Writing Lessons: Jackie Mercurio

Jackie Mercurio, wearing a shirt that reads "Mom", speaking into a microphone behind a podium

In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Jackie Mercurio, a student in the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College. Jackie’s creative nonfiction will be appearing in the May issue of Good Housekeeping, and you can also follow her on Twitter (@jackmercurio) and Facebook—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

I was caught eating Fritos by E.L. Doctorow.

I had softened the chips with saliva, to lessen the crunch, but it didn’t work: I realized (a mouthful of Fritos too late) that I had disturbed the author. We had been sitting in his office, as we had done every week at NYU, to discuss my thesis paper, and as he had been reading over my stack of stories, probably thinking of a nice way to tell me, You’ve written crap here, I sat there with my big pregnant belly, munching Fritos.

He looked up from my thesis, and directly at my mouth as if I had no face attached. And feeling ashamed, and not knowing what to do, I simply swallowed, and held open the bag of chips. “Here, Professor. Have one.”

He refrained from taking the curled corn, and sat back in his chair, folding his hands on his head, eyes peering at me through those famous wire spectacles. I should’ve been focused on learning the craft from one of America’s best authors, but I was very (very!) pregnant, and controlled (no, tortured!) by cravings, and Fritos got me through those days.

“I’m sorry, Professor,” I said. Embarrassed, I confessed how between work and pregnancy, I was too overwhelmed to write. I told him how I was an English teacher, and how just that morning while explaining onomatopoeia to a class of tenth graders, I involuntarily burped.  “It’s a pregnancy thing, sir,” I explained. “But now whenever I pass those students in the hallway, they burp.”

Doctorow listened patiently, sometimes smiling, sometimes pressing his lips together. And fueled with Fritos and hormones and humiliation, in front of my beloved American author, over a bag of Fritos, I cried.

When I had finished, I lifted the bag of chips from my lap. “Please, sir,” I said. “Take one.”

And he did.

He held up his chip, and spoke gently. “Listen, Ms. Mercurio. You’re going to have this baby, love this baby, and watch him grow.” He put the Frito in his mouth, and the last of his advice came with glorious crunching.  “And then, my dear, you will write.”

And I did.

I gave birth to a boy, loved him so much I had another, and another, and another, and another. (Yes, five kids!) I watched them grow and fifteen years later I did what Doctorow said I’d do: write. I enrolled at Sarah Lawrence, and am working on my second graduate degree.  In other words, I’m writing stories again.  Without cravings.  Without burps.

Looking back on that bag of chips with Doctorow, he gave me much more than writing advice. He showed me that life is like good literature—it’s all about the process, the re-write. No matter how old we get, there’s always room to grow, to change, to start fresh on a new page, to write a better version of our story.

And that’s a bag of Fritos I’ll always snack on.

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