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.

Advertisements

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.

And Finally, Our Last Night at AWP: Doesn’t Play Well With Others

Love is all around, no need to waste it; if you can have the town, why don't you take it? You're gonna make it after all!!

Love is all around, no need to waste it; if you can have the town, why don’t you take it? You’re gonna make it after all!!

I’ve been home from AWP more than a week already. What is taking me so long to wrap up the blog thing on it? Good question. Here goes nothing:

Saturday morning, Rebecca and I facetime Sarah Yaw who would be with us (and whose novel, You Are Free to Go, is with us in the convention hall at the Engine Books table). Sarah is home making microwaved scrambled eggs for her five year old twins who wiggle loose teeth for us and wave bloody swords they received as birthday gifts. It feels a bit Mission Impossible — Sarah checking in to hear what we’ve accomplished so far (Rebecca sampled the local whiskey and survived 48 hours without her suitcase; I had lunch with Pam Houston and didn’t order a glass of wine because the waiter came to me first and I was afraid of committing a faux pas so grossly classless, that I couldn’t even summon the courage to ask for lemonade and, instead, settled for tap water).

“Okay,” Sarah says, infinitely forgiving. “Then your homework tonight is to go to the main hotel bar and shmooze.”

Cue iconic music.

Cut to my blanched face and trembling limbs.

Rebecca says this is a great idea and though the thought of meeting real live writing people terrifies me, we head off to the day’s panel discussions as if this is any other day on the planet. We separate and I listen to writers discuss how uncomfortable it is to promote their books. We’re socially awkward people as it is, they say. (I’m paraphrasing. Or projecting. I forget which.) We’re most comfortable at home with our families and our cats (I’m almost totally freestyling now, but this is what I heard no matter what they actually said.)

Thus fortified, thus reassured I am not the only freak out there, I head back to the bookfair to find Rebecca. I’m feeling good, strong, confident, full of adventure, and then I see Rebecca strolling along an aisle and the familiarity of her inspires me to run towards her and throw my arms around her. “I missed you!” I say. I don’t care who hears me.

7:30: we head to the bar. I deliberately do not fuss with what I’m wearing. Rebecca loaned me some lipstick that never comes off. It’s like a lip tattoo. This is my one attempt at looking good. (that I insist on my own meaningless-slash-invisible protest might seem ridiculous but it gets me the four or five blocks I need to travel).

“One drink,” I say. “And then we’re out of there.”

But we meet a cowboy from North Carolina who works at a university in Kansas. He looks so much like my cousin’s son, I feel almost at ease. We take a selfie with him and send it to my cousin and to Sarah. Doing our homework, we write. The cowboy says he’s relieved to meet us. Relieved. Great word. He even makes Rebecca talk about her book (Charms for Finding, (http://www.hebenon.com/charms.html). This is beginning to seem like that rare phenomenon: a really, really, fun homework assignment.

Two hours later, he leaves for dinner with his colleagues: “If y’all are here when I get back, that’d be great,” he says. We won’t be, of course, but we promise to be Facebook friends.

An editor from Alabama takes the cowboy’s seat. He tells us that a bartender friend of his in New Orleans said that during the AWP conference there, the bars sold more liquor than they did for Mardi Gras.

“You know how it is with writers,” he says. We do! We do! We’re so busy talking to him about pit bulls and publishing and our favorite cocktail nuts, we don’t even notice when the cowboy returns.

“Wow!” I say. “That was a fast dinner.”

“Fast?” he says. “I’ve been gone two hours! I never thought y’all’d still be here.”

So, we nearly close the place and then we leave, happy with our final night in Minneapolis. It’s a beautiful city, pristine and friendly. The weather is spring-like and people gather to play ping pong outside, to sit along the wide streets and watch the bars empty out.

Soon, we and 14,000 others, will return to the kinds of lives we awkward writers live. Tonight, however, I think: The world is full of strangers, and that’s not a bad thing. Some of those strangers have left Minneapolis with my book in their hands. That idea, the few friends we have made this time, and Rebecca’s company for a few more hours, seem like miracles enough for one trip.

The Story of the Stories: Conclusion — See You in Minneapolis?????

A chai martini tastes like chai. Perks and Corks, a cozy spot, is part of downtown Westerly’s Renaissance. Thom McCann used to be on this block. But now, it’s breweries, bars, restaurants. This is my first time out in my own hometown. I’m fifty years old.

But this is not my first time out with my cousin Sue. The year after I graduated from college, I moved home and, though we pledged to stay home a night or two, we never did. There were discos to stroll through and beachside cabanas to drink Bartles and James at. And when the night ended, there was always IHOP. With our history, you’d think I’d be careful, but she says we should try the place on the river. Sit outside. Watch the swans. And I say, “Sure.”

It’s a beautiful night. My daughters are sleeping over their cousins’ houses after dinner with Nana. The girls and I are here visiting family (and there’s a lot of it) for a few days before heading home to pre-season workouts, captains’ practices, before my own school year gears up again. I dread September, so why not indulge August?

At the next spot, that patio we sit on juts out into the Pawcatuck. Sue and I have nothing to do but talk, and we never run out of that. The swans glow in the dark on the black river. A Lemincello martini tastes like lemons.

I don’t remember what kind of martini I order next. I do remember trying to stand up and thinking the river is a lot closer than it had seemed.

Sue, like the underage disco queen she used to be, bounces up from her seat, and says, “We need to get together more often.”

I say, “I can’t go home yet. I need to walk.”

When we were kids, our mothers warned us never, NEVER, go into the park at night. There’s still a little of their warnings with us, but we go anyway. Except for its ancient beech trees, its well-spaced lamp posts, the fish pond, the place is empty. I strut and fret my hour upon the stage that has been constructed for the annual Shakespeare in the Park. Sue climbs barefoot into the fountain behind the library. I think one of us takes pictures.

The next morning, my head pounding, I slink out into the light of my mother’s already busy kitchen. She has a visitor. She almost always does, and we are in the middle of an important conversation with this one when my mother’s phone rings.

My god, I think, has it always been that shrill? It announces the caller: Dennis Donoghue.

“Ignore it,” I tell my mother. Her visitor’s story that requires our attention and I am already struggling mightily not to puke. I’ll call Dennis as soon as I can move my jaw without the pain ricocheting through my skull.

Again, it rings. Dennis. My mother picks it up this time and, after several confused seconds, hands it to me.

Dennis says, “Why would someone from George Mason University be calling you?”

George Mason University?

I take the phone outside. Sit on my mother’s sidewalk. Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry, I think.

“My god,” I finally say. “I think it’s AWP.”

 ***

This flight is crowded with writers. Minneapolis-bound Bostonians on their way to the biggest gathering of writers in the world. 10,000 plus people just like me, people nursing this stubborn dream, or – maybe — people celebrating this dream come true.