Category Archives: fiction

“You Hear Night Sounds,” a New Piece of Fiction, at The Rumpus



nightYou Hear Night Sounds,” my short fiction, has been published at The Rumpus. This piece is inspired by serial killer Joel Rifkin, who attended SUNY Brockport in the seventies.

Note: the piece is entirely fiction, and is only inspired by history, which means many liberties have been taken with details of the story.  While the story is speculative, that doesn’t mean certain elements of the story aren’t true. The characters in the story are fictionalized, the fabric of human emotion is real. I do not know Joel Rifkin, nor have I spoken to him or know his family.

Read it here:  You Hear Night Sounds

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The Intersection of Drawing and Writing and Living

photo (2)Last night, I drew a charcoal picture of what I meant to be my parents’ golden retriever, Buddy (with two eyes), before next Thursday, when a cancerous mass will be removed from his skull, along with one of his eyes.

I’ve just graduated with my MFA in fiction, and am writing a short story about a pedophile bicyclist, but was, after reading Adam Gopnik’s “Life Studies” early on at Goddard, compelled to buy a $5 charcoal set from a close-out store and since, have been drawing pictures that resemble animals and people, but in actuality, all feel like drafts of a story without a true epiphany, without heart or breath. I post these to Facebook and send them in text messages to my best friend because they feel like immediate gratification, as though in one glimpse, someone can see what clearly is a dog. Although perhaps too unpolished to illustrate the sadness Buddy can’t know exists when two eyes become one eye. Soon, he will see the world one-half at a time. The drawing was in-progress, in much the same way my fiction was, a father struggling to realize his fears for his son, who’s way closer in proximity to a pedophile than he’s comfortable with.

I talked through this charcoal drawing of Buddy last night while sitting next to my husband, Cory, who watched the sequel of “Taken,” a movie I couldn’t watch because I didn’t find it believable. How could members of one family be stolen two times? I asked him.

How do I know? Cory said.

It’s hard to draw something you know personally, I said. I can mess up a squirrel, or impose my own ideas of my mother’s face in a portrait of her from the 60s (because it’s not how I know her today), but Buddy’s nose, the fattest most bulbous blackest nose I’ve ever seen on a dog has to look both natural and true-to-Buddy-as-he-is-tonight and believable. I spent most of the two hours I drew Buddy just trying to get the shadows on Buddy’s face accurate enough to craft his nose as horrifying and endearing and entirely normal.

In 2008, my parents lost their first golden retriever, also named Buddy, suddenly, because of a mass that put pressure on his heart. And now, this Buddy, too, has a mass. My father and I chatted briefly on the phone last night, discussing how unfair and unbelievable it was that both Buddies could have such a fate. But life, it turns out, is not about what’s believable, though we hold art to a standard of making life somehow believable and sensible and controlled. Workshops discuss sequence and plot and structure as though life relies on this instinct–and perhaps because it doesn’t. Maybe it’s controlling fear that makes art worth the hours and thousands of dollars we spend on it.

Cory looked over and commented on the shadow and angles cast on Buddy. How his ear didn’t have the shading it should and how it didn’t follow his snout entirely.

Why is everything about angles and math? I asked.

He was right, and slowly, I erased the charcoal enough so that I could recognize Buddy in the drawing, and I said, Hi, Buddy, when his nose looked about right. I guess it’s really all about light and dark, I said, trying to oust math from the art. This morning, while continuing the pedophile story, the father materialized, petrified for his son, and at the same time damaged by his own experience with a pedophile, all while realizing that souls are souls and bodies are bodies. I hope, in the final draft, he captures how simple math and unbelievable life have the potential to wreck us.


Look in the Same Direction You’re Moving

Upon finishing an MFA, you’re surprised to discover that exactly what you thought would happen, actually does. It’s anticlimactic the same way that, at the end of this week, your teaching semester will end. Students will fall away to summer vacation, grades will post, and life will yawn out before you.

In Fiction Workshop, regarding a story set in a coin-operated porn booth, you say, “I’m sorry to ask this, but what is the climax in this piece?” After a few labored giggles, a student ventures a guess: “Is it when the main character flashes back to when his daughter was hit by a car?” and you discuss if a climax can happen in a flashback, and what does it mean for the story if it does? You don’t know what else to do but to care deeply–almost too deeply–about this.

After class, you and Sam feed the ducks bread that’s not yet stale, bread you could’ve turned into a peanut butter and jelly, but you birdlike the stretchy afternoons when you and your three-year-old dawdle down to the path of the Erie Canal and throw balled-up white bread at aggressive mallards. The two of you analyze the knobs of their heads for brown, looking for the mama ducks, but their babies haven’t hatched yet, so they’re at the nest, you tell Sam. Only the dads swim up.

Confess to your husband that, yes, you always suggest walking to the canal, and Sam’s always game for it, but once you near the bridge, which you know Sam takes entirely too long to cross (a childhood fear that you hope you conceal), you find yourself pulling him along, telling him, Come on, or You can’t stop in a cross walk, or Look in the same direction you’re moving, but inside, you completely understand how a person can be tied to what’s behind them.

Some of your students had been okay with a climax in flashback, but you were not. Then why not just tell the story of what happened in the flashback? you asked. Put more focus on the present scene, you said, sounding a lot like your MFA advisors.

Sammy doesn’t pull you ahead the way Johnny does.  Instead, you find yourself acting the part of child or the poor-mannered mutt. Why are you so eager to get a move on? There is no deadline. Your stories have been edited to the brim and wait for you to forget them so you can read them again and pick them apart like a vulture.

You and Sam sit on the stoop of Java Junction, a spot he’s chosen because there’s an ample pile of bird food surrounding the small tree just in front of the coffee shop and a legitimate aviary in its branches. Sam is happy to sit, watching the birds, so you humor him, taking a picture of him with your iPhone and watching the same car pass three times, its driver having completed a list of errands you no longer have.

Sammy loves birds. He knows the names of more birds than you do. In fact, this is true for all animals. When Sammy is in the bath, and you say, “If you dump that whale-ful of water out of the tub one more time…” he responds with, “Mom, it’s not a whale.”

You coerce him to leave the birds by promising to draw pictures of birds when you get home, but after dinner, when Johnny has come off the bus, and you have fed the boys cheese pizza, and then have promised to play outside, you will not have drawn a picture of a bird. Tomorrow, you think.

At 7, it’s nearly dusk, and you open and close the issue of The Writer that you’ve dog-eared on “Going Postal: A new book helps writers achieve success after an MFA” while trying to drink a coffee in the warm and fleeting spring sun amidst Sam, who is slow-going to understand the logistics of bike pedals, and John, who bikes dangerous circles around your house, so you give up. You crawl on all fours behind Sammy, who lets you cycle his legs until he gets the rhythm of the pedals, leaving your magazine on the porch to blow open in the wind you wish would go away.

The teenager next door, a sensitive thirteen year-old you only hope will stick close to your boys, calls the three of you over and points at what he thinks, at first, is a dead worm on the driveway. It’s too big to be a worm, he realizes.

“I think that’s its heart,” the teenager says.

“It looks scientific,” John says.

You and the teenager agree: it’s a baby bird.

When the three boys bury the bird, you help. You remember burying a bird you found in your childhood backyard not even a block away, and how you wrote about it years later.

Before the burial, Sam had reached slowly for the smushed bird, and you stopped him. He wasn’t sad, as you’d feared. It was a beautiful and gross thing–the colors like acrylics on the black pavement. And by the time you’d finish staring at it, Sam had given it a name.

 

 

 


10 Reasons You Fear Your Son Will Become a Writer

desk1. While you’re at residency in Vermont, your son tells his Kindergarten teacher that his sister died in the army. Your husband texts you a photo of the note Mrs. C sent home.  Primary colors don’t ease the word “died.”

You turn to your fellow writers, and say, “Oh no.  He’s going to be a liar.”

You imagine his future will become filled with therapy sessions, or his friends will abandon him when he lies about his favorite movie–or worse, his marriage will fail when he loses his job after his employer realizes he falsified the degree on his application.  Of course, you’d never say this out loud.

“Oh, a fiction-writer,” they say.

2.  At the age of three, your son tells you that before he was born, he was an old man who built houses.  There are whole descriptions of who he was before he was born– a gray hat, a red hammer–and then, he tells you how he died when the tornado came through.  

3. While you and your spouse discuss something boring in the kitchen–like the state of your finances or travel arrangements to Vermont, you catch just the tips of your son’s fingers peeking from behind the refrigerator.  When you call his name, he giggles.  Eavesdropping.  You wonder how he knows all your tricks.

4. When you were younger, you wrote stories about babysitters who went missing.  You read book after book of scary stories–or just a few books, over and over: Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Alfred Hitchcock’s Stories that Go Bump in the Night,  and Shirley Cox Husted’s Valley of the Ghosts.  And now your son proclaims, “I’m going to write a comic book–a scary chipmunk book!  I just need you to draw the cover and write all the words,” and you realize he means it.  He works on this book, which he turns into a solo venture, every day.  He talks about it fleetingly and sporadically, as though the story is always on his mind, “Oh! An idea!” he’ll say, or “I’ll put a volcano on the next page!”  He sits on the couch next to you with the book in his lap and the colored pencils at his side.  He is serious.  

5.  When he doesn’t know the truth, what reality is, the hard stuff that you’re thankful he doesn’t ask you about (well, not always, anyway), he makes it up.  When his school bus drives down the dead-end street in the afternoon, he tells the kids on his bus that his great-grandmother went to the High Street Cemetery to die.  A detail you steal for one of your stories.

6.  He spends hours writing words that make no sense, and you begin to wonder if he’s been watching you in the middle of the day at your keyboard.  He writes the letters K-B-I-V-A-P-W, and asks, “What does that spell?”  You could probably find that same word typed somewhere in your manuscript.

7.  When you drive by the house you moved from last fall, he recalls things about it you don’t remember–that once, he built a fort in the bathroom, and after you pass the house, his voice breaks and he says, “I really miss that house.  I’m sad.” It’s the kind of emotion whole novels are built on.

8.   In the summer, when you walk to Main Street for ice cream, he gives a tour of the town, relaying the setting in a  narrative history.  “This,” he says, gesturing toward the brick house on State Street, “is where a plane crashed and a boy died.”  He revels in details, and you make a note that he is always listening.

9.  While reading Dani Shapiro’s book Still Writing, you see your son’s face during her descriptions of a writer’s childhood.  How a curious child clings to the parts of life they don’t know (the scary, the threatening, the unknowable), and then mulls those parts over and over until that focus resides alongside memory and lived-life, and so the mind has somehow forged its own recollection.

10.  His nightmares–the kind of dreams a creative mind spins wildly while the dreamer should be resting.  His mind never stops.  When he wakes up, he narrates every movement that he’s slept.  He tells you his dreams as though he’s lived them, and there are times when he cries at their dark premises–his new friend turned into a lizard by a monster.  You tell him these things aren’t real, and when he calms down, with his head on your shoulder, you wonder what you can tell him that you know, for sure, is true.


On Writing Fiction from History, Place, and Depression

993526_10151673190772254_753025867_nThis week, The Missouri Review published an interview with me for their Working Writers Series on their website!

It’s sort of like when you watch those horror movies, and there’s the disclaimer at the beginning, “Inspired by true events.”  Every story I write begins with a piece of history I’ve researched extensively: either a setting, like a home for unwed mothers; or a conflict, like a boy who was drowned in the canal; or a character, like a woman who worked in a Quaker Maid canning factory; but then the stories take their own emotional bends.  The history is only the construct, really, and the emotional truths — which I sometimes struggle with capturing and sometimes takes drafts and drafts to do — are what actually make the stories come to life.”

Click here to read the rest.

 


On Research–Writing the Gaps in the History of Unwed Mothers

Our Lady of Victory Basilica

Our Lady of Victory Basilica (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Village of Brockport, where I live, is just an hour away from the site of Father Baker’s Home for Unwed Mothers in Lackawanna, NY.   For as close as I live to this building, I knew little about it when I began.

This became a topic of ongoing research for my newest story, a novella, which describes a 15-year-old’s experience in a home for unwed mothers during the late 1960s.

To say I’m not superstitious would be a lie, but I’m not superstitious when it comes to talking about a story while I’m writing it.  In fact, I think it’s a necessity.  It’s an important part of research–it’s part of the writer’s responsibility to gauge the many facets of the topic they write on.  At AWP, Bret Anthony Johnston said something about it being “irresponsible” to require a student to write a story and not also require that student to conduct research while writing that story.

For research, I read The Girls Who Went Away, by Ann Fessler, conducted interviews of my own, and dug up some news articles to get public perception on this phenomenon.  Young girls whisked away from their families during perhaps the most vulnerable time in their lives, only to have their own babies whisked away from them.

Part of this was the culture of the time.  Parents sent their pregnant daughters away to protect them.  Or to protect their families, which proved backwards and harrowing for the mothers.  As treacherous as society can be for marginalized groups today, the same went for unwed mothers in the 50s-60s.   I didn’t quite understand this on an emotional level, this sending away of daughters, but as a mother of two boys in 2013, I can only grasp it in a far-off, detached manner.  But that type of grasp is not the type of grasp a writer has to have, and it only worked until I actually started writing the scenes.

The problem was, these girls only knew part of their stories.  They knew what happened to them, but what happened that made this phenomenon possible?  Questions like, What did these babies cost?  Where did the money go?  And what they have all been asking since it happened, Why?  Why?  Why?

There are many shadows surrounding these homes, and I crept around in them–well, in the texts of them–while I researched.  There were articles by sources that felt not quite reputable, claiming the nuns “stole” the children.  And while this language is inflammatory and inciting, could it be true?  The level-headed part of me wants to know why this has not become a more investigated, legitimate issue, why I can’t find some source to give me information I can put stock in?

Anne Fessler’s oral history of this issue brought up many emotional questions on the part of the unwed mothers.  That helped quite a bit, but still, what happened as I was reading was exactly what happened as the birth mothers told their stories–the gaps frustrated the information.  Sure, what the mothers endured–the shame, the guilt, the work in the nurseries, the drugging so that they would sign their just-born for release–all presented fine, but both the mothers and the readers, on different levels, have gaps to fill.  This is, perhaps, the most gut-wrenching part of the story.  The unknowable.

Who were these nuns?  Have any stepped forward to tell their stories?  How were they instructed to coerce these women into adoption?  I’ve read few comments from nuns themselves, in old newspapers, and the potential for that has dwindled with time.  I’ve read vague articles commending the many existing institutions for their charity, but no oral history of the nuns who counseled these young women.   Maybe few of them felt they were in the business of “stealing” babies?  Or was it the culture that masked this?

That’s where writing comes in, in part.  I imagine who my character, Sister Josephine, was.   What if she wasn’t completely bound to the Catholic Charity’s mission?  What if Sister Josephine had a secret of her own?  Were there renegade sisters or nuns?  Likely.  Would they ever tell their stories?  Not likely.

So, for me, in this story, there is the writing–there is the voice to give.  What makes writing so hard–that these are potholes, the fallen bridges, the trap doors we fall into.


Writing Illness

English: Detail of plate 4, figure 4 of Pathol...

Pathological Anatomy: Illustrations of the Elementary Forms of Disease. Last fasciculi published in 1838. Depicts Multiple Sclerosis lesions before the disease had been described by Charcot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was the only one sobbing at Bellevue Literary Review‘s AWP panel.

Poet Hal Sirowitz, who writes honestly and humorously about his experience with Parkinson’s disease, had me crying.

He stood up at the podium with his wife and read in a deadpan voice, sometimes struggling to get out the end of the line.  His wife stood next to him and I didn’t know if it was to help him along with the reading, or to help him stand– or even if he needed or wanted any of these things.  But I guess in this case, needing and wanting really are two different things.  Sirowitz read poems, and it seemed planned that his wife would finish his lines or sometimes she started the lines and he would finish them.  His wife, composed, smiled at his humor.

I chose to sit near the front so I could quickly thank the poetry editor after for publishing my poem in their prior issue, but I ended up staring at the presenters, wiping snot from my upper lip, imagining that they looked at me strangely.  Mortified, I left immediately.

I’ve written two poems about Multiple Sclerosis.  I’ve written essays that I don’t really care for about the disease–essays that feel too self-deprecating or too self-pitying or too removed.  So, I try to work the disease in other ways.  When a peripheral character in a story needs a disease, I give them MS, and then I make them really tired all the time, or I make them walk with a cane, or I make them die.

What else should I do with these characters?  How should I write a protagonist, a mother, who has MS?  What else should be in her life besides her disease and her family?

Bellevue held another panel at AWP: “In Sickness and In Health: Literature at the Intersection of Medicine, Science, and the Arts,” where I teared up, but didn’t sob.

I took notes.

Sure, the title of the panel sounds clinical.  But that was the rub–how something so intensely personal like disease, something that makes itself so much a part of the body that we sometimes don’t even recognize we have it, can steal away the most human aspects of ourselves.  So much time in the panel was discussing how “medical-ese” takes the primal, human, messy parts of disease and sterilizes those parts into vocabulary terms that the patient can’t understand without a medical dictionary.

So I went to the human side when researching the history of MS for this novella.  I am determined to explore it in a way that lets me control its every appearance, though not my character’s.  I suppose that I should be an entirely different being from my character.

I read mostly archival news articles from the 40s through the 70s.  I wanted to know what the public knew about the disease then, to understand how little was understood.

From the Toledo Blade, June 12, 1947:  “Patients suffering from the ‘brutal’ and always fatal disease, multiple sclerosis, are getting an answer to their plea, ‘Why doesn’t someone do something about this disease?'”

I thought about this.  When I was diagnosed, my friend told me it was a “trendy” disease.  As much as I didn’t understand the diagnosis, I didn’t understand what my friend meant.  Benign?  Fashionable?  Cool?  Preferable?

I re-read the line: “brutal and always fatal.”  My great-uncle Tony had MS, and in his time, I wonder, was he devastated in ways I couldn’t know?  The disease isn’t thought of as “fatal” anymore.  Hardly even “brutal”–at least less-so–for people diagnosed today.  Though there are days I might describe it as “brutal” (certainly episodes of vertigo), I’d feel too guilty to use that term.  There are days I don’t feel diseased at all.

From reading his poetry, it’s clear Hal Sirowitz is living his disease–I imagine he feels the steady decline with every one of his senses.  I’m sure he can tell when disease is taking his life from him because he might find something he used to do that he can no longer do.  His poetry tracks disease, treats it as fact, but still prods at the unknowing, bravely looks it in the face.  Even if the face with that disease is his.

The most common word associated with MS in the old news articles is “mysterious.”  And I get that.  Doctors and scientists didn’t know what caused it, how to fix it, how people could be either unable to walk or walking just fine, or how–the scary part, still–to predict its course.  It is mysterious.

Dare I call it like I see it, how it presents itself in my life?  A nuisance?  A ghost?  A threat?

Even though some articles refer to it as “a crippler?”  Because sometimes, it is.

I’ll write into the mystery of it.   And it’s still a mystery to me how to do that…even as I finish this blog post that I wrote to make sense of writing and illness.  Of story and disease.

–a poignant essay by Rafael Campo, “Illness as Muse,” from Bellevue.