Sentimentality Be Damned: On Gratitude
Written by
Lisa Fay Coutley
February 2012
Written by
Lisa Fay Coutley
February 2012

It seems appropriate to admit to a forum of women that I was the girl who never made female friends easily. As a teenager, talking wasn’t my thing, hugs were a struggle, and I just felt out of place among groups of girls/women. Yet, in the summer of 1999—as a young mother stuck in an unhealthy relationship, having learned that my mother, who had long since been emotionally unavailable to me, was dying—I could have really used some female guidance.


What I found instead was an office job at the Department of Public Instruction, working for a woman who awarded scholarships and grants to underprivileged, first-generation college kids (a category into which I fit neatly). I hated high school—had skipped more classes than I attended and always felt certain that college wasn’t for me—but recently I’d been staying up nights to write, while my sons and partner slept, and being immersed in this new job was getting the college gears going. I felt that it was time for a change. If this were a Lifetime movie, this would have been the point at which my new boss took me under her encouraging, grant-giving wing, but not this woman. Maybe she didn’t like me. Maybe she didn’t like herself. Who knows. In the two months I had worked there, she was steadily condescending, and when I approached her about college she told me outright, with an ‘oh, you poor, stupid girl’ sort of laugh, that I’d never make it. Flat out: “You’ll never get in.”  


So I quit. I took the ACT. I moved into my own place with my two toddlers and was enrolled at a university within six months. There I was, a 24-year-old English major who had never read a published poem by any author. Ever. What was I doing?! I had no idea. All I knew was that I loved writing, and that some horrible woman told me I couldn’t. I was fortunate then to find myself among wonderful women—nurturing teachers, supportive classmates, and strong voices in the pages of poetry collections that I just devoured. I couldn’t get enough. If I skipped any classes in those days it was to stay home and read. In fact, I’ll never forget spending an entire day on my bed, skipping British Literature to read the novel assigned for extra credit, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall—just me and Helen Huntington, who was every bit as real and supportive to me as anyone then.


When I started this post, I had every intention of writing about one female mentor who encouraged me along the way, but it occurred to me that I have simply been too lucky: there are too many women who have seen beyond my bravado and noticed the girl hunkering inside of me who secretly wants to be accepted among other girls, who secretly needs help but doesn’t always know how to ask for it, who sometimes needs to be told she can't.    

I feel indebted not only to the women who've encouraged me to ‘write through’ when I lost faith in myself, when my mother died, when another man proved ultimately disappointing, but also to the women who've let me down. They taught me as much about the woman I want to be as those who stood in stark contrast. 


I’m now in my final year of PhD coursework. It’s been a hell of a long road, earning a BA, an MA, and an MFA, dragging my boys from state to state. Along the way I grew tired of trying to write and teach and work part-time jobs to make ends meet, and I have often questioned all of it—do I want to teach, am I really a writer, is this even worth it? And, honestly, only recently (really, this very morning) am I saying: yes, yes, hell yes. Teachers, writers, and writing have saved my life. I can’t wait to help my students knock down every seemingly impenetrable wall, and, secretly, I hope to some day have the chance to give to even one girl what so many women have given to me.   


Lisa Fay Coutley is the author of In the Carnival of Breathing, winner of the Black River Chapbook Competition (Black Lawrence Press, 2011), and Back-Talk, winner of the ROOMS Chapbook Contest (Articles Press, 2010). She is a doctoral fellow and poetry editor for Quarterly West at the University of Utah. Her recent work appears or is forthcoming in Seneca Review, Third Coast, Cave Wall, American Literary Review, The Journal, Best New Poets 2010, and on Verse Daily

*In the Carnival of Breathing is available through Black Lawrence Press:


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  • Lisa Fay Coutley

    Thanks, everyone!

  • Yejide Kilanko

    I salute you. May you have many more mornings like today. Thanks for sharing.

  • Jessica Vealitzek

    Wonderful post, Lisa. Your accomplishments are inspirational. 

  • Lisa Fay Coutley

    Thanks, Maria! And here's to you, too!

  • Maria Powers

    Great post. It really made me think about the women who have helped and more importantly those who haven't. You are so right that I learned as much from those who didn't help. Here's to you and to all of the women you've met along the way.

  • Lisa Fay Coutley

    Thanks, Ladies! You both are inspirations to me!

  • Traci Brimhall

    Lisa Fay, you are smart, talented, beautiful, amazing, and one fearless woman. I'm glad you wouldn't let others tell you no. 

  • Sandra Beasley

    Lisa, this is a WONDERFUL post--I particularly identify with the idea of "there are too many women who have seen beyond my bravado and noticed the girl hunkering inside of me who secretly wants to be accepted among other girls, who secretly needs help but doesn’t always know how to ask for it." Thank you for sharing!