Tag Archives: setting

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.

 

 

 


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.