Category Archives: fiction

Dear Alice Munro,

Leisurely Summer Reading: Child's Play

Leisurely Summer Reading: Child’s Play (Photo credit: Madison Guy)

Dear Alice Munro,

The space you write within, the WWII and post WWII era, the train stations, the sanitariums, the surge of GI students to universities–is the world I’m finding to have preceded me.  At times, when I read a story of yours, for example, “Tell Me Yes or No,” or “How I Met My Husband,” I feel as though I’m researching, still, the history of Brockport.

You know, you are Alice Munro.  The last four pieces in your latest collection, Dear Life, are what you call “the closest thing to autobiographical,” as anything you’ve written.  I know this is both true and not.  But who’s going to argue with you?  You’re Alice Munro.  Did you ever think you would tear a reader’s life to shreds because when the text fades, there is no way to see the world as it was before?  When I finish reading your stories, I cannot get back inside, it’s like a life that’s already been lived.  The bald scalp after a relentless haircut.  The lower back after a pink kanji tattoo.  What’s done is done.  History, as Alice Munro has written it, has been.  Reading it a second time does no justice.  There are no do-overs.  Your stories, like all other stories, are not cats.  We all only have one life.

I’m writing you this blog post–which I’m sure you are waiting to read–because my mother-in-law told me to write a story about a little girl.  This will be the closest thing to autobiographical fiction I will ever write.  And I am no Alice Munro.  I am leaving behind, at least for this one story, your world of barnstorming planes and Quaker Maid factories that I have been squatting in for months.  The setting I write will be entirely my own era, but my life is not something made for fiction.  I only live in a world suitable for it.

It will be some sort of ghost story, and I don’t know, have you written a ghost story?  A real, true ghost story?  I will Google this when I finish your post. It is something I should know.

The world I enter now has factory-induced rain bubbling down the cuticle of Spring Street.  Soil that may or may not give a little girl MS.  The story will have a cast of Cold Storage workers on their way to and from shifts that seem to begin and end every minute.  The little girl will walk down a street with a car prowling next to her, its passenger will reach to pull at her skinny arm.  She will not run away.

I am sending this out into the blogosphere (an ugly word), where you will not see it.  If I were in your Canadian town with a copy in hand, I would place it under your Welcome Mat or tuck it behind the cover of a book you might check out of the library.

Sincerely.

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The Next Big Thing: Authors Tagging Authors

What’s better than being both compelled to, and compliant in, sharing your work as a writer?

A vintage ice cream truck

A vintage ice cream truck (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thank you, Lizz Schumer, Goddard Alum, for tagging me, linking me to your visceral writing that awes me and scares me at the same time.  I will tag two people to do this who are so alive with writing energy: Anne Panning, an award-winning writer of fiction, my writing mentor, and unofficial life-coach.  And also Sarah Freligh, whose poetry rips me away from myself, and whose Poetry Bootcamp rocks my world.

I’m lucky to have them in my writing community.

Writing, for most of us, the sitting at a keyboard, pecking away at keys and at our brains, is solitary–and almost looked down on for being solitary.  I love the solitary act of writing, but writing is not engaging unless the writer does some real work, investigates their presence in the world, becomes a private eye–not just to their own lives–but to the mysteries of the lives and places around us, what’s between the shingles and the dry wall.  To use a bit of my father’s love of the insulation world, to jump into the fiberglass and the cellulose until you’re itching in your sleep and you wake up with bleeding nail scrapes and hard scabs for picking.

So here it is: a way to propose what we plan to offer, a way to support writers whose work we admire and whose process we are curious of.

What is the working title of your book?

My project is a collection of short fiction based on news articles unearthed from archives in Brockport, NY, so I have an inkling that the title will arise from one of the stories that I am in the process of writing.  The title is important because it cannot alienate those who aren’t from Brockport.  These are stories inspired by a history that all towns have lived through.  It just so happens that I’m obsessed with examining Brockport as a way to explore the human condition, how a small-town university, a canal, a former center of industry, how all of these things unique to my own roots, creep into the world.  That said,  I’ve considered a couple–The Local Rag, From Where I am, but ehh, it probably won’t be either of these.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Wartime housewives, untethered college students, rogue pets, and barnstorming doctors wave up from the history of a town, each meeting, and often battling, life on their own terms–in grief, anger, tragedy, surprise and love.

How long did it take you to write?

It is still in the works, but as far as I’m concerned, this love of community and sense of place has been growing since I was child beneath the noontime siren of the village and the ding of the Skippy truck’s bell or the mesmerizing spill of the bubbled puddles that fell from rain outside of the Kleen Brite factory.  I can’t honestly say that I can separate any part of me from this project.  It is as much in my bones as marrow.  I linger extra long in Java Junction’s restroom to read the newspaper ads from The Brockport Republic that plaster its walls.  I nearly slept with a collection of local ghost stories called Valley of the Ghosts under my pillow when I was ten.  I refuse to leave SUNY Brockport, the college I attended for six years because I love earth beneath it.  I, admittedly, have spent hours researching the lives of strangers on Ancestry.com simply because they were “murdered” by a dog in Brockport’s Erie Canal in the 1930s.  So I guess that is how this all started, as an obsession that I finally realized.  These are the stories that inform my writing.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

See above.

But I have two little boys for whom I want to preserve every bit of their history–family, local, anything to do with where they come from–just for them.  I want to be sure that writing, which keeps me away from them physically and mentally, comes back to them to show how the people we love are not as bound up in place and time as we might think.

Also, my husband, who is just completely supportive and way more generous with patience (and I am ashamed to say this) than I am.

My family is supportive of  me writing a book, and the energy that I devote to it, even though I am sometimes skeptical of it myself–a recognized addition.  Though my mother does wonder why I am consumed with people who are already dead.  For me, there’s real guilt there.

What genre does your book fall under?

Realism.  I struggle with labeling it as historical fiction because it spans from the 1920’s-1980’s, which feels almost too recent to consider history.  But, I can’t deny the historical research I’ve had to do in order to write these stories, so yeah, of course, there’s history.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a move rendition?

Ha.  My favorite character in any of the pieces I’ve written so far is, strangely enough, the college-aged version of Joel Rifkin before he “became” the serial killer.  He attended SUNY Brockport for a bit in the late 70s, and stole bottle of soy sauce from the Convenient Mart next to the train tracks.  That was the only thing on his record when he was arrested for murdering 17 women much later.  I imagine his character to look like a cross between Wes Bentley  from American Beauty and Michael Cera.  Their impossible love-child.

What else about your book might pique readers’ interest?

These are the quirky anecdotes that have been lost in everyday life.  These are the stories we wish our great grandparents told us.  These are the parts of our world that we don’t know enough about, so we have no option to forget.


A Letter to My Grandfather Regarding Ghosts

I’ve been reading a lot about the paranormal lately, Grandpa.  Today, I finished The Sweet By and By, by Jeanne Mackin, which I

The Elephant

The Elephant (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

love mostly because it explores the mind in grief, the desperation to believe in afterlife, in spirits, ghosts, visitations, posthumous contact.  I can see how even the hardest skeptic, Grandpa, will come around after losing someone they love dearly.

I imagine you in this space, in your home in Pittsburgh, before you died, but after Grandma passed, longing so hard you believed that Grandma was still there.  Is that why you left her recliner there even after she was gone?  They looked like twin seats, you the pilot, waiting for your copilot before take-off.  I can feel her, too, Grandpa, sometimes.  Sometimes the tin cookie cutters Aunt Hilary gave me fall from their hanging place on my kitchen wall, and though Cory tells me it has been sliding down the nail since I last replaced it, inching its way off the hook, I believe Grandma might have thrown it at me, playfully, if I’ve sworn, or messed up the gravy, or said something unkind, or perhaps argued against my conservative husband.

I wonder these things, specifically: were there ever mysteriously more ashes in the ashtray–a slow mounting of phantom ashes next to yours?  Perhaps a whiff of her perfume, the scent I can still glean from Grandma’s chenille scarf you gave me shortly after she passed, the scarf that I preserve in a ZipLoc bag because of its scent, because of trace white hair, her hair, that clings to it still.  Or this–a warm dent in the mattress, a dent just grandma’s size, slight and still, but warm.  I wondered these things while I read this novel.  I hoped you had these tiny moments of peace.

After you passed, Grandpa, Sammy was born.  I keep coming back to this because in your last days, when I couldn’t see you, everyone told me you said some things about Sammy and Johnny.  Everyone says it’s the promise of children that helps one approach death, though I think that’s something you alone could grasp on that day.  Sammy was born the next day, three weeks before he was expected, but the day after you passed.  A signal, perhaps?

Grandpa, my close friend is learning life without parents, as is my father, now, and I don’t know what to say, but you managed so gracefully, so wonderfully, beyond your own losses.  I wonder if some contact from beyond guided you.

Last April, a year after you passed, Aunt Hilary gave me one of your writings–not the standard limerick you wrote, but a short nonfiction piece titled “File No. 209.”  It was about Grandma’s toes, how she could use them as fingers.  I remember family talk of the “Lotze toes,” characterized by an abnormally large space between the first and second toes, and wondered if it was this phenomena that had you writing this piece.  Either way, I learned you had sent it out in the 60s, and that it had been rejected.

When I sent your piece out again, fifty years later, I did so hesitantly.  It is one thing to submit your own work to a magazine, to prepare yourself for rejection, but it is another thing to feel responsible for the work of someone you love.  For my own rejections, after the first few crying fits, they became less-intrusive than paper cuts.  Rejection, in some way, becomes a state of permanent grief after tearing open the envelope, a way of saying, “Eh.  I didn’t think Third Coast would want that essay,” the same way one might wake on the 417th day after losing someone they love and say, “Oh.  Right, they’re gone still.”  That they’ve gone somewhere without you, left you, uninvited.

When Aunt Hilary sees an elephant randomly in her day, she tells me.  Or a note you wrote to Grandma in the 80s wafting to the floor from a bible she’d just picked up.  Or this: when I’m hit with the smell of eucalyptus from nowhere, but in my mind, from your condo in Cincinnati.

I knew the odds.  I knew the magazine I sent your writing to only accepted approximately .8% of submissions (according to unscientific data, so you probably are rolling your eyes), but I also knew this piece was stunning, endearing, but wondered if it was just our family that loved it.

Then, last week, the editor at DIAGRAM was happy to accept your piece, “File No. 209”  for publication, and I thought, for a moment, maybe the worlds had converged.  Maybe you were here, watching me jump and dance and scream in a way that no other acceptance has made me do, in a way that had my German Shepherd’s head cocked.

We all look for peace somehow, Grandpa, mostly in the everyday: the first cup of coffee or cigarette after rising; the shower water, once warmed; the space one hides in after telling a bad joke.  Then there are moments when peace is not found, but is bestowed: your name in print as though you’ve never left; an acapella proposal that Grandma would have loved; a baby, being too patient, making us all wait on edge.  But soon, we all know, these moments come like the quiet grasp of a finger.


for Michael

Bridge Up

Bridge Up (Photo credit: ECV-OnTheRoad)

On Monday, I sent in my second packet of MFA work, including a short story about a boy, set in the 1930’s, who was drowned in the canal by a dog.  I can’t make this stuff up—this premise, it was born from a newspaper headline—an instance of tragedy in Brockport’s history.

On Monday, I went to my parents’ house after dropping the packet behind the royal blue postal door, so blue I trusted the envelope would make it to my advisor.  I sipped at a cup of Mulligatawny with my mother before I was to head off to pick up my two boys from my in-laws, who take care of them during most days that I work.

Before long, the house was crumbling beneath news of my cousin’s death.  He had drowned in the canal that afternoon after wandering away from school.

Since, I have only been able to think about him.  I haven’t seen him in years.  He and his brother were both developmentally disabled, and though I know one from the other only by the shades of their hair and their ages, I knew nothing of them as people.  And now.

Everything I know about him is from a news report.  I can tell you this: he was at a school for special needs a town over that also bordered the canal.  It had been his first day of school.  His first bus-ride at 20 years old, to a school on the canal, a quaint school in a quaint village on a sweet blue-bell sunny day.  And now.

That night, the news reporter who visited my parents’ house to get the story, apologized to me for my loss because the people he should have apologized to were so stricken that they could hardly breathe let alone hear a thing between their sobs.

I told the reporter it was okay.  That I wasn’t close to him.  But it wasn’t okay for any of us.  Not even the people who watched the news.  And it wasn’t okay for his parents.

My father talked to the news reporters on the deck he built when I was five and had just moved to our home.  He told them he wouldn’t want to appear on camera and that my mother, for sure, would not want to be on camera.  The reporters scribbled on pads the way my students do when responding to a prompt—chasing words with their pencils as though they were running away.  I know the feeling.

The first reports had my cousin walking out of the building towards the canal, the officers investigating whether the accident was intentional.

My cousin was twenty, but with the capabilities of a five-year-old.  My son is three.  My cousin was twenty, and he was five.

The five o’clock news broadcasted that he had walked to the canal from his school, just yards away.  Also, that a passer-by pulled him out of the canal and tried to resuscitate him.  Also, that the aids found him about the same time, that they didn’t know how to administer CPR.  The man who helped him, a face now more vivid to me having seen him on television than my own cousin’s, said he couldn’t sleep with the thought of the boy’s face.  I couldn’t sleep either, but I can’t say I could picture his face.  I wish I could.

Truthfully, the premise of a boy drowning in the canal had kept me awake since I’d started writing that one story, which was a month ago.

Now, it is a different day.  The premise has changed.  The stakes are real.

My father and mother have told me three times when the funeral plans are.  They have told me my grandmother is as okay as she can be after hearing the news.  My grandfather has only suggested they make sure my grandmother is okay.

Last night, my father texted the family that he loves us all, that parents should not outlive their children, that he has felt this in the past few days.  We all thought we knew it before.

My doctor asked if I felt my story had “called it.”  If I could write about anything lighter.  I said, “yes.” And “no.”

I read the news reports about my cousin from all the local outlets, watched an interview of the man who tried to save my cousin.  My cousin, who had dark hair and was twenty and because he was my cousin, I was sad to admit that I didn’t know him more, that I couldn’t know him more, anymore.

In one report, it said he liked Transformers and wrestling.  So now I know that, too.

For the past few months, I have been studying newspapers from Brockport’s history, for information about a would-be serial killer, a dog drowning a boy in the canal, a plane crash, and tornado taking the life of one person and damaging just one house.  I have been reading true accounts and the paper has been barrier enough for me to keep it separate from my own life.

I was told when I was a student, and now I continue to tell my students, that a reader should be able to picture the words they read as they read it.  I read these reports again and again, but still, I cannot find my cousin’s face.

It’s true that “these things happen.”  It’s true that we turn to some sort of fact to make sense of things that are too close to believe, even.  Even now.  Even as they happen before our very eyes.

Donate if you can, but prayers are just as important.

http://www.giveforward.com/michaelvyrvoss


How Children, and Fiction, Grow.

Auerbach covered the Lindbergh Kidnapping as a...

Auerbach covered the Lindbergh Kidnapping as a reporter/photographer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I’m writing right now is my worst fear: a story, born from fact, of a woman who loses her son in the Erie Canal, drowned by a really large puppy.  This actually happened, though the particulars are fictionalized.

Stalled, and re-started, and re-stalled on this story, I figured what I need is
actually more emotion because I tend to avoid emotional avalanche in my fiction.

I’ve read conflicting accounts of the story from national newspapers, local newspapers, anecdotal histories, and then corroborated with Ancestry.com, obituaries, and yes, sometimes I feel like a stalker.  I mull through histories that aren’t mine, like shopping at an estate sale, buying photographs with unnamed faces and features that aren’t mine, so I last night, before I fell asleep, I imagined it to be mine.

I listened to the late-summer bugs and scared myself with thoughts about how vulnerable my children were.  My oldest son’s fingers were twitching with sleep, his mouth slightly open, and he was sweating in the humid air, refusing before bedtime to remove his Disney comforter for some sort of security.

Lately, before bed, he’s been asking about monsters and ghosts and something called the “silly silly gumbo” from a cartoon, and THAT scares the business out of him.  He drapes his arms around me, having asked for a hug, and his grip is tight because he’s not letting go.  I refuse to pull away and leave him with his arms open and empty, so I just sit there, waiting for him to say something like, “You know, mommy?  Superheroes protect us.”  And then I say, “Yes, but policemen do, too.  And so do the walls of our house, and Molly, and Mommy and Daddy do, too.”  And then he asks where the naughty guys live, and I tell him they live far far away.  And he says, “In the woods?”  And I think hard, because everything matters, and there are woods around our house, so I say, “No, not around here.  I’ve never seen a naughty guy.”  And I lie like that until he feels safe enough to loosen his grip, to give me his kiss.

God.  And he’s just three.

So my husband was snoring beside me last night, and I thought, what if I were Mabel, the mother from my story?  It is something I hesitated to think, but my mind had already gone there.  What would I miss most?  Mabel is consumed with the Lindbergh baby, and so my mind wandered to that, how the family was unaware their child had been kidnapped from his bedroom window.  When I hear on the news that that’s happened, I turn skeptical, imagine the parents are neglectful, drunk, or involved somehow.

My mind reeled around the conversation I had with Johnny before bed, and then Sammy, my other boy, who’s just learning to sit still while I read him bedtime stories about fireflies, that his thick fingers turn the cardboard pages for me.   How, when he curls up to go to sleep, he still pushes his butt high up in the air with his knees underneath.  For security.

Every night, before my husband and I go to sleep, he peeks in on the boys and latches their doors closed.

I got out of bed before I could stop myself, and tip-toed down the hall to see for myself that everything I’d imagined about my boys asleep was true, that they were there.  And they were.

I left their bedroom doors open, not worried about noise, wanting to hear everything that happened in their rooms, every breath even.


fiction: Jan at the Circus

The Tightrope Walker Deutsch: Die Seiltänzerin

Jan and Lou went to the circus.  Originally, they started dating because both their names had just one syllable and this was all meant to be simple.  Their lives were organized in a syllabus of sorts—a schedule of what everyone else wanted to see them do.

June 11th read, “Go to the Circus.”  So they did, only they took the number 9 bus instead of the number 82 train, and ended up five minutes late, cutting Jan’s favorite part, the tightrope walker, short.

Instead of watching the whole performance, Jan saw only the tail end, the part where the lady dipped her toes beneath the rope into air like tepid bath water, then simply climbed down.

The little girl in the seat next to her said, “Ma, when I get older, I want to walk the ropes.”

“We all do,“ Jan meant only to think, but said aloud instead.  The little girl looked at Jan as though she’d said nothing, but the little girl’s mother glared at Jan because she, too, had wanted to walk the rope.

All three girls sat in awe of the lady in the leotard, who crouched on the mat below the rope, now, and rubbed her eyes with her hands.   If she was sad, they all wanted to be sad.

Lou asked what Jan was looking at, but instead of answering, Jan asked Lou to buy her cotton candy.  She thought it might make up for missing the leotarded woman stretch her legs taught over the braided rope and twirl over the crowd.   Lou walked to the concession stands with a few quarters in his hand.

Lou had brought back periwinkle fluff instead of the carnation-colored candy that Jan wanted.  She ate it anyway, and smiled, but its taste soured on her tongue.

Lou crunched on popcorn so loudly Jan couldn’t even hear the girl in front of her clapping robustly at the lion tamer’s whip and cane.  The little girl’s hands tapped together and came away and went back again, but her muted glee fell so low on Jan’s ears that she could only hear Lou’s crunching of popcorn, the kernel skins wedging themselves between his teeth and gums.   He offered Jan a sip of his flat soda, and the bits of kernel stayed on her tongue after she gulped.  She sipped more to rinse them away, but they kept coming.  More and more kernel film stuck to her tongue until she had taken the last sip of the pop.

The little girl’s mother dangled a fiber optic souvenir wand over the girl’s head, and the girl leapt at it like the seal with the circus ball.  The little girl missed.  Whenever her fingers should have reached, the mother pulled it centimeters higher than she could touch—even on her toes.

She hoped that the next day the syllabus would read, “Write your own list, then do everything on that list in reverse order.”  Jan would write, “Buy a leotard and something fiber optic” at the bottom.  Just above that, “Buy blue cotton candy.”   Jane looked at Lou’s nose, how the tip of it twitched every time he spoke or laughed.  She wondered if he ever hoped for anything on the syllabus.  Maybe he wondered why they had a syllabus.  Jan knew she wondered, but instead of thinking too hard about it, she imagined that her balanced letters on the list would dip just below the lines on the paper, like toes, their curves caressing the edges steadily like the arches of feet.

Every day could be a circus.   She could read the list again.


Step 5: Begin a Short Story

Living chair

Image via Wikipedia

…continued from John Smolens’ “How to Get Your Story Started” in The Writer, is step 5.

5 Now you’re ready to begin a short story (60 minutes).  Keep it simple.  Have at least two characters in the same place at the same time and have them respond to each other in some way.

I sometimes call this “The Last Vacant Seat on the Bus session.”  If nothing else, have a character take the last available seat on the bus (or a train or a plane) and start the story the moment she sits down.

The key, as with nearly all stories, is that there needs to be some kind of conflict.  I’ve had students begin with someone who reeks of garlic, or someone who immediately begins asking the other character personal things (“What does your mother think of that tattoo on your neck?”)…

This is probably my third try on this step.  Really, my “narratives” from steps 3 and 4 were more entrances to story than anything.   I rarely experiment so often with different perspectives in one piece of short fiction.  It’s an interesting process I’ll probably do often to force myself out of a failing piece, which is the most comfortably sad place for fiction to be.  This piece requires a lot of research–I feel committed to keeping Andrew as a pilot, so here goes.

start time: 8:45.

I never cared to fly with Andrew, but he never begged like he did that afternoon, with his eyebrows all overgrown and upward-arched as though they might give him some sort of innocence I knew he didn’t have.  I went just so he would quiet down.  My head pounded worse than normal, like all the noise in the world fell asleep in my ears and woke to a rotten alarm clock, a horrific concert of pain and thought, so many violins, laughing children, drum beats and then, Andrew.

“So you’re coming for sure, right?  You aren’t going to sit in the copilot’s place, then bail on me before buckling the belt, last second, like usual?”  Andrew asked.

“I never did that,” I said.  Sometimes he just liked to hear himself talk. “Why did I marry you, again?”

He didn’t answer.  I couldn’t either. The birds loomed, bawking against the clouds like little terrors.  I prayed for one to unleash on me, so I could go home and shower, taking flight myself.

He called this plane Laney, and gave her a pronoun that oozed from his mouth like honey into his morning tea.  Sickening, if you ask me.  My legs ached when I saw the white plane.  The familiar black striping down the side seemed to lock me out of the ethereal part of Andrew’s life.

“You ascared?” he asked.  His brown eyes sharpened, nearly black, his smile widened, the creases nearest his temples deepened. Perhaps this is what frightened me about the plane deal.  How can he have such appreciation of something without a pulse?

“Afraid, you mean?  And no.  I’ve never been afraid of one thing.”

“Not those mice from last fall?  The ones in the pantry?”

“No,” I said.  We would be able to see our house from the air here, I bet.  Maybe my rheumatologist’s office or the supermarket.  My life would disintegrate into specks.

Andrew extended his arm from the doorway of the plane.  Surprised it was strong enough to pull me up, I gasped at the effort I had to put into it.  Was that satisfaction in his face?  There, in his forehead, right below his widow’s peak.  Satisfaction.

“Well I’m glad that was so easy for you,” I snapped.

“Take a load off,” he said, gesturing to the seat beside him.

“No, I’ll sit in this back seat,” I said.  He seemed a stranger, to me, in this place–mostly because his back was curved slightly towards the dials, his hands were lax like paws, and there was no recliner, no breakfast nook, no place for me there.

end time: 9:52.