Writing Lessons: Jackie Mercurio

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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About Andrew Ladd

Andrew Ladd is the blog editor for Ploughshares, and his work also has appeared in Apalachee Review, CICADA, Memoir Journal, Paper Darts, and The Rumpus, among others. His first novel, What Ends, was the winner of the 2012 AWP Prize in the Novel, and will be published in January 2014 by New Issues Press. He grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, and has since lived in Boston, Montreal, and London; currently he lives in Brooklyn with his wife and cat. Follow him on Twitter @agoodladd.
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8 Responses to Writing Lessons: Jackie Mercurio

  1. Mary Ingoglia says:

    I loved Jackie Mercurio’s wonderful piece! I’ve read her work before and I’m so excited to read more inspirational work from her. Can’t wait to get a copy of Good House Keeping’s May edition…I’m sure it will be a story that will uplift and inspire. Brava Ms. Mercurio!!

  2. Michelle says:

    Another gem from Jackie!

  3. Christina says:

    Jackie’s work always delights, and this is no exception. Looking forward to all the forthcoming work!

  4. Teaching Mom says:

    Jackie Mercurio’s beautiful and thought-provoking message in this piece is that there is a season for everything. In this modern society that we live in, where everyone is trying to multitask, nothing gets done well. Most importantly, children’s needs are not met appropriately. Sadly, I see this on a daily basis as a classroom teacher. So many of my students (from diverse socio-economic backgrounds) live in frantically paced homes. It takes a toll on them that schools can simply not set right. As busy parents, we must make it a priority to carve out ample time for our kids (and many times put our own needs, dreams and aspirations on hold) in order to provide a stable and supportive home. E. L. Doctorow and Jackie Mercurio are wise.
    Looking forward to reading Jackie’s upcoming piece in Good Housekeeping!

  5. Mary Turi says:

    Wow! What an inspiration! Jackie proves it’s never too late to follow your dreams! Looking forward to more great reads by Ms. Mercurio!

  6. Mimi says:

    What an amazing story! An inspiration to have it all– raise a family and follow your dreams. A story that should be read by every woman — especially a pregnant one. Gives hope to all to aspire to do what they truly want to do in life.

  7. Hayley Carlton says:

    I just read the story in Good Housekeeping. When I was a teenager I tried to kill myself about 7 times. Thankfully, I grew out of it. Not to pry, but what happened to the 6th pregnancy?

  8. Vivian says:

    Great story Jackie! It’s refreshing to hear that it’s never too late to follow your dreams. As one other writer wrote , there is a season for everything. We live in a fast paced world and instead of enduring the present we focus on what we wish we had and where we rather be. I am a mother of three and there are more times than I wish to admit that I too forget to cherish the present. Before we know it, the children will be grown and the present that was not savored becomes the past that we can not have a second chance at.