Tag Archives: Fiction

The Intersection of Drawing and Writing and Living

photo (2)Last night, I drew a charcoal picture of what I meant to be my parents’ golden retriever, Buddy (with two eyes), before next Thursday, when a cancerous mass will be removed from his skull, along with one of his eyes.

I’ve just graduated with my MFA in fiction, and am writing a short story about a pedophile bicyclist, but was, after reading Adam Gopnik’s “Life Studies” early on at Goddard, compelled to buy a $5 charcoal set from a close-out store and since, have been drawing pictures that resemble animals and people, but in actuality, all feel like drafts of a story without a true epiphany, without heart or breath. I post these to Facebook and send them in text messages to my best friend because they feel like immediate gratification, as though in one glimpse, someone can see what clearly is a dog. Although perhaps too unpolished to illustrate the sadness Buddy can’t know exists when two eyes become one eye. Soon, he will see the world one-half at a time. The drawing was in-progress, in much the same way my fiction was, a father struggling to realize his fears for his son, who’s way closer in proximity to a pedophile than he’s comfortable with.

I talked through this charcoal drawing of Buddy last night while sitting next to my husband, Cory, who watched the sequel of “Taken,” a movie I couldn’t watch because I didn’t find it believable. How could members of one family be stolen two times? I asked him.

How do I know? Cory said.

It’s hard to draw something you know personally, I said. I can mess up a squirrel, or impose my own ideas of my mother’s face in a portrait of her from the 60s (because it’s not how I know her today), but Buddy’s nose, the fattest most bulbous blackest nose I’ve ever seen on a dog has to look both natural and true-to-Buddy-as-he-is-tonight and believable. I spent most of the two hours I drew Buddy just trying to get the shadows on Buddy’s face accurate enough to craft his nose as horrifying and endearing and entirely normal.

In 2008, my parents lost their first golden retriever, also named Buddy, suddenly, because of a mass that put pressure on his heart. And now, this Buddy, too, has a mass. My father and I chatted briefly on the phone last night, discussing how unfair and unbelievable it was that both Buddies could have such a fate. But life, it turns out, is not about what’s believable, though we hold art to a standard of making life somehow believable and sensible and controlled. Workshops discuss sequence and plot and structure as though life relies on this instinct–and perhaps because it doesn’t. Maybe it’s controlling fear that makes art worth the hours and thousands of dollars we spend on it.

Cory looked over and commented on the shadow and angles cast on Buddy. How his ear didn’t have the shading it should and how it didn’t follow his snout entirely.

Why is everything about angles and math? I asked.

He was right, and slowly, I erased the charcoal enough so that I could recognize Buddy in the drawing, and I said, Hi, Buddy, when his nose looked about right. I guess it’s really all about light and dark, I said, trying to oust math from the art. This morning, while continuing the pedophile story, the father materialized, petrified for his son, and at the same time damaged by his own experience with a pedophile, all while realizing that souls are souls and bodies are bodies. I hope, in the final draft, he captures how simple math and unbelievable life have the potential to wreck us.

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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.


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.


On Sipping the Whiskey

MFA Adventures

I have one workable day before I have to send my third packet off to my MFA Adviser.  This day is a heavy research day.

Here’s the to-do list:

Image1. String a clothesline in my backyard, among the non-stop cricket chirps of early fall.

2. Hang a bin-ful of wet laundry from the line.

3. Repeat step 2, thinking about a loss I’ve suffered.  This part, I know, will bend my mind in places it hasn’t bent before.  Also, the crickets will haunt me long after I’ve come inside.

4.  Sip whiskey from a bottle I wouldn’t normally touch.  Blech.  I will take note of the burn that I can anticipate, but most importantly, make note of the what I don’t anticipate.

5.  Smoke a cigarette, alone, that I’ve bummed off my mother.  I will struggle to light it with a match, cupping it the way I’ve always seen people do, but I bet it will be harder than it looks.  It will take more than one try.  I will feel uncool, but I will probably feel many other things I wasn’t expecting.

I’m excited to see how these projects impact the piece I’m writing.  It’s not a thing I’ve thought to do before, but I think it will improve the “physicality,” the presence of my writing.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

My next field trip: to the abandoned cemetery in Brockport.  Just in time for Halloween.


fiction: Jan at the Circus

The Tightrope Walker Deutsch: Die Seiltänzerin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Step 5: Begin a Short Story

Living chair

Image via Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

start time: 8:45.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

end time: 9:52.


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.