Writers stumble upon water in unexpected ways.
Sometimes it takes months (often years) to find our stories, the ones that we need to tell, even when we don’t yet know what it is we need to say.
For some it’s a long search through the desert, a dry, parched journey until they find the story that’s waiting for them in the cool waters of an oasis just beyond the next sand dune.
Others find their way to water quickly, although still in mysterious fashion, drawn perhaps by the sound of waves, or the trickle of a creek, or some inner divining rod that draws them closer and closer to the pool of water where they find their story.
And for other writers finding water is a bit like getting caught in a thunderstorm. There’s a flash of lightening, and the story—like the rain that comes with the sudden storm—washes over them, drenching them in emotions and images and words.
Leslea Newman found herself in the midst of such an unexpected storm on a trip to Wyoming in 1998.
It was a storm that drenched her to the bone and soaked her heart.
She spent the next decade thinking about what happened on that trip before beginning to write October Mourning, the collection of poems that she has written to honor the memory of Matthew Shepard, the gay student who was murdered only days before Newman was scheduled to give the keynote address to begin Gay Awareness Week at the University of Wyoming.
She knew what had happened to Shepard before her arrival in Laramie, but she couldn’t have known how the emotional impact of what she learned about Shepard’s death during her visit would bleed into her imagination and lead her to a source of inspiration that she hadn’t expected to find when she stepped off the plane at the airport.
“Why was I feeling so emotional?” Newman writes in the afterward. “Why did I care so much about Matthew Shepard? I had never met him or even heard his name until a few days before my arrival.”
What seemed to fill her with the deepest "unspeakable sadness" and "a touch of fear" was knowing that Shepard had planned on attending her lecture.
After her talk, as she shook hands with the students who had come to hear her speak, Newman says she realized how much the students had "needed to see an out, proud lesbian, right before their very eyes.” Her presence, she felt, sent an important message. If her life was possible, she writes, then their lives as gay or bisexual or transgendered people was possible, too.
At the airport Newman wore a yellow armband in memory of Shepard and had to explain the armband to a woman who shared the same tram with her heading to Terminal C. Newman relates the woman’s response: “Her eyes filled with tears. ‘His poor parents,’ she said. ‘I can’t imagine what they’re going through.’”
Those words—I can’t imagine—repeated themselves in Newman’s mind for hours and days because so many others had used the same words.
Perhaps it was Newman’s emotional response to Shepard’s death or to the events of her time in Laramie or to the words of so many people that suggested to her that if no one could imagine the horror, then she would try to imagine it.
“As a poet, I know it’s part of my job to use my imagination. It’s part of my job as a human being, too.”
The poems that found their way to the pages of October Mourning are raw, brutal, and powerful reminders of our humanity, no matter what our sexual orientation or gender.
In writing these poems, Newman reminds us as writers and as human beings to remain vigilant and alert because a writer never knows when she might stumble upon water or find herself caught in the kind of bone-soaking storm that Newman found herself in when she stepped off the plane in Laramie in 1998.
For more information about Newman and October Mourning, visit: