Why I Write: All It Took Was a Game of Tennis

Jane Hegstrom is working on a number of memoir pieces about her midwestern childhood in the 1950s. She is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Masters of Writing Program and has a PhD in sociology with a specialization in social psychology and gender. Her academic writing has appeared in Sex Roles, Discourse Analysis, and Women’s Studies. She has also published in Bookends Review.

Jane’s nonfiction, “Mary and Carol Ann,” appeared in LPR’s Winter Issue 2019 (available for purchase through this link). She read excerpts from this piece at our issue launch in January (video below). In this guest post, which is part of our regular “Why I Write” series, she shares how she began writing.

My path to a writing life started, oddly enough, with an evening game of tennis. I was fifty-nine at the time and had played tennis for thirty-five of those years. I have a love affair with tennis, a sport that mentally transports me to a place where troubles and petty annoyances are lost in the sheer joy and focus of the game—what I imagine Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was talking about when he described the concept of flow.

My doubles partner that evening was a new player to the group. She was probably in her early thirties, the same age as my daughter. We won the racquet spin and chose to serve. I took my place at the net and when my partner served her first serve, our receiving opponent ripped a forehand return right at me. The moment I blocked the ball, an electrical malfunction caused the lights to go out in the tennis facility. We all moved slowly through the dark to the net to wait for the lights to come back on. Then my partner, in front of seven other players (the other court had joined us), asked me in a concerned voice, “Are you all right? I was worried that you’d get hurt by the ball hit right at you—you know, what with your age.”

No one said a word, and I was grateful it was dark because I’m infuriatingly prone to blushing. I forced a laugh and said something like, “We’re all used to having balls hit at us, not to worry.”

My partner’s remark left me feeling disoriented, as though I had walked into a room filled with strangers, a room I had never been in before. Her remark was a one-two punch. First, there was the shock that I was perceived to be old. Second, my confidence as a tennis player had been undermined. I thought, Maybe I’m not as strong, not as fast, and my reactions are slower. A younger player’s remark threatened a treasured aspect of my identity, and at that moment I assumed an altered identity: I was now old.

On my way home that evening, I thought of the French feminist writer and intellectual Simone de Beauvoir who, at fifty-two years of age, was shocked when she overheard a student say to one of his friends, “So Simone de Beauvoir is an old woman, then?” De Beauvoir’s conclusion was, “Old age is more apparent to others than to the subject himself.”

I began to wonder if other people were as stunned as I was when they discovered for the first time that others thought they were old. I made notes of my feelings and decided that at some point I would write about this particular event. I’m a sociologist whose areas of specialization are social psychology and gender, why not add the area of aging to my repertoire? I dreamily imagined my writing to be a hybrid of Malcolm Gladwell and Nora Ephron.

When I retired from teaching, I hadn’t forgotten about my startled reaction to the first time someone perceived me to be old. I immersed myself in the literature on aging and gathered anecdotal stories from acquaintances. One such acquaintance had a large number of Facebook friends and posted the following question on her Facebook page: Please describe the first time that you felt others perceived you to be old. It could have been a comment, an event, or even a feeling.

After a couple of months of collecting anecdotal data and organizing my thoughts, I was ready to launch my writing career. Except I couldn’t write! My years as a sociologist had produced a voice geared for peer reviewed academic journals and there was certainly no developed literary tone to my writing.

Enter Johns Hopkins University Masters of Writing Program. As a nonfiction student in the Hopkins Writing Program, I continued to draw upon my sociological background for essays on aging, but now I was learning to deliberate about structure, contemplate the importance of beginnings and endings, swap out weak verbs for stronger ones, add simile and metaphor, and remind myself every day not to over-explain—a lingering practice of my academic writing.

Then a memoir and personal essay workshop at Hopkins pushed me in another writing direction—my childhood. The result has been a collection of memoir pieces about my Midwestern childhood in the mid 1950s. And I’m grateful and proud that Little Patuxent Review published the first of my memoir pieces, Mary and Carol Ann.

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