The Story of the Stories: Part IV — From the Loyalsock

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Our Own Little Bubble. Loyalsock Creek. Williamsport, PA

July, 2012.

After the flood, I ask Rebecca, what was on the creek bottom? Tomorrow, we both leave for Minneapolis, but today, I am back at the Loyalsock. Summer. The cabin’s new wood redolent of wood and sap.

She writes: plates, mirrors, tire rims, rain spouting, footie pajamas , records, a car bumper, buckets, baskets, forks, siding, windows, tin cans, spoons, dolls, an old phone, and a pin-ball game. Not all at once and not all actually underwater, but they had been there and were muddy and amazingly twisted. And then, miraculously, there would be that delicate thing like a lightbulb, that looked completely unscathed.

Isn’t it amazing? The list itself, and the way she pulls the objects back together and leaves us with the most fragile, the least probable?

That summer, Brenda brings an underwater camera and this means she has to get near an element she’d rather gaze at from the porch, barefoot with a beer in her hand. Beside me, of course, land lovers, though I at least have been out in the rowboat. Rebecca, Sarah, and Amelie, Rebecca’s dog, paddle in water so clear, we can see bare legs kicking, Amelie’s soggy limbs.

We’ve written on the porch every morning, deep into the afternoons. My novel is revised. Sarah’s too. Rebecca’s poems like it here. Inside, Brenda rises later than we do, plans an art project. We can always do this: gather, work, and then live with each other again the way we did for eleven days at Bread Loaf when we first met.

c & r

On the last day, Rebecca finally convinces Brenda to come for a ride in the boat and we nearly tip over. This is how it goes, right? You say: you’re safe, you’re safe, you’re perfectly safe. But the world has other ideas.

Anyway, with her new camera, Brenda captures the creek bottom, a boneyard, scrapbook. This is how Rebecca spent the winter, shoveling dirt out of people’s bathtubs, tearing out sodden sheetrock, streaks of primer on her face, often deliberately. Sarah spent the winter with her twins. Sledding at the Big Hill. Costume romps and petting zoos and dancing, of course. Brenda? We never get that window opened completely. Some scenes with Nigel in them, his snout on the dashboard of her car, his stumpy legs blurring on their walks through their Pittsburgh neighborhood. The Steelers on Sunday. Gaga, Katie Perry, Alicia — the powerwomen soundtrack to her life without us.

So we have this week, by the end of which I’m searching for the next time.

AWP, someone says. It’s in Boston this year.

December, 2011.

My agent doesn’t like the novel.

I, a fraudulent writer who mostly wants to hang out with her friends, registers for AWP. I read the catalog to see what looks good or at least not painful. They also advertise a book award.

January, 2012.

I brood about the fact that my agent doesn’t like the novel.

February 2012.

Paralyzed by this most recent rejection and by winter in general, I sit on my bed and lay out all the hard copies of my stories. I have enough the required number of pages. Why not send them to the stupid contest?

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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.”

The Story of the Stories: Part III — Fording Rivers with Jon and Not Disappointing John Denver’s Doppleganger

Jon knew the best time to leaf peep along the Kancamagus Highway. So that I could fully appreciate the beauty of his homestate, he drove his Le Car and I gaped out the windows at the scenery. We stopped often so he could take pictures and teach me the kind of lessons he picked up in the required New Hampshire history course he had taken in high school. Once he learned them, Jon never forgot facts. Campus was a couple hours south. The demands of our full courseloads in a place that had yet to change color, that would offer up for dinner the Sunday special Yankee pot roast, were far away. Instead, we had this. Was there traffic? I don’t remember. Crowds? In my memory, we are alone against the calendar page settings. The day was perfect and then it was time for lunch.

We’d packed something and, as I scouted the road for a White Mountains picnic spot, Jon pulled the car over, instead, onto a gravel shoulder and got out. Below us, the shallow rapids of a river sparkled.

“What are we doing?” I asked.

Jon clambered over the guardrail with our cooler. “Come on,” he said. “There’s the perfect spot.”

I looked around. Trees. More trees. The faded little Le Car with its implausible  racing strip. The river still racing towards the Atlantic.

When I hesitated, Jon motioned to where a house sat on the opposite shore, a vacation cottage, its windows blinking in the sun.

“That’s someone’s property,” I said.

Jon insisted no one was home. Even if they were, he doubted they’d mind someone using their picnic table for a few minutes. Live free or die, I thought. Live free or be arrested for trespassing, but Jon was on his way to the river. Live free or get washed away by the rapids before you get a chance to trespass.

“I don’t know about this,” I said, and that’s when Jon altered the course of my life.

“You don’t really have a sense of adventure, do you?” he said.

I love Jon. Best friend love. The kind that lasts no matter how infrequently we get to see each other. He’s brilliant and funny and earnest and, in those glorious days when we did see each other more than once every other year, he made me look at myself in ways I had not before. A mirror kind of friend, someone who saw who I was, and said: What the hell. I’ll hang out with her anyway.

I didn’t have a sense of adventure, but when he held out his hand that day, I took it and, in that moment, I began to remedy something.

I’ll never jump out of airplanes (like Jon did a few years later), but his words stay with me, urge me forward, still. Even onto Minneapolis.

As do these:

Eighth grade, Westerly Babcock Junior High School:

Mrs. Serra would stand before us with the book in her hands, read passages aloud, coax discussion from us. She liked books and that might sound odd, but it was the first time I thought it about a teacher: she reads. I’ve forgotten the novel we were studying, but once we’d finished the unit, the assignment was to write a different final chapter.

And I loved the job. Did what I always did: slipped into the world and wrote from it. The difference? No one had yet asked to see any of what I produced.

Mrs. Serra handed the papers back a few days later, calling us up to her desk to retrieve them. When it was my turn, she held the paper out to me just out of reach.

“You need to enter the school’s essay contest,” she said. I had no idea the school had an essay contest, but before I could ask for details, she added: “You can write.”

Sophomore year, University of New Hampshire:

Will Evans looked like John Denver who I had a soft spot for since a) that was the first concert I had ever attended (all decked out in my Dutchmaid lime green pantsuit), and b) Back Home Again was the only song my brother would let me sing to when he played guitar. Will rolled the sleeves of his plaid shirts halfway up his arms. He loved John Gardner and Joan Didion. I didn’t have a crush on him but I did feel very tender towards him. He was so earnest. You didn’t want to let him down even when you tried several times to read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and finally had to fake it in discussions. I’d cruised through freshman English. Writing papers had become rote for me. Five pages a week. Easy A.  For Will’s latest assignment, I scribbled some stuff about missing my niece’s birthday, homesick stuff, blah blah blah, yanked the finished product from my typewriter and headed into Lauren’s room to battle with the television’s rabbit ears so we could watch M*A*S*H*.

The next week in my one-on-one conference, Will slid the paper back to me.

“You know what your problem is?” he said.

He had a cowlick, I swear to God. Blond bangs and a cowlick. Not the kind of haircut you’d expect on someone who is about to excoriate you.

“You’re lazy.”

Lazy? No. Writing was just easy. Maybe I told him something like this, but I doubt it. I’m pretty sure I was stunned into silence and trying not to bawl.

“This isn’t an essay,” he said. “This is just some flowery description. You’ve got talent, but that won’t get you anywhere if you aren’t willing to do the work.”

Back in my dorm, I grabbed the box of tissues and the Webster’s New Collegiate: Essay, I read. A short literary composition on a single subject, usually presenting the personal view of the author.

This didn’t help me one bit. But I didn’t want to let Will down. Or Mrs. Serra. I started working then. Not just writing. Never again just writing.

Writing is easy. You put the right pen to the right paper and dream away. But Will was right. Good writing? That takes work. Work and possibly, a sense of adventure. An understanding of the power of words.

The Story of the Stories: Part II — Some Kids Have Cows for Pets: Other Kids Have Pigs

First Grade, State Street School. My mother put on her lipstick and headed out to parent teacher night to meet Mrs. Phillips.

“Don’t forget the bookfair,” I said.

I wanted one of the textbooks, Bright Horizons? Up and Away? Could someone really own a book that grand? But what other kinds of books would a school sell? Imagine being able to play school with my dolls (all of whose heads I’d shorn, imitating my sister Jeanne’s homework assignments from beauty school), my blue and orange stuffed cats with the jewel eyes, and my polka dotted clown, lined up on the sofa as I hoisted that impressive volume and read aloud to them!

Our house sat at the end of a long laneway. From my parents’ bedroom, I could watch for the headlights as cars turned off Franklin Street. Patiently, not so patiently, I waited for my mother. By the time she walked in, I had sprinted into the back entry to meet her.

The book she held out to me was far too small, too insubstantial a thing to be the answer to my prayers.

“What’s this?” I said. I had a temper. I was trying not to use it.

“Mrs. Phillips thought you would like this one. Besides, they don’t sell the ones you use in class. She said that would be against the law.”

My friend Jackie’s mother told us if we swallowed gum our bums would stick together. My own mother told me smoking would stunt my growth even though I never saw my Aunt Nancy without a cigarette and she was taller than my father. My cousin Kathy told me if you walked through a car’s exhaust, you would disappear. Sometimes, people said stuff just to scare you. (Sometimes, it worked).

I tossed the flimsy thing on my dresser, climbed into bed scowling. What kind of a mother let a teacher talk her out of what her kid really wanted? What kind of a writer called his book something as stupid as Charlotte’s Web?

***

Because my mother finally took Charlotte’s Web away from me (“You need to read something else,” she said, though I didn’t (still don’t) understand why), I had no choice but to start foraging for more material. In the face of the kind of friendship Wilbur and Charlotte possessed, basal readers lost their appeal. I loved that book because I believed it. That story was as true as any article I read in our Encyclopedia Brittanica. More so because it was hard to imagine something as homely as a frog could have such colorful innards, but a spider who saves your life with the help of a rat? How could that not become a kind of religion?

I thought I’d never find another book like it, but then I read chapter one of A Day No Pigs Would Die where a boy chases a prize Holstein through a briar patch and helps deliver her twin bulls. I thought our cows were the only ones stupid enough to labor amidst a patch of thorns, and that, aside from me and my brother and sisters, no other kid had seen anything like those pearly hooves poking out of the cow’s rear end, the way the muzzle emerged, nostrils quivering, eyes blinking before the calf was fully out into the world.

This is what I learned from E.B. White and Robert Newton Peck: Anything can become a story. Even unbelievably magical things. Even the kinds of things that happened to me.

The Story of the Stories: Part I — Just Because Your Only Friend is Imaginary Doesn’t Mean You’re Lonely

Part I

My father was the world’s most famous dairy farmer. He raised a bull named Osborndale Ivanhoe who changed the character of the Holstein breed. Long before his daughter dreamed of becoming a writer, my father made it into Esquire Magazine. That man and his celebrity bull. That bull and his starlet daughters grazing in pastures before admiring busloads of other farmers, of students of agriculture.

My mother, in a separate life, ran the lunch counter at Cap’s Cafe. The building still stands on the corner of Tower Street and Granite though now it’s a French bistro with outdoor seating that overlooks the intersection. My mother’s specialities included beef stew and American chop suey, things that, 60 years later, she still can’t prepare for fewer than a hundred people.

My parents met there, my mother the only person willing to wait on someone who smelled like a barnyard. I’m sure my parents, like any other couple, had dreams. I do not think those dreams included having a child who wanted to be a writer.

In our busy house, my mother fed hired hands, lining the counter with grinder rolls, cold cuts, lettuce she shredded into curling ribbons. Outside, my father’s trucks rumbled by full of corn, tractors roared past lugging wagonloads of hay. Milking machines pulsed. Cows bellowed. In summer, flies buzzed everywhere. Black ants dropped from the light over our kitchen table and landed in the sugar bowl. Winters, mice holed up in our cupboards; the dogs slept in mangers full of hay they wouldn’t let the heifers near. Season after season, I hunted down a good pen (nearly impossible to find), a piece of paper — phone book pages worked best, but any old envelope would do — and I scribbled. I loved the feel of ink on a page, the smell of a blue Bic, the loops and curls of letters.

“God damnit,” my mother would say, picking up a bill that hadn’t yet been paid. “How am I supposed to send this to someone when you’ve written all over it?”

But that carbon paper was as silky as my border collie’s ear, the rim of ribbon along the top of the blanket on my sister Jeannie’s bed. Things I also couldn’t resist. Writing felt as good as all the softest things on earth.

When people visited, I shut myself in my room. Read a book. Talked to my imaginary friend. Dr. Robinson told my mother she shouldn’t worry about me. “It’s a sign of an imaginative child,” she said. Tell that to my sister Barbara Ann who opened the Studebaker’s door to let me slide into the back seat. When she closed it behind me, I screamed.

“What’s wrong?” she said.

“You closed my friend in the door,” I said, sobbing loud enough for the shoppers passing by on the sidewalk to stop and stare.

We didn’t close the toy box so that my dolls could breathe. Crayons had personalities depending on their colors. Blue was a loyal boy. Yellow a boy nobody liked. Red was very popular, a celebrity color. I believed our house was haunted, woke one night to see a knight in shining armor walk through my bedroom, watched a shadow dance through the hayloft’s open window when the barns should have been empty. When I disappeared into a cornfield (I was three) and ignored my mother’s frantic calls, it was because I sat staring at the way sunlight hit a patch of earth amidst the tall stalks.

“What are we going to do with this kid?” my mother asked.

After another of his endless days at work, I would say to my fahter:“Tell me a story,” I wanted to listen until I fell asleep, feared being the only one awake in our big house, all by itself at the end of a dark lane. “Tell me another story,” I would say to my father, who no doubt wanted to eat his maple walnut ice cream that melted in a bowl beside his chair. He’d want to catch the weather on the 11 o’clock news, maybe return to the barns to check on a sick cow.

When, finally, he got too tired, he would say: Why don’t you tell me a story, now, instead?

My First Writing Workshop??

Finally, I sit down. Woodstove (still) burning (third day of spring). Everything that eats here (including the feral cat under the porch and whatever snake shed its pretty impressive skin at the foot of the basement stairs) has hopefully been fed or demands no menu from me. Girls are upstairs glued to a screen, winning that argument for today. What can I say? Uncle. Watch Netflix. Play Guess-the-Logo on your IPhone. I’m sitting down! I’m warm! Spring really IS coming and I am going to put my feet up and watch its approach if it takes the next six weeks.

The cobweb is one strand. One strand with a loop on the end as if it has been sent out on some reconnaissance. Or a minuscule lasso. A tethered smoke ring from a Lilliputian cigar? Should I swipe it? (This would require me standing up). Or do I just sit here and brainstorm metaphors?

Metaphors.

The next day, I do take it down and wave it around a little to see it move. Over the woodstove burning (fourth day of spring), it finds its own current, a balloon-less string on its way. It resists snapping, has collected dust along its filament. I could watch it for hours, but then it reminds me of Mrs. Miller.

The imaginative leap, she might have taught us, is essential to good writing. Take a risk. Let it be bad. Slay your darlings. Write what you know. These lines would have left me awestruck. But Mrs. Miller did what we came to expect from English class. We read a book. We answered questions about the book. We read our answers out loud. We spent a few weeks diagramming sentences. We returned to a book, to answering (in cursive!) the comprehension questions posed, to showing up the next day to raise our hands.

Except for one day.

People said Mrs. Miller smoked a lot of pot. It was 1976, Westerly Junior High. It would not have surprised any of us to discover that the teachers’ lounge was an opium den, the adults perched on mushrooms sucking on hookahs. Suffocating clouds billowed out of there each time the door opened. Who knew what they were smoking between classes? And who cared? We had our own worries. We were caught in a fashion morass somewhere between the BeeGees and Black Sabbath. Everyone owned a blowdryer but no one used gel or mousse or anything else that might ameliorate the desication and volumizing of that kind of blasted heat. Some people, inspired by Welcome Back, Kotter, got perms. But those were mostly the boys. Our bodies regularly betrayed us by menstruating on the day we tried out our new (white!) painters pants or by replicating Vesuvius on the ends of our noses, by granting girls mustaches and denying them to boys, by subjecting us to feet so large, we looked like a race of L-shaped people.

Mrs. Miller did have a weird kind of a lisp. It derived, I think, from the fact that her lower jaw protruded over her upper jaw and shifted a few inches to the right of the rest of her face. These days, someone would break that jaw, wire it shut, prescribe Ensure, and charge her parents six thousand dollars, but back then, she let her hair grow in dark crimped waves, donned her corduroys and Frye boots and assumed a beatnik coolness. Or that of a complete burn-out. She sat behind her desk, peered at us beneath her heavy lids and refused to disguise her boredom.

We filed in as if it was any old day, our postures reflecting our surety that life would never get better than junior high. Whatever Mrs. Miller had in store for us, it would be at the very least, an escape from the humiliation of our daily lives. This time, Mrs. Miller didn’t even bother to stand up. The bell rang and she raised her head. “Write about this,” she said. She took her number 2 Ticonderoga and rolled it across her desk until it fell off. Then, she put her head down and passed out.

My youngest daughter is about to take 15 (not a misprint — FIFTEEN) PARCC tests (The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers). My middle daughter needs to pass the Biology MCAS in a few weeks. My oldest daughter is taking SAT prep courses two nights a week, aiming for the magic number that will get her into the college of her dreams that we cannot afford. All of the above are good reasons to re-instate those smoking rooms of old. Our teachers might have been killing themselves, but at least they weren’t killing us.

I can also tell you this: no educational assessment I faced and certainly none that my daughters will conquer, could compare to that day in eighth grade language arts for me.

A whole period of creative writing?!?! It would never come again. That sparkling gemstone of a day. A day that indulged those of us who, even then, studied cobwebs, not with the intention of ridding our pristine homes of them, but as a distraction from real life, from the parts of speech, the algorithms, the unsightly evidence of hormones disrupting every surface of our once beautiful selves.