Weekend Write-In: Having to Have Patience Whether You Like it or Not

“You were always so impatient,” my mother tells me regularly. “Even when you were little, if I bought you a coloring book, you sat down and colored every picture immediately. Didn’t stop until it was finished.”

As I writer, I appreciate my mother’s ability to nail down the characterization. This without any lessons in showing vs. telling! But as a very human being who also happens to be a writer, I also think: my god. What happened to me?

My first collection of poetry took me twenty years to finish. My first collection of short stories took me twenty-two. I didn’t set out to write a collection in either of these genres, but when you keep writing, you tend to pile up some stuff and one day, if you’re me, you lay it all out on your bed and wonder if there are enough pages for a book.

A novel is a different beast, however. A novel is something I always wanted to write. Something that I approached deliberately (once I realized the short story I thought I was writing was something else), thinking: I want this to be a book.

My novel started one day when I thought I’d like to write a short story about the summer I visited a carnival with a friend and met a man who ran one of the concessions. He was exceedingly friendly to me, gave me several nights’ worth of free chances and so many plastic poodles to hang on my bedpost that my mother grew suspicious. When she asked me where I got the prizes and I told her, she warned me to be careful, but she did not stop me from going to the carnival again. I was ten.

Perhaps she thought, as I did, that nothing could happen in our small town where everyone was a cousin or married to a cousin or someone my mother went to school with. But that fall, a thirteen year old girl was kidnapped and killed walking home at night just a couple miles away from where the carnival had been set up.

Chapter by chapter, the short story turned into a novel that is and isn’t the story of that summer, that carnival, the fall from innocence we experienced when such a tragedy struck our town. Twelve years later — the speed of light for me — I finally finished it.

What happens next, even after a dozen years revising, re-structuring, wrestling with the beast that is plot, is almost (almost) not important. What is important is that I did it. I waited it out. Powerless to know how to manage the story and all its threads, I had no choice but to slog ahead.

If I had sat down at any time in my writing life and thought: Okay, I’ll write this poem/story/novel etc today and twelve, twenty, twenty-two years from now, I’ll have a book, I would have put down the pen and picked up a paintbrush instead. And by paintbrush, I mean the kind you use to re-do your downstairs bathroom. In a way, I just kept coloring one picture after the next until I could close up shop on one particular work.

This makes me wonder if my mother had it exactly right: maybe patience had nothing to do with finishing that book. Maybe finishing it had everything to do with it, instead.

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?

Maybe I Learned Something After All in Trigonometry

If you Google yourself, this is what happens: you stumble upon a nameless blogger whose goal it is to read 50 something books a year and review each one and she chooses yours. Initially, this is exciting. Someone bought the book! (Someone who is not related to you; someone who wouldn’t recognize you even if you were the only two in an elevator and you were wearing a Hello My Name Is badge!) Your euphoria is short-lived, however, when you skim paragraph 1 and find the word “suffer” and that your stories have been accused of not having enough “meat on their bones.” “Banal” is another adjective the blogger employs. “Well worn.”

Now, you don’t know if this person is an Ivy League professor-slash-literary-critic or some shut-in fueled by the power of the Internet’s powers of anonymity. But it doesn’t matter. She says, for example, that you fail to understand the intricacies of plot, and you know that’s as true as if some beauty critic had reviewed your face and said, “She boasts an oversized and rather ethnic nose.” State the obvious, people. Put it all into print: everything I hope I’ve been doing my best to hide. Oops. I mean you. That you hope you can hide.

Anyway, this reminds me of Algebra II and Trigonometry and sophomore year in a high school that insisted on tracking kids, which meant that if you chose to take honors English (where I found success despite not being able to master the intricacies of plot), you also had to take honors math. You being me, the person slouching in the seat farthest away from the instructor and praying, three decades before Harry Potter, for an invisibility cloak.

We called Mr. Chaffee Effach. His name (kind of) spelled backwards. His acne scarred skin, his overbite, his thinning hair and pot belly, these were not his fault (Well, the pot belly perhaps, but no one had ever heard of a core in 1978.). A homely kid myself, I would have forgiven him his own physical failings. However, he paired his unattractiveness, with more cruelty than comic book villains. During tests, he stood over my shoulder tsking as I scribbled my answers, terrified of his looming presence, of the ticking clock, and of earning my first and only failing grade of high school. Okay, so I got a D, but in Mr. Chaffee’s class, that meant that I received a deficiency. He could have placed it on my desk and walked away to leave me to my own shame, but, instead, he began class by announcing, “And now I would like to see the following people so that they may sign for their deficiencies.” The seat in the back row, farthest from the front of the room, didn’t seem like such a bargain anymore.

When my locker partner broke her leg and needed to leave class two minutes early, I accompanied her one blissful afternoon. The next day when she stood up near the door and I rose in my corner, Mr. Chaffee asked to see her pass. I had already moved too far away from my seat to gracefully sit back down. Instead, I stood as he said: “Read this part for me, will you?” He narrowed his eyes (I forgot those — reptilian. Their lids closed sideways across his eyeballs). Mary was a sweet person, totally devoid of malice. She got an A in math, but never gloated. When she glanced my way apologetically, I cringed. “The student may leave early with assistance at the teacher’s discretion.” Mr. Chaffee sucked his teeth and grinned. He tapped the toe of his shoe, a toe that curled up, elfin like over his hooves. “At the teacher’s discretion?” (I also forgot to mention his hiss, I mean, his lisp) Mary grimaced, began to assert that actually, despite her cast, crutches, and a pile of books, she could manage by herself. But Eefach had what he needed. “Well, if it is at my discretion, I think there are plenty more people in here you could take with you. Carla, of all people, cannot afford to lose even two minutes of class time.”

I would like to note too, here, that the sweet boy who sat beside me, also an A student, perhaps a doctor now he was so smart and so compassionate then, pretended he didn’t notice when I slid back into the seat beside him (Maybe kids like him and Mary are the reason I love teenagers so much that I’ve spent my professional life with them).

And so the year dragged by. Even now, some Sunday nights, I wake in a cold sweat and worry that tomorrow I will have to walk back into that classroom, powerless and stripped of pride.

On the final day of class, Eefach explained his inhumanity (he called it his philosophy): if we were angry with him, then we would be inspired to prove him wrong. Instead of failing miserably, we would fight back, learn a subject that, despite the most persuasive arguments of math teachers I respect, has no use in most of our lives. If I used the f-word then, I would have explained a bit about my own philosophy. In 1979 I had no intention of being a teacher, but even so I had an idea this was not an acceptable tool for motivating students.

I have no idea what happened to Eefach. I wish I could say I have forgiven him and wish him well, but an ache in each of the 32 teeth in his head, a pain unrelenting and untreatable by even the strongest and most debilitating painkillers, would not be enough to satisfy me.

I don’t know how to craft a plot that satisfies some critics and I don’t — and never will — know how to solve any algebraic functions. Both of these things are affirmations of a sort. They are, at the very least, not surprises. The blogger gave me a B and never attacked me personally. So there’s that.

And then there’s this: say all those rotten teeth I wish for Eefach fell out. Well then, there’s such a thing as phantom pain.