My father wept as he tore my "Love the One You're With" poster from the wall. I was named the leader of a drug ring on the front page of the newspaper and convicted of possession with intent to sell—a felony. On a bench in the town hall, waiting to see my probation officer every week, I sat next to thieves, derelicts and, for all I knew, child molesters. One night, feeling depressed and helpless, I decided to kill myself, and began popping pills. But then I stopped: I didn't want my mother to find me; I couldn't desert my son. Nowhere to go, nowhere to look but up, I dropped my self-image as a wild girl, sensed that there was help out there, I needed it, and I could get some.

The next morning I called the local psychiatric clinic, and in my first session a social worker said, "You're a bright young woman. You should be in college." Music to my ears, nectar from the gods. And with a combination of loans and aid from the Connecticut Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, she helped make it happen. In January of 1974, when I was 23, I began community college, and by sophomore year I was awarded a scholarship as a nontraditional student to Wesleyan University.

I did realize at the time that the university was so generous because I'd been a teen mom who was turning things around, and that such a person would spice up their student body. I did not yet realize, however, that struggle produces gifts.

The university set me up in my own apartment in a neighborhood with other single-mother students, PhD candidates and assistant professors with their young families. My son and his pack of friends ran through the athletic fields while I ran through Western literature. I met a few regular people who'd written their own books, and I began to believe for the first time that being a writer—an ambition I'd secretly held since I pushed my infant son's stroller to the library and checked out David Copperfield—might actually be possible.

A few months after graduation, I headed to New York City. My son and I lived in a tiny apartment with a couple hundred cockroaches, and I worked odd jobs, modeling nude for art classes, collecting the money at Persian rug auctions, and transcribing computer code for a software company on the graveyard shift. The idea was never to have a full-time job so I could reserve my energy for writing. But I was exhausted and depressed, except when I was drinking in bars, and the only writing I ever managed was letters and short entries in my journal.

Then one evening, racing to my night job, I stepped onto the street, heard the blare of a horn, and saw headlights a few feet away. I thought, "Now I'm going to be hit by a car and die." I was hit by a car and did not die, but I did end up with a ravaged foot that swelled to the size of a football, which prevented me from going to my jobs or the bars or to the store for milk. I sent my son out for pizza and Chinese. By then, I'd been derailed so often, I didn't rage at God or the Universe or my terrible luck. I lectured myself: "You nearly died. You've been acting as though this is the warm-up, but it's the ball game." I noticed an ad in The Village Voice for the MFA program in creative writing at Columbia University. I applied, was accepted and suddenly had deadlines, guidance, a writing community.

Next: How she handled her failures


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