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May 19, 2015

Two students in a writing workshop discover they’re sisters

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Columbia: the breeding ground of coincidence. (Image via Wikipedia)

As anyone who’s attended a creative writing class knows, there are five unspoken rules. Number one is to be honest (but not too honest.) Number two is the duration of the class is directly proportional to the probability that someone will write something racist. Number three is “show don’t tell.” Number four is “write believable stuff.” Number five is “write what you know”.

Well, two students in a Columbia University writing class may end up breaking the fourth rule if they follow the fifth. They discovered they were long-lost sisters—after they met on the very first day of class.

The New York Times reports on this happy accident:

Lizzie Valverde and Katy Olson were strangers when they enrolled at Columbia University a few years ago. Ms. Valverde is from New Jersey, while Ms. Olson had grown up mostly in Florida and Iowa.

Their lives crossed in January 2013, on the first day of a writing class, when they took part in one of those familiar around-the-table introductions that by the end had led them to a stunning realization.

These strangers were sisters.

Valverde, who graduated this week with her BA in creative writing, ended up in the class at the literal last minute, having registered for the class minutes before it began. The students introducted themselves and as Valverde began speaking, Olson immediately suspected a familial connection.

“It fit together with lot of stuff that I knew,” Ms. Olson said, including information gleaned through online searches about her birth mother’s identity as well as hints that the woman had had an older daughter who seemed to be a student at Columbia.

Ms. Olson’s attempts to contact that older daughter online had been unsuccessful, but now she appeared to be here in the same classroom. “All the pieces just came together for me,” recalled Ms. Olson, who nevertheless was hesitant.

“I worried that she’d think I was stalking her,” she said. “But I didn’t want to let her get away. I couldn’t go home and sit for a week without getting an answer to this question.”

So she approached Ms. Valverde after class and began blurting out such detailed questions about her personal life — about her maiden name, if she had been adopted in Florida and whether she lived in New Jersey — that Ms. Valverde, who never knew she had a biological sister, was stunned.

“I think we’re sisters,” Ms. Olson recalled saying.

All Ms. Valverde could do was utter, “Is this real life?”

It certainly was, though it sounds like a wildly improbably coincidence that were it submitted as part of a composition would suffer class-wide scorn, inevitably couched in the anodyne non-criticism endemic to writing classes. As the two women began sharing their separate discoveries of their shared origin, they uncovered the truth of their past; that decades ago, both had been given up for adoption by a Tampa teen mother, Leslie Parker.

Valverde had already tracked down and met Parker, and she recently arranged for Parker to fly to New York for her graduation, where she would meet Olson for the first time since she gave her up for adoption. Parker’s troubled past includes not just a horrifying encounter with serial killer Gary Ray Bowles, but literary dreams of her own.

She said she always wanted to be a writer, but a hard-knock life riddled with poverty, drug abuse and emotional problems had been too much to overcome.

As a teenager, she let the girls go because, she said, “I was not in a position to raise them,” adding, “If I had raised them, they wouldn’t have had the privileges they had,” as adopted children.

“They’re brilliant, beautiful young women,” Ms. Parker said. “In them, I see what I had the potential to be. They’re both living what I always wanted to be.”

So, to sum up; teen mother with dreams of becoming a writer gives up on dreams, as well as raising two daughters. She narrowly escapes with her life after encountering a real-life serial killer. Decades later, her daughters are spurred by a creative instinct and by sheer coincidence meet on the first day of a creative writing class.

This is a fantastic story. It’s also a perfect example of a story that in a class such as this, were it submitted, would get summarily rejected on the grounds of it being too unbelievable. “But it did happen!” cries the author. “Doesn’t matter,” says the class. “I don’t believe that could happen.” If Jeffrey Eugenides tried to write this story he’d never get past the first draft. (Maybe Wally Lamb could pull it off.)

So let this be a lesson to all creative writing students; your commitment to verisimilitude may guide you through many creative dilemmas, but it’ll always be outmatched by life’s sheer weirdness and entropy. So if you find someone else’s writing straining the bonds of credibility, take a moment before you speak. Think of all the insane coincidences visited upon you, including the many you never likely perceive. And then patiently wait while everyone else in the class struggles to uptalk something complimentary, because you’re in a creative writing class and that’s just what’s done.

Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.

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