Tag Archives: Arts

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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I am still planning my syllabus.  I rake the shelves in my study for samples of poems and stories that my students will hopefully either love or hate–better off not being anywhere in between.

English: A vintage ampere meter. Français : Un...

Photo Credit: Wikipedia.

I searched for a poem that would make them unafraid.  I picked up a copy of Ploughshares from 2005, wondered briefly how and why I have this, then flipped through.  I stopped at Adrienne Rich‘s “Life of the Senses.”  I stopped for a number of reasons.  But mostly that I had heard a faculty member at Goddard’s MFA program read about her recently.  I had found this poem right then for some reason.  Magic, my 4-year-old would say.

Adrienne Rich’s “Life of the Senses” will alert my students to what they are hopefully not missing out on, or perhaps make them aware of the white space of life before constant interruption.  I tell myself that being aware of this helps, but it is a strange compromise between control, and loss of it.  The hope was this poem would make them unafraid of poetry, but the more I read it, I become frightened, myself.

Here’s how she begins:

1.

Over and over, I think

we have come to a place

like this,

dead sound

stopping the soul

in its eager conversations

Or, a classical theme

repeated over and over       interrupted

by a voice disguised as human:

Please

stay on the line

Your call is very

important to us

(from Adrienne Rich’s “Loss of the Senses”)

In 2005, I was in the middle of my grad degree at Brockport.  I had just started dating my husband.  I had free time.   I had just joined Facebook.  I had no children.  I had time to write, and didn’t.  I had time to read when I wasn’t.  I didn’t yet know I was sick .  At the same time, I revised stories about failed marriages and car mechanics and the Chinese Immigrant who answered the phone at the take-out on Main Street.  It’s still there.   And I edited papers under a desk lamp in my strangely trendy Main St. apartment–in Brockport.  I was making mentors, but Googled shortcuts through my education.  I still do, sometimes.  That knowledge is hard to erase.  It’s 2012–no, 2013, suddenly–and I have two boys who don’t know Facebook except for when I post them there like little entertainers.  I type this on my blog when I should be writing for packet work or watching cartoons with my sons, or recovering from a bad injection, but sometimes I crave social media like an entire bag of microwave popcorn that I inhale before bedtime and then curse at the heartburn when 2 a.m. comes and my children are already sleeping.  If it isn’t already, I know that tomorrow all of me could be numb.

3.

No, it’s worse than I’m saying:

Have you ever woken on a hot night

tangled in a sheet you’d been trying

to throw off

wanting to clutch the dream

you’d been wrapped in

as long as possible?

(from Adrienne Rich’s “Loss of the Senses”)

After I finished the last section of the poem, I closed the book.  The cover wore a pale sticky note from a friend, and I read it: “For you.”  I imagined the first time I picked up this book he had given me, how this person had been a mentor, then, but now, how much had changed, how life goes on without us knowing, and how I know only Facebook posts of so many people.  People who were once in the flesh are now thumbnails.

When I spread the pages of the book to make a copy on my printer and the spine cracked neatly in half, I promised myself I would concentrate fully on the hum of the machine.


Old News

One thing I miss about living with my parents: the Democrat & Chronicle that arrived outside their screen door every morning.

When it didn’t arrive–snowy mornings, especially, or came late for whatever excuse the deliverer had, there was an absence, some missing constant. I was an adolescent and read the paper with my morning bowl of Fruity Pebbles. Some days, if on the front page was a sports-related headline, like the Super Bowl Champs, or a particular legislative conflict, say, the Monica Lewinsky debacle, I might have skipped to the ‘C’ Section: Living, where I could read my horoscope to see what magical or melodramatic event my day would hold, or Jack Garner‘s review of Armageddon, where I’d decided that any movie with astronauts would at least get 8 stars. If the paper didn’t show up, it was today’s misplaced cellphone. A can emptied of all its coffee grounds. Or, imagine, if the Facebook site crashed.

As I grew up, I became more concerned with the ‘B’ section: Local, the (mostly) miniature catastrophes, the small-town news. A page or so in, I would find the Obituaries, and read them, looking for familiar last names, which, if I did recognize them, would mostly be the great grandparents or grandparents of my acquaintances.

Now, when I go “home,” to my parents’ house, I instinctively reach for the newspaper that was usually folded and in the center of the table (except for the Sports section, which I never read, but was always next to the toilet, anyway), but now they only get the weekend paper, which is a strange option to me, as though all important stories are saved for the weekend. Sadder, to me, is when I recognize that people either don’t have time for a daily paper, don’t have the desire to handle its unwieldy pages, or, like me, refuse to pay for what they can now get for free. The problem is that the paper determined what was important to me, so now, in this information-age, how do I find what’s important in the face of so much else? The whole internet full of triumph and tragedy intimidates me, and I can close the window easily enough.

Idaho, a news photo of the dog who was tried for murder. Here, he is situated at a typewriter.

Lately, I’ve spent at least two hours a week at the Emily L. Knapp museum in Brockport, the old Seymour Library that sits a block away from my childhood house on Spring Street. The building’s first-story once held the library and has since been turned into the village hall, but when I was little, it was the only place my parents would let me walk to on my own. The sidewalks on Park Ave were uneven tiles, and I remember looking down nearly the entire way to be sure I wouldn’t trip. When I arrived at the building, I would find the same librarian, a woman with a long straight ponytail hanging at least to her lower back. Then, I would check out the same book nearly every visit: The Valley of the Ghosts, book with a strange corpse-like figure on the cover with anatomically correct breasts that made me slightly self-conscious to check the book out, but I suppose not self-conscious enough.

“It’s a book of ghost stories,” I’d tell my mom when she looked at me funny.

So, every Wednesday for the past couple months, I’ve gone to this museum, the richest resource I’ve found for the anecdotes of Brockport’s village, and carefully turned page after large page of musty old newspapers bound together by year. There, a committee of researchers, archivists, historians, or citizens preserve these papers. They alert me to topics in old newspapers or photographs that I might find “interesting,” they say and laugh a little, that it involves murder or death.

One day a committee member said, “Here, Sarah. Here’s a picture for you.” Across the Brockport train tracks lay the dead body of an unidentified man, and the look on his face was, as awful as it was, peaceful. I made a copy of the picture, which I nearly had to pry out of the clerk’s hands at the Walmart Photo Center after he argued that it might be copyrighted. He hid the photo away from my sons, who sat in the cart next to me.

“I will not reprint it,” I said. “I just want to look at it.”

I persisted, unlike myself. How could I write about something I couldn’t hold centimeters from my eyes, couldn’t prop up on a mini-metal easel on my desk to refer to (the stones piled up against the ties, the angle of his shoe, the way his face was restful, but his body was not)? How could I write about what I couldn’t fold into origami or rip to smithereens if I wanted to?

I had to have a hard copy, I just could not look at it on my cell phone, where the image of the photograph was stored.

The word “microfilm” intimidates me because I’d rather read something I can touch. For example, I printed every article about Idaho, the dog charged with murder, from the Brockport Republic’s internet database before I could begin the story. I wanted to turn pages.

A lot of the stories I research for my fiction come from scrapbooks–the collection of news-clippings that Raymond Tuttle, one prominent resident, clipped with scissors and glued into a notebook with stitched binding. A layer of what the Brockport resident found notable or quirky. This is my favorite way to research, it’s almost as if he’s pointing these stories out, calling on the residents to tell them. It is a built-in filter, so I do not cower away from the years of newspapers bound in volumes, or feel incompetent in the face of boundless years captured on the internet.

One Wednesday at the museum, I sat down and asked the village historian, Jackie Morris, for more information on the houses that were razed or moved to expand the campus in the 1940s or 50s. We sat for a little while, talking about the families whose homes were moved or dropped to the ground, and when I moved a newspaper or two that had collected in front of me, I found a random scrapbook page, the clipping of a Brockport Republic article with a dotted line around the campus, denoting the space where the razing would occur, showing the houses that were scheduled to be moved.

“Oh my god,” I said to Jackie. “Where did this come from?”

She said, giggling, “I told you, sometimes Seymour likes to help us out up here. Sometimes he gives us what we’re looking for.”

There is a pile of The Stylus, Brockport’s student-run newspaper, on my desk, and I recognize some of its writers to be my current or former students.

My mother brings a copy of the university paper home to my father every week, and she prods me, too, when she finds an article especially interesting–this week, she made sure I read the article about a disgruntled student who’d been expelled and brought a rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition to the SUNY Brockport campus one year ago, who was arrested before any tragedy occurred, and while I read the story in terror, my heart thumping, I was thankful that this one-year-later-article was all that came of it. Long after I stopped reading, I was still transfixed in that time, stuck wondering what the campus looked like that day, imagining the exchange between the expelled student and the officer. And the students, I thought most about the students, the how, the why and the who of the community on that day.

This semester, in the ten or so awkward minutes before class begins, I mention stories to my students that, with time, have become just plain interesting, but at one time, were much more. They are captivated by details like a pile of 10,000 tomatoes in the parking lot of the Cold Storage, the horror of the dead man on the train tracks, instances like a dog on trial for murder, and, with all their intrigue, I hope it’s proof that this tangible “rag,” this ghost of an era and all that it stands for, is not on its way out.


The Vacancy of Noise

Apple fruit

(Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Life is noisy.

My house is never quiet–even when I’m sleeping–the radios in my sons’ rooms buzz with the campus radio station‘s DJ, my cat scratches at the headlight’s casts on the walls, the clock in my dining room chimes the familiarity of time passing.  My husband snores.  The late-night truckers haul by.  Occasionally, someone coughs.  I sigh.  My dog whimpers in time with her legs, galloping horizontally on nothing.

Today I ate an apple in my house alone.  I sat on the couch with a steak knife and a gala.  Usually, my son would be by my side, asking me to skin the apple, and instead, I cut off an entire chunk and snapped it under my teeth, gnoshed the white meat from around the core.

I almost made plans with my husband to go to lunch instead of coming home, alone.

I almost asked the new hair salon to trim my ends.

I almost tried to make the college archivist’s business hours.

If there is one thing this first semester in Goddard‘s MFA program has taught me, it is the absence of moments like this, the sacredness of them.

 


When You Were Little

Billy Mays for President

Billy Mays for President (Photo credit: centermez)

Johnny, when you were smaller, with hands the size of Sammy’s, we stared at each other for hours.  Then Billy Mays came on the tv, and your head turned.

“Don’t just get it clean, get it OxiClean!”  his voice carried through our small living room, yes, and easily, but I’m guessing it traveled to the kitchen, too.  I know, for sure, it had traveled through the stretched skin of my belly before you were born, and to your ears–a booming, vibrant voice.

This is not a tribute to Billy Mays, more an explanation for the passion that calls from your throat every morning.  Your voice that yells, “Mom, you know?  Buzz Lightyear flies on his back sometimes!”  that I quickly follow with, “Shh, Johnny.  Your brother is still sleeping.”

You have been a commercial-watcher for all three and a half years of your life.  Advertisements were made for people like you and people like your grandmother, who are quick to solve a problem, anxious to run ahead, scrub a stain, build a house, plant trees, work, and work, and work.

You won’t ever change the channel during ads, Johnny.  You learn everything there is to know about anything.  “Yeah?” you’ll ask to be sure you’re not being fooled, then you’ll commit it to memory, and probably, someday, repeat it to your brother, who might or might not do the same.

Your love of commercials has allowed you to memorize jingles, to multi-task, to enjoy television in small bits, and then go off to something more meaningful, like smudging dirt in your shirt sleeves or shorts.  Someday, I hope you’ll have enough money, because you pay in more than just attention for a love of commercials.  Perhaps it is my job, Johnny, to turn the channel during commercials, or keep you from tv in general.  But I don’t.  I want you to see it as something that’s simply there.  It’s in the background.  It’s not the focus, but simply a distraction, something easily left behind.

When you were not yet a year, Billy Mays died.  Had you been much, much, older, I might have used this a teachable moment (I really don’t like that phrase, but there it is, anyway).  I might have pulled you aside before dinner or before soccer practice or before your second date with a girl I’d never like, to tell you that Billy Mays had been paid to be as passionate as you were naturally.  How so much of his own trouble left his family alone.  Hell, maybe the cocaine had nothing to do with his death, but it is all I could think of after the reports.

Not everything you do will be advertised on your baseball caps or logo t-shirts or even held in your hand.  Rather, some things, the more shameful things, will fit comfortably in your pocket, hidden with abandoned pennies and crumpled receipts and wads of lint.  I will tell you that I will always find these things when I do your wash.  Really, what you’re most ashamed of will bark like a dog only you can see or hear and will follow at the end of an invisible leash, glued to your wrist, and will catch up with you when your head hits the pillow at night.

You were not even one year when I spent hours watching reports, reading news updates, wondering how someone like Billy Mays would vanish from our tv set.  Then, oddly, for weeks and months after, there was his commercial, echoing itself.  You’d still watch him, not knowing he was a ghost in the flesh.  You used to stare at him, and I used to stare at you, staring at him, but after he died, I stared at him, too.  Why, is a lesson I wouldn’t have to teach you until much, much, later.


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.


Step 4 of John Smolens’ “Get Your Story Started”

Continuing in the fiction mode, here comes Step 4 of The Writer magazine’s “Get Your Story Started,” by John Smolens, verbatim:

4 Now write again, trying a different approach or perspective (60 minutes).  Consider the material you gathered from Step 3 again; this time, however, vary your approach.  If in the last session you wrote in the third person, this time work in the first person; if your last session was primarily narrative, then this time try to create a scene with dialogue. 

The point is to mix things up, to see things from different perspectives, which to a large degree is what fiction is all about–it offers the writer a unique sense of freedom.  It asks you to explore not only the exterior world through a character’s eyes, but to explore her inner world–why she sees things the way she does.

Since last time I wrote in first person with much dialogue, this time I will write primarily narrative in the third person.  Here is my response.

Start time: 9:02.

NYC2123 Laney

Image via Wikipedia

When Andrew left, Arlene was sleeping and had all the shades pulled down against the sunshine.  This kind of sun was unusual for Western NY in February, so Andrew took the clear skies as a sign he wouldn’t find any resistance.

Arlene insisted she couldn’t drive, so she wouldn’t miss the car.  Andrew didn’t wake her to say goodbye because she knew he was leaving and hadn’t bothered to say a word to him since she found out.  Andrew didn’t think about when she’d see him next or if she’d see him at all.  She planned that Andrew would return for her rheumatology appointment next Friday.  He knew better.

When he saw Laney, it was his life calling him back.  Sure, Arlene allowed him to fly Laney around the region, but she reacted like Laney was his mistress.  Really, she had more reason to be jealous than she knew.  Laney was a small plane–a single engine, a dove-gray beauty that had been mostly idle since Andrew’s last flight, a night he’d almost left.  About five months ago, Arlene had checked herself into the ER with pain so searing she claimed she was dying.  By midnight, she felt fine, and the doctor confirmed she could leave.  When they walked into their house, Arlene’s cave, she poured some Shiraz in a glass to toast her recovery.  That’s when Andrew took Laney out last.  Arlene passed out after a few more glasses, so Andrew flew Laney around the Lake Ontario, glimpsing how the waves kissed at the shore.  With each breaking wave, he imagined the fish pushing further into a warm hibernation, and Arlene falling further into herself.

Today was the matrimonial flight, Andrew kept telling himself.  He left his wedding ring on the speckled counter at home, next to the wine rack, where Arlene would be sure to find it.  Even his fingers could feel the difference.  There wouldn’t be much left for him to say.

Jordan, his nephew, had been managing the airport since Andrew’s retirement.  He agreed to get Laney ready for Andrew’s flight today, but didn’t know he wasn’t coming back.  Arlene resented that Jordan inherited Andrew’s airport and the air crafts.  Besides Laney.

Even the control Andrew felt, the palpable lifting of the wing flaps with the push of the hard charcoal lever, signaled that Andrew might have nothing to do with the passing birds, but could navigate this aircraft without worry about its body and how it might fail.  When he pulled the throttle to its full position, he was assured the plane would move clearly and swiftly into flight.  He would lift off, over the hospital, over his home at Lakeview Terrace, past the town limits and off of the unforgiving land.

End time: 10:16.