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  • NYS Writers Institute

Traveling to Instagram: An essay by Judith Fetterley

A couple weeks ago, we posted Life Lessons from Gardening, a video chat with Judith Fetterley, who left academia after 30 years as a Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University at Albany and is now owner and manager of Perennial Wisdom, a garden design consultation service.

How happy we are to share the news that Judith penned an essay for our upcoming edition of our online journal Trolley. While we put the finishing touches on Trolley and get it ready to leave the station, here's Judith's piece, one of more than 70 essays, poems, short fiction, and reviews you'll find in Trolley.


Traveling to Instagram

By Judith Fetterley

My trip to Scotland has been cancelled. Sara and I were planning to spend some time in Inverness, then head to the Isle of Skye. Sara has Scottish roots and dreams of Skye. I have wanted to set foot on Skye since I was in fifth grade.  Jean McLeod, my fifth-grade teacher, traced her family back to the McLeods of Skye. I was lucky enough at the end of fourth grade to get into her class and proudly went with my mother to Eaton’s department store (this was Canada, Toronto) that summer to buy the black watch kilt all the girls in Miss McLeod’s class were required to wear every Wednesday.  On Wednesdays, with the boys showing off their black watch ties and the girls in their kilts, Jean McLeod would intensify her Scottish brogue and regale us with stories of her proud clan. I adored her—she taught us to make taffy and to love the Greeks. Every day I prayed that at the end of the year she would select me to be a member of the Highland Lookout Club, the name she gave to the group of pupils she chose to keep in her circle even after they moved on to the next grades. Alas, I moved on to the United States and to a small town in Indiana. Over the years I lost touch with Jean McLeod but not with my memories of her. Finally, this winter, Sara and I were able to plan a trip to Scotland and to Skye. When the trip was cancelled, we got our money back. I should have put my half in the bank because financial uncertainly is clearly on the horizon. Instead I decided to take a different kind of trip. In this time of “pause”– no-one in my household or circle of friends is going anywhere –movement, and particularly in a new direction, seems like a good idea. I am using the money to pay for a consultant to help me find readers for my writing. Dan mentions Instagram, I think, Antarctica. Same, same. Both foreign, both exotic. Facebook, Twitter, blog, newsletter, Mailchimp, author platform? It’s a trip. I want to go. I am packed and ready.  Since working with Dan I have begun to think differently about my writing. When I talk with audiences about lower-maintenance gardening, something I do regularly as a member of the speaker’s bureau of Albany County Master Gardeners, I emphasize the need to change one’s perspective if you want your garden to be less work. I remind my listeners that the features of lower-maintenance plants are also the features of plants we label as weeds. They come up early and stay up late, they can tolerate drought, they are disease and pest resistant, they don’t need to be staked or deadheaded. Lower-maintenance gardens can be beautiful, but it is not the beauty we associate with the long perennial border rich with lush blooms. To like the look you have to change your aesthetic. I began to write on a Smith-Corona manual typewriter, my fingers blue with carbon paper smudge that all too easily transferred to the onion skin original. I sent completed essays by mail to print journals, keeping careful track of the costs for tax purposes. For each essay I would identify potential sources of publication, order them in terms of preference, address a manila envelope to each of these journals and apply the necessary postage. Then I would put my first choice in the mail. When a piece came back, it went into the next envelope before I had a chance to read why it was rejected. Reading why too often lead to discouragement rather than revision. Sometimes it took months to hear back from these journals, and even more months to see anything in print.  Now I write on the computer and submit essays electronically, but I am still submitting to print journals. The rejection time is shorter and most journals no longer give any reason for the rejection. Nor is it always clear who is reading these journals. Still there are many journals interested in creative non-fiction, I still have my lists and, as each rejection arrives, I send my essay out again to brave the world of print journalism. But it is beginning to feel a bit futile. I am beginning to think there must be a better way to find and reach readers. Perhaps my readers are not to be found in the world of print journalism; perhaps they hang out on Facebook and read blogs.  At any rate, with so much of my life shut down, I look forward to seeing what Dan can stir up. Meanwhile, I am contributing an amount of money equal to what the trip to Scotland and Skye would have cost, and equal to what I am paying Dan, to local food pantries, domestic violence shelters, and organizations helping feed and house the homeless. Each Monday when we talk, I tell Dan what organization he indirectly supported last week. Then he preps me for the country I will be visiting this week. It’s a deal.

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We'll post more Trolley pieces here throughout the summer and you can read all the poems, essays, and short fiction on our Trolley site soon. Thanks for reading.


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