Love

Photo by Chris

Dear Professor H.,

It’s been more than forty years since I took your Introduction to Creative Writing Class, yet I still remember that very first Tuesday morning when I sat on a squeaky metal chair, my spiral notebook with its shiny red cover open in front of me, waiting for your arrival. Every molecule of my being was quivering with excitement. I had already made up my mind that I was going to be a poet. In junior high, I’d devoured the confessional poems of Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. In high school, I’d lapped up the beat poetry of Anne Waldman and Diane di Prima. At last I was in college and it was my turn to clutch my pen in my hand, pour out my heart, and share my verse with the world.

As I chewed the tasteless plastic cap of my blue Bic pen, you strode into the room and dropped a tall stack of books onto your wooden teacher’s desk with a thud. Silently you turned to the blackboard and printed the words “Serious Pleasure” at the very top, underlined them twice and then let the white stick of chalk fall into its metal holder with a clatter. Finally you turned to face us. I noticed right away how handsome you were. You had the solid build of an athlete—a football player maybe?—the dreamy eyes of a poet, and the plump lips of a good kisser. You also had a gold wedding band on your left hand and brown Docksiders on your rather large feet. You wore khaki slacks, a white alligator shirt and a weary expression as if you already knew that we were all going to disappoint you. And if that weren’t enough, you heaved an enormous sigh to let us know that we were all hopelessly beneath you but you were stuck with us. And we were stuck with you.

If you meant to intimidate us, Professor H., you certainly succeeded. You distributed the syllabus and launched into the course requirements without once explaining the phrase “serious pleasure” which stared down at us like an angry gargoyle. My classmates shifted in their seats and I saw many of them flipping through the thick course booklet we all carried around, searching, no doubt, for another “gut course” that met on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9:15.

Eventually you stopped talking about your expectations of us in that slow Southern drawl that meandered through our New England classroom like a river and began our first lesson. “We’ll start with sonnets,” you said. The word elicited a collective groan. You remained unfazed. “Yes, you’re all going to write a sonnet,” you repeated in that honey-oozing voice. “You’ll hate me now, but you’ll thank me later.”

That night sitting in my dorm room at my tiny student desk under the burning glow of my clip-on lamp, I spent hours working on my sonnet. I wrestled with iambic pentameter. I sweated over the rhyme scheme. I fretted over the turn. I rewrote the ending couplet a hundred times. After dozens of revisions, all written by hand, I finally took my Smith Corona portable typewriter out of its peach-colored case, and typed up my poem. I had never worked so hard on anything in my life.

When our class next met, you collected our sonnets, stuffed them into a brown accordion folder, and proceeded to teach us about something called a terza rima. I listened and took notes, all the while wondering what you would say about my sonnet. Would it surprise you? Delight you? Impress you? Most of all, would it show you that I wasn’t like the other students yawning in front of you? No, like you, I was a real writer. Surely you would recognize from the fourteen lines I had just handed in that we were kindred souls.

The following Tuesday, you handed back our papers without a word. I tried to catch your eye as you approached my desk, but you were having none of it. You extended my paper upside-down, I reached for it, you moved on. I waited until you were on the other side of the room before I turned it over. I was both dismayed and relieved to see that there were no marks upon it, until my eyes reached the very bottom of the page where I saw, in a tilted, southpaw scrawl, the words “so what” written in red ink, followed by a question mark.

So what? So what? I read those two words at least 100 times, my heart hammering, my cheeks turning red as the ink you had used to write them. So what? I was absolutely crushed. Did I really have nothing to say? Was my dream of becoming a writer ridiculous? Were my parents right? Should I forget this poetry business and become the social worker, secretary, or nurse they kept urging me to be?

More than four decades have passed since you wrote “so what?” on the bottom of my sonnet, Professor H., and I have done a lot of writing during that time. But one thing I have never written is a note of thanks to you.

“You’ll hate me now but you’ll thank me later.” I never hated you, Professor H. In fact, I had a little crush on you. And though you crushed my schoolgirl heart, I want to thank you for the two red hot words you seared onto the bottom of my poem and into my brain like marks from a branding iron. Because after I licked my wounds in the privacy of my dorm room and dried my eyes (oh yes, many tears were shed) I got mad. F.U. Professor H.! How dare you write “so what?” on my sonnet and stomp on my poetic dream?

Actually, Professor H., whether you meant to or not, you did me an enormous favor. Your words lit a fire under me that blazed for the rest of the semester. I’ll show you, I thought night after night as I sat at my desk under the harsh light of that clip-on lamp shining down upon my notebook bright as a Hunter’s Moon. Your words dared me to become a better writer and I took on that challenge like a champ. I wrote and wrote and wrote, determined to accomplish the impossible task of pleasing you. The closest I came was a comment from you on the bottom of a short story: “Your fiction is better than your poetry.” Was that a compliment or an insult? To this day, I’m really not sure.

But so what? Forty years later, Professor H., I have had a change of heart. I no longer think you were being cruel to me. Actually I think you were being kind. I might even flatter myself into thinking that you did recognize the real writer sitting in front of you, nervously splitting the ends of her waist-length hair as she listened to you explaining enjambment, and decided to give her a gift: the gift of “so what?”

To this day, everything I write is put to the “so what?” test. Those two brutal and brutally honest words taught me that what I place on the page has to matter. It’s not enough for a piece to be beautifully structured or stylistically pleasing. Poems and stories have to mean something. They can’t be throwaway or inconsequential or frivolous. They have to improve the stark beauty of the blank page that they are written upon. They cannot waste the readers’ time.

And so, when I write, I take serious pleasure in making sure that every word counts. And for that, Professor H., I humbly thank you.

Lesléa Newman is the author of 65 books for readers of all ages including the novel,  The Reluctant Daughter, the short story collection, A Letter to Harvey Milk, the poetry collection, Still Life with Buddy, the children’s book, Heather Has Two Mommies, and the novel-in-verse, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. Her literary awards include poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation. A former poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts, she teaches at Spalding University’s low-residency MFA program. Her newest poetry collection,  I Carry My Mother, will be published by Headmistress Press in January 2015.

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droplets

Photo by Andreas Beer

Paperback Writer

I published my first book when I was 42 years old. I’d just moved from Iowa City to Berkeley, California, for a full-time teaching job when the book came out. It was November and I was too busy to fret about things first-book writers tended to fret about: reviews, sales, whether my slim hardback would stay in print or ever go into paperback.

But I was not too busy for a steady stream of self-consciousness. My book was slender (not even 200 pages) and my imprint small and even though I was grateful to my publisher–an intelligent and incredibly supportive press–I also felt embarrassed about readings, asking people to look at me, to listen to me, to buy my very personal book.

Out of a sense of duty, I agreed to more than a dozen readings. For each reading, I wrote out notes, which began with things like, “I want to thank you all for coming tonight,” because my nerves meant I couldn’t trust myself to do anything–even a simple thank you to an audience in San Francisco or Portland or Chicago–off the cuff.

People had warned me that no one came to readings anymore so be prepared to talk to a room of one. An audience of one? I was fine with that. I attended many readings myself and loved the intimacy of a small audience, loved listening to writers’ voices, getting glimpses into their lives. Writing had seemed glamorous before I started doing it, then difficult when I was committed full-force, yes, but also romantic. In the years I spent writing my book, which I did not know at the time would become a book, I used to walk down the streets of my town, which smelled of honeysuckle in the spring and oats in the winter, thinking my skin must shimmer with all my bodily happiness. I was writing. Full-on. Every day. It seemed incredible, the best relationship of my life.

But all things related to public speaking scared the devil out of me and seemed contrary to what the pleasures of writing were all about: solitude; quiet; the company of the words in your head. My friend Jo Ann had introduced to me some years before to The Little Blue Pill–propranalol (not to be confused with Michael Jackson’s propofol)–which allowed me to endure the hour of the reading without my voice shaking or my hands shaking or my body sweating. But nothing could help me in the days leading up to a reading, as I went over and over my notes and practiced out loud, and nothing could save me from the anxiety that spilled out in the days afterward, when I replayed questions and realized what I should have said.

There should be, I reasoned, a Morning After the Reading Pill.

There is, of course. It’s called vodka.

***
Once, before reading at Cody’s Books, my friend Wesley accompanied me to the store, three hours early on a very rainy night. If I didn’t arrive early, my panic rose to unspeakable heights.

“I can’t do it,” I said. We were sitting in my car, the rain hitting the windshield in wild streaks. Wesley listened. He didn’t remind me that Cody’s was a famous bookstore that had championed small presses and unknown writers, a bookstore I had loved and admired from afar for years. None of that matters when someone’s scared.

“What should I do?”

Wesley, who suffers from anxiety too, said I didn’t have to read. He would tell the bookstore I couldn’t make it. I could go straight home.

Which was the exact right thing to say: to give me that out.

Of course I read. Of course I survived. Of course it was fine. Books were signed and sold and finally, I could go out for a drink with Wesley and then go home, collapsing in relief, moving soon to the next stage of anxiety, not about what I would say when I was standing at the podium but about what I had said and couldn’t take back.

I lived alone at the time. And I was reading from a book that was about moving to Japan at thirty because I was alone and didn’t want to be, and how I met someone (three someones, in fact) and got into some trouble with these men and then came home. Alone. Again.

“Your subject,” a writer friend once told me, “is solitude.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, I wanted her to take them back. If there was a theme I did not want, that was it. Solitude. But she was right.

After each reading, I thought, well, at least there’s that: I am alone but now I am alone and I have a book.

Then, right before the last of my twelve readings, spread out over the course of eight months, squeezed in between classes and other responsibilities, I met someone. Online. In that ocean of words. Someone dark-haired. A Californian. A reader. We talked about Joseph Brodsky and Alice Munro and he told me stories of what he’d found when he was young in bookstores like Green Apple and I told him about my life in Iowa City and going to readings at Prairie Lights.

We drank coffee at Peets and he made me carnitas, which I ate sitting cross-legged in his Napa living room. He didn’t read my book right away. He said he wanted to get to know the woman first, before the writer. I could not argue with that. I was afraid my little book about men and messed-up relationships would scare him off, particularly the scenes of me standing in front of my Japanese man’s house, frantic, watching for him, some sign of him, wanting him to come out and take me back. (He didn’t.)

But Matt didn’t scare so easily. When he read it–about six months in–he told me how much he liked it. He called it serious. And when I laughed and said, it’s a book in which I collapse at one point, drunk on a Japanese bench, with sadness, he said, yes. She’s in trouble for sure. Who doesn’t get in trouble?

I was very quiet when he said that.

Is this why I did not worry when the terror of my readings ended and the adventure of publishing came to a close? Because I was newly in love and caught up in that? We used to walk to Naan and Curry and eat tikka chicken and browse in Cody’s afterward. Once, we walked back to my apartment from lunch and Matt stopped outside the building and reached high into the tree to pull down three lemons, all miraculously within reach. Then we spent the afternoon drinking ice water with slices of lemon in our glasses, talking first on my red couch, then later on the edge of the bed. Outside there was a steady sound of a hammer, someone at work, building a bookshelf or a desk or maybe repairing a roof.

“You have the face of a Russian novel,” he said.

***
A woman who lived across the street for me in that apartment told me once a few weeks before my book was to come out, “Most books are small stones that sink into the ocean.” I think she believed she was warning me not to expect fame. (I did not.) Her warning, of course, has context: books that start out small, then make it big are not the norm. The stories of breakout hits–the 60 agents who pass on a novel before one takes it and the novel makes the bestseller list and gets turned into a Hollywood hit–these are legendary. My neighbor knew them. I knew them too: how Michael Cunningham, for example, was advised against publishing The Hours (three depressed women? seriously?) but does it anyway and again, voila, Hollywood steps in.

But what of the rest of us? We who start out small and remain so? Do we take comfort in what William James said, that he was “against bigness and greatness in all their forms”? Is comfort required?

***
Most books sink like small stones in the ocean.

I repeated this to myself a few months ago when I had dinner with a friend whose fine first novel was not earning back its huge, seemingly lucky, advance. I repeated it out loud to another writer friend, someone who writes exquisitely and has yet to be published and wants it so much, I could tell, the wanting hurt.

I wanted to encourage her. To remind her, as I remind myself, to keep on keeping on.

I love stones, I said. I love the ocean. I love falling into the sea of words on an ocean of possibilities and so do you.

But later I thought of how dangerous sinking can be and how there is also that in the writing life too. How you immerse yourself and there is the danger of going under, of losing track of all else: the pleasure of luxurious tea in the morning, the need to water the basil on the patio, the sound of the someone’s voice, leaving a phone message. You do not stop. You do not call back. There are prices to ignoring all that.

I wished I had thought to tell her that I recognize that.

And that there is something else: that sometimes it isn’t a matter of sinking, perhaps, but of reaching. For a word, an idea, a wholeness.

Sometimes there are three lemons right there, falling into our hands.

***
The other day a box arrived with a return address from Chicago that I didn’t recognize. Inside, there were copies of my book–ten years after its initial publication–now in paperback. Acid free paper and in paperback! my partner, Matt said. We both sang “Paperback Writer” on and off all day and fingered the new books as we went about our ordinary business of paying bills, of making dinner, of doing the laundry, of washing the dishes.

Late that night, with the black water of the bay invisible from my window, I got back to work.

Marilyn Abildskov is the author of The Men In My Country, a memoir set in JapanRecent essays and short stories have appeared in The Pinch, The Sun, AGNI, and The Laurel Review. A recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award, she lives in the Bay Area and teaches creative nonfiction in the MFA Program at Saint Mary’s College of California.

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Digital Photo

Photo by JD Hancock

Associate fiction editor Annie Bilancini on today’s story: I’ll just come right out and say it: I’m a sucker for the collective-we narrator. It’s ancient, right? The Greek chorus trudging around in the back of the scene, lamenting and ever-present. I love the idea that an entire place or community can own a story and take part in the telling because, as readers, we often become participants in the action in the most satisfying way. But in this story, Citino raises the stakes. Surreality bites at the edges of Tuscola County, the ever-so-Lynchian reflection of a town we may have passed through once or even lived in for years. Don’t let the sun-shot skies and neighborly prattle fool you: we are complicit here.

The Eleventh Annual Tuscola County Kissing Contest

We get up early, loaded with coolers and camping chairs, to get a good spot. Come too late and you have to settle for the parking lot at the blood bank. The mayor hosts the contest every year, and every year embarrasses himself by reading love poetry from his high school days. We boo at him but it’s good-natured. He fumbles with the starting pistol. He shoots. Among the black gum trees lining the river, the couples embrace and we cheer for the start of things.

It is a hot day and a long one. We sit and watch for awhile, then wander to play euchre with neighbors or shoot the shit with our uncles. Deep fried candy bars melt on fingers and faces. The solitary old men, who have no business here, are shuffled off by security guards with roses tucked behind their ears. The couples give us a good show. Some ass grabs and over-the-shirts to keep our attention. We appreciate that kissing is hard work as every few minutes another pair flags, staggers, and falls apart. The losers join us at our portable barbeques.

We soon pick our favorite. They are not so young they seem foolish but not so old they break our hearts. Hands slip in denim back pockets but remain chaste. Lips roll over lips like fog on a country road. They look like they can go the distance. We lean across to our neighbors and gossip in voices made booming by drink:

They have loved each other since they were children.

No, they are newlyweds savoring the longest foreplay of their lives.

The woman, see the pallor in her face? She has cancer. He has loved her forever and there is no time to waste.

When they win, the Junior League presents them with a handmade garland of honeysuckle. The mayor makes his annual speech about how we will be sustained through the hard year ahead by this new symbol of love. Though poor, etc. Though wretched, etc. We squint into the last bronze bars of the sun. The woman’s lipstick is gone except for a grapefruit streak on her chin and he wears a t-shirt with a faded Confederate flag across the front.

Whispers: they are divorcing.

She is married and he is the sleazy paramour skilled at cunnilingus.

They never met before this moment.

We rub sunburned noses, our bellies stuffed with charred meat and liquor. We can never really know our neighbors and our children go without their shots and the homeless are beaten in the streets, etc. The river stinks. The air is cold. It is time to go home, etc. The mayor says something about how the true beauty of the contest is that never just one person wins. We drift back to our cars and fan out arm’s length apart, cigarette smoke and cricket drone filling the spaces between our hunched shoulders. We call out for our children. We cannot find them in the dark.

Laura Citino is a fiction writer from southeastern Michigan. Her short fiction has appeared in The Intentional Quarterly, Midwestern Gothic and Bluestem, and is forthcoming from Cheap Pop. She received her MFA from Eastern Washington University and currently lives with her partner and teaches English in Terre Haute, Indiana.

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"Sunday Lake'" Wakefield, Upper Michigan

Photo by John McCormick

Writing my Way Through

Writing has always been a part of my life, but the degrees to which I’ve nurtured it have ebbed and flowed over time, like tides rolling in and out. Though I studied journalism in college, the fact that I also met my future husband and became engaged during this time meant that my love of writing had to morph into something marketable, a skill that would help us buy a home and purchase all the wonderful necessities on display at Williams-Sonoma. I gave up writing angst-filled poetry and Austen-inspired short stories and turned to writing snappy ad copy, eventually doing so for a newspaper—my office just down the hall from the newsroom where the serious writers labored.

The home Kevin and I purchased was an abandoned farmhouse and it became our never-ending project. Children followed soon after and I filled my life with every possible creative interest, from embroidery and knitting, to cooking and gardening. Plastic bins overflowed with the various implements of my new hobbies: knitting needles, cooking gadgets, garden tools, scrapbook paper, stenciling paints. I decorated rooms and cakes. I cooked intricate meals, often for large groups. I firmly established myself in a suburban-Martha-Stewart-landscape, convinced that it was the right place to be, and almost believed that a hundred creative pursuits could equal the one I really wished to do. It would take eighteen years for me to realize what I had given up and go in search of it by enrolling in an MFA program.

Arriving at that point wasn’t easy. This is not a simple discovery or admission for someone who has a wonderful husband, two beautiful, healthy children, many friends, a great job, and a charming home. How could I need something more? It took months of talking, threatening, and counseling for my husband and me to realize the importance of writing in my life and for both of us to work at staking out a place for it. And we did: we re-divided chores, I declined volunteer requests; while I packed up and headed to the library every Sunday, Kevin planned meals and grocery shopped.

And then he was diagnosed with cancer.

The MFA, along many other things, was put on hold as we worked together to save his life. Months of good diagnoses were followed by bad until a Stage IV prognosis in November, 2009. Treatment stalled the inevitable but couldn’t cure it. In the early summer of 2010, we opted for surgery to lessen the size of tumors that had vined their way up his spine. As Kevin’s health declined over those months, I often discovered myself in a very unusual place in my head. The window in Kevin’s hospital room on the sixth floor overlooked a city park and I stood at it for long minutes while he slept, watching kids run up the slide and slip, carefree and ecstatic, into the pool. Parents lounged on blankets or chaises, arms folded behind their heads, in their own contentment of summer. So many hours spent at that window with the impossible questions of why, and what was going to happen when this was no longer; not wanting it to go on, but not being able to bear the thought of it being over.

Frequently, my mind wandered to a place in our yard with me seated in a wicker chair, overlooking our garden. Bright red heaps of floribunda roses climbed the picket fence, and bean plants and Brussels sprout stalks were fecund with color and fruit. In this vision, I sat with my laptop and wrote at a furious, prolific pace, words spilling out of me in some fit of creative fertility as though in competition with the plant life around me. Coming back to reality, I knew what had to happen between the now and the time when I would sit alone and write. It frightened me that I would sometimes think about “after” in this way, with a wordless and dreamlike (but very vivid) vision. I told a friend about this once and she felt strongly that it was my mind’s (or possibly God’s) way of getting me through this otherwise unbearable time, of removing me, for just a few minutes, from the hell we were in. Other widows have told me they often found themselves lost in thoughts of what they would do later; both practical things like bank accounts and home sales, but also life changing things like dating and relocating. I never let my mind go to those places. Until the very end we spoke only of fighting on and finding a cure.

So rather than thoughts borne of acceptance, I had this one and only daydream, an almost perfect juxtaposition of past life and future life, of all those hobbies that filled our home with fresh flowers and canning jars, and the one thing I desired, but which now felt selfish and meaningless. Was it wrong of me to make these demands on our life, I wondered. What I wouldn’t give, I had to admit, to just go back to the way it used to be. This was a time for making bargains with the universe and writing was quickly and easily put on the table.

But Kevin didn’t want that. In notes I found after his death, he wrote about his favorite places to go in his own head, when he too, was unable to leave the hospital room or the recliner in our study. One place he went was imagining my MFA graduation. He pictured himself in the audience, with me walking across the stage receiving my diploma. Then he pictured me at a book signing, with all our family and friends gathered around as I read. He wanted this too. Giving me time to write wasn’t a matter of capitulation or of simply trying to avoid an argument. It was something he truly and deeply wished for me. As was often the case, he was more generous with me than I had been with myself.

There have been a good many books, mostly memoir, written recently about grief and mourning. One that I particularly love is A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates. In a February 2011 New York Times story titled “Why We Write About Grief,” Oates writes of how keeping a journal during her husband’s illness was something she did to help her at times of anxiety and sleeplessness. Eventually those entries became the book. But she, too, had some ambivalence about writing through this time. She says, “The act of writing — of even trying to write — of imagining to write — seemed meaningless, vain and silly.”

She talks of the year after her husband’s death as a time when she was “haunted by memories of a very visual nature…” Attempting to explain the odd relationship that the grieving journal writer has with her craft and subject matter during this period, she says, “The diarist doesn’t know how a scene will end, when it begins; she doesn’t know what the next hour will bring, let alone the next day or the next week; she is wholly unprepared for the most profound experience of her life — that her husband will die.”

With the exception of a poem, later anthologized in The Cancer Poetry Project, Vol II, I did not write during the time of my husband’s illness. I struggled even more to attempt writing in the two years following his death. After experiencing my own periods of anxiety, along with various physical ailments, I knew that I had to face the empty page and type out the words I had been unable to consider. I rented a small cottage near Lake Michigan and spent days alone at the computer typing words like “death” and “dying.” I wrote about Kevin’s time in the hospital, about the first days of his diagnosis, and about my experiences in the days and months after his death. Not necessarily looking for any meaning, nor to make sense of something I still don’t understand, but rather to put some small bit of order to a situation that had left me feeling completely broken and out of control.

In a few days I will recognize the fourth anniversary of Kevin’s passing. It is no longer as difficult to write about him or about us. I write fairly frequently of life as a widow and hope someday soon to write more about our life together as a young married couple renovating an old, crumbling-down farmhouse. In the four years that have passed, writing that once felt burdensome now offers a thread of connection. I have gone from being unable to consider putting memories onto paper, to having a great desire—almost a palpable need—to do so. It isn’t always a pleasant experience. Indeed most times I write about Kevin or that time in our lives, I become quiet and pensive, sometimes for the remainder of the day. Eventually though, I feel renewed and comforted by the experience. My previous avoidance has been pushed away by the new need to collect, record, and preserve the memories in the best way I know how—by writing about them.

Lori Tucker-Sullivan is a freelance writer and editor who also teaches part-time and works with a group of independent booksellers to better their businesses. Her essays and poems have appeared in The Sun, Now & Then: The Magazine of Appalachia, About the Girl, and The Cancer Poetry Project. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Spalding University. Her blog can be found here: www.widowsapprenticeship.blogspot.com.

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Gingerbread man

Photo by Kyle Horner

Associate poetry editor Francis McGill on today’s poem: Donald Illich gives the gingerbread man new life and even a real conscience, a conscience with not so much a moral hinge, but an anxious self-awareness…something over your shoulder. The gingerbread man was made to be eaten. And us? Who eats us?

The Gingerbread Man

He’s always disturbed when he catches us
eating the cookies. He doesn’t want to say
anything, so he runs quickly out the door,
scared a dog might eat him, leaving a gap
in his midsection. He’d have to be baked
again, flour and water added, to heal it.
It’s his least favorite holiday, where all
he sees are little hims in plastic jars,
all with red gumdrop eyes, inanimate,
ready for consumption. At work he avoids
the parties, where everyone munches desserts,
where he fears to watch his boss crunching
“his legs.” At home he can pretend no one
wishes to devour him completely. He decorates
his house with frosting, tells us he’s busy
with hauling up candies to the roof. We know
one day he’ll drop off the ladder. We’ll be there,
gathering shards, sticking them in our mouths.

Donald Illich has published in journals such as The Iowa Review, LIT, Nimrod, and Crab Creek Review. He lives in Rockville, Maryland.

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by Michael Giddings & Matthew Weinkam

“There’s been a change of plans,” says Tim.

I’m at the front table in Babycakes, a local bakery in downtown Marquette, my notepad filled with my tiny, unsavory questions. Tim Johnston—five-year managing editor and current fiction editor of Passages North—enters and seats himself across from me. “Change of plans?” I ask.

“The interview is on hold. We have to go pants shopping. As soon as Matt gets here.” Tim has been shoveling snow off a colleague’s roof and his jeans have sprung a leak in the crotch. “I’ve sewed them before, but this might be the end. I don’t want to be popping out all through this thing,” says Tim. It’s a legitimate concern. The hole reaches from the crotch halfway to the knee.

Matt arrives and we crowd into Tim’s litter-filled pickup to go shopping. I suggest an 80s style fashion montage, but Tim is all business: “I can’t decide between Target or Wal-Mart.”

Matt and I offer to weigh the pros and cons.

“I’m thinking Wal-Mart,” Tim says. “Because I’m going to be changing pants in the parking lot. Wal-Mart is more comfortable with that sort of thing.”

Over the course of the evening Tim will buy new jeans and take us on a guided tour of Marquette, complete with donut shops, French onion soup, a wedding reception at the Ore Dock, and a sky lounge view of Lake Superior. We will also learn a bit about Tim’s history as a writer, editor, maintenance worker, and Negaunee resident.

After Tim is fully dressed we pile back into his truck and head to Huron Mountain, a quiet coffee and donuts bakery near Lake Superior. We grab a table by the window and start as far back as we can go.

—Mike Giddings

I. Origin Story

Mike Giddings: I’m interested in your origin story. Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote?

Tim Johnston: First story?

Mike: Yeah, or I guess it doesn’t have to be a story. I want to see the very beginning.

Tim: Yeah. Okay, I’m not used to this kind of thing. It’s all about me. I just like conversation.

I think the first thing I ever wrote—and if you were a girl I was dating, my mother would tell you this—the first thing she recollects me writing is my own name on a box. I thought I was writing Timmy, turns out I was writing Time.

Mike: So you had a cardboard box that said Time on it? Like in Calvin and Hobbes?

Tim: Something like Calvin and Hobbes.

Matt Weinkam: But you thought it said Timmy.

Tim: But I thought it said Timmy, so maybe I was talking to myself.

Matt: There’s something deep there. We’ll figure it out.

Mike: Do you remember any of the conversations you had with your cardboard self?

Tim: My brother says there was a face I drew on it but I have no memory of drawing a face. But no, no recollection. I did write something called “The War” in first grade, second grade.

Matt: Yeah. That’s what I’m talking about. What was “The War” about?

Tim: We were watching a lot of M*A*S*H back then. And I decided to write a story that featured me and my friends. We were in a war I guess. That was the deal of it. From what I remember specifically, we were all sleeping in our tent or whatever and there was a missile coming. And I told everyone we got to get out of here. And we got out of there.

Mike and Matt: [laughter]

Tim: And the day was saved.

Mike and Matt: [laughter]

Tim: But I don’t know who sent the missile. I only knew it was coming. And we left the tent and we were saved and I guess the war was over.

Matt: Well, we missed them. End of the war. That’s fantastic. So were you a kid who wrote stories when you were younger?

Tim: No. I don’t remember much of it. I just remember wanting to write. In sixth grade we had to write stories to go to this young authors competition and I completely ripped off The Gingerbread Man. It was The Bubblegum Man. He eventually ended up melting or somehow got stuck. I don’t remember. But my teacher said, We’ll send it to the state competition. I think that may have been the first conscious story that I wrote.

Matt: Did it win?

Tim: Oh, no. It did not win. For the kids that did win, Ferris State’s undergraduate program would act out these kids’ stories and we sat there and watched the stories being acted out. Which was kind of cool. I’d hate doing it if I was an undergrad. But as a sixth grader it was like, Oh, they didn’t choose my story.

Mike: So there are no plans for a stage adaption of The Bubblegum Man?

Tim: No. I don’t even know where that story is anymore. I’ll have to find it just so my mother can pull it out next time I have a girlfriend home.

II. Welcome to Negaunee

It’s getting dark. The air is cold and no one particularly wants to go home. Tim says that the French onion soup at The Vierling—a restaurant-brewery and former gentlemen’s club—is life-changing so that’s our next stop.

Matt: You’re from downstate Michigan. Was that a big move at all? Coming to Marquette?

Tim: I guess because I had a brother up here, it wasn’t that big a deal. When I was in high school I made the trip up a couple of times and it’s a really long drive. Six hours. Honestly, it took me about five years to get used to it up here. And now I live in Negaunee [a small town fifteen minutes outside of Marquette].

Mike: You’ve said before that the move to Negaunee was the best decision you ever made?

Tim: That was sarcastic. The first day that I was about to move into my new apartment, there are two locks on my door and I didn’t lock the deadbolt because the door is warped to the point where the deadbolt doesn’t really work. So, I just leave the door locked. Turns out the door didn’t latch. So, the door was left open. I had some of my stuff moved in before and I’m coming back with a box of stuff and there’s this neighbor kid just in my apartment.

Matt: Just in the apartment?

Tim: Yeah. I barely had anything moved in at that point, but I came back and he was just there.

Matt: How old was this kid?

Tim: I don’t know. Old enough to know better than just going into someone’s apartment.

Mike: You have an age range for him?

Tim: Probably around thirteen. Again, I didn’t really have anything in the house. Some books, clothes and my kitchen stuff. If he took my KitchenAid I probably would have called the cops. But he was just looking around. I mean, it’s Negaunee. It wasn’t school time. He was probably bored as hell. I get it.

Matt: So, when you opened the door—did he have a deer-in-the-headlights reaction?

Tim: I opened the door and I knew someone was in there because I could hear him, but I also knew they were doing maintenance. I thought it was weird that they were still around. But, no, it’s just this weird, little twitchy kid running to my backyard door. To escape. I was like, What is this? And he was like, The door was open. And I was like, What is this? He didn’t even answer. He just opened the patio door—which is hard to open, so he’s struggling with that—and he finally makes it to the patio and he just jumps off the patio and bushed it. Am I allowed to draw on this? Just to give an idea?

This is my apartment. This is where you walk in. There’s other stuff here that’s not important. This is where my precious KitchenAid is. When I walk in I’m just standing here—and here’s the patio door.

Mike: Wait. [Hands Tim a pen and napkin] Draw yourself.

Tim: [Drawing] Here’s me: the X. Here’s my neighbor’s apartment, the kid’s apartment, across the hall. So, he runs, jumps off the patio and I’m still standing in my doorway, trying to process what just happened, and he just kind of loops around and comes into the front door… While I’m still standing right here. He just bolts into his apartment, and I’m like, Okay, this is my first day.

Matt: Welcome to Negaunee.

Tim: I just let it go in the end. I’ve run into that kid four or five times since I’ve moved in and he’s still ashamed. Poor kid. He wasn’t doing anything malicious. He was just bored as hell in Negaunee. The closest thing is the Super-One and it’s about an hour walk. And he doesn’t lace up his shoes so I imagine walking is a problem.

That was my first day in Negaunee and I haven’t had a good day since.

Mike: Have you been able to cultivate a writer’s lair in that apartment?

Tim: No. I’m more or less distracted by the unmanageable mildew. It’s kind of hard to write with that. However, I do read better there.

Matt: You write mostly in the office then?

Tim: Yeah. I do a little editing at home, but most of my stuff is done at the Passages office.

Mike: Desk writer or other?

Tim: The couch is kind of hard to write on. Too comfy. I guess I sit at my desk with my legs up, laptop on my lap. It will probably give me testicular cancer. That’s the least of my worries right now.

III. Forgivable Unforgivables

The soup is indeed fantastic. Reenergized after dinner, we decide to finish the night with a beer at the Ore Dock Brewing Company. Entering the busy second-floor space we become conscious that we stand out in the crowd.

“This is a wedding reception,” Tim realizes slowly. “This is, oh Lord, this is Angie’s wedding reception.”

Angie works in the English Department office. She had invited us all to her reception but everyone present can tell by the way we are dressed and the surprised looks on our faces that we have completely forgotten.

Tim leads the way over to the newlyweds and gives them his congratulations before we slink back out to the street.

“Okay, we’ve crashed a wedding. Where to next?”

Matt and I look at one another.

“Ah, I know,” says Tim. “It’s one of my favorite places in town.”    

The upstairs lounge at the Landmark Inn affords a stunning view of Marquette’s Lower Harbor and the city lights.       

“It’s great up here because not many people know about it, so you’ll usually have the place to yourself,” Tim says. “Keep it a secret.”

Mike: What do you look for in a Passages submission?

Tim: What do I look for? Coherency. Ha. This is the worst answer I can give in terms of a reader but if I feel like I’m not reading something or I’m just kind of taking it in then that’s a pretty good sign that’s something we need to publish.

The old system used to be if I get so excited about a piece that I have to go pee then it’s a definite yes. That’s the old system. But I haven’t had that experience in a while so I’ve maybe moved on. Not that we don’t get good stuff.

Mike: Are there any literary tropes that especially make you cringe when you see them?

Tim: Writers who write about writing. Writers whose narrator is a writer who is writing about not being able to write. Or writing so well.

Mike and Matt: [laughter]

Tim: There’s different variations. I’m such a terrible writer! And then you got the writers that are like, I’m such a good writer! And fuck you! Here’s my story!

Matt: Can you tell after reading the first page of a submission whether or not it will be a no?

Tim: First paragraph usually. There’s a lot of clichés everyone is using now. If I had more time I might start a checklist in terms of first page drafts that will never make it beyond the first page by, I don’t know, using the world actually. Try to avoid that one. Don’t say cunt in the first paragraph or the first sentence. I usually won’t get beyond that.

Matt: There should be a whole craft book about that.

Tim: There should. And the first entry is don’t use the word cunt in the first paragraph. I don’t know, you read so many submissions that after a while you have a hard time telling them apart.

Matt: Exactly, so how do you know what stands out? If you are reading a whole bunch of these and they all seem to be doing the same sort of things…

Tim: Voice. It’s always voice. If you’ve got a narrator who has got a personality and who reads like a real person, that’s a pretty good indication that’s a real writer, usually a writer that’s in touch with himself or herself. It’s true. We get these stories and you email the author and you get the email back from them and they are basically writing to you in the voice of that narrator. That’s the problem is that many people are just trying to write and they’re not telling their story through themselves.

There are lots of problems. Font is a big one.

Matt: They are just indicators that this person has never…

Tim: Like chiller font in the title. That’s stuff you do in high school and feel really cool about because you just discovered fonts. You were straight out of your first day looking through fonts and you come across chiller and get a hard on for it.

Matt: Do you just read fiction?

Tim: No, I go through the nonfiction too. I try poetry but it’s not for me. It’s not for anybody. It’s not even for poets. I don’t know how they do this. I think they just take a stack and throw it up in the air and just pick one off the ground and call it good.

Matt: Sitting in the poetry meeting was the best thing I’ve ever done.

Tim: I don’t like the way they do it. They’re so confident now of what is bad that you’d think they should take a little more time. They have their unforgivables mapped out and I guess it’s really easy for them to see how quickly these things come through. But whatever they’re doing it’s working. I think at the end of every meeting they have four or five to give off to Bev [Beverly Matherne] and Bev always comes back with two or three exceptions. And that’s rare. Rare for them to be so in tune with what Bev is looking for, it’s the most efficient I’ve ever seen the poets since Lisa [previous editor] was doing it on her own.

Mike: Do you think voice is the key to occasionally making the unforgivable forgivable?

Tim: I don’t know.

Mike: Like if you have a strong voice can you be a writer writing about writing well?

Tim: I haven’t seen it come through yet but you got these books, these novelists who are doing it, and I’m kind of getting tired of that too, because I just read Love Me, Garrison Keillor. It’s kind of like the anti-novelists novel. He writes this fantastic novel, gets invited to go to the New Yorker, and then can’t write a sentence afterwards and ends up writing advice columns. But that’s forgivable. Mostly because it’s Garrison Keillor and I can read it in his voice. He could read me the phone book and I would think it’s fantastic. That man is the perfect definition of forgiving the unforgivables. He does so much wrong and I don’t care.

Matt and Mike: [laughter]

Matt: Who are your people? Who are the writers you turn to? Either now or when you started.

Tim: David Feherty is a good example of forgiving the unforgivable. He is the golf commentator, the Irish guy on CBS sports. He wrote a column every month for Golf Magazine where he was just this Irish guy talking about golf and being hilarious.

I just got into Junot Diaz a couple years ago. I think everything he’s done that I have read has been phenomenal. Even—speaking of forgivable unforgivables—the Oscar Wao book. The whole first opening chapter is nothing but footnotes. But you read through it and it’s kind of boring but you don’t care. But then the book turns into something much different than that. So I’ve gotten into him a lot now. I still haven’t read his latest.

I’ve been trying to read Infinite Jest for years now. Can’t get past the first hundred pages but I want to. Reading him is like trying to get back on a running schedule. You stop running for like a year and your first time back you’re like, I’m going to do a mile in nine minutes. And you can’t do it. That’s what reading him is like. You’re diggin’ what you’re doing but, you know, you have other things to do. I haven’t cleaned the tub in a while. But I will get it eventually.

Mike: What’s the best book you’ve read all year? It doesn’t have to be anything new.

Tim: Books or short stories?

Mike: Either. Whatever jumps out.

Tim: Melissa Goodrich. I’ve been trying to solicit her for a while now. I read a piece of hers in Phoebe. She finally sent us a piece through Submittable and we didn’t get to it. She sent in on Friday and it was withdrawn on Sunday. Somebody else had taken it. It was this piece you could tell she was thinking about Breaking Bad. It’s a story about a guy who is smuggling angels to slaughter so they can sell them in supermarkets. It got withdrawn in three days and I didn’t get a chance to get to it. I would have accepted it right then. It was such a good story. She wrote it in the voice of a man. It was so damn convincing in the voice of a man. To see her get away with that is amazing. In the next ten years this woman is going to be up there with the best contemporary writers.

Brandon Davis Jennings. Everything I’ve come across by him has been gold. I have his chapbook, it’s fiction. His fiction is good but his nonfiction is phenomenal. I think he’s just finishing his PhD so he should have a book out soon and if he does I’ll grab it up.

IV. The Chinese Zodiac

Soon Matt, Tim, and I will head our separate ways outside the Landmark Inn. The walk home will be lonely but not too long. The warmth of drinks and company will wear off and I will be left thinking of the lofty goal of becoming a “real person,” of getting in touch with myself. But before we go:

Mike: Let’s talk about some of your projects that you’re working on. What are you writing right now?

Tim: My Master’s thesis.

Matt: Which is?

Tim: Words. In no logical order. My theme is escape. I don’t know if that is ironic or not.

Matt: Stories and not a novel?

Tim: No. I was thinking of doing a novella but that’s too hard. Now they’re just interlinking short stories. The piece I read last night [at the Graduate Writers Association reading], the girl from that shows up in another piece, they’re going to float by in another piece. It’s going to be all connected somehow. The thesis is there is an asteroid coming and it’s the end of the world and here’s the last couple years before everything gets destroyed and people just go on with their lives. I have to figure it out in a month. I’ve had two and a half years and now I’m just getting started.

Mike: How many stories do you have so far?

Tim: I don’t know. We have the rabbit piece, we’ve got the mantis piece, the horse piece–they’re all animal based.

Matt: Is this the Chinese Zodiac?

Tim: No. [laughs] I have maybe seven pieces. I have one I wrote last week that I have to revise. This one is in the style of a parody of a New Yorker profile. About advertising. About a religious group that the asteroid is coming and this stoner had a vision of Jesus coming to them as a surfer trying to go to cape Presidio out in California and meet them there. That’s how it ends. It’s about four thousands words right now and I need to add another five or six thousand to have it seem like a real New Yorker piece. Have it go on ungodly long.

Matt: What is the interest in animals?

Tim: I think it is just the way it came out. It was never intentional. I guess the first piece I wrote was the rabbit piece, which I wrote years ago, and is the first piece Matt [Frank] actually responded to. And then after that I just found weird things to obsess on. I forgot how I first heard that a praying mantis would eat its mate, which is just a random fact that everybody knows. I went into other weird facts.

Mike: What did you find out about praying mantis?

Tim: Well the reason they eat the heads of the mate is to get as much protein as possible but also so that the mate lasts longer and doesn’t try to get away. They’re good at evading bats. Their echolocation is so great they know where the bat is and stop dead in air to avoid them. They have good hearing in one ear. They can see a hundred yards fairly well.

Mike: Last question. One of your unofficial jobs, or maybe it is one of your official jobs, is making sure everyone in the department gets along with one another. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Tim: Not everyone has to like one another or get along with each other, but it’s more efficient when they do.

Mike: Any tricks for making that happen?

Tim: No. Desperately pleading. I think I say be the adult, please a lot. Just go with it. I don’t care. Or maybe: Just get it done.

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Photo by Robert Cook

Origin Stories

Ask any two poets how they became what they are – when they first realized they were going to devote themselves to the writing of poetry – and you’re likely to get two wholly different accounts of how they found themselves cast in the role. Poet origin stories are often full of implausibility, rife with coincidences and fortuitous circumstances spinning out of control. After all, there aren’t many people who calmly and coolly make the logical choice to embark upon a life as a poet! That’s why these true-life accounts are often every bit as bombastic, as sensational and spectacular, as the colorful origin stories you’re likely to find in comic books or the movies. It’s a little ridiculous, and ultimately amazing, that anyone at all ever ends up as a poet.

But the narrative of a person’s history is never quite so tidy as we might like. It’s impossible to trace things cleanly back to a single bolt of lightning that changed the course of our own human drama once we admit all the forces and decisions coalescing around us, “knowing how way leads on to way,” as Frost reminds us. Maybe that’s why I think it’s so important to reflect on our own beginnings as writers, to remember as much as we can of our origin stories, recognize and distill those residual energies so that we can keep learning from them. And I think it is important to share these early annals so that maybe all this collective wisdom can seep in and make things easier for those just starting out in the process of starting out. For me, it began like it did for Superman, with my world coming to an end.

It was already November, 1994 – dangerously close to the end of what I hoped was the penultimate semester of my undergraduate studies – when I found out that a class I needed in order to graduate wasn’t going to be offered in the spring. I’d started at the State University of New York at Brockport in the fall of 1992, convinced I was going to be a writer, of novels preferably, big ones with important themes that were full of important wisdom, that would be generous and humane and all encompassing.

And that was my path as I blasted through the semesters thanks to an accelerated program that helped me jump over general requirements and my own frenetic tendency to double up on classes, as well as the palpable and mounting pressures of my own life. I saw my future, perhaps melodramatically, as a hallway filled with doors slamming shut all around me. My high school girlfriend and I just had a daughter and we were both feeling a frantic drive to get out into the world, to somehow make a living, to be productive, to grow up. I was 20.

The class I needed in order to complete my degree requirements was an Advanced Fiction Workshop but the college was offering the Advanced Poetry Workshop instead. I hadn’t taken any Beginning, or even Intermediate, Poetry Workshop classes; in fact, except for a few rambling but lineated journal entries and a handful of haiku written as public school English class assignments, I had no real experience with poetry at all. My Introduction to Creative Writing class, which had a long unit on poetry, was one of the handful of Cs on my transcript; I had written stories instead of the required poems and got angry at the teacher for trying to smother my prosey ambitions. So I wasn’t expecting much when I petitioned William Heyen, the teacher of that Advanced Poetry Workshop, to let me in. In my memory, Bill looked at me, probably registering the way my body vibrated with the crash of expectation and deeply unsatisfying turmoil, and said “Sure, okay.”

Did I know Bill was a dedicated and prolific poet, a guy who had made it his life to chase and be chased by words? No. I’d learn that later, of course, as we struck up a valuable twenty-year (and counting…) friendship. I only saw him as a professor, a potential roadblock that had been lifted, and he followed his acquiescence with a disclaimer. “These people that’ll be in your class, they’ve been studying poetry for years. Are immersed in it. Have been reading it and writing it.” He paused to consider, then added, ”That might not matter, actually.” Still, he suggested that I devote my time to writing and reading poetry, as a way to catch up and even the playing field before class started in January. Since I haven’t stopped doing that, devoting myself to reading and considering and writing and living through my poetry, it’s tempting to cap the story there.

But this isn’t even close to the end of the story. Like Superman, I had found a way to rocket free of a dying planet, to shake free of a fiction degree that was never to be. I was reborn as a poet, and one who would graduate on time as well! My origin story, however, was just past its prologue and moving me forward to the real crisis. Because this isn’t about my transcript, and not about trying to graduate on time either (which I did, by the way – the first of many debts I owe to poetry). This is the story of how I found my first authentic voice as a poet, my real origin in poetry, which is the same thing as saying my first authentic voice as a human being.

My first poems – those that carried me through that initial poetry workshop and which continued for a few years after – were characterized by insistently stubborn attempts to write a type of poetry that wasn’t authentic to my experience or voice at all, counterfeit poetry manufactured in the basement of my darkened heart with whatever previously sanctioned materials I could lay my hands on. In the beginning, I was struggling to put words on paper, so I searched for models, not to copy outright (though I did some of that) but because it seemed to me that I could learn what a poem was by reading a lot of other poems, could understand what I was or was not allowed to do by assessing what had been done. I came easily under the spell of deep image, the lyric cycle of crisis and revelation, and started writing poems about owls swooping across great snowy fields, mystical recollections of riding horses through the mountains or scrub fields. Things that could never burst into flame or flower were always exploding in my poems. I changed my life in every line.

Really, I had never seen an owl, had never ridden a horse. Still, this was a fine use of my energies at the time. I continued writing these poems for years, learning from the process, but I kept on with them long after I perceived a fraudulent rift opening up. I graduated, then moved back to my hometown of Syracuse, New York, and worked full time at a comic book store. Then left to manage a record store. Then jumped ship again to work at a chain bookstore in a mall. I got married and bought a house. In my poems, I was some kind of wispy bearded savant, immaterial, watching the blossoms from a peach orchard slowly unfurl and then drift away on the breeze. In my life, I was saturated with pop culture, with unadorned and unrefined American feelings. I was a real person living in a corporeal body, not in the clouds or in a cave. A disconnect prevented me from writing poetry that was true to myself, poetry that was an authentic utterance instead of an uncomfortable synthetic amalgamation. Even as my marriage broke up and my life dipped into yet another of its periodic crisis cycles, I held onto the false face I had created, stoically reporting on the seasonal migration of geese, the texture of the bark on the trees which were, truthfully, nowhere to be seen.

It’s possible that I’m being a little harsh on myself. All of this was a crucially important apprentice period for me as a poet. I was learning the language and learning myself. And even my tightly controlled lines about the burning heads of dandelions were noticeable bending under the heft of the real loneliness and isolation I felt in my life.

But even if these early poems were fine as poems – and they weren’t, because no amount of craft and polish can transmute shallow imitations, degraded variations without heart – they weren’t my poems. They were crafted but not truly felt. They were artifacts, but they weren’t art. If they functioned at all, it was too obvious that the gears clicked together; they made only their own sounds instead of some much more luminous music.

Maybe if I’d read more widely, I wouldn’t have been lost in the woods for so long. But I picked up new poets the way I picked up new bands to listen to, by following the trail of influence and associations. So it was a tight little country I was mapping out. I was lucky in this process, though; since I worked in a bookstore, I could order in copies of anything I wanted, ostensibly for the shelf or for a fake customer named Mr. Bookman. The books would stack up in the back room, hidden away until I had a chance to read them on break.

Then, I found something that struck at me directly, though how I came to it, I don’t remember – maybe by following breadcrumb trail of lit journal bios leading me from one poet to another. One day I was sitting outside, at a picnic table set up just off the loading dock, and I read these lines from “Shopping with Bob Berwick,” a poem by Mark Halliday from his book Tasker Street:

We used to hit the mall those winter nights
to get away from grading quizzes (“Your work is improving,
keep at it!”) and thinking of women. Shoppingtown
was big and bright and the salesgirls had legs

hips, convexities; and chewed gum.

I still have tremendous fondness for this poem, and it was certainly a breakthrough moment for me. The discursive effects and narrative wizardry of the poem weren’t revolutionary and maybe I blushed a bit at the brash and uncomfortably honest voice of the speaker.

But the ostensible situation of the poem, walking around Shoppingtown Mall and feeling dissatisfied, resonated with me in a way that no other poem had before for the simple reason that I worked in the same mall – Shoppingtown! Not only did I also spend a lot of time wandering around, dissatisfied and in love with any life other than my own, but I did it in the same mall mentioned in the poem. It was right there, a thing in my own real life taking up space in a poem! No more deep heart’s core, no more crystalline canyons or azure passages.

It’s not really an overstatement to say that things changed from that point. Instead of daydreaming about frozen lakes in the murky wilderness at the top of the world, I looked out the front of my mall bookstore at all the customers and realized the poetry I ached to write was right in front of me, was all around me and always had been. It was the permission I needed, the smack in the face that woke me up to the possibilities of poetry.

And here’s the trick: it could have come from anywhere, from any number of poets or writers or artists who held onto their love of past masters while still situating themselves in the actual and vivid present of their own lives. But I’ve always been a little dense. It took something the approximate size and shape of America’s soft underbelly, all that greed and pampered privilege, a shopping mall air-conditioned for my convenience, to wake me up to the potentials of my own life.

Suddenly, the roads and neighborhoods seemed charged with a kind of transcendent possibility that wasn’t there before. Or, rather, it had been there all along and I was only now allowing myself to recognize it. I was so blinded by what I thought was the proper language and tone for poetry that I was deaf to the resonant lines my own life provided. You can only imagine what happened when I finally read through Hayden Carruth’s Asphalt Georgics, a book of poems that explored and inhabited and name-checked the landmarks of the sleepy suburban village bordering the neighborhood I grew up in!

Probably the first few poems I wrote under this spell were pretty bad, too self-conscious about dropping in street names and familiar locations. Maybe they fell flat under the sway of these new models, their overpowering voices. But I learned something that has proven more valuable to me than any technique I would learn when I finally, eventually, went to gradate school, first for my MFA and then for my PhD.

I flipped the script on the Superman origin story. Instead of winding up on some strange new world where I could flex my powers, writing poems hewn wholly from imagined scenarios and emotional tropes, I had in fact crash landed on my own planet, aware of it and alive to it for the first time.

Poetry restored to me a sensitivity to, and appreciation for, my own actual life, the surroundings and the emotions, the locations and the associations. And it helped me find my first authentic voice, my early true concerns and callings in language, which has been a boon both to my writing and my life. Because, for the first time, I understood how inextricable those things were. I saw the whole shape of what I was doing.

Nate Pritts is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Right Now More Than Ever, as well as several chapbooks including the recent Pattern Exhaustion and the forthcoming Life Event. He is also the Director and Founding Editor of H_NGM_N, an independent publishing house. Find out more at www.natepritts.com.

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Photo by Jennifer

Cicada, Snail Shell, Origin

I grew up with a wooden metronome, a ticking steeple on my teacher’s upright piano. It kept time in her living room where our lessons were held every Monday for the ten years between my eighth birthday and my high school graduation. Each week my teacher adjusted the metronome’s pendulum to set the tempo of my practice. Debussy. Mendelssohn. Gershwin. Mozart. And the metronome’s ticking, an elemental sound lodged in my memory. I could see the passage of time happening: its shifting pendulum, the slow lilt of a metal weight. Rhythm as visceral, the weight’s swinging a match for my own growing heart.

In this way, I knew that someday I would die.

***
In The Art of Time in Fiction, Joan Silber writes, “The sequence of any fiction is, by its nature, the path of time evaporating.” We read from beginning to end. We write an opening and work our way through to a natural end.

Like sheet music, fiction carries its own time signature.

Silber notes too, however, that there is something called fabulous time in literature: that which defies linearity, the narrative that “can approach time by going round and round” where “repetition is a way of anchoring ornate narrative, of suggesting a grid of order within an overspill,” a form of narration often associated with magic realism and experimental fiction.

Long after I left my piano lessons I’d lay in the dark of my childhood bedroom and imagine not only notes scrawled across treble and bass clefs and my fingers finding them on a keyboard but an entire expanse of numbers, if music was determined by mathematics. Keys and time signatures, the product of integers. Integers that were infinite, I knew, from my math classes at school. I lay in bed and imagined the sky beyond the roof and its wide swath of Midwestern stars and considered infinity, an entire universe that just kept stretching and pushing beyond the bounds of my small brain. A terrifying endlessness, one that kept me awake wondering where the edge of the universe even was, an overspill of stars and the faint points of constellations.

But there was something in that terror: possibility. The possibility that time signatures aren’t everything, that we know the earth’s rhythms innately beyond gridding and mathematics. The possibility that nothing ends.

***
My parents work in hearing science, their research devoted to the mechanisms of the ear. Alongside the terms of my piano practice, the staccatos and codas and glissandos, I knew the word cochlea as a child. The ossicles of the ear: three small bones that swam in Lucite on my nightstand, a paperweight brought home from my parents’ offices. Incus. Malleus. Stapes. Words I whispered to feel their sound in my mouth. And cochlea, the locus of auditory signal that detects rhythm and pulse: the snail-shelled labyrinth of the inner ear. Proof that conch shells aren’t needed to hear ocean waves, that our bodies are built to understand the earth’s lull.

***
In a craft talk at the 2014 Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Jill McCorkle discussed finding sounds of origin in the process of writing fiction. Quoting Seamus Heaney: Sing yourself to where the singing comes from. In discovering voice in writing, discover your primordial sounds: the sounds that first shaped who you are.

As I lay awake in my childhood bed imagining infinity and its mind-bending possibilities the drone of cicadas pressed against my window, the whine of August pushing through thick clouds and summer steam toward autumn. And down the hallway, beyond my closed bedroom door: the hum of the television, my parents still awake.

The panes of my window a permeable border, the television and the trees.

***
In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram makes the case that language, having once developed in sync with the natural world, has distanced itself from the earth through the written word and through channels of communication that do not reciprocate with non-human forms of life. Computers. Televisions. Cell phones. Even books. He calls not for an end to the written word but for language that connects with the natural patterns of the earth, “the practice of spinning stories that have the rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales that want to be told, again and again, sliding off the digital screen and slipping off the lettered page to inhabit these coastal forests, those desert canyons, those whispering grasslands and valleys and swamps.”

In Telling It Again and Again, Bruce Kawin makes a similar case for the origins of repetition in language, born not only of soundscapes but of the earth’s rhythms, of understanding ourselves within cycles that transcend linearity. He writes, “Primitive man learns from the periodic rebirth of the earth in spring that the pain of winter has no permanent effect, that the spring returns each year with its original vigor: that the destructive actions of time, in other words, are not permanent.” The cycles of the earth begin again and again, negating “the irreversibility of events – death, history, winter.”

Rhythm as landscape. Rhythm as beat, recurrence, wave. Rhythm as pulse. Rhythm as defiance, as destruction of linear time.

***
The television and the trees: two primordial sounds, at once human and not-human. My mode of communication the same as television, writing fiction a human-to-human pulse no different than the broadcast of 1980s television down the hallway.

But somewhere in the words, the featherweight of cicadas clinging to leaves.

***
My piano teacher and I worked through Beethoven, through Scott Joplin. We worked our way toward Bach’s fugues. Some of the most technically difficult pieces in piano notation, Bach’s numbered fugues are patterns of melody introduced and transfigured in variations across the composition. I learned how to introduce a melody with my right hand and repeat it again and again, at different paces and intervals, with my left. Permutations on theme, transposed across both hands on the keyboard: two voices played at once and at varying intervals, the same melody made new again. The metronome kept time atop the piano, a ticking weight to maintain my tempo. But the melody itself circled back, looping in rounds across the steady pace of the fugue.

Fugues exist in fiction as well. Kawin addresses the writer’s permutations on a theme in language wherein every “possible variation of a statement is given in the hope that one of the formulations may happen to correspond to the truth.” Rhythm as asymptote. Rhythm as movement. Rhythm as traveling forever toward truth, always unsayable. Kawin writes that “the drive to continue in this hopeless attempt at truth-saying is our only honorable activity within language. Its pain is our proper existential mode. So the attempt begins again, in another list, in another novel.” Rhythm as attempt: toward soundscape, toward speaking the earth’s unspeakability. Rhythm as permutation. Rhythm as fugue, a system of language circling back on its own mystery.

And rhythm as infinity: trying again, never reaching an end.

***
The rhythm of my writing process has lately been one of running my neighborhood streets. It is a dependable rhythm: Write. Run. Rinse. Repeat. There are other rhythms too: my shoes striking the pavement, the emergence of deer from the brush along my path, the return of goldfinches and bluebirds and hummingbirds in spring. How the days grow incrementally wider, the light long across the Midwestern summer. How the air thickens in August. How the sugar maples turn crimson in October. How the snow packs down beneath my sneakers in winter. And the necessary beat of my headphones across every season, a rhythm that keeps pace with my heartbeat.

Wu-Tang Clan. Eminem. Songs that form a new kind of metronome, a pulse, a beating back to primordial sound. Drives that insist upon themselves, that scream in every bass-lined beat we are alive, rhythms matched to nature’s soundscape. And this too: hip-hop, a modern form of the Bach fugue. Beats loop in permutation, loops that could continue forever if they wanted. Most rap songs simply fade rather than reaching a definitive end. Along the linear grid of a time signature and track, the beat loops back upon itself, a repeated melody whose end only comes when the artist fades the track.

A Tribe Called Quest. Dead Prez. Songs that match my fallible heart, a linearity beating toward an end, but also repeat again and again, contrapuntal and circling back, refuting the adamant march of time. Headphones and pavement. Cochlea. The wind through the trees, an indigo bunting alighting on a branch. A rhythm of drilled drumming and my own pulse, of light and fauna and blood.

***
Kawin writes of the body, “Most of us have been startled by our science teachers’ confident assertion that our cells are always dying and replacing themselves, so that every six or eight years we entirely change bodies. We are a new set of cells every time, begun from protoplasmic scratch, yet we maintain identity. Our existence is dependent not on that earlier set of cells, but on the present grouping. We are our own repetitions.”

As repetitions, we write in language: a system of logic. Our brains make sense of sensation by structure. Time signatures. Mathematics. Sentences, neatly formed. We speak the syllables of reason. We place a grid across the unsayable, everything in this world beyond speaking that we attempt to name. Love. Wonder. Joy. Our own deaths. We write anyway. The cycle of the earth, a rhythm that preceded our ability to speak it.

***
At six months old, my niece dances to the piped-in music of a grocery store. My sister takes her shopping and the store’s speakers blare merengue down upon the canned goods and fresh produce. My niece’s little body sways in the grocery cart seat. She awaits language. She awaits any concept of time. But she knows before anything else the rhythm and orchestration of music, how it matches the cadence of her own body’s cells. She knows something innate about sound long before she’ll learn that music carries a time signature, before language allows her words like beginning and end.

***
And time: plot’s linearity. That sentences have a beginning, a middle, an end.

There is something in the pairing of writing and running, in my insistence upon this symbiotic schedule. Psychologists point to the concept of flow, that those who write and those who run are susceptible to losing themselves to time. That writing and running require situating oneself beyond linearity, in a timeless frame of mind.

Earl Sweatshirt. Mobb Deep. Beastie Boys. Drake. The only beats keeping something other than time, something fixed to the soft pattering of rain or the shuffle of a box turtle across the pavement. A$AP Rocky. Lil Wayne. Mos Def. Jay-Z. Or else the whispering of leaves in the faint Midwestern winds, the television and the trees. A fugue both human and beyond human, needing only the ear to hear it.

***
And to capture the unsayable: do I need to say it?

I am afraid of the end.

I write against a time without maples or the fluttering of fall leaves to the pavement my shoes pound, of a lack of soft rustlings in the underbrush, of deer emerging from the fields. Of a lack of primordial sound, my hands to the piano. My niece swaying to song. My family all inside, the soft hum of cicadas to the window.

Rhythm as recurrence, immortality. Rhythm as revolt.

***
I write my way back to an earth that knows itself beyond time signatures and authorial gridding, a land that abides by its own signature and the possibility that nothing moves in straight lines. A land of cycles. Of pulse. My own Midwestern heart. Rhythms of recurrence and return, of cadence beyond clock. What of these cicadas that know when to whine, when to crawl up from the cave of the earth? What of dog day cicadas, those that unearth themselves every August, or else those that push up from Missouri soil every fifteen or seventeen years and drone on for a stretch of weeks before dying back to their periodical return, a clock beyond time that they feel and I’ll never know? What of ruby-throated hummingbirds, the only kind that grace the Midwest, how they know when and how to cross the Gulf of Mexico every spring in a single, wing-beaten burst? What of the pulse of strong winds that whistle through a hickory’s leaves and how they sometimes form funnels that spiral down from the sky? What of autumn, the last of the leaves, how red-breasted robins know when to go?

***
I am so many bodies apart from a small child awake in a bedroom, from the pulse of a wooden metronome and the lilt of cicadas beyond a window. But sometimes I leave the television on in the other room as I write sentences that circle back on themselves, a quiet hum behind a closed door. Sometimes I am still safe in my bed, the ceiling nothing more than a roof that keeps from view an infinite span of stars, my parents forever in the living room down the hall as I sleep.

Anne Valente’s first short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names, releases from Dzanc Books in October 2014. She is also the author of the fiction chapbook, An Elegy for Mathematics. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming in One Story, Ninth Letter, Hayden’s Ferry Review and The Normal School, among others, and her essays appear in The Believer and The Washington Post.

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little venn diagrams

Photo by Steve Hanna

The Essayist Stutters, Stops, Starts, Goes

There’s an image making its round on social media of a Venn diagram with a circle labeled “Absolute Narcissism” and a circle labeled “Crippling Self-Doubt.” The area where they cross is labeled “ART.” (Note: I have searched for the source of this image, with no luck. If you made it, let me know.)

It’s making the rounds because a lot of artists and writers get it.

I get it.

As an essayist, I have to contend with these dueling voices in my mind that say on the one hand, “I must tell the world this amazing thought I just had!” and on the other, “Who the hell do you think you are, that they’d care?” But I don’t think those are the only voices that I need to write a good essay. There is a chorus of voices I hear when I sit down to write. And I don’t think my needs or experiences in this regard are unique. What I’m proposing, is that this diagram needs more circles.

***

The essayist must be over-sensitive—and not just emotionally, although essayists tend to feel deeply (see the remaining circles). They must be able to recall and recreate all five senses for a readership that has maybe never tasted an oyster stew (“mildly potent, quietly sustaining, warm as love and welcomer in winter” – MFK Fisher) or fresh white truffle (“like that of bird peppers or venison” – Gary Paul Nabhan); or heard a dawn chorus in fall in Wisconsin (“the invisible hermit thrush pouring silver chords from impenetrable shadows; the soaring crane trumpeting form behind a cloud; the prairie chicken booming from the mists of nowhere; the quail’s Ave Maria” – Aldo Leopold). The essayist must be able to tell readers what the streets of New York look like in winter (“Last night hangs heavy in the morning sky” – Colson Whitehead), or what the upper Mississippi banks look like in summer (“cleared patches in the woods littered with malt-liquor cans and fast-food wrappers, hobo camps with the musty wild smell of an animal’s den” – Matt Power). Neither the narcissist voice, nor the doubter, could remember just exactly what the Utah desert smells like after rain, and how different that is from the bouquet of a Parisian subway station after rain.

Despite the horror and hopelessness (see below) that moves through the world, the essayist must have, even if it is well-buried under the most convincing costume of misanthropy, a deep and abiding love of humanity. Essayists set up beacons, send down ladders. They hold the belay rope, the flashlight, and sometimes even the first-aid kit. The best writers listen for humanity’s heartbeat, and write out the beat of it—sometimes in their own blood, and sometimes to a tune hard to follow, but with a listener in mind.

When Aleksandar Hemon loses his baby daughter to a swift and rare cancer, he says, “One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling—that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation.”

When Ross Gay contemplates the systemic, toxic racism at work in America, he calls for mercy. Without mercy, he asserts, “we will remain phantoms – and, as it turns out, it’s hard for phantoms to care for one another, let alone love one another.”

Lidia Yuknovitch says that if she could go back in time and talk to her younger self,

I’d coach myself. I’d be the woman who taught me how to stand up, how to want things, how to ask for them. I’d be the woman who says, your mind, your imagination, they are everything. Look how beautiful. You deserve to sit at the table. The radiance falls on all of us.

Even one of nonfiction’s well-known curmudgeons, Edward Abbey, meant for the essays in Down the River to serve as “antidotes to despair,” believing as he did, that despair led to “boredom, electronic games, computer hacking, poetry and other bad habits.” Even a stalwart cynic must acknowledge that Abbey’s despair was between him and the desert. He speaks of saving us from our own.

Lia Purpura has “seen how easily we open, our skin not at all the boundary we’re convinced of as we bump into each other, excuse ourselves.” Cheryl Strayed knows that “healing is a small and ordinary and very burnt thing.”

These are real bodies straining across the chasm saying, Here, take my hand.

They essayist is burdened with the need to look, and the privilege to look away. This is the voice of the witness. The voice who says, watch and then, tell.

Sometimes, the looking is uncomfortable; sometimes it is dangerous. Bill Buford spends some time Among the Thugs; John Jeremiah Sullivan goes to a Christian music festival; Susan Orlean watches bullfights—so that we don’t have to. Essayists confront the singular and multitudinous horrors of humanity and life on this spinning rock in space. Essayists document war, abuse, and losses that would be unimaginable but for their words.

But life isn’t just a string of tragedies, enacted at different scales. The nonfiction writer, too, sees the saved child, the triumphs over adversity, the sapling pushing up through cracked concrete.

When Diane Ackerman drives up the Northern California coastline, she stops for a moment near Big Sur just long enough to find a metaphor in a roadside evergreen.

A Monterey pine leans out over the Pacific, making a ledge for the sunset. The pummeling gales have strangled its twigs and branches on the upwind side, and it looks like a shaggy black finger pointing out to sea. People pull up in cars, get out, stand and stare. Nothing need be said.

Mark Twain once stood on the very rim of Kilauea. He wrote about it for the Sacramento Daily Union during a time when travel to Hawaii was impossible for most Americans.

The greater part of the vast floor of the desert under us was as black as ink, and apparently smooth and level; but over a mile square of it was ringed and streaked and striped with a thousand branching streams of liquid and gorgeously brilliant fire! It looked like a colossal railroad map of the State of Massachusetts done in chain lightning on a midnight sky. Imagine it – imagine a coal-black sky shivered into a tangled network of angry fire!

But the witness also walks away. He is Ishmael, escaped to tell the tale. Except in rare cases, such as diaries and letters, the reader does not have to worry whether or not the narrator of a work of nonfiction lives through the essay. After the last page, none of us may be safe, but within an essay, the writer lives, though all the rest might perish.

More and more, there are important conversations happening about how the witness can and should find a way to unpack that privilege and acknowledge it. When Sydney Schanberg says good bye Dith Pran, he does so with the burden of his own impending escape from the Khmer Rouge. “He saved my life and now I cannot protect him.” But his burden is also his freedom.

The essayist must live with the horrors she’s witnessed, and speak them. She must know, deeply, the readers she’s hoping to reach. And she must find a way to envelop those readers in a complete world of her own recollection. That takes more than a blend of narcissism and doubt, it takes hope.

I do not send these words out into a void. I send them to an Other. And I must hold some sense of hope that just as the act of writing will change me, so the act of reading what I have written will invite change.

I’m hoping of course for a lovely letter from an editor, ideally from a paying market. I’m hoping for a congratulatory note from the judges. I’m hoping that the journal wants my essay and that the press wants my book. I’m hoping to hear from a reader that what I wrote moved him. But if I’m being honest with myself, this is the hope of the narcissist. And the converse fears of silence are the fears of the doubter.

At the heart of the act itself, I write to cultivate my own clarity, my own empathy and my own growth—but when I send that writing out into the world, it is not just an act of narcissism. It’s also the ultimate show of optimism.

I don’t mean to suggest that every essayist is an optimist. Far from it. But that there is an inherent optimism in choosing to devote a large part of one’s life to writing. And this isn’t just the optimism of tenure or a New York Times best seller.

Joy Williams, for example, is rarely “sunny” in her collection, Ill Nature. But in the last line, she reaches beyond her condemnations of human folly to assert that “The writer writes to serve—hopelessly he writes in the hope that he might serve—not himself and not others, but that great cold elemental grace that knows us.”

When Annie Dillard is asked by a reader who might teach her to write, Dillard replies,

…the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you to write.

That writing itself might be a kind of alchemical process, and that some cold, elemental grace might teach me, might change me from possibility to probability, that is the voice of optimism that a writer, or any artist, needs to make ART from her desires.

Chelsea Biondolillo’s prose has appeared in GuernicaBrevityRiver TeethShenandoahHayden’s Ferry ReviewDIAGRAM, and others. She has an MFA from the University of Wyoming in creative writing and environmental studies, and is currently the 2014-15 Olive B. O’Connor nonfiction fellow at Colgate University. She can be found online at http://about.me/chelseabiondolillo and http://roamingcowgirl.com/.

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Barcelona Sky

Photo by Andrew E. Larsen

Barcelona—In flagrante delicto

1. You plan to write a novel called Barcelona. The idea comes late at night while you’re listening to a Rufus Wainwright song. The song seems to be about a man who goes to Barcelona to die. You’ve been to the city, and you’re moved by the idea of death juxtaposed with the warmth and beauty of this Spanish metropolis. You picture a middle-aged man in a suit with a cape, haunting its corridors late at night. You listen to the song over and over. “Crazy me don’t think there’s pain/in Barcelona.” You can hardly sleep, excited by the idea. 2. You begin with: “A thin man, who has come to choose this city for no other reason than that its name radiates warmth, emerged from the underground into Las Ramblas, the bright nighttime sheen of this celebratory street suspended momentarily by rainfall.” You like the alliteration. The sentence rolls off your tongue. It’s a good opening, one you think will grab a reader’s interest. You continue plugging along with the first chapter, but it’s this first line that sticks in your mind. Already, you’re dreaming of critical raves, movie deals, who’ll direct or be cast to play your characters. Scorsese. He likes music. He could take an interest. But you can’t imagine the actor. Your character is middle-age, and Hollywood likes young actors. Maybe a stage actor, though you don’t know any stage actors, so it sullies the fantasy. 3. Still, you’re getting ahead of yourself. Writing your book is the first order of business, and you’ve only figured out the opening. That thin man, who is he? You aren’t sure. You go back to the song, the novel’s spark. The song is by Rufus Wainwright, and Rufus Wainwright is gay, so you make the character gay. He’s a gay man who’s gone to Barcelona to die. So he’s dying of AIDS. But no, that’s trite. A gay man dying of AIDS. Yet, maybe you can do something new with it, play with conventions, subvert stereotypes. But if you’re not gay, can you write a gay character? Write what you know. That’s what writing teachers say. But your life is ordinary. The last thing you want is to write about yourself. 4. “…who has come to choose this city…” Why don’t you just say, “who chose”? It’s more concise. You revise. “A thin man, who has come to choose chose this city for no other reason than that its name radiates warmth, emerged from the underground into Las Ramblas…” Then you keep the rest. You still like the nighttime celebratory sheen part of it. It sounds lyrical when read aloud. Sonorous. 5. Your new girlfriend Maggie knows you’re a writer, and she’s supportive. She works in the same bookstore as your roommate, buys you books with her employee discount, and listens to you ramble as you work out the novel’s story. Being a writer isn’t the first thing you broadcast when you meet people, but friends know it’s your dream. A writer writes, and you don’t need to posture like you’re a writer since you’re doing it. You sit at your desk each night and type, and acting a certain way to let people know you’re a writer would be pretentious. Then again, you worry it’s pretentious to worry about pretention, and you worry that worrying interferes with writing. It’s going slow now. The first chapter was easy. The second lacks focus. You’ve created a character, but who is he and what does he want? 6. Character sketch: Mephisto—the thin man; haunted by his past; adopts pseudonym from Faust to hide identity; no real name (e.g., Dostoevsky’s underground man); formerly an opera singer of some notoriety who never achieved the fame he strove for; feels he has no control over anything but the setting of his death; wanders and observes and meets people; has brief interactions that invoke reflections on how he got here (e.g., Mann’s Death in Venice). 7. Epigraph: “The experiences of a man who lives alone and in silence are both vaguer and more penetrating than those of people in society; his thoughts are heavier, more odd, and touched always with melancholy. Images and observations which could easily be disposed of by a glance, a smile, an exchange of opinion, will occupy him unbearably, sink into the silence, grow full of meaning, become life, adventure, emotion. Loneliness brings forth what is original, daringly and shockingly beautiful: the poetic.” [Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, trans. Kenneth Burke (New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 1970), 18.] 8. What an awesome epigraph! 9. You met Maggie in the bookstore while visiting your roommate. You walked by the counter and noticed this pixie of a girl with big brown eyes, a hipster fairytale princess. She looks likes Michelle Williams crossed with a younger version of Dianne Wiest, circa Hannah and Her Sisters. “Who’s that?” you asked your roommate. “That’s Maggie,” she said. “All the guys want to know about her.” 10.Am I a writer?” 11. For the past year, you’ve been working part-time as a proofreader for a medical publisher—irregular hours and no benefits. You make enough to cover meals and rent, but not much more. It isn’t that you aren’t trying for full-time work. You’ve been going on interviews, but the economy’s bad, and there’s competition from other new graduates. You worry a downturn might reduce your meager pay to the point where you can’t keep up with rent. Each time you go for an interview and don’t get the job, you feel worthless, like you’ll never find your place in the world. You also worry about what you’ll do if you get sick without insurance. Each passage you proofread illuminates some new affliction you might suffer from—cancers and brain diseases. You check for discolored moles and lumps on your testicles, and panic each time your heart beats a bit weird. You worry any moment you could die of an aneurysm, and writing this novel is the only thing that keeps you grounded, makes you feel your life has purpose. 12. For research, you study Stonewall, the riots, marches. You read about the beginning of AIDS, Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On. You watch documentaries on the disease. You meet an older gay man in your neighborhood who lived through this and interview him. Then you see Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and you’re both riveted and devastated. It’s exactly what you want to write. You need to rethink things. If it can’t be this amazing, it has to be different, cover new ground. Your hopes are diminished. You know you’ll never have that kind of ownership over the material. Still, you won’t give up. You’re too invested to abandon the project despite these reservations. 13. Of all the guys who ask about Maggie, you’re the one she ends up with. It happened over the Christmas Holiday. Maggie’s from Florida but couldn’t get off work to fly home, so your roommate invited her to stay at your apartment. She got sick with the flu and you took care of her—made her food, ran to the store for medicine. She started to stay on the spare sofa in your bedroom, and after she recovered, you kissed her. You’d spent all your time together that week, and she felt it too. On New Year’s, after going to a friend’s party, you and Maggie slept together for the first time. She was only the second girl you’d made love with, and it was wonderful, but afterward, she cried. She was concerned you’d lose interest now that you’d gotten what you wanted, but you held her and reassured her you wanted her, not just sex. You realized you love her, pictured waking up next to her every day for the rest of your life. 14. To go forward, you have to go back. You begin chapter two with Mephisto heading for Parc Güell where he encounters street musicians. Since his diagnosis, M. has given up on music, but the sound of singing takes him back. He’s a child in elementary school, auditioning for the choir. It’s a Catholic school, and a nun has each child sing alone. The boy discovers he has talent, or rather, the nun discovers this. He doesn’t think his mother will let him be in the choir, but the nun says she’ll try to convince her. He goes home and tiptoes around. He’s wondering if the nun called when his mother announces she’ll let him participate. He’s overjoyed. They have a yard, and the boy goes there and sings. He wonders what the nun heard, how it sounds to others. He isn’t sure, but he’s glad his voice makes people happy. The art gives him hope, purpose. 15. Wait. Is it cliché for M. to have a strict mother? Is it overdone? Does it point to nurture over nature as the reason for his sexuality? Will readers dismiss it, question its veracity? 16. You have another job interview—the first since you and Maggie started dating. It’s for a production assistant position with an academic publisher, and you get your suit on and practice answering questions. Still, you feel unprepared. They ask questions you don’t anticipate. “If you described your work habits in the form of an animal, what animal would you be and why?” You wonder if they expect you to take this question seriously. Would they have more respect for you if you laughed and called them out on how ridiculous it is? “I guess I’d have to say a hyena.” “Wow, we’ve never had a hyena before. Why?” “Well, at my current job, I scavenge for work. I have to walk around asking the editors if they have anything for me to do. Then I clean up other people’s messes, live off their scraps.” The two women glance at each other. You can tell you’re bombing. They don’t see you as a viable candidate but a psychopath. Hyena? Really? What were you thinking? When you get out, Maggie’s waiting with a bottle of Jameson. She gives you a card, inside of which she’s sketched a checklist. □ Got the job, woohoo! Let’s get drunk and celebrate.Didn’t get the job. Screw it! Let’s drown our sorrows in whiskey. You won’t find out until Friday, but you appreciate the gesture. It’s typical of Maggie’s sweetness. But even this gesture can’t erase the embarrassment of choosing hyena. 17. You don’t get the job. 18. You spent five days in Barcelona while studying abroad in college. It was mid-October but still warm enough for the beach, and starting chapter three, you have M. head to the sea where he’ll meet a young opera fan he connects with. You need to give him grounding in the city, someone to show him around, but mostly, you want to spend time at the beach, return to memories of when you were there. It seemed so easy then. You hopped a train with friends and went to different cities whenever classes let out for the weekend. You still consider it the best experience of your life, the one you reflect on when things get tough. You have M. see the things you saw—Sagrada Familia, Parc Güell, but for now, he’s at the beach, toes covered in sand, salt water washing up over his feet, respite from what ails him. 19. A week or two after the hyena interview, your boss at the medical publisher calls you into her office. “We’re going to have to cut back your hours.” Her voice is soft, there’s no conflict in the tone, but she seems nervous. “Anything over thirty is considered full-time, and yours is a part-time position.” The truth is, working full-speed only provides 15 hours of work but you stretch that to 32 and you’re worried they’ve discovered this. “So how much can I work?” “At most 25.” You start to calculate. 25×10=250×4=$1000/month. 30% for taxes. That’s $700. Rent’s $350, gas $30, electric $50, the transit pass you need to get to the office $75. On a good month, this leaves $195 for food, or just around $6.50/day. Plenty of people survive on less, but living paycheck-to-paycheck wreaks havoc on your nerves. Some weeks you can only eek out 15 hours. You go to your company’s website to confirm what she said and realize their real reason for cutting your time—policy requires they provide full-time employees with benefits. This infuriates you. You can’t wait to find regular employment and tell them what they can do with their Mickey Mouse bullshit. 20. “Not since Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange has the English language been simultaneously mauled and energized with such brilliance and such brio.” – Francine Prose, New York Times Book Review, Notable Book; “Read it, and you’ll feel altered, chastened—seared in the fire of something new.” – Washington Post; “Comedy and pathos are braided together with extraordinary skill in a haunting debut…riveting intensity and originality.” – (Starred) Kirkus Reviews. 21. Fuck that guy. 22. Maggie buys you Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated and you’re stuck on the first four pages. Not the first four pages of story, but the first four pages of blurbs. You’ve read critical blurbs before. But they’ve never bothered you this much. Maybe it’s because Foer is only two years older than you, and they’re talking about him like film critics talk about Orson Welles. Or maybe it’s because you only worked ten hours this week and have no cash to take Maggie out and this other guy from the bookstore has been flirting and moving in on her under the guise of “friendship.” Maybe it’s because you’ve had two canker sores this past month, and you’re worried it’s indicative of some greater issue you can’t get checked out because you don’t have health insurance. Or maybe it’s because your own writing on former-masterpiece-turned-jumbled-mess Barcelona has ground to a halt while you second, third, and fourth guess every choice you make. It doesn’t matter. You don’t stop to analyze. You just feel rage growing with each effusive endorsement of Foer’s talent. “It’s bullshit,” you say. Maggie’s in the room, listening to music, while you leaf through the gift. “It’s hype. You can’t really tell how good it is. You might decide you hate it, ‘cause everyone loves it. But then, if you love it, do you love it ‘cause you really love it, or do you love it ‘cause critics say you should?” You stand and pace. “I’d prefer to read it without these.” You rip the first four pages out, grab Maggie’s lighter from the desk, and set them ablaze. She stares, dumbfounded, as you hold the flaming bundle in your hand. It was impulse. You didn’t have a plan, and you zone out as the pages curl toward your fingers. You try to keep cool as you search for a place to stash them, shifting focus from the trashcan to the window. Maggie looks confused. It’s likely she’s wondering what set you off, why you’d react like this, if it’s her fault. You’re not sure if it hurts or scares her or both. But there isn’t time to reflect. You walk to the bathroom and drop the pages in the tub. 23. An hour later, you’re both laughing like this was a joke. You both know it wasn’t. 24. You write more of M.’s history, his first love, his first kiss with his best friend David and David’s subsequent rejection. From the literature, it seems archetypal to have this happen near water (i.e., Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room), since the boys are naked, glistening. At the summer’s end, he leaves for New York to study voice and meets a Chinese girl who’s studying opera too. They become friends and she pursues him. Hu-Tieh, you call her. It means Butterfly in Mandarin. And even though Puccini’s Butterfly was Japanese, you have them reenact parts of that tale. They go on a date to see opera at the Met. They make love, and though it’s pleasurable, it doesn’t feel right to M. He misses David, considers writing a letter but doesn’t. He meets one of Hu-Tieh’s friends, a boy who can sense M.’s true desires. He and the boy become involved. His sexual identity awakens just in time for the plague that hits that city in the early-80s, but he’s lucky enough to avoid it. By the late-90s he’s in love, in a monogamous relationship, but his lover betrays him, infects him. M. survives the war, only to fall in its aftermath. 25. Statistically speaking, the virus isn’t easy to contract. Around one million people in the U.S. have it. With a population of three hundred eleven million, that’s 0.7%. Of course, you can’t tell who has it without testing. But 0.7% makes your chances of contracting it slim-to-none, and they decrease further with condom use. To contract it, you’d have to be oblivious to how it spreads or a moron. So this makes you a moron. 26. By March, you and Maggie have stopped using protection. You’re not sure how you made this decision. One night, you got drunk and started fooling around. You slid inside her without protection, and she didn’t object. Now it’s a regular thing. You’re both guilty of negligence. You don’t talk about it. You’ve only had one lover and she’s had six. You’ve exchanged sexual histories, but you never ask if she’s been tested. You figure you love each other. If you’ve made a bad choice and end up infected, you’ll get through it together. But this isn’t likely, right? Statistically speaking… 27. You have your third canker sore in two months. You’re at a bar with a friend, and as you drink, you tongue it. The pain reminds you you’ve made a bad choice. You tell your friend: “I’ve had three canker sores in the past two months, man. What could it be? I mean, you think it’s an STD? I mean, it’s not AIDS, right? I mean, could I have AIDS?” “It’s either that or herpes, you filthy motherfucker.” 28. Are you becoming your character? Risking yourself to empathize? Did you stop using protection to put yourself in a position to identify with him? 29. You don’t actually know anything’s wrong, but you worry you might be dying regardless. You go back and forth. You have it, you don’t. You think of her six other lovers, one of whom you met, some grimy douche with a “Death or Glory” tattoo. You throw yourself into your novel to cope. If you’re going to die, you want to leave something behind. But nothing’s working there. The flashbacks are solid, but the parts that take place in Barcelona are flat. The characters he meets won’t come to life. Your descriptions of the city come off sounding more like a guidebook than skilled prose. It might as well take place anywhere. It might as well be chronological, but you’d lose the essence of reflection, your character’s creating meaning by examining past mistakes. You find yourself devoting more time to writing his past than his present, and your writing’s never better than when you write yourself into him—his first love affair; his insecurities about whether the other person loves him; his worries this person will betray him. He calls himself Mephisto because he’s lost control of his life. Mephisto plays the trickster in Faust, the puppet master; he controls the flow of the action. Your character wishes he could be like that. 30. In your downtime, you research the sores. Their exact cause is unknown. It could mean you’re using the wrong brand of toothpaste or have too much citric acid in your diet. Then again, it says stress is a major factor, but that wouldn’t apply to you now, would it? 31. Cold sores and cankers are separate afflictions. While cold sores are caused by herpes, cankers aren’t. Ergo, it isn’t herpes. 32. By summer, Maggie is spending more time with her coworker Dick than you’re comfortable with. It’s obvious he’s attracted to her, and if he weren’t living with his girlfriend of six years, you’re certain he’d make a move. You’re not sure how to react. You’d like it if Maggie recognized how much it bothers you, but she seems oblivious. “We’re just friends” she assures you whenever she comes home from the bar, tipsy and smelling of cigarettes, and you wonder if she’s really this naïve. Instead of saying, “Maggie, it bothers me,” you resort to mind games. When you have company over, everyone hangs out in your roommate’s room, and you retreat to your own to see if she follows, timing how long it takes her to come see what’s wrong. If you want to sleep with her and she’s not in the mood, you take it as a sign she doesn’t love you. And although you hate yourself for it, you sulk. When she asks what’s wrong, you shrug. You’re not enough of an ass to admit what’s upsetting you, but you’re enough of an ass to be an ass about it. 33. Novel? What novel? 34. Character sketch: Dick—32, ten years older than Maggie; lives with girlfriend K. who’s studying for a doctorate in Comparative Religion; collects action figures, comic books; hangs out in bars with kids in their early 20s; smokes; drinks despite diabetes; wears a chinstrap beard that looks like dirt because the hair won’t grow thick enough; wants to sleep with your girlfriend; takes the “nice guy” tack of lamenting how sad he is that he and K. are drifting apart; deserves a swift kick to the gonads (e.g., Tim Robbins’s ponytailed, patchouli-stinking interloper in High Fidelity). 35. Canker sores can also imply a compromised immune system. 36. You’re losing your shit, but you don’t explode until Maggie returns from a mid-summer trip to Florida. You meet her at the airport, take her luggage. She’s tan and beautiful and once you get back to your apartment, you make love. The separation has reinforced how much you care for her. You’ve saved to take her to dinner that night, but she tells you she promised Dick they’d hang out. “What the fuck!” you shout. She looks at you like she doesn’t understand the problem. “It’s a group thing,” she says. “We’ll all go out together.” But now you’re shouting like a lunatic. “You ever think your boyfriend might want to spend the night alone with you after he hasn’t seen you for a week?” “I’ll cancel,” she says. “No. Never mind.” Dick’s been hanging around, waiting for you to screw up, and you’ve finally obliged. 37. If she’s sleeping with Dick, she’d stop sleeping with you, right? She’d use protection? And what about Dick. Is he clean? Does he have his shots? 38. The end begins right as you land a new job. There’s an editor slot at the same company in the same department where you had your hyena interview. You don’t realize it’s unusual to apply a second time after they’ve turned you down once, and the two women who interviewed you before don’t recognize you. On one hand, this implies you’re not memorable. On the other, your rehearsed answers sound fresh. “If you described your work habits in the form of an animal, what animal would you be and why?” “I’d be a zoobidijoop.” “I’ve never heard of that. What’s a zoobidijoop?” “Don’t know. I made it up on the spot. I can think on my feet and improvise.” They glance at each other and smile and bring you in to see the president. “Haven’t I seen you before?” “I interviewed in May.” “Why would you come back a second time if I didn’t hire you the first.” You gamble. You’ve been cautious every interview, and it’s gotten you nowhere. You maintain confidence, look him in the eye, and say, “You made a mistake. I’ve giving you a chance to correct it.” 39. You start in September. You have health insurance from day one. You don’t have AIDS or herpes or any STDs. 40. Maggie mentions spending time apart. You recognize this has nothing to do with Dick and everything to do with your behavior. “Is it over?” you ask. “No, I just want to figure things out.” You take this as a sign you can win her back. Dick’s girlfriend K. is pregnant, so you think he’s out of the picture. Now that your health is clear and you’re making steady money, you can focus on her. She still stays at your place, though most nights she sleeps on the couch. You no longer lose control and burn the pages of books or fret over sores, but she still spends a lot of time with Dick. 41. When K. miscarries and Dick breaks up with her, you realize you and Maggie are done too. Dick can pursue her now without any qualms. You try to shame him: “Who would date a guy who breaks up with his girlfriend right after a miscarriage?” “They were drifting apart,” Maggie says. “Yeah, and we invaded Iraq ‘cause Saddam has WMDs.” 42. You were screwed from the get-go. You weren’t ready for love, not with her. When you hear they’re dating, you’re nauseated, depressed. You hit bottle hard, listen to sad-sack music. 43. Amidst the commotion, your novel got side-tracked. You pick it up again. You feel you know real hurt, true betrayal. You play the wounded lover, and infuse M. with all your frustrations. You blame yourself, you blame her. If she hadn’t spent all that time with Dick, if you’d felt more secure. The novel’s great, the novel’s bad. You’re not sure. You send the first chapters to your brother, hoping for approval. He recently come out as gay, and his sanction would help. He reads them and sends a critique. “It’s okay,” he says. “Some parts are good. But I’d change that first sentence. It doesn’t hold my interest.” You comb his words. You’re defeated, deflated. The novel’s bad and you should stop, focus your efforts elsewhere, begin again, pretend you’re someone new, somewhere else, starting your life over. 44. You decide to finish the novel anyway.

Jason M. Jones is a writer and editor from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared recently or are forthcoming in The Southeast Review and The Normal School. For more, please visit www.jasonmjones.net.

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