He Will Never Leave Me

The first time, he used the basement door that led into Karen’s empty bedroom as easily as if we’d invited him in. Opened drawers, moved through the laundry room, up the stairs and into our living room. In the kitchen, he opened cabinets. Nothing upstairs was disturbed. Maybe he was rushed, we said. Maybe he didn’t want to take a chance getting stuck up there. He stole nothing, not the dish of gold jewelry on my dresser, the pair of Bose speakers on Karen’s floor, a few dollars on the kitchen table, the television.

The police officer told us he was probably after drugs or cash. I stood in our kitchen, shades drawn tight, my sparkly New Year’s Eve dress not yet unpacked from the suitcase I’d just dragged home from a week in Paris. Karen had arrived late the night before I had and had noticed, first, the frigid air. The dog didn’t bark, didn’t hesitate, only padded after her down the stairs. Karen hadn’t even considered reporting the crime. Instead, she put the house back in order, locked the door again, and fell asleep, worn out from her own holiday.

“We could dust for prints,” the officer told us, after I insisted we report this. “But the detective who does that is out until the end of the week so I’m not sure it would do much good.”

And that was it. We let him go. The landlord installed a bolt lock on the outside cellar door. I installed one on the door at the top of the cellar stairs for nights when Karen wasn’t home.

The second time, he had a twenty-four hour window, and it was this window, as opposed to the one he laid across the Karen’s bed before climbing back in, that chilled me most. He’s watching, I thought. He’s waiting. In that one night between Karen leaving for her vacation and me arriving home from mine, he had returned.

What I noticed first was the phone off the hook. I thought Karen’s dog had knocked it off the table with her tail on the way out, but then I saw the splintered cellar door that he had kicked in. Whatever Karen had seen on her return, could not have been like this: every cabinet door opened, every drawer pulled out, like some cheesy demonic possession. No cold rushing up the stairs this time because it was August and nothing touched in Karen’s basement room.

But upstairs, this time, he had felt at home, had emptied my dresser drawers onto the floor, had flung clothes from my closet across the carpet. What could I believe he hadn’t touched? Doorknobs, bedposts, the sleeves and crotches and soles of things that I had worn. He had seen himself reflected in my mirror.

This time, the landlord secured the windows with locks. I got a dog. Karen and I talked about moving out but, for a few more months, we stayed. I never slept there alone again. I never felt that it was my home after that. I never felt any sense of nostalgia for a place where, before, and even after his intrusions, I had been happy. But I didn’t have to return, either, and, so, I never did.

Now, he shops for groceries in Framingham on a day when I am on the highway, driving a few hundred miles south of there. He tries to convince banks I’ve changed my address to Tennessee and should have my credit cards forwarded there. He calls a bank in Texas and attempts to establish credit in my name. Calls other banks to request new cards, to expand my credit limit. He knows my mother’s maiden name. In this carefully crafted world of mine, he has stepped back in. He has my daughter’s information, too. Numbers that are useless to him until a few months from now when she turns 18.

At night, I lie awake and consider all the windows I have not yet sealed against him. Ways in that I cannot yet conceive of, because, most of all, he has stolen my imagination. Hard to believe now we can ever be safe. That he is the kind of person you can ever be rid of, that you can ever keep out.

Weekend Write-In: Just Say NO!!

Since you're not busy, would you mind taking a look at my manuscript?

Since you’re not busy, would you mind taking a look at my manuscript?

It took me forty years to admit I’m a writer. First, I wrote it on forms that asked for profession. Then, I told telemarketers conducting surveys. Finally, I tried real people: women at my daughters’ preschool, my new dentist. No one called my title into question. Some people even started using the title in reference to me: “That’s Beatrice’s mother. She’s a writer.”

Then there was the day when I said, “I’m a writer,” and someone said, “Really? Would you read my novel?”

Since I had no idea how to say no, I slogged through page one of Wasted Lives, complete with typos, misspellings, and a main character named Dick. When I set the manuscript back into its shirt box, I lectured myself: I didn’t even know this man. Why would I spend hours plowing through his manuscript? I waited until I knew the author would not be home (these were the good old answering machine days) and then I left a message: “I can’t do your manuscript justice in the limited time I have. I’ll leave it on my back porch. Stop by anytime for it.”

The relief I felt at dumping the mess on my doorstep disappeared as soon as I received an email from a distant relative whose step-daughter wanted to be a writer. Might she get my opinion on her work? Evolution is a slow process, but I began the crawl. “I’ll take a look at the first chapter,” I said.

Thus, I spent a night with Jennie Longwood, a young, gorgeous virgin who meets her true love tending bar in a New York piano bar where she has gotten her first singing gig. Their sparks are only interrupted by a record company executive who asks her to stop by his studio in the morning. She takes the bartender back to her beautiful apartment and has an orgasm. Then I got to page two.

Dear Julie, I typed. How impressed I am that you have the discipline to see a longer work through to its end. I suggested she might sign up to take some writing classes.

For a couple of years, I cruised along unapproached by closet novelists. Then one night when I was running out the door, the phone rang. It was our new selectwoman, an acquaintance whose son went to school with my daughter. She asked for the name of a book I’d recommended at the busstop one morning. I told her and then said I had to run and (feeling boastful), added: “I’m off to my fiction workshop.”

There was a pause before she said, “That reminds me.”

I wondered if she’d seen the press release for my first book. If she would attend the reading I’d be giving at the library. Or maybe if she’d read one of the obscure but lovely magazines that had published my work recently.

Instead, she said, “I was just going through stuff and found copies of a novel I’d written. I was going to toss them out, but then I thought: maybe Carla would be interested in seeing it.”

Clever to frame it this way, no? The way she put it, I could lie and say, “Of course I would,” or I could tell the truth and say, “Throw it out.”

I wish I could say: Lesson learned. Just say no.

Instead, I read the first twenty pages and offered my stock advice about taking a writing course. Since then, I’ve had an almost total stranger send me his daughter’s collection of poems. Although she is only a ninth grader, I am sure you can see her promise. I’ve read shorter pieces for people who preface their queries with, “I’m not a writer or anything, but . . .” I’ve even (once) been PAID to review a manuscript.

But here’s the thing about real writers. Yes. I said REAL. They don’t ask just any ol’ person to take a look at what they’ve done. Why not? Because we’re writers. We understand the precious few hours we have in a day to get to work. We also hand off our work, not to someone we meet casually or someone who can’t avoid a biological link to us, but to other writers whose instincts we trust, whose input we value, whose works we would pore over in exchange.

So what can you do if you need someone to read your work (besides taking a class — still my #1 piece of advice).

  1. Join a writers group or form your own (I hung signs at a local library many years ago and wound up with four wonderful readers who also happened to become my friends).
  2. Offer to read other people’s work in exchange for them reading yours.
  3. Make friends with writers. We hang out at readings and conferences, but we also grocery shop and volunteer in our kids’ pre-schools, and take our cats to the vet.
  4. Of course, keep reading.
  5. Most of all, refrain from showing your work to find out if you are a writer, if you have what it takes. No one wants to read your stuff and deliver that verdict. It might take you a few decades to say it out loud, but if you are a writer, you’ll know it.

Weekend Write-In: What Do You Mean I Have to Sell the Thing?

My book among 1000's at this year's AWP conference.

My book among 1000’s at this year’s AWP conference.

Congratulations! After only ___ years, you’ve published a book! What a dream come true! What a lesson in perseverance, patience, the alignment of certain stars, luck. You’re a real, live author now and someday soon when you’re at a cocktail party (which you rarely are), someone is sure to ask you what you do. I’m a writer, you will say, feeling authentic. And that feeling will continue even when someone asks the next question: What do you write? Chest puffed. Shoulders back. Fiction! you crow. Written any books I might have read? For the first time in your life, you have an answer to this (that won’t insult the general public). Why, as a matter of fact, I do have a book you might have heard of (most likely this guest would not have heard of it, but you get to say it anyway). Aren’t you a fine specimen of literary success? You go off and celebrate with more champagne (which no one you know ever serves at any kind of parties).

I never tried cocaine, but I liken its high to what it’s like to publish anything. You send your darlings out there into the abyss and amazingly, impossibly, someone reaches back through the black hole and says, We want you. You turn around to see if there’s some other more deserving person standing behind you but, lo and behold, the recipient of the miracle is none other than you! And you soar! Briefly.

No matter how many magazines you are fortunate enough to place your work in, the dream is, the dream has always been, a book. You’re a reader. When someone asks you what you would bring to a deserted island, you forget all about water and energy bars, impossible as it seems to survive without a book in your hands. Your name on the spine of one of these mythical creatures? Turbo-charged fantasy.

The reality is, of course, as magical as you thought it would be, except for one tiny thing: now, you have to sell the thing. Suddenly, you are outside of whatever hovel you hunker down in to create. Instead, you are out there where, unlike some famous barroom, nobody knows your name.

According to Forbes Magazine: “There are somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books published every year in the US alone, depending on which stats you believe. Many of those – perhaps as many as half or even more – are self-published. On average, they sell less than 250 copies each.” But know this: for each of those 250 copies, the author did some serious marketing work.

Writers are not necessarily business people. Some of us aren’t particularly social people. But if the first book doesn’t sell, many writers find themselves more hard pressed to find a second publisher than their comrades are to land their first deals.

So what to do? Start with two easy steps:

  1. Develop your network of writing friends. Join book groups, writers groups; take classes; read at open mics. Writers need communities of other writers for many things, but ultimately, these are the people you will invite to your book launch dance party. In the meantime, you will teach each other how to write better, where to send your work, how to court an agent, etc.
  1. Support other writers: Buying books is key, of course, but that isn’t the only way to help a fellow author out. People pay attention to Goodreads and Amazon reviews. Read a book you liked (even if you checked it out of the library or borrowed someone’s copy)? Then give up some love. Tell your FB friends what you’re reading and loving. Attend readings in your area. Faces in the audiences are often much more welcome than book sales. They are, at the very least, more encouraging than row after empty row of seats. Visit authors’ websites and let them know you’re out there, reading, listening, waiting for the next thing.
This is me at my book launch dance party -- highly recommended.

This is me at my book launch dance party — highly recommended.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I am grateful and humbled and thrilled to have published books. It’s still hard to believe it happened to me. I’m happy to do the work of helping to sell my books, but it is a role that took some getting used to. The best piece of encouragement I received so far, was from a panel discussion on publicizing books where one writer said, “The best publicity for your first book is, of course, your second.” Nice to know, isn’t it, that’s it’s important to keep writing!

Happy First, Third, Twenty-Third and Thirty-Sixth Birthday, Bewildered

Justina Donoghue photo.

Justina Donoghue photo.

A year ago this week, my collection of short stories was published. But the book really began in January of 1979 with a Smith Corona electric typewriter and a basketball game I did not attend.

My sophomore year in high school, I dreaded weeekends almost as much as I dreaded school days. Both of my oldest friendships had imploded, leaving me with nowhere to sit during lunch and nothing to do once the final bell on Friday had rung. That Christmas, my mother had bought me the typewriter and, in my expansive free time, I began an autobiographical novel which chronicled the friendships I had lost. My idea: once my two friends read this and remember what an amazing time we had together, all will be forgiven. They’ll come back.

So when the extension rang in my bedroom and I interrupted my work to answer it, Tricia’s voice thrilled me. This was the opening. We’d start slow, I’d be apologetic and grateful, and then, eventually, I’d show them these pages. Even when Tricia skipped all small talk and asked for Coletta’s number (it was unlisted and I had been the one who initiated most of our get-togethers) I thought: maybe (hopefully?) they’re planning something for my birthday. Why else ask me for that number and then exclude me from whatever plans they would make?

I hung up the phone and resumed typing. On Monday, Coletta told me they had gone to the basketball game Friday night. Then she shut her locker without making looking at me and headed off down the hall.

I don’t remember when I stopped writing that particular tale, but one farm, four dorm rooms, several apartments, and two houses later, the manuscript is still with me.

By the fall of 1992, I understood very well that stories don’t save relationships. They do save writers, though.

So I sat in front of my Apple IIGS working on a story called “Having Your Italy and Other Realms of Worship.” A few hours away, the man I loved was trying to decide if he still loved me. It happens, right? Couples split apart only to discover how much they absolutely need to be together? The very thing had just happened to a friend of mine and now she was engaged to be married! But even knowing firsthand that happy endings were not necessarily impossible, I knew ours was. The relationship had helped me work through the initial and paralyzing grief of my father’s death, mostly because Dan insisted on spontaneity, on getting outside and filling our days with activity. I could miss my father, but I would still have to paddle the kayak or hike the mountain or scalp Red Sox tickets out the car window as Dan negotiated traffic in Kenmore Square. We were never destined to spend our lives together; I think we both always knew that, and if my teenaged friendship woes taught me anything, they taught me that you move on. You keep finding love and, because of what you have lost, you love a little more deeply the next time around.

In the winter of 2013, I laid “Having Your Italy” (retitled by the magazine that had eventually accepted it) on my bed along with nine other stories. With the calculator on my phone, I added up the number of pages to see if I had enough for a book, then mailed the manuscript away to AWP’s Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction. The title came from those moments when my characters look up from what they assumed were normal lives and find themselves surprised at where they’ve landed. When those moments visit me, I sit down and write.

I can’t conceive of a life without telling stories anymore than I can imagine a life without the kind of love I have been lucky enough to have experienced. This month, I will celebrate my own collection and all the stories we can’t help but tell.

Weekend Write-In: The Difference Between a Talented Writer and a Talented, Published One

During their final days in one of my senior writing classes, my students sit down for a brief conference with me. This year, I asked James the same thing I’ve asked a few other gifted young writers: “Do you know the difference between you and people who have published poetry in literary journals?” James, like his peers, did not, so I told him: “They kept writing once they left high school.”

Seems simple enough, right? And, god knows, with the proliferation of writing programs at the undergraduate, graduate, even PhD levels, plenty of people call themselves writers these days, but in my nineteen years of teaching, only one of my students so far has come back to visit me, Bachelor’s degree in hand, and said, “I want to be a writer.”

One.

It’s not easy to profess yourself a writer, I know that. And it’s not easy to say to anyone (read: parents) faced with coming up with the kind of Monopoly money required for college tuition these days to say you’re going to use your education to become a poor poet, but people do survive in this profession. They may be hungry, but they don’t starve to death. They may not be ready for the runway at Goddard Park, but they’re not naked in public (usually, though there was that one couple at Bread Loaf . . .). But I’m not really suggesting my students dedicate every minute of their professional lives to writing; I’m not even suggesting they go to school for it. I just want them to know: you can do this if you keep on doing it and by this I mean publish, I mean keep writing.

One of the many wonderful things about teaching is that I get to witness the earliest stages of real talent. So many kids can write (especially poetry), but only a select few have an innate, instantly recognizable gift. When I see these kids again, all grown up many years later, and they tell me they are lawyers or computer technicians or architects, I think: but what about your writing? Because it’s hard for me to believe that they could set that gift down on the table and walk away from it towards something any old talented person can do.

Kurt Vonnegut has said of writers,”We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” This doesn’t seem like such a bad way to spend at least part of your waking moments.

So here’s to all those kids (and all those who used to be kids) who think writing is what you do in your angsty adolescent journal and in one elective class you could finally fit into your high school schedule: keep going. And, when you do, let me know you’re out there, wing buds at the ready, toes over the edge of that marvelous cliff. Let me come cheer you on.

Weekend Write-In: Walk On, Walk Blindly On

The Larcom Review, named for Lucy Larcom, mill worker, suffragette, writer, and teacher.

The editors for a new, local, literary magazine were appearing at the Newburyport library. With three small children at home, I couldn’t make it, but two of my friends did. They returned with mixed reviews. One was excited for the opportunity to send work to a magazine dedicated to writers and writing with a New England connection. The other was dubious: a new literary journal started by people who weren’t writers? How good could this possibly be?

But my more enthusiastic friend added, “They’re especially looking for nonfiction.”

At home, in the bottom drawer of a dresser, I had a descriptive essay about a collapsed shed that had stood on my family’s farm. My dad and I had spent a few hours one day before we moved off the farm, trying to determine if there was anything of value left in it. I’d written the essay several years before as part of an in-service workshop on how to teach writing. What the hell, I thought. It’s just sitting here.

So my piece appeared in a small, but lovely magazine. The editors were gracious and excited to publish my work (it was so long ago, one of them called me on the telephone to accept the piece). I thought: great news, but that’s that.

But a few weeks later, I received a call from a woman who wanted to hire me for a small writing job based on my essay. I was also invited to read with other local writers from that issue. I had never had the opportunity to either write for money or read aloud to an audience. All this from one small magazine and an essay that had sat in my drawer for six years.

In the classifieds of Poets and Writers, was an ad for a magazine called the Cider Press Review. Never heard of it, I thought, but I had a batch of poems looking for a home. I sent them off and CPR took one about the day the horse in my neighborhood was put down. Great news, I thought (again), but that’s that. Except that CPR was one of the first magazines I’d published in that built an email contact list (also again: I’m old(er)) and this is where I learned they were sponsoring their first book prize. I spread my poems out on my bed and counted pages. Enough for a book. So I mailed them off.

The next time I tried something like this, it was because 1) I’d seen an ad in Writer’s Chronicle for a short story award (Papers across the bed once again; the cat aggravated by the invasion) and, 2) I wasn’t writing anything new so why not send the old stuff out?

Cider Press published One of the Cimalores, my first collection of poetry. AWP awarded Bewildered its Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction.

And all because, once upon a time, a little essay of mine appeared in a magazine called The Larcom Review and and I learned: you just can’t predict which step will be the first one. The only thing you can ever know for sure is that you have to keep moving forward.