Category Archives: nonfiction

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.

 

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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.


The Messy Mind

Anxiety - Stress ... Time management vital for...

While my family was in a discussion about depression (that I was trying to listen to, of course), my sons were whipping around my parents’ driveway on a Plasma Car and a scooter, then my iPhone beeped with a new email, and while I was trying to understand why my son desperately needed me to move my mother’s car to the bottom of the driveway right this minute, my phone rang and it was my husband updating me on the paperwork about the sale of our house.   I’m not the only one with this experience.  We likely all do this all day long.

By the time I’d moved my mother’s car, snapped at my husband over the phone, ignored two new text messages that were urgent (read: not urgent at all), and totally missed a conversation that I so wanted to be a part of, I was cranky.

I am chronically anxious.

What I wanted to say during the conversation about depression that I missed out on was this:  Yes, we are all varying degrees of sad at different stages of our lives.  We all get tired and overwhelmed and lost.  But for some of us, it doesn’t end there.  For some of us, it goes to a whole different place, and how we deal with that place is unique to each of us.  And I say “us” not as someone on the outside, but as someone who has dealt with alternating depression and anxiety for most of my adult life, though also as someone who’s learned enough to live fully with it, and still needs help to learn better.

I had a friend who wrote me a suicide letter when she was twelve.   She was angry when I told her mother.  And then I lost her forever after that though she’s alive today.  How could I have known that telling her mother was such an offense that I would be kicked out of her life?

I had a student whose plea for help I missed.  I read her poems awkwardly–not knowing how to behave.  Some were not poems at all, but paragraphs of emotional outpouring.  Some of what she wrote seemed eerily similar to my friend’s letter.  She committed suicide the next semester.  What was the difference between the me I was when I was twelve and the me I was last fall?

I remember my friend’s suicide note vividly.  I remember how she made the letter ‘s’ with a curved bottom and a slanted line on the top.  I remember how once she stashed an orange in the cedar chest in her bedroom and we found it, hard as a baseball, crumpled in a mass of 70s dresses we used to dress up in.  We used to dance around her house to “The Nutcracker Suite.”  We spent hours telling ghost stories and holding seances.  We picked our scabs and put the wounds together so we could be blood sisters.

Have I become jaded?  Am I skeptical?  Did I judge my student as seeking attention or as not serious or as melodramatic?  Did I just get distracted?  Did everyone in her life get distracted by something else?   Was I looking for something to distract me?

I’ve been on many meds.  I’ve been on high doses and low doses and have seen counselors and therapists and sometimes wonder, why?  I’m familiar with wanting to believe I’m cured and then stopping meds.  I’m familiar with the despair that comes after.  I’m familiar with going off meds during college and self-medicating with vodka.  I know not all meds are helpful and that some, in fact, make you worse.

I also understand that I can control my situation to an extent.  For me, I’ve learned that if I stay busy–super busy–I will not be depressed, so I choose anxiety that keeps me up at night over a depression that makes me wonder if the people who commit suicide are braver than I am.  I still need meds, but this constant work keeps me stable.

I’ve learned this: that I cannot play roulette, guessing if someone else who’s depressed wants attention or is serious.  I cannot judge another person’s despair or state of mind.  Their mind is as much theirs as their fingerprint–it’s exactly why copycatting doesn’t work, and sometimes why I think my therapists are bogus.  How can you really ever “get” anyone?  All any of us need is to be “figured out.”

Once, when I was anxious to the point of sobbing and shaking, a friend shared this Natalie Goldberg quote with me:  “Stress is an ignorant state.  It believes that everything is an emergency.  Nothing is that important.  Just lie down.”

I keep this on my bulletin board because ‘ignorant’ is a dirty word for me and I’d rather be anything before I’d be ignorant.  Sometimes, I still live my life as though everything is an emergency.  My son needs a drink.  The dog needs to go out.  Responding to a work email.  Listening to what’s going on around me.  Paying the bills.  Multi-tasking is fine for the hands but tough on the brain.  Sometimes I can’t prioritize, so I do it all at once.

I don’t know when this started.  I find myself going to the worst places when any threat presents itself.

I am thirty-one.  When I was 27, I taught a night class for a friend.  Flakes were flying hard, and by the time class was over, my mother had driven to campus and cleaned off my car.  She didn’t want me alone, at 9 pm, cleaning my car off on campus.

The thought that prompted my mother’s action was probably a worst-case scenario: Me, alone, cleaning off my car, a gloved arm grabbing me from behind, putting me in a strange vehicle that I would not emerge from alive.  Or maybe this: I, not cleaning off my car properly because I was cold and in a hurry, pull out of the lot and into an oncoming truck.  Or it was both.

I believe this is where my mind is at all times, too.  But if it were at this place last fall, would I have missed my student’s plea?

In an article I found on a friend’s Facebook wall last week, The Unleashed Mind: Why Creative People Are Eccentric, it explains some of why some minds are more emotional, overstimulated, and goes on to explain why the creative mind leads to “strangeness.”

Part of the reason people with depression and anxiety are viewed as “strange” is because those who are rational or logical-minded don’t understand why the emotions can’t be reasoned with, can’t be “handled” or “controlled.”  These are the people, likely, who have vague memories, who don’t remember mundane moments of their childhood with the vividness of milestones.

My son will recall any little afternoon outing with such specificity that it stuns me.  He is sensitive.  He is perceptive.  I’ve joked that he will be my writer.

Sometimes, my husband says to me, “God.  How do you remember that?”  when I recall one weeknight three years ago when such and such happened, and the article helped me understand that it’s the same part of him that wonders why I can’t just turn my mind off at the end of the night to go to sleep even though I’m tired, or why I insist there are ghosts all around us.

When I tucked my son in tonight, I said to him, “I’m sorry I was upset earlier, I just have all this stuff on my mind, all this chattering from this person and that person and things I know I need to be doing that I’m not, and when you said the same sentence for the third time, I just couldn’t listen any more.”

And sometimes, all it is, is that I don’t know how to stop listening.

 


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.


What to Say When There is Nothing

Kiddie Pool 01

Kiddie Pool 01 (Photo credit: katherine lynn)

Yesterday, the WHAM13 news alert popped up on my cell phone while my sons splashed in the kiddie pool in my mother’s backyard.

That night, my two little boys would spend the night with my mother so I could clean our house for a real estate showing.  I had just yelled at my four-year-old, Johnny, for splashing the water too hard, speckling my phone with droplets.  He and his little brother, Sammy, had been playing a game they play often, whether in a pool or not–one lies down, hurt, and the other saves him.

The news alert: Toddler Dies After Drowning in Daycare Swimming Pool.  I clicked the link.

Now, I cannot sleep.

The first thing I did after reading the text, was tell my father that the home-daycare was in Sweden Village–the small tract that my sister jokingly referred to as “Snob Hill” when I was a teenager, a name I hated–some of my best friends lived there.  We knew the owners of the daycare in our community, their family a part of our lives in small ways.  I thought my father might cry.

The second thing I did after reading the text, was call one of my best friends whose son attends daycare where this tragedy occurred, a brave move since I had no idea what to say or ask when she answered the phone.  He had not been at the daycare yesterday.

The third thing I did was sob with her on the phone for the pain.  We all want to understand the unthinkable so we might draw a circle around ourselves, some thin line to signify that we couldn’t be the family tragedy had struck, but there was no line.  I almost enrolled my two-year-old in that daycare.  And we’ve all been in charge of another’s child at some time.

The fourth thing I did was help my mother bail the water out of the plastic pool while Johnny and Sammy stood, wrapped in towels, giggling, eating Flavor Ice in the sun.

My mother had said, “Let me do it.  You don’t want to do this.”

I said, “No, I want to.  I have all this anxious energy.  Let me use it for something.”  I took the small pink tub that Park Ridge Hospital had sent home with me after the birth of my first son almost five years ago, a tub they now use to rinse the grass of their feet before they get in the pool, and scooped the water up, then heaved it out.  I tried with ferocity to grab more water than the tub could hold, to empty the alligator-printed pool in one movement, but every time the water splashed out of the tub, it still only looked like the small amount of water I could manage.  When the water was low enough for my mother and I to dump out, we tipped the pool over and soaked the lawn.  Nothing had changed.

The fifth thing I did was watch the news.  The boys put on their dry clothes and rode their bikes in my mother’s driveway.  We park my mother’s  little red Honda at the end to keep the boys from entering street traffic: two cars per hour.  Sometimes, John scoots his Lightning McQueen bike out past the red car, and I scream frantically at him:  “Get on this side of the car!”  He looks at me, bewildered, from beneath his helmet, as if he had the phrase, he might say, “Get a grip.”

I did many things then, but I only remember uttering parts of phrases, still crying a little.  Still wondering what things a mother does after entering this tragedy.  How could I be sure it hadn’t been me?  How didn’t I lose myself in her grief?  I stopped my imagination, so many times, from going to that moment, the horrible moment that will replay in the poor family’s life for years.

After I left John and Sam with my parents, I drove past the house that held the daycare, though I knew the only thing anyone in this tragedy needed right then was privacy.  I wanted to hug them all, to ask where God was, but I said little prayers in my head, and though I know few, I made something up in my mind that sounded good enough, and what could ever be good enough for these families anymore?

At home, I cleaned with bleach and Lysol.  I went on Facebook to look up photos of the child after they released his name, and sobbed to see the two-year-old’s smooth chubby face, his blond hair, the private moments eating popcorn from a Spiderman tub in front of the flat screen with his four-year-old brother, who would wake every morning to remember that someone was missing.  I cleaned more.

I called my parents to tell them what news I had learned.  I considered going to my childhood home so I could pick up my sons and hug them, bring them home with me and tuck them tight in their beds.

My parents told me not to let my mind “go there.”  But when I told my father that the toddler had a four-year-old brother, he said, “Oh God.”

My mother said, “Jesum.”

When my husband got home from work, I told him everything I knew about everything in the world that day, which was mostly the tragedy.  No one could give any answers to the questions I didn’t know to ask.

At 3:30 a.m., I went in my sons’ empty bedrooms on the way to the bathroom and, terrified, thanked God for them both.


To Brockport, From Goddard, With Love

Goddard College Clockhouse

Goddard College Clockhouse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I haven’t traveled much in my lifetime.  I can count the times I’ve been out of the country on one hand, and most of those trips were hour-long drives to Niagara Falls, when I’d squeeze my eyes shut and hold my breath over the Rainbow Bridge.

I love Vermont.  During this residency at Goddard College, my MacBook is on its last leg, and I had too much Sauvignon Blanc last night.  I’ve never been to France, and I can’t do that accent, so I practiced “Sauvignon Blanc” over and over, meaning to order it without sounding idiotic or pretentious.  Practice doesn’t make everything perfect.  I can hardly get the keys on my Mac to type words I’ve spelled since first grade.

Yesterday, I tried to get to the RocRoots page from my aging Mac to see a story I’d written for the Democrat & Chronicle about Edgar Coapman and his dog.  It took me an hour.  I managed, and the piece looked like it had when I sent it out, familiar in many ways–not just in the way that it was my work, but in the way that it was my place, as though I can peer into the depths of this village I call home, all the way from Goddard, the place I call home for this week.

I’ve been out of town for a few days, and since, life has gone on in startling ways–my brother gave birth to kidney stones, my sons have become still more articulate (and are getting along), my uncle has come to visit from Florida, bringing with him a larger sense of home than can fit between the boundaries of our village, our house has glimpsed, perhaps, its new owners, and I am here, on the outside, gathering reports like I do during research– only reporting from decades later–preparing to write some story, some thing that can hold tight to pulp of human life.


Gifts From My Father

Clutch Cargo

Clutch Cargo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, I placed a bid on a toy from my childhood: a Fisher Price Discovery Globe that lights up and has a viewfinder to “zoom-in” on a location. (Please don’t out-bid me.) Imagine a tangible Google Earth. Life really was cooler in the eighties.

This was the toy I loved most as a child. I spent hours peering into places I’d never see in real life–the countries and cities with their animals and culture and scene. And when I win the auction, I can’t wait to revisit that world. Can’t wait to share it with my boys. When Ebay asked me to enter a maximum bid, I turned melodramatic: How do you enter a high bid on your childhood? So I “x’d” the window.

I could always tell the Christmas gifts my father chose for me–besides this globe: a wood-branding kit, a full chemistry set with pipettes and chemicals, an amateur microscope complete with slides of fly wings and ant feces (or something as gross), a build-your-own-kaleidoscope kit, and a photosynthetic developing kit that I made maple leaf prints with while he blared Simply Red on the living room stereo.

My father used to bring me with him to houses en route to becoming homes, structures without drywall, with see-through staircases that I refused to climb, that I watched him climb with ease. In the process of home-building, it was his turn to add insulation. I loved the saw dust smell and the look of a structure vast and transparent as the woods around it.

Last night, on Ancestry.com, I found a census that showed my grandfather as living in LA when he was six, and my father said, “Huh. I didn’t know.” I frowned. Our realities are what we deem important, what stands out to us as remarkable or noteworthy. My grandfather had never told my father this in all his life. How can I tell my boys everything? How can I let them hold it in their hands?

What happens when life goes undiscovered? We can live a full day without a single moment of it embedded in our memory. There are whole weeks in our lives that we don’t ever speak another word of.

One day, when I was little, I fed bologna, my dad’s favorite lunch meat, to Cricket, a life-sized, blond-haired, blue-eyed doll that talked, because she’d said she was hungry. Another day, uncooked pasta. Her mouth moved when she “talked,” so why couldn’t she chew? Neither worked. I left her side for Teddy Ruxpin, who still refused to eat. (These dolls are now labeled as “vintage” on Ebay.) They could only be so real. Perhaps these failures led me to my microscope or globe? Perhaps these moments lead me to Ebay for my long-lost globe?

I give my parents a lot of grief for not hanging on to my toys. My husband has everything from his childhood! His old toy box sits in my son’s bedroom. They play with his super hero action figures–multiple versions of Spider Man and Batman. They can wear his old denim jacket.

Probably, I coaxed my parents to throw out my old dolls and science laboratories, to let me be a grown-up with lip gloss and purses and cassette tapes.

Last night, my parents showed up with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle truck for my sons. We watched Disney, and then I put on Looney Tunes, a throwback both my father and I remembered. He quizzed me on the character names.

Then he asked, “Have you ever seen Clutch Cargo?” This was a question he’d asked me before, and I still hadn’t looked it up on my own. I still had no vision when he said “human lips on a cartoon face.” Before I knew it, he had his Iphone in his hand, and had pulled up an episode on YouTube. He was eager to show us all–especially my boys.

After we took a peek, he sat there, mesmerized, in his YouTube childhood, watching the episode.