I remember when Melanie Plesh interviewed to become a Summer Fellow at the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project’s first summer institute in 1992. I was expecting an applicant named Melanie Lachin when a knock on my door announced a thin woman with red frizzy hair. I asked her if she was Melanie Lachin, and she said no, but her name was Melanie too, and she’d come for an interview. I asked her to sit down and talk while we waited for Melanie Lachin. The more this one talked, the more impressed I became.

After about 15 minutes, she said, “Imagine, two Melanies on the same day.” We both thought it was strange, but kept on talking about her classroom and her love of writing. Finally she said, “What did you say the name of that other Melanie was?”

“Melanie Lachin.”

“Oh,” she said, turning red as her hair, “that’s me! I was Melanie Lachin, but I go by ‘Plesh’ now! I guess I’m who you were looking for!”

“You sure are,” I said. “Whoever you are, I think you’re what Writing Project is all about.”

This wacky moment of identity and epiphany began our 23 years of writing, teaching, and working together and has defined our relationship ever since. Not only has Melanie become one of my closest friends, but she’s also become one of the strongest threads holding SLWP together. One of the best teacher-leader-writers I’ve met in my career, she’s grown tremendously due to her involvement with the writing project, while changing the life of our site and mine as well.

Because she was so sharp, and so much a writer, Melanie’s teaching demonstration on Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones was selected to kick off our first institute. She led a three-hour “in-house” writing marathon based on Goldberg’s model, where writers sit around a table, write for about 10 minutes, read their writing aloud voluntarily without criticism, and then repeat the process again and again. Melanie would give us a word to start each round of writing, have us write, and talk to us about her teaching between each round. We learned how she believed in her students as writers and thinkers and protected the sacred writing environment she created in the classroom.

Once complete strangers, we had written, shared, and talked honestly about ourselves and our lives, and now we felt like a community—a community of writers.

“You don’t need to teach the essay,” she’d say, “because students have essays in them already and just need the encouragement and opportunity to write them.” As we wrote together under her guidance that day, we began to feel more and more like writers. “You’re not writing here so that you can take back how to teach your students, you’re writing here to be a writer,” she said. “If you are a writer, the teaching of writing will follow naturally.” She told us that she always wrote alongside her students. “That’s the key,” she said, “if you want to be authentic. What do you think is going through their minds if you’re taking roll while you are making them write? You need to write with them and share with them.” Beside her stood a stack of a dozen journals she had filled, and others she’d borrowed from students, which she read from to prove how profound and coherent young people could be if given the chance to write just as we were doing now. By the end of her demonstration, the room had changed. Once complete strangers, we had written, shared, and talked honestly about ourselves and our lives, and now we felt like a community—and better yet, a community of writers. From that day on, we spent the first hour of every institute day with sacred writing and sharing time. And every institute since that first one has followed the same pattern, often led by Melanie, the thread holding us together year to year, first as returning Mentor, later as Co-Director.

Melanie not only put her stamp on our site, but the National Writing Project transformed her as well by giving her friends, an audience, and opportunities to grow. She became our most successful inservice presenter, often facing belligerent faculty and turning them around by having them write together. She also traveled across the country as a speaker at NWP events and meetings as well as to the NCTE/NWP Global Conference in Amsterdam, her first trip abroad. She took a sabbatical to write her way across Europe, publishing the memoir, I’m In Estonia, and I’m Alive!

Melanie also changed my life as a teacher, writer, and director. If it hadn’t been for Melanie, I doubt I’d ever have figured out how to take Goldberg’s “in house” writing marathon to the streets, producing The New Orleans Writing Marathon, which became the model for writing marathons across the National Writing Project.

I remember when Jim Gray came to visit the Louisiana sites as keynote speaker at our “Festival of Writers” (where the first New Orleans Writing Marathon was held), I told him over dinner on a French Quarter balcony about Melanie and how she so embodied what the NWP was all about. A few years later at the Annual Meeting in Atlanta, Jim was standing by himself in the hotel lobby, and I brought Melanie over to meet him. She stood silently beside me, slightly in awe, as Jim talked to me about one thing and another. Finally, he looked over at her and said in that challenging voice of his, “Who the hell are you?” For a second I recalled that interview with Melanie, and how neither of us seemed confused about her identity.

“This is Melanie Plesh,” I said to Jim. “She’s the one I told you about once, the one who embodies the Writing Project more than anyone else I’ve met but you.” He looked her up and down, nodded, and extended his hand. I felt that moment was meant to be.

Richard LouthRichard Louth is the founding director of the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project and founder of the New Orleans Writing Marathon.