The Story of the Stories, Part IV: Letting It Be Bad

In my Hetzel Hall single, I sat agonizing over how to write a short story. Stayed away from nickel night at Nick’s. Closed my dorm room door and ignored knocks. Let the phone ring and ring down the hall, people with reasons to chat be damned.

How Jumpin’ Joe got in, I don’t recall. He’s an unavoidably buoyant person, hard to discourage.

“Look,” he said, not standing still. Bobbing, probably, using hand motions, wiggling his Marx brother’s eyebrows. “Why don’t you take a poetry class, instead. Have a little fun for a change?”

“I know nothing about writing poetry,” I said to this animal science major, to someone whose first real job would be as an egg inspector for the USDA during the day and a bass player in a band at night.

***

Poetry derailed me (fodder for another 100 blogs).

But it was loss that brought me back to writing stories.

First, my father’s death and a summer workshop for teachers in Amherst. We had to tell name stories and one woman said: “I was named Margaret after my grandmother, but her name had originally been Mexico. When she married, her in-laws forced her to change it to something more appropriate.” There was no poem in that, only something vital being erased, something unimaginable. The dorm room I slept in was stifling. The group of teachers assembled not writers but earnest educators hoping to learn something that they could bring back to the classroom with them. Peter Elbow led some weird kind of writing therapy session that made me itch. I could still summon my father’s smell, cotton and starch, Ivory soap. I had memorized the cracks in his fingers, the missing nails. I wouldn’t let my mother throw his comb away.

In my conference with Peter Elbow, I said I wanted to write an essay based on the Mexico story. “I thought about writing something fictional,” I said, “but I can’t.”

“Do you know what word I hear?” he said, leaning forward. “Can’t. You can’t write it, you said.”

“That’s right. I can’t.”

He asked me what I was afraid of and I thought of standing up, walking to my car, driving back to my mother’s house. My mother’s house that used to be my parents’ house.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. This quack. This witch doctor. “Just let it be bad.”

***

I had learned long before that writing didn’t bring anyone back. Had spent my sophomore year in high school chronicling my friendship with two girls whose companionship I had lost. For Christmas that year, I had received an electric typewriter. I set it up in my room beside my stereo and banged away on it, filling page after page with the scenes from our lives together. When I’m finished, I thought, I’ll show it to them and they’ll remember: Oh, right. That’s how it used to be.

***

I didn’t write Having Your Italy because I believed it would bring Dan back. Older, wiser, more accustomed to the way loss inserts itself into life and how we surge forward, grateful even for the loves that cannot last, I wrote the story for me. But I loved many things about him and one of those was his longing, his restlessness despite my own realization that these things meant he couldn’t stay.

One day when he listed all the things he wanted to do, that he couldn’t imagine doing, I thought about how I might console him. Finally, I said: “I went to Italy without a map, without anything, really, except a good friend and the absolute wrong wardrobe.”

He said, “Well, I haven’t had my Italy.”

In the weeks after he left, I sat at my desk and clicked away at the keyboard of my Apple IIGS and wrote a story based around the line that forced a painful and necessary goodbye. The Mexico story was an invitation to write. The Italy story, I thought, might be something more important. Outside, night fell. Inside, I batted away all the never-again’s. I wrote the first draft and I let it be bad.

***

Teaching, too, derailed me, but motherhood? That sat me down in one place and threatened to hold me there, my beautiful daughter, Beatrice, busy with plastic things, her diapers dry, the electrical outlets sealed off.

I hung signs in local libraries: Writing Group Forming, Please Call (Please) — the parenthetical is just a reference to the little prayer I said each time I punched a staple in.

We met in the Rowley Library when it had a basement room with red shag carpet. Of the five people who assembled, four returned for the next four years. Mostly, we met in Newburyport at Jane’s condo, every Thursday night. Her children were grown; her husband tucked himself away in the spare room while we listened to one another’s attempts. When my middle daughter was born, Miriam filled me a water bottle and lectured me about the importance of hydration as I nursed Apphia through the critique. When I was finished, they took turns passing her around: Jane, Brian, Miriam. When my third daughter arrived home from Guatemala, I brought them all gifts.

But the writing stalled, story after story rejected. “I might just start writing poetry again,” I said, threatening the indifferent air and houseplants.

Then the phone rang. Landline.

Ten years after I had finished Having Your Italy, someone said, “We’d like to publish your story.”

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