Deborah L. Humphreys

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The Portable Joan

As writers, we do have our favorite and trusted resources, even talismans—the fragile and yellowed Roget’s paperback, the well-loved poem to prime the pump, and that blank wall canvas before us.  Around us we have what is familiar, comforting and challenging.  Pencils with the perfect point, the sun just rising and seeping into our poems, the smells of cut grass of Geneva lacrosse fields.  For nearly 15 years, I had Joan as my most constant writing companion. Joan. Joan came to Aurora or Wells to write with her electric typewriter, the almost immediate search to find ribbons that have been left at home, and deadlines. She set up this incredible secondary universe—of books she was reading and wanted to recommend, the pillows that were her most comfortable reading position, towels and towels and laundry baskets.


My souvenirs of writing camp are folders of drafts of beginnings, fragments of near poems, and the writings in between summers marked by her directions, questions and exclamations of glee. Joan kept me honest and disciplined about writing. There was no easy grace, no throwaway line, no unearned last line that survived her review. I could not use the differences in our lives to let a piece of unclear writing get by or ambiguous punctuation. This gift has given me my greatest freedom as a writer and I am grateful to Joan.


Most of all, Joan taught me about deadlines. I came to camp with the idea that the best environment was one with no boundaries, no obligations, and no deadlines. The products of writing seemed that they should be miracles of creation somehow disembodied from the tasks of daily living. The mythology of the poem as I had understood it came to an end. It was an unhappy demythologizing process for me. Writing was not just waiting for the bus to arrive. It was thinking about destination and routes and costs and who else would be there for the ride.


Joan taught me about the love of words, correct punctuation and friendship that goes the distance. Her own writing taught me that writing can change hearts and minds. Her life taught me about deadlines and how they are not barriers but opportunities. And it is her spirit that accompanies me as I put on courage before the blank page or today’s stack of muddled paragraphs.





Written in memory of this wonderful woman, Joan Dickinson, who died in February of 2003. She was one of many fine writers, whom I met during summers at the Feminist Women's Writing Workshops. These were held at Hartwick College, Wells College and Hobart and William Smith College and now span more than a quarter century.