. In the end, I graduated with a degree in English and went to work for a real estate developer who admired my writing skills. I embraced business and left a full-time writing career behind, albeit with regret.

With Lamott’s book in my hands eighteen years later, I feel like I’ve rediscovered Mrs. Sabrack’s voice, only this time, I understand her wisdom firsthand. I’ve lived through enough attempts, rejections and small achievements to see pin-pricks of light on the path ahead. When Lamott comments that commercial success and critical acclaim don’t solve everything –that devotion and commitment to writing are their own reward– I get it.

It’s not so bad receiving this message today instead of at twenty-one. Like sex at sixteen, I wouldn’t have had the life experience to absorb Lamott’s advice in college. Writing as an outside interest from work has afforded me the freedom to pursue what I am passionately interested in.

That said, a push to pursue a master’s in creative writing back then would have set me on a different path, arguably a more direct path to a life steeped in craft and fellow writers, like those I’ve met through Jack Straw or Artist Trust. I might have become a graduate teaching assistant and then a freelance writer, or an administrator at a non-profit like Richard Hugo House. My earning power would have been diminished, as my parents feared, but I might have fulfilled dreams that are, as of yet, unchecked.

Maybe I would be a better or more accomplished writer today had I immersed myself in that life. Like many writers I know, I might have spent my thirties co-hosting an open mic series or growing a network of published authors who could write blurbs for me and hook me up with their agents.

These second-guesses creep in as they have since high school (and long before that), only now because of Anne Lamott, I see that they only arise when my dial is tuned to KFKD.

Yes, all of those things could have come true and I’d likely still find myself sitting here on my green couch with my feet on the ottoman wondering, “THIS is it?!” Instead of literary accomplishment, I’d fret about other deficiencies, like why my 401(k) was so small or why I couldn’t afford to travel.

Having Lamott’s book on my shelf means that I can not only return to her wisdom, but to Mrs. Sabrack’s, when I need a reminder. (Unlike Bird by Bird, Sabrack’s Rules to Live By was never written down. She would have been on probation if our principal had evidence of what we learned from her.) No matter who we are or what we write, most of us can’t be reminded of life’s truths enough.

If I had a class like Mrs. Sabrack did, I’d confide to my students that there is no such thing as a clear path, especially for writers. Determination can lead a person far –it can feel like a map– but the road is always clearer in retrospect. If we’re lucky, life is a wandering journey that brings us to people and experiences that we might never have sought if left to our own greedy sense of expediency and achievement.

If we’re doubly lucky, and a little wise, we can learn from these adventures without sabotaging or judging our own progress like the disc jockeys on KFKD.

As Lamott’s father instructed, we should take each turn in the road as it comes, bird by bird (go ahead, buy a copy – it’s worth it), like those oft-quoted lines from Robert Frost, which are oft-quoted for a reason:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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