If it weren’t for Jo Carson, you would not be reading this column. Jo, playwright, poet, storyteller, children’s book author, short story writer and sly dog, gave me permission to write some 20 years ago, and her death Sept. 19 has been a source of pain and wonder. But, as Jo would say, the pain and wonder are another story.
In 1990, I was floundering. All my life I had wanted to “be a writer.” I could write passably well, I knew that, but I didn’t have a voice or a purpose or much of anything to say, I thought.
Then I saw a notice that Knoxville College — I was living in Knoxville at the time — was holding a one-day playwright’s seminar and that Jo Carson, whom I had known from my first sojourn in Johnson City, would be one of the workshop leaders. I can’t imagine what gave me the courage to sign up for that workshop. Being a playwright was nothing I’d ever considered, but I thought it might be a good thing to be around creative types.
I’ve never felt at ease around artists; I am the Sunbeam bread to their sprouted seven grains. But because I was approaching desperation, the point at which I would either have to fish or cut bait with writing, I went to the workshop. There I met up with kind and encouraging people, including Jo Carson.
Each of the participants was asked to read something. I brought along a short story I had written for a workshop I took while living in the D.C. area.
I started with a quavering voice and an apology. “I started writing as a little girl, but mostly they were stories about rescuing horses from burning barns.” There was a murmur among the workshop leaders and an expression on Jo’s face that told me there was more to this than I realized.
Long story short, they liked what I had written. Jo told me I needed to explore the idea of burning barns. She told me I needed to write. Hers was the permission I needed.
I kept writing, I moved to California briefly, I got an agent, I moved back to Jonesborough, I got a book deal. And Jo Carson asked me to join a writers group she was putting together.
The book I was compiling under contract paid the bills for a while, but what I wrote for the group kept me aloft during one of life’s difficult transitions.
When Jo’s cancer returned in August, I went to the hospital. She shook one finger at me and told me to write fiction. She thought I was good at it. Or at least good enough.
During another visit at her home a week before she died, Jo gave me a rather large, plush, stuffed toy goose. It is also a puppet.
“A goose can say what a person can’t,” she told me.
Jo is a sly dog. I put my hand in that goose’s neck and move its mouth as if it were speaking, but I talk in my own voice. I suspect Jo knew if I could find the courage to say what a goose says in the manner of a goose, I might at last be able to put down on paper just what those burning barns mean.