I told Sherry I had a theory that everything was happening at the same time. We were driving through the countryside in Illinois at night and we were maybe 24 years old. We think what comes later has more weight, that it cancels out or helps us forgive or understand or lose credit for what happened earlier. But what if there is no later? What if it’s all the same? Like a flat surface, I said. And then she started crying and said she had sex with my boyfriend. We didn’t care so much about fidelity then, but we did have standards. Like you couldn’t sneak and it shouldn’t involve your best friend. Later I asked the boyfriend about it. Did you have sex with Sherry? He said, yeah but it only lasted a second. Like the unsatisfactory nature of it had some bearing on its meaning. Like it didn’t count as much. He was also a philosopher, see, but more self-serving.
Man Ray once said if you don’t like something, then turn away from it. Just shut up and go to the next thing. I’m paraphrasing. Maybe it wasn’t even Man Ray.
The last week of term. Impossible for me to critique one more thing. I read my workshop stories and don’t have one single useful comment. I just want to read the stories, that’s all. I don’t want to ask myself how they might be better.
I don’t know if I can be a teacher if being a teacher means looking for what’s wrong. I hate putting grades on things. I hate looking at everything with a critical eye. How is that useful?
I was having a problem with my story. For one thing it had a terrible title, a title meant to imply that not only was it my character’s last day in Paris, but the final day of her marriage. Which wasn’t the point of the story. The point was not her marriage. It was the man on the bicycle. It was the women at the next table with their elaborate shoes. I kept stripping the story down. I put every word on trial. And then, finally, I took out my favorite part, my clever part, and it fell into place.
I’ve been thinking about this one story since I was 22 years old, but I never wrote it before. Okay, I wrote a nonfiction version. I wrote a fictional third person version, told as a report. I gave it up. And then Kerry showed us the short story, Axolotl, by Julio Cortázar. And Margery said what Cortázar did, his method, was to take a subject and stick with it, follow it, bore into it. I do this sometimes without thinking, when the unconscious takes over. We all do it, I guess, when we let ourselves go. Anyway. I decided to write the story this way. To begin and follow it. If I started to veer, to get in my head, to intellectualize or plan or worry, I’d recall the Axolotl, a creature that defies thought. And so, finally, I wrote the story. Hooray.
Some stories take such patience.
This week my students are writing down their dreams. We are trying to access the unconsciousness. I have not remembered a single dream since I’ve made this announcement. Oh, rebellious unconscious mind. Axolotl.
We went looking for a village of witches. We passed a man with a machete. A donkey. A sign said go back this is an active volcano but nobody went back. People put up signs that said viva elrevolultion which we could read even though our Spanish is bad. Masks hung on walls, on fences, and on houses. We passed sugar cane fields. A man walked along the road with a straw hat on his head and a laptop over his shoulder. We drove into the village of witches but the witches were invisible. There was no sound anywhere. In the afternoon, we drove to Comala. Our house looked out on the volcano. It was Christmastime. We could hear music and dancing and the sounds of horses’ hooves on the cobblestone. Someone tied a donkey to a tree outside our window and it never stopped braying. My husband made food and set it on the table. I lay in bed for three days and nights. Bells and and music, horses’ hooves on the cobblestone, the sound of a donkey tied to a tree. My husband made food but I didn’t eat. Downstairs there were flowers. Outside a hundred year old woman sat hunched in the yard with three small girls in white dresses at her feet. Downstairs a woman practiced Spanish. Outside the men played soccer they rode horses with bells Pedro Páramo wandered the streets the church bells rang the music played it was Christmas and viva el revolultion.
I’ve assigned Girl by Jamaica Kinkaid because we’re looking at the way people use their own lives for material. Years back when I read that piece, I sympathized with the daughter, but now I sympathize with the mother which is not what Kinkaid intents, I think. I assigned it because we’re talking about images, the way we use images to create little movies in our readers’ minds. Girl is simply image after image. Images of Antigua. When I read Girl, I see Antigua. I see the little girls in their blue skirts and white blouses, walking past our house in St. John’s with school books under their arms. Today I’ll talk a little about Antigua only getting its independence from Great Britain in 1980, but I don’t think I’ll mention the fact that Chuck and I were there then. That Chuck helped the opposition party set up a printing press. That we were arrested and deported. I told Chuck last night that sometimes when I talk about my life I feel like I’m making stuff up.
The man in the picture above is the press operator.
I write fiction, but decided instead of doing what I’ve been doing for the past few decades and sort of know how to do, I’d write a screenplay for my MFA thesis. I wanted to do something new, I said, pretending I don’t realize that every piece of writing requires something new. I wanted to watch more movies. Something school has put a damper on. I wanted to study with Jon Lewis. Also, screenwriting directly addresses my weaknesses as a writer. I am an interior writer. I write thoughts, feelings, obsessions. I write interior space. You can’t do this in a movie. You have to create setting and move characters around in it. Appallingly, characters in movies don’t think at all. They do stuff. And the pacing is completely different. I learned writing by writing. I learned by reading. It’s much harder to get at a screenplay through watching a movie. Plus, I always forget I’m watching. I tell myself to notice, but I get caught in the dream and forget.