Weekend Write-In: Friends’ Shelf

If Mrs. Jacobs was alive today, Taylor Swift would be living in her neighborhood. One summer, the project at Sunnymede, her summer “cottage” was to sit on the divan while one of her new friends (a sycophantic historian who, out of earshot of Mrs. Jacobs and her housemate, Ms. Kimbrough, made frequent references to how close to the hereafter they were), re-arranged their library.

Mr. Dennis Brown (not his real name (yes, it is)), would read off titles and the delighted women would call out: Fiction! Poetry! History! and, most miraculously of all: Friends’ Shelf!!

I had been reading aloud to Mrs. Jacobs for several years before the summer of Mr. Dennis Brown. It had ceased to surprise me that she knew people like Indira Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, Leontyne Price, Bowzer from Sha Na Na (okay, that surprised me). But the idea that she knew enough writers to fill a shelf?! Easier to believe that, one day, we could talk face to cyber-face with a loved one on another continent. There she sat, almost completely blind by then, announcing, time after time: Friends’ Shelf! while I, temporarily squelching the nausea Mr. Dennis Brown’s company inspired in me, gaped.

Oh, Mrs. Jacobs, my one true friend for many a Misquamicut-slash-Watch Hill summer. Here is yet another reason why it’s tricky to befriend octogenarians when you are barely old enough to sit at a bar legally. Because when you finally have a Friends’ Shelf in your much more modest library, to whom can you express your gratitude and your disbelief?!

There are other things I do to honor the memory of this friendship, but keeping my Friends’ Shelf is my favorite because, along with marriage and motherhood, with seeing my name on a book spine, this kind of thing came under the heading: To Dream the Impossible Dream. It also comes under the heading: Not Only Do They Walk Among Us, You Can Have a Beer With Them.

Imagine the realization that writers are a) living, b) mortals, and c) people you hug upon greeting!! Sometimes, I can’t believe my luck.

As Wilbur the pig tells us, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” And so,  I honor the following wordsmiths on my shelf. First, old friends Rebecca Kinzie Bastian, Charms for Finding (poetry); Sarah Yaw, You Are Free to Go (fiction); Holly Robinson, The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter (memoir); Haven Lake (fiction); The Wishing Hill (fiction); Chance Harbor (fiction); Beach Plum Island (fiction); Brian Kologe, AMC Guide to Freshwater Fishing; and new friends, Betty Cotter, Roberta’s Woods (fiction); The Winters (fiction); Kirun Kapur, Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist (poetry); Jane Ward, Hunger (fiction) and The Mosaic Artist (fiction); Myfanwy Collins, The Book of Laney (YA); Cathy Chung, Forgotten Country; and many other writers I’ve been happy to meet along the way .

What about you? Who’s on your Friends’ Shelf?

 

Weekend Write-In: Poetry by Request

100826-helix-asperaOnce upon a time, I saw a periwinkle making its way back to the ocean as the tide rapidly retreated. I had no idea these creatures left such lovely signatures behind. This is how poems began for me, with an image that would not let me rest.

Then, my students and I started the Poetry Stand (see my blog entry Free Poetry, Really ) for further information, and, for the first time in my career as a writer who teaches writing, I asked these young people to do something I had not done before: to take an order for a poem and to write the poem on the spot. For free.

To be fair, I decided to make myself take the kind of risk I’d asked them to. I started by sending out a few emails to close friends (okay, so maybe I cheated a little) telling them I’d like to write a poem for them and asking them to request something — anything. I widened the circle to other friends, book club people, blog readers, etc. To date, I have written poems about sheep, about dementia, about the fall from innocence and swingsets, about forgiveness and the possibility that, someday, we might be able to have movies made of our dreams and many other topics I would never have chosen myself.

Suddenly, poems did not begin with an image. Instead, they began with research. I found Bible passages on what it means to forgive, specialized words that had to do with what happens in our brains when we dream, photographs of brain cells transformed by Alzheimer’s, and really creepy facts about sheep.

Where previously an image had held me hostage, now research set me free. How fun it was to become a student first, poet second; to wallow around in facts and new words until I found something that felt like a beginning to me.

Sometimes, when we write, we sound too much like ourselves. Again and again, we tap the usual reserves, but other people’s ideas and a commitment to attempting to use them, helped me try things I had never considered.

These days, I do a little of both: my own inspiration from those haunting images, and the requests of people who, in most cases, have never had a poem written exclusively for them. I hope you’ll try it.

 

This is the poem I wrote that began with the image of the periwinkle’s trail.

Plum Island and Back

You come here expecting things in pieces:

the fractured, fleshless shells of mussels,

crab-backs abandoned by soft bellies, a claw.

 

You come expecting flight over dunes, terns

diving, the confetti of aerialists mad for sky, herons

lifting from the marsh, trailing legs, trailing ropes of water.

 

You don’t come expecting poetry, nor love, either,

things you feel you’ve had enough of.  You expect —

no, you hope — for nothing grander than relief.

 

But the periwinkle lays out a path to the sea, a ribbon

in the sand his thin tribute. He has this house to move,

this exaggeration of spine, the only bone he knows.

 

It helps, it must, to have nothing to compare oneself to.

He can’t know the work ahead, but you do. You wish

the tide back in for him, you wish the moon on his side.

 

The second is a link to a poem that was requested by my good friend and fellow writer, Holly Robinson. Holly wanted a poem about Plum Island with an emphasis on the way it’s currently eroding. As a bonus, she published it in her novel, Beach Plum Island. You can read that poem and a preview of Holly’s novel, here.

Weekend Write-in: Even Though You Won the Nobel Prize, My Mother Still Loves Me Better

Perhaps the room looked a little like this?

This week, I travel to Amherst, MA, to read from my new book in the town where it was published. On my walk this overcast morning with Bella, my border collie, I plan what to read, how to introduce things. A fox darts across a long driveway. A droplight still burns inside a carved giant pumpkin. Overnight, the leaves have fallen so everything underfoot is orange and gold beneath a gray sky. The flea market enjoys its final weekend. Bella and I detour through it, the dog sniffing at every post, me on the lookout for some cast-off I had no idea I needed.

I decide to read a couple poems, a section from a story I feel particularly indebted to. My husband has asked me before if I get nervous to read (Anticipating an acceptance speech he had to give at his high school’s athletic hall of fame dinner, he once lost his voice. Once the speech was over, his voice returned full force.). But I don’t get nervous. Instead, I’m excited to make the trip, especially excited to meet the people who brought my book to life.

Maybe I was nervous the first time I read. I try to remember when that was. Meanwhile, Bella greets a lab puppy beside a collection of empty frames and chairs that need re-caning. I think for a moment that it might have been with a lovely group of poets I worked with for a few years when my girls were babies.

But then, I remember: I was nervous all right. The first time I read my work in public was at Boston University. No excitement there: just mind-numbing anxiety and a healthy dose of dread.

Our graduate student reading took place in some dark academic room. We had been given a time limit that I knew would be impossible for me to fill, unless I wanted (once again in front of this not-so-forgiving crowd) to read crap. Let’s summarize by saying: It had not been a good year. But my mother was excited to hear me, and she would’ve been proud if I’d stood up and read recipes for chicken pot pie. Also, this requirement was nowhere near as terrifying as some of the other things we’d had to do to fulfill Derek Walcott’s assignments. So, despite a throat nearly closed shut with terror, I read two poems, then sat down and clasped my trembling hands in my lap.

When the reading was over and we stood in a narrow hallway for the obligatory social hour with juice and store bought cookies, George Starbuck told me I’d won the award for the briefest presentation. This was the kind of feedback I was used to receiving from George. Non-committal and not particularly helpful. Derek Walcott praised a revision I’d made (Yes, I said praised.). This opened up my breathing passages a little.

However, I had no choice but to introduce him to my mother. He told her she had a very conscientious daughter. My mother said she already knew that. Then she added, “So you’re Derek. I’ve heard a lot about you.” Um. Okay, so I thought the reading would have been the most awkward part of the evening, but you never know when my mom is around.

Somehow, I escorted her safely away from the gathering and we left shortly afterward, me relieved to be leaving the literary scene in the rearview, my mother insisting I’d exaggerated my accounts of Derek Walcott. “He didn’t seem very scary at all,” she said.

I didn’t think about reading again in public. Instead, I was relieved to escort my mother onto the Green Line and think I’d never again venture into that mythical room 222 where I had certainly not done service to Plath, Sexton, Lowell, and its other illustrious occupants.

Is it just a coincidence that the memory has stayed buried for three decades, only to return on Halloween? But it’s good to be haunted by certain reminders. I’d like to say I’m not that person anymore. I can fill the time allotted to me. I don’t cringe with mortification at what I am forced to utter aloud. But there’s no such thing as a completely shed skin for this particular individual of the species. A scale or two of the old stuff always hangs around.

I write, in part, to keep those insecurities at bay.

As for my mother, she won’t be making the trip to Amherst. But her lessons always accompany me: when you have the opportunity to meet people who also love what you love — stories, poems, the power of language — embrace it. And if the most intimidating person you’ve ever met in your life, star of your anxiety dreams, happens to be in the audience, smoking like a fiend? Just wave the smoke away and introduce yourself.

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: Real Cows, Imaginary Heroes

A very real cow. A very real me. At least in this instance.

A very real cow. A very real me. At least in this instance.

When our cow Darcy escaped from the farm and wandered along Route One until she ended up in someone’s backyard, I was not the one who went with the police officer to retrieve her. I had gone out to the barn and had told my father, who sent the young hired hand, instead. But when I wrote about this adventure, I made myself the protagonist. Had to, as the essay was about my dawning understanding that life did not begin and end on the farm. Darcy’s wanderlust, I wrote thirty years after it happened, made me see that the world awaited.

Pleased with the final results, I sent the piece off labeled: non-fiction and was thrilled when it was both accepted and mentioned in a review of the literary magazine itself. A literary magazine the real hero would probably never read.

For several years after that, I continued to work on a series of “essays” about my life on my family’s farm.

Then two things happened:

#1 I published a book, a collection of poems, and, suddenly, people I knew were reading my stuff. Uh-oh, I thought. Good thing it’s poetry and not the cow “essays”.

#2 I met Scott Russell Sanders.

As a non-fiction tuition scholar at Bread Loaf, I was assigned to his workshop. He also delivered the conference’s first lecture in which he admitted he “committed memoir.” Scott spoke of the liberties memoirists take with the non-fiction genre, liberties he insisted made what was written another form of fiction. When, later in the week, a woman read from her well-received book and described, in vivid detail, a poker game that her family had played twenty years earlier — complete with specific cards and razor sharp dialogue — it was clear that, unless she had videotaped the encounter, some of this supposedly true stuff was made up.

That had been okay with me, perhaps because I, too, was guilty of it, but Scott’s influence was profound. He gave me two options: re-work the pieces so that I told the truth. This would include taking out of quotes whatever couldn’t possibly have been said. Or, re-label the collection as short stories.

I decided to tell the truth and thus embarked on a massive revision. The result according to my critic friends? I had destroyed the pieces.

I also struggled to complete. For example, I wanted to write a new piece about my father’s love affairs with bulls, the dangers they posed, his fearlessness or foolhardiness when it came to handling them. I took Scott’s advice and began researching. I called my brother, my cousin, former hired hands.

Writers believe they have good memories, though it may be just that we convince ourselves of the truth of something and there it is: a story crystal. However, people who don’t write pretend nothing of the sort. Thus, no one had much to give me. If I had to tell the truth, so help me God and Scott Russell Sanders, what was I supposed to do with the scraps this research provided me?

I believed Scott and I wanted to do right by the genre. But I was also tempted by my desire to tell a well-constructed and full detailed story, and by a marketplace that often seeks good creative non-fiction.

Then, two things happened:

#1 I added The Things They Carried to the sophomore curriculum at the high school where I teach. Tim O’Brien wrote these connected short stories because his memoir based on his service in Vietnam didn’t capture what it really felt like to be there. In one story he says, “I want you to feel what I felt.” What’s true about The Things They Carried is how it makes its readers feel. The horror of the war, the difficulty in telling a story, these things are very real.

#2 My bookclub read Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman, the fictional story of the death of the author’s young wife. Once again, his grief was as real as the readers’ responses to this story of love and loss, but he had chosen to write a novel.

These writers freed me. I went back to work on my story about bulls. This time, I added a fictional frame that had only one small kernel of truth. Wow. That was easy (and guilt-free) and someday, if I’m very lucky and this book gets published, I won’t have to worry about leaving out that boy who, long ago, led Darcy home along Route One, police car keeping pace behind him, blue lights flickering over a scene I only wish I had been in.

Weekend Write-In: What Would Freud Say? Who Cares, So Long as He Read the Thing

Mushrooms pretending to be just mushrooms.

Does it matter that I did not intend to create a character who looked like a penis? That, readers, is today’s question.

My short story collection was published in October. Since then, I have turned promoter, a role I am not comfortable with. I have learned, for example, how difficult it is to have your book reviewed, so I was incredibly grateful when, nine months after the book’s launch, a review appeared on a popular blogsite. Even more thrilling was that the review was positive. The reviewer wrote, “Though the stories vary in tone, theme, and subject, they’re unified by the author’s gift for the incisive one-liner, the wry observation that illuminates the whole.”

That’s the good news. Later on, she says “the overall strength of this fine collection made weaker moments stand out.” Uh-oh. But it’s the final paragraph, and I’m thinking: who reads these things all the way through, anyway? The dread is personal, primal, even, but I’m a writer now. I can take the criticism.

Except, I didn’t quite understand it.

The reviewer notes that, in one story, a school secretary has a “‘large head of gray hair shaped like a mushroom’ and her name, we’re told, is Hedda Horn — a joke that only distracts.” For two days, I wandered around my house wondering what she thought the joke was. Wrong haircut? Too cliche? Overdone alliteration? I had based the character physically on a woman I’d seen in my own school building, her bowl cut and stocky figure leaving her Minion-shaped (though the story was written several years before I might have applied that particular allusion). Then, one day when I was out on my walk, it hit me: the reviewer thinks I deliberately made my character look like a penis.

I’m not sure which is worse: the fact that she mistook my intentions, or the fact that something I wrote so completely misfired. Believe me, my writing friends think my unintentional phallic symbol is hysterical. Even funnier? That it got pointed out to so many hundreds of readers. But I am plunged back into that part of myself that wants everyone to be happy. That wants everything I write to be perfect. Why didn’t I just give the woman a Dorothy Hamill wedge? A Shirley Partridge shag?

This reminds me of when my first book of poems was published and one of my distant cousins (there are zillions) approached me at a signing. She told me her husband didn’t come with her because he was mad at me. I had never met the man, but I had written a poem about two friends who argued about whose wine tasted better. The argument ended with one friend shooting the other. True story from my mother’s old neighborhood. “He forgives you now,” my cousin several times removed said. “But the guy that died was my husband’s uncle.”

When I told my mother this, worried I’d offended someone, she said, “You’re missing the point.”

“Which is?”

“People are reading your book.”

Oh. That.

What was obvious to my mother, was not so clear to me: that, after years of toiling away in obscurity at my dining room table or propped up with pillows on my bed, people were actually reading what I had to say.

For all I know, readers might imagine my stories populated with a race of penile people. They might see their own stories in whatever I’ve put down on paper. But the key word here is READERS. Those people (like you!) we writers can not live without.

Weekend Write-In: The John Ball Inaugural

The first writer I ever met was Robert Cormier who came to the Westerly Public Library during my senior year in high school. But the first writer I ever spoke to was John Ball. He sat beside me in advanced fiction writing during the spring of our senior year. I’d taken a few writing courses but John was the first person I met who wanted to be a writer, who stated his intentions clearly. I’d read one of his stories in the campus literary magazine, a magazine that had routinely rejected my own prose, and I’d loved it. I had no crush on John, nice as he was, nor did we spend any time together outside of class, but his in-workshop friendship thrilled me. It made my own aspirations seem so reasonable, so concrete.

On the final day of class, he said to me: “I can’t decide if I should get into a graduate writing program or get married. What do you think?”

Until that moment, I had no idea you could go to graduate school for creative writing. The idea seemed as absurd and as miraculous as marriage did. I hope I wasn’t so desperate for a boyfriend that I told him to get married, but the truth is, I have no idea how I responded. I’m sure it took me a while as the idea that school didn’t have to end here, that, in fact, at the next level, the opportunity to immerse myself even further in the world of writing, derailed my thoughts.

But here’s the point: for the first time in my life, a life in which I always knew I wanted to be a writer, I understood how valuable another writer could be: Writers know stuff other writers need to know.

For this reason, I have started a new feature on my blog called Weekend Write-In (I will also continue the personal essays I’ve been writing this past year). I’ll be offering my own advice to writers, sharing tips and encouragement, but I’ve also invited several writers, artists, musicians, architects — all kinds of creative types — to guest blog on topics they would like to share with a community of creative people.

And if you have an idea, I’d love to hear from you! You can message me here or at carlapanciera@gmail.com.

I don’t know what happened to John Ball. I tried googling him but, wouldn’t you know, there’s a very famous crime writer of the same name (but much older) so my search turned up nothing. I hope he did continue to write. I hope he is happily married. I hope all his dreams came true.