Bridget Bufford

By SARA AGNEW of the Columbia Daily Tribune
Brian W. Kratzer photo
Published Sunday, February 8, 2004

Sometimes a person makes the decision to become an artist.

Perhaps she chooses to paint and works hard to develop her talent. Over time, she might become a great painter, maybe even a famous painter, but either way, she had an idea about her destiny.

Other times, talent makes itself known to the artist. So it was with Bridget Bufford, 45, who discovered through a series of unfortunate events that her lot in life is to write.

"I was sort of a jock at the time and never thought I was creative at all," she said.

It all started with a book Bufford never intended to buy and a judo injury that kept her bedridden. With nothing else to do, Bufford began reading "An Artistís Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity," a book she picked up at The Peace Nook downtown, and the writer in her was unleashed.

In a few weeks, Bufford had written 3,000 pages freehand, following exercises in the book. The experience was exhilarating, she said.

"You can tell youíre headed in the right direction when doors begin opening unexpectedly," Bufford said.

On Feb. 28, Buffordís first novel, "Minus One: A Twelve Step Journey," a 274-page story about a young woman struggling to get sober and find love, will be released by The Haworth Press in New York. Incidentally, Bufford will mark 21 years of being clean and sober on that same day, a sweet coincidence for the accidental writer.

"It was written as a love letter to 12-step programs," she said. "But itís not a love letter youíd write when youíre first falling in love."

The story is set in St. Louis, where Bufford grew up with her parents and two younger brothers. Her mother was an English teacher and her father a businessman.

Bufford was a young teenager when she began experimenting with drugs. As the years passed, her dependency on drugs increased, and eventually Bufford found that she was high almost every day. By the time she was 20, Bufford had been institutionalized several times and flunked out of college in Kirksville. "I was high so much I couldnít find my way to class," she said.

Bufford became increasingly self-destructive and toyed with the idea of killing herself. Still, getting straight eluded her. "Itís pretty tough at 19" to get sober "because youíre still not mature enough to follow the program," she said.
But by her mid-20s, the bottom had fallen out of her life. She couldnít hold a job, stay in school or maintain a relationship. She had traveled around the country, hopping from one job to the next. She worked in construction, forestry and firefighting. But at last, her life had come undone.

"My future was pretty bleak," she said.

In 1983, Bufford moved back to St. Louis and made a commitment to sobriety. She later returned to college and enrolled in the physical-therapy program at the University of Missouri-Columbia. For about 10 years, she worked with special-education students in the Columbia and Jefferson City public schools.

All along, Bufford has been athletic, always enjoying physical activity. In January 1995, while training for a judo meet, she injured her ankle. It was during her recovery that she came upon the joy of writing.

Since then, sheís had a number of short stories published in literary periodicals. In 1996, Bufford began leading weekly writing workshops in Columbia, where participants are encouraged to "free the writer" in themselves. She also continues to work as a consultant with special-needs children.

In "Minus One," the main character, Terry Manescu, is - like Bufford - a lesbian. However, their roads to sobriety are different, with Terry finding more support from other lesbian women in recovery.

Bufford opens each chapter of the book with a quote from 12-step meetings - thatís where the title of the book came from.

"I remember someone once saying, ĎIf thereís a step minus one, thatís where Iím at,í " she said.

Bufford is already busy on her second novel, a story about a woman whose mom was a heroin addict and left her when she was a child. Once grown, the young woman tracks down her mom in Arizona and becomes a firefighter.

"Creative writing isnít something you can plan for," Bufford said. "You just have to be open to it."