Tag Archives: creative writing

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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Where We Find Our Children

"This vehicle has been checked for sleepi...

(Photo credit: fedira)

I slept with my amethyst rosary wrapped around my hand last night.  I curled up in my son’s bed, hoping I wouldn’t alarm him, but knowing that if I were him, I would be alarmed.

But he was asleep, breathing deeply as though he was absorbing all the life from every corner of the house.  I would have given him all I had.

When I was 17, in 1999, Columbine happened.  The Monday after, we all went to school, but looked a bit harder at those around us.  I told my mother not to worry, that she was crazy, smoking cigarettes one after another, inhaling hard as though she could suck away all the smoke and horror so far away.  She could not stop staring at the screen, watching trails of students running from their lives, any one of them or every one of them, one of her four children.

When I looked at my mother after Columbine, I knew she was right to worry, or at least that she was normal.

Yesterday, I didn’t hear the news until 2:30.  I hadn’t turned on the TV all day.  When I heard about it, my son was at preschool in Brockport‘s Ginther School, and I was in my kitchen, on the phone with my mom, who said, “God, are you watching this?”

She told me in brief, and I turned on the news, knowing I had to get all I could, grab my own sense of it because not five minutes later my 4-year-old and his best friend would bound through the door with Spiderman backpacks and light-up shoes and zippers and gloves and hats and I would be a parent, calming myself so I could handle the chaos of fun, the lightning fast chirping and questioning and squeals of kids being just what they are, what they should be, breathing, running, vibrant kids.

By the time they came through the door, exactly the way I’d expected, I’d seen and heard enough to be changed, to hope the red of my eyes and nose would go away before the boys would notice.

I turned off the TV.  I was scared, let alone these innocent babies.

We all are children at our core, after all.

This past week, absentmindedly, I had The Morning Show on, not thinking about how horrifying the news could be until the report came on about the mall shooting in Oregon.  My son sat across from me with a buttered english muffin, licking the butter off before biting into the bread itself.

He stopped chewing.

“Why is he naughty?  Why did he shoot?”  Johnny asked.

I wish I’d been paying attention to the TV during the lead-up instead of fixing my coffee.  I had to say something when I couldn’t comprehend it.

“I don’t know, Johnny,” I said.  “I just don’t know.  Some people are not nice,” I said.

“Well, will he go to jail?”  Johnny asked.

“Yes, Johnny,” I said, not going farther into the story than I had to, shielding him, as much as I could, from all the death.

I wanted to save him from this horror.

He would ask me about the mall shooting again after lunch.  Again, I’d shift away.

Is this what it is?  What we imagine: the pulses racing, the terror inside, the prayers we know they’d be saying if they could think about anything other than survival.

Yesterday, Johnny and his friend, Sam, clomped down the stairs to ask me to help them construct the train set, to get it back on track and make the engine run.  I did what I could, listening to them consider how to piece it together.  I looked to their innocence to negotiate my own thoughts.

When I came down, my husband whispered updates to me, turned the TV down low, and we distracted Sammy, our toddler, somehow too young to be scared, with trucks.

I’d just read the latest piece of fiction, “Creatures,” by Marisa Silver, in The New Yorker about a couple whose son is expelled from preschool for biting his classmate.  I thought, when I read it, these poor parents, their poor son, and I wonder today, how I’d read it, what might change, where my son might appear in the text, where the story would write itself from the end.

My sister-in-law came over last night for coffee, and we talked about the news as though it was just that–news, but we knew how much more it was.  We said we were sad the way everyone in America said they were sad, the way we all feel it in our guts and not in our brains because our brains can’t touch it.

Then we agreed that we should do anything to prevent this, as anyone in America would give their right arm, or more, their own lives, to prevent this from happening again.

If only we could be superhuman.

When Johnny came to the kitchen with his older cousin, he wore his blue Transformers helmet.  Every time he laughed, the noise escaped the awkwardly large dome like a robot, as though he was some machine, but from below it, I saw his shoulders wobble and peeks of human skin.

Later last night, I folded my sons’ laundry–their mini socks, their small pants with worn knees and shirts thin at the elbows from bending and jumping and dancing.

Later last night, I picked up their toys, tucking them in drawers and stacking their books on the table.

Later last night, I gasped at every moment my children entered my mind, and soon, gasping was all I could do.

We find them everywhere, and after they come, we are not only ourselves.

If only.


The Last Day of Class

Sharpened Palomino Blackwing Pencil, April 25,...

Sharpened Palomino Blackwing Pencil, April 25, 2012 (Photo credit: Maggie Osterberg)

Today, my students met me in the computer lab to revise their work for the end of semester portfolio.  It was that strange course session when I run out the door after arming each student with a number 2 pencil and a scan tron sheet for my evaluation.

Evaluations are awkward.  I always try to guess what my scores will be when they come back a few weeks later.  I never guess right.

I always feel a sense of relief when it is over, when a student retrieves me to come back to the class, the evaluation time having elapsed and, my god, does the air always feel clearer after, the barrier lifted.

Today was the first day my four-year-old begged and cried and fought not to go to preschool.  Usually, he asks many times each morning when it will be time for school, but today, I arrived home from teaching just before I had to drop him off at the Ginther school to another scenario.

First, he wanted to wear his black shorts to school with the Spiderman shirt he’d slept in.

It might have been near 70 yesterday, but today, I had been caught off-guard, walking to my car from class, pulling my sweater tight and cupping it against my elbows.   Flakes drifted around me.  “It’s God’s dry scalp,” my father had said to me many times.

In front of the Christmas tree, I argued with my son to get him to put on his pants for school.  I said all the things that would make him insecure, horrible things that give me  nightmares, let alone Johnny, a little man in the making, a mind probably sculpted in ways I won’t realize until it’s done, until I will find myself, wrenched with anxiety and sleeplessness, fielding calls from my sweet boy, then a man, eyes peeled at 3:30 a.m., too, waiting for some terror that will never come.

What did I say?  I told him this:  I could not send him to school in shorts on a 30-degree day, that I would get in trouble for not taking care of him, that they would take him away from me, that his legs would not be protected by pants from the white-hard air and would go numb, they would turn black, and finally, that we’d have to take his legs off.  This sounds worse as I type it than it did at 11:45 when he had to be at school by noon.

No wonder he wanted to stay home.

When I was in college, I lived next door to my parents in the college house my father owned.  I’d call my mom at 3 a.m., crying because my then-boyfriend had disappeared in some drunken stupor and had ignored my phone call.  I pictured my mother, who was only next door (where I could have seen her from my landing window, through her kitchen window), smoking a cigarette and drinking rewarmed coffee in the yellow glow of the old wall sconce, while she told me, “I know, Sarah.  Just breathe.” And then she’d ask, “Do you want to come home?”

Though I laughed then, it would be two more years of these late-night calls.  During one call, I would tell my mother, “It’s okay.  He finally answered and he told me he is with lesbians, so I have nothing to worry about.”   Many nights passed before I learned my lesson, before I sobered to the clench in my jaw, the spite in my muscles, the sigh from my mother’s tired throat.

How many times had she tried to protect me from my will?

Today, my students were perplexed by the computers in the lab.  The computers sit below the desks, peering from beneath plexiglass windows, and then, shielded from above, still, by black plastic cubes.

“It’s to prevent cheating,” I told my students.  I only kind of knew this.

It took at least five or ten minutes for the students to adjust, to look down at the computer and all its words so far away, while refining what they had held so deep inside them that I had to pry it out.

I’m guessing they forgave me the non sequitur, when I admitted this:  “I get a strange separation anxiety at the end of every semester.  I spend more uninterrupted time talking with you guys than I get to with my family.”

When I looked up, they were all typing.

By the time I pulled into the parking lot at Johnny’s school, he had jeans on, and a coat, and he wanted to be in school, as usual.  On the two-minute drive from our house to his school, he asked me why he had to go.

I’d told him all the practical things–about going to work, living in our warm, pine-filled house with applesauce and hot chocolate and warm jeans and a selection of superhero t-shirts, how all of these would be impossible one day if he didn’t go to school to learn.

I wanted to tell him what he won’t learn for years now, but is as true as anything I know:  that he will never stop learning, that when he least expects it, he will learn, whether or not he’s at school.  He will learn from his little brother during a food fight or wrestling match where they tumble like puppies.  He will learn from me, incorrectly, being over-protective and rash, but he will learn it anyway.  He will learn from his father, the texture of his voice, the ease in his step.   I wanted to tell him that the fact that there is more to know, that there is something out there he hasn’t discovered, some person he’s never met, a book unread, a game unplayed–that will keep him living.  He will reach and push and urge his way forward until he will have learned everything there is to know, which is never.  And then he will stop.


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.


How to Make a Mess

just one of many exercises from Kerri Smith’s “Mess”

My mother is the anti-mess.  The careful super-heroine.  The best worrier (or warrior?) ever.

She gets angry when a child falls because she, or someone around her, couldn’t stop them from falling.  She tells them “rub it,” when they smack their foreheads on the corner of the coffee table.  It worked for me growing up.  It works for me now.

But, lately, I’ve learned, sometimes there is nothing you can do.  At first, this was scary for me.  With MS, I tried medicines, then abandoned medicines, drank green tea, then drank coffee, took cold showers, took hot showers, slept not at all, or slept all I could.  I took every prescription the doctor gave me and none of the prescriptions the doctor gave me.  My MRI showed what my brain wanted to do, regardless.

With my sons, I followed them around the house with a batch of paper towels, arms rearranging whatever they had displaced.  I “picked up” the house over and over again everyday, not stopping to make messes with them.  I  rarely joined their “picnic” in the middle of my living room floor, which simply meant they dumped every toy from their bin on our area rug.

Everything was the end of the world.  A misplaced throw-pillow.  A Cheerio in the corner.   I saw it coming when my son took off his socks many times a day to pick the “fuzzies” from his toes.

I write with my teeth clenched if I can’t wash my dishes before I begin.  I feel like I have two jobs running at one time, two songs playing in discord from one speaker.  Everything is too much.

I found this book, Mess, by Keri Smith.  After reading the introduction, I realized that, aside from being nervous and unhappy,  being consumed by this need for order hinders my creativity, gives me unearned headaches, and a lot of guilt about missed picnics.

As far as work, I never would have been excited to cut apart a piece of fiction with scissors, yet when I actually did it, I almost cried with the connections I had made, the ties of emotion I arranged simply by disconnecting what I had thought, at one time, was whole.  It hadn’t been whole, at all.

This morning, I did the dishes.  But I left the coffee spots on my desk, opaque brown splats on a thick sheen of glass.  While I might have wiped them up before, now, I let them rest, the little buggers, spots like those on an MRI.

Mess, by Keri Smith

Instead, I went to work again, cutting apart the story I had taped together with scotch tape yesterday afternoon, and re-taped it in new places.

I’m trying.  I drink coffee, take my prescriptions and even a vitamin (as my mother takes daily, with water she drinks from a small plastic tumbler that she hides next to the paper towels).  I sleep hard (with a prescription) and cry warm, fat, tears when need be and write drafts more imperfect than I had originally realized, but I’m happier because of it.  And now, on top of it all, I make messes in meaningful ways.  I tape my son’s paper alligator on the living room wall and fight him when he takes it down.  I argue that I like his abstract self-portrait on our kitchen cupboard.   And I’m slowly becoming okay with the messes that have been made, like an indecipherable MRI, my own abstract, self-portrait.

Now, when I go to my mother’s, I will open and reopen her kitchen cupboards, the only messy part of her house. Besides the pantry closet (SHH).  Her socks might be neatly tucked one inside the other, but she does leave a basket of folded laundry in front of her closet, next to a dresser.  Still, you will never find a dirty dish in the sink for longer than ten minutes.  They’re clean before she eats dinner.  This happens more often than I’d like to admit in my own house.

“Broken Fall,” by Bas Jan Ader

Watching  “Broken Fall,” by Bas Jan Ader, a video that Keri Smith writes about in her introduction to Mess,  I both laughed and gritted my teeth, unsure which was the right response.  At first, I wanted to pluck him from the branches and set him down safely.  But I bet, as times goes on, I will want to flick him off the branch and listen to the splash.   And then, when he stands up with a scrape on his knee or a knot on his forehead, I will tell him to “rub it.”


Halloween Leftovers

As I write this, I am coercing the Sour Apple Laffy Taffy out of my molars with my tongue.  89.1 is on the radio in my kitchen.  My husband has just left for work, and when he left, I was slicing a piece of fiction (inspired by a 1920s plane crash in Brockport) into paragraph-sized morsels with kid-scissors.  I realize I am alone for the first time in nearly a week.

Loser Candy

Compelled to rummage through the candy bowl from Halloween, I stopped my project, and stared down into the bowl: Sour Apple everything.  Whoppers.  Clark Bars.  Runts.  Blech.

A week or two before Halloween, Johnny and I were watching the cartoon Gravity Falls, a Disney series that explores an eerie village through the eyes of a creepy family.  Johnny loves this show.  I was unsure at first, but loved it after seeing this: The Summerween Trickster–a candy monster made out of the bottom-of-the-bowl-rejects that the children of Gravity Falls have termed “Loser candy.”  So I sifted through my own Loser Candy, and succumbed to Sour Apple Laffy Taffy.  It was neon green (and tasted it), unsatisfyingly waxy, nothing like an apple.  Not even sour.  Not tasty enough to warrant the tiredness of my jaw after minutes of chewing.

Cory is not a fan of the show Gravity Falls, and I thought that by telling him about the clever Summerween Trickster, he might change his mind.  But this is the same person who looks at me strange when I watch Coraline with Johnny for the twentieth time.  Or The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Cory looks at me cross-eyed when I say to Johnny, “Hi, Johnny.  I’m your other mother.”

Johnny will say, “You do not have button eyes!”

My students think it strange that I watch such a creepy movie with my child.  But why hide the scary?  Johnny sees monsters all the time in movies and cartoons, but acknowledging that what appears in real life can be scary or threatening, too, like in Coraline, might make him more… prepared?

My cousin bought me The Happiness Project for my thirtieth birthday, so I’m sure some consider it abnormal that I dwell in the dark.  But I see it as pulling at life’s unbound strings, just braiding these fibers together, attempting to understand the fabric.

When brainstorming writing ideas, my students have said, “But I don’t have any conflict in my life.”  I press them with questions until they find something.  When students resist conflict and tension, the feared candy at the bottom of the bowl, I ask them, “Well then, if you understand everything, why write?”

Sometimes I feel like I understand nothing, and that’s when I write the most.

It doesn’t all have to be negative, but most of us don’t dwell on what makes our lives easy–the happy times, because we enjoy them, and take them as memories for a “rainy” day.  We live in the awkward, fearful, combustible moments and stare hard at the uncomfortable moments that play tricks on our minds or come back to haunt us when we think they’ve gone for good.


My Late Grandfather’s Literary Debut

My grandfather, Thomas Lotze, pushing me on a swing, 1984.

My friend and I talk about these strange things that happen after someone you love passes.  We share these moments that transcend realms partly because it validates them, makes them less a figment of the imagination, somehow more real, if shared.    And partly because it heals.

For my grandfather, this image is an elephant.  I see them everywhere.  My aunt had a license plate staring at her from the car in front of her that read: L AFONT.  I sometimes pause for a long time at the bedtime pictures of elephants in my son’s books–and it seems each one has at least one elephant.  The page will always swing open to it first, in any book, before the other pages.  Perhaps I’ve creased it harder.  I also saw more pregnant women when I, myself, was pregnant.  I’m aware that the mind is always at work, but there is a magic, too.  And no harm in believing.

In class the other day, I shared the news that my grandpa’s piece was accepted for publication with my students.  He was on my mind.  Twenty minutes later, as class was ending, I described the upcoming assignment: that students would be required to experiment with the craft elements that poet Bruce Smith used in his book, Devotions.  Only, I said, “You will experiment with the craft elephants–”  and giggled before saying, “Let me try that again.  Craft Elephants.”  I’d said it again.  The entire class laughed with me, and I simply said, “Elements.  Craft Elements.”  And excused my misspeak by explaining that my grandfather appears at the least likely moments.

So here’s Grandpa’s literary debut, “File No. 209,” from The Diagram Magazine.