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.

 

 

 


This Is My Love Letter to Goddard

little-cupidThe first love letter I ever wrote was in Kindergarten to a boy I won’t name (because I’m friends with his wife on Facebook).  I wrote some in high school, to a high school sweetheart.  By the time I was in grad school, and met my husband, I was too cool for love letters.  I knew so much about myself that a couple scratches on a napkin or the back of a receipt would suffice.  I didn’t need to write long, scrawling pleas for love and for attention.  I had met my match, and he knew I loved him, so I didn’t need to write a big fat love letter sealed with a kiss.  I could draw a heart on his hand and call it a day.

When I imagine writing love letters–the type that declare love–the instinct, for me, is a need to confess it or lose it.

This is my love letter to Goddard, to the faculty, to the process (a process I “trust”), to the program that has sustained and nurtured my creative addiction for the past two years.

Goddard, I don’t want to lose you.  (“you”= the faculty and the students who come with the same love in mind, a shared goal of seeking humanity, of living the creative life, and the history, the place that wraps its arms around all of us.)  And the good thing is that education is not possessive, monogamous, closed-hearted, or self-seeking.  Goddard, especially, is none of those things.

Goddard, writers everywhere and anywhere cannot afford to lose you.  Your students recognize that the program requires sacrifice–a magnificent sacrifice of fear and doubt that sits in the gut of every writer–and every human!– and gives back something so big there isn’t a word for it, this new way of learning and teaching and being.   It makes this creative life possible.

For what it’s worth to the administration: understand what’s at stake for the students and faculty of all the Goddard programs to live and eat and breathe the practice of teaching and learning.  It’s the most fundamental and fulfilling of human exchange.

There is no number you can put on what comes in and goes out of these residencies.

We stand together as teachers and students.

 

 

 

 


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.


Why Coffee Matters

the morning coffee

the morning coffee (Photo credit: Thomas Leth-Olsen)

There are things that we all do (eat, sleep, shower) , things that we have to do (grade, write, read), things that we do out of habit (facebook, text, drink coffee), and things that we do when given an hour or two with no other options.  I would like to say that’s when I write, but it isn’t always.

My husband says I can’t ever be alone.  And I say, Not true.  Because sometimes I have to be alone to do work.  But I remember being alone a lot of my childhood.  And a lot of my adolescence.  But my husband’s right.  Tonight, my father-in-law picked up the boys so I could do some work before the Writer’s Forum reading, and I have been cramming so much work in lately, that I’ve burned out.  And the house was too quiet.  I called my parents to see if they’d want to have a meal with me.  They were out at a (fancy?) new bar at the mall in the most urban of suburbs in western NY, Greece.

So I ate five Brown N Serve sausages, alone, and sat down with my computer, thinking I might write.

Instead, my mind wandered.  There are people I think of every day (my family, close friends, some students), people I think of on occasion (friends I had a falling out with, former teachers, former students), people I don’t even know, really, that I wonder about when I’m not busy with the people who need my attention and whose attention I need.

Today, my mind went to a professor at the college.

He was old enough that it was surprising he still taught.  When he walked into Hartwell Cafe, my mother smiled.  He and I were the only two in the cafe before it opened on a regular basis.  If my grandfather had lived closer, and lived as long, I imagine they’d be similar in manner and voice.  Though, this professor’s eyes were cinched in a perma-smile.  A life spent laughing.  He wore Christmas sweaters that my cool friends only wore to “Ugly Sweater Parties,” but he wore them in a serious way.  I’d heard he was a great professor.  He taught business.  I wish more business-owners were as gentle.

One day last semester, I asked my mother where he went.  She said his children had come in to clear his things from his office.  I said, “Retirement, finally?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Sarah,” she said with her chin turned down, counting singles, and glanced up at me (meaning something happened to him).

Maybe she was thinking of the wrong person.  She sometimes confused one person with another.  No, she often confused one person with another.  And she had cataracts.

Maybe he fell and was recovering.

He would always approach my mother with the smallest cup (a size I never thought anyone actually purchased), and said, “Today’s my freebie, right?”

And it always was.

And then, because the people I think of on a daily basis called, I bought my coffee and went off to teach.

Tonight, I don’t know what made me think of him.  There’s this rule in fiction that the reader always wants to know “Why this story, why right now?” and for this story, I don’t know why, or why right now.

But tonight, I Googled him the way I Google tragic events, obsessively, hungrily, sadly, curiously, and all of these things at once.  My hands cold from the keyboard, my jaw tight in worry, because suddenly, I would find out where he went.

I have a ritual.  I check the Facebook pages of a family that lost a child last summer.  It’s shameful, but it’s my way of knowing that life does go on.  And how.

The Professor’s name came up in an obituary: Donald Borbee.  I have always known his name on our small campus, but it was solidified by a simple morning routine.  I felt sad that he died in February, and now it was November, and I had just now taken the time to let my curiosity find him.  He didn’t know me, and he  probably only recognized the features I share with my mother when he saw me in the hallway, but don’t we all want to know that when we are gone, someone we never knew, would look for us?


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.

 


Matters of Space

English: State University of New York at Brock...

English: State University of New York at Brockport’s Hartwell Hall, east side (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In class last Wednesday, the heavy doors of 219 Hartwell Hall opened and closed without reason.   The windows were shut.   No students were passing.

Each time the door opened and closed forcefully, I looked to a different student to corroborate.  I knew what people would think, and I wasn’t crazy.  Hartwell has its own haunted history.  I’m not the first person to abandon skepticism.

This week I will move to a new house–an 1860s Victorian on a village street in the college town I grew up in.  As I write my novella amidst the packed boxes in my house,  I consider the matter of space.  It took me so long to get going on this piece.  It was so much larger in scope than anything I’ve written before.  The short stories I’ve written nearly all my life seem like mudrooms in size compared to the grand, living room-sized novella I write now.

The house we will move to is twice the size of the home I sit in as I type this.

On Friday, in class, I discussed with my students the Hartwell Takeover of 1970–a Vietnam protest that occurred in the very same building we sat in that minute.

The Hartwell Takeover: Brockport students smoking pot in the hallways, skinny-dipping in the (then) swimming pool (now, Strasser Dance Studio), a student on LSD climbing the bell tower, and a cultural center just around the corner from the building set afire in protest.

I asked what had changed in all this time?  I urged them to consider how everything around us had changed.  How can we not explore the space we live in?  Even its past?

It’s probably the reason I love old houses.  And thrift stores.  And museums.  It’s probably the reason I’ve never left my hometown.  I take the word “roots” literally.

I have always tried to imagine myself in a time-warp.  Who was standing in this same spot–in the quaint farmhouse where I now type this–40 years ago?  I happen to know that the house we’re about to move from was a college house in the 1970s.  Perhaps the students who had protested in the Hartwell Takeover were strumming guitars or drinking Gennys in this same space?

My parents’ house was built in the 1880s.  As soon as we got our hands on a copy of the deed, in the 1990s, my father and I scanned its history, and I placed each family in context, imagined them in the kitchen and on the front porch.  I longed to hug them, to hear their arguments, to rustle through their closets.

It’s part of what we do when we write, and probably part of the reason I had such a tough time with the novella at first.  I fought with the setting of a home for unwed mothers, when I’d never been there.  How could I go to where I’d never been?   I had to relocate my mind to some place foreign–something I’d never done.  I write the stories of the place I grew up as I imagine them, but more importantly, as they could have been experienced in human terms.

When that door in Hartwell opened and closed, who was there?  Was it the force of another door down the hall sucking the air from our space?  I don’t know.  Maybe I don’t want to believe that.  I like to believe it was some part of history, some student from another time taking a peek.

The house I will move to has its own history, and most of the facts have been researched and recorded by a village trustee, but I have a lot of wondering to do, still, a lot of supposing to do in that space.

 

 

 


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.