President Obama presents novelist Philip Roth with the National Humanities Medal.

by Hugh Gilmore

Philip Roth, at 80, has announced his retirement from the literature scene, so there’s a big opening now for aspiring writers to jump through. Perhaps the gap would fit two or three new authors. Should now be the time for you, dear reader, to leap forward and stake your claim?

I imagine you might pause in fear and wonder what it would be like to assert yourself. To hurl your hopes into the great pond – perhaps only to hear a very small splash. One not as far from shore as you hoped? And you stand with your toes in the water, barely sensing a few faint ripples before the water stills.

Could you stand that? How would you feel if you knew ahead of time that was all the reaction you would get? Would you go ahead anyway and try on Mr. Roth’s toga?

Compose your song, or rhyme your poem, paint your canvas, or tap out your epic? Would it matter to you if you worked hard and all you got for it was the story, or poem, or song you created? Would you need a guarantee of monetary success, or an Oprah appearance before you started?

I was thinking those thoughts as I sat in my ponderer’s chair in the sunny living room this Saturday past. I was “killing” time (or should I say it was killing me?) as I sat waiting for the time when I’d need to jump up and rush to where I had to be. Time-wise, I live on the verge of late – as usual – but exactly on time – as usual. A compulsion towards punctuality is a great inducer of tension. Especially when one applies that notion to his career, his dreams, his life.

Where I was headed was Musehouse. That’s not a metaphor. It’s a literal place. But it works well as a metaphor also. If you don’t know it by now, that’s unfortunate, but not uncorrectable. The building stands at 7924 Germantown Ave., right near Willow Grove Avenue, but its essence lies in the loving hearts and minds of Kathy Sheeder Bonanno, the founder/director, and her wonderful staff of teachers and volunteers.

Musehouse sponsors literary readings, including open-mic nights, several times a week. It offers classes and workshops nearly every day (into the night). Most of all, it shows care and openness toward all who want to say what is in their hearts through the medium of words, spoken or written.

I was going there Saturday night to be part of a celebration of the debut of The Musehouse Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1. The journal is a juried magazine and the standards for selection were high. Many of the poets and prose writers who appeared in the magazine were there Saturday to read their selected pieces aloud. I was fortunate enough to be one of two story writers appearing in this inaugural issue. I would read a selection from a memoir I’ve nearly completed.

I felt honored to be included, but worried that the sound of my stone in the pond would be lost amidst the plunks of so many others. And I wondered who would ever read the journal after Saturday night. And I worried that what I had written was too personally revealing. And I suspected that my speaking voice could never do justice to the emotions I wrote about – four short scenes from my childhood.

I had rehearsed with a tape recorder numerous times in the previous days, but the playbacks never sounded like the voices I heard while writing the story. Did that matter? A writers’ words have to do the magic on their own, I guess. In my case, perhaps not, but one of my favorite quotes is Machiavelli’s “fortune favors the bold.”

I’ve been talking about myself, last Saturday night, but still haven’t forgotten those of you who want to write, but don’t have time. Those who want to speak, but don’t know if they’ll ever find the words. Those who wonder, What’s the use? Reasonable questions. But …

Well, if you were expecting the Big Reveal here, there isn’t one. If you feel you have something to say, just go ahead and write it down. There’s no reason not to.

If you need a guarantee: The only certain one is that you’ll certainly get nowhere if you don’t start. Of course, there’s no guarantee you’ll “get anywhere” if you do. But is that what you want to unlock your heart for? Riches? Is that why you have lived as long as you have, and survived the awful things you’ve seen and heard? Fame? Or the beauties you have witnessed and never given word to before? Listeners? Oh, well, that’s a different matter. That might be worthwhile.

I sat there on my folding chair Saturday night, waiting my turn, thinking as each person came up to the microphone: My goodness, you never, ever, can predict what another person is carrying around in his/her, heart. Or the experiences they’ve had. Such surprises I heard.

When my turn came, I felt like I was offering my part in a collective prayer against those imagined gods who wait to mock our hopes and dreams.

Thank you, Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno, Musehouse, and my fellow writers from Saturday night.

Musehouse is easily Googled. Hugh Gilmore is now on Facebook and also blogs at “” His latest book, the quirky romance/twisted family story of “Last Night on the Gorilla Tour” is available in both ebook and paperback formats on

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