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Writers, Interrupted

Feature

January/February 2006

7.01.10

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On August 26, 2005, I taught my English classes at Xavier University in New Orleans, as usual, thinking that Hurricane Katrina would turn east toward Florida. By that evening, however, the situation had changed and the storm was bearing down on the Gulf Coast. So the next day I left my home in River Ridge, Louisiana, and began a monthlong journey that took me and my kids to three different cities in the state: first to Alexandria, in central Louisiana, then to Kinder and Marksville, and finally back to River Ridge, where I was fortunate to find that my home had suffered only minimal wind damage.

A couple of weeks before I was able to return home, however, I began thinking about what it means to write in the wake of a storm’s devastation, about how a hurricane evacuation affects the writing process. Words rushed forth like the storm’s waters.

I miss my computer. I miss the window that opens to a green and bushy yard. I miss the way my cats stretch their sleepy bodies against me now and again. I miss the knickknacks that surround the screen’s base like sacrificial offerings—a palm-size bottle adorned with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a small gourd engraved with a picture of a Chinese ox, a moss-green rock from Mermaid Cove....

There was more, lots more, and it all led to something I thought to be profound and marvelous. But I never got around to writing any of it down, so I lost it. I was too busy pacing around my third “home” in two weeks’ time—a furnished apartment in my ex-husband’s hometown—trying to figure out where I had put things. I had to make a series of phone calls to get the gas turned on, the cable connected. I had to wash my laundry in the sink.

When I was finished hanging clothes in the shower to dry, I had to apply for food stamps and FEMA assistance. I had to dash to the local weekly newspaper office, where I was allowed to check my e-mail during lunch hour. If that wasn’t enough time (and it never was), I’d run over to the library and wait my turn for thirty minutes on the computer. By then it was time to drive through a maze of small towns and ripe fields to pick up my kids from a school so different from the one back home in River Ridge, all the while trying to decide whether I would cook dinner or just hit the nearby casino’s buffet instead.

Somewhere between wondering if my shirt was too wrinkled to wear, driving the thirty miles to the Wi-Fi hot spot I finally discovered, and chatting with the gracious Cajun locals who offered sympathy everywhere I turned, I bemoaned the fact that, once I got back home, I would lose the creative edge that I had unwittingly acquired by being a displaced writer. Once I got home, I reasoned, all the technical things I had taken for granted in my daily life would be back and ready to be unappreciated once more.

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