Some part of me believed I could still go back there. That somewhere existed my 21 year old self and Frank, that I could go back and see him, go up the stairs to his room, sit by the window where he worked, the window where he watched me. And I’d say sorry. Or I’d say something other than sorry. I’d say the things that sorry makes unnecessary. I’d say them and or I’d say nothing and instead we’d lie down on his mattress on the floor beneath the picture of the woman with the tattooed face. I always thought we would, one day. What if the things you regret aren’t anything more than the times you said no, you said wait, thinking it was like a circle and you’d get another chance, you’d get chances forever.
No! He’s not even three yet.
There was a dead deer in the river.
Why? Why did it die? Why is its head in the water? What happened? Why did it die?
He always comes back to that, that fundamental, heartbreaking human question. His mom tells him we don’t know. We die and our bodies go back into the earth and things grow and so we’re part of the life cycle.
I don’t want to die!
You won’t die for a long time. First you’ll get old and your hair will turn gray. You don’t have to worry about that now. It’s so far away.
I don’t want to get old. I don’t want to get big.
Later, when we’re alone, working in the garden, he asks again: why did that deer die?
I want to tell him that nothing dies, but really this is up to his mama, and anyway, what do I know? I say I think some part of us always lives. I tell him it’s a mystery. And then I say it’s a big surprise. And then we turn back to the garden. Maybe he figures mortality is something that will make sense later, but it isn’t.
My yoga teacher moved to Florida. Every few days she posts a photograph on Facebook. While most of my friends post updates on Gaza or Ferguson, on labor efforts, climate change, police brutality, Monsanto, or economics, she posts the image of a bird, flying over the ocean; the sunset; a tree. It’s messy, being alive. It’s never all one way or another. It’s Gaza and Ferguson, and it’s also a sandhill crane, silhouetted against a pink sky.
My daughter helped with the cover for my self-published, erotic eBook. She put on red lipstick and curled a section of her hair. She stood against the kitchen wall and had me hold her camera. She picked up one of the baby’s toys, a plastic strawberry, and held it to her open mouth. So there it is. The cover art to my erotic story. If you back up from the lips and the strawberry, you will see women in sweatpants, dinner on the stove, a baby on the floor, toys everywhere.
Yesterday I heard about a man who stole a can of beer from a convenient store in Georgia and went to jail for a year. I heard the story of the shootings in Santa Barbara. I heard a school official saying we just can’t do anything. Australia did, you know, but no one talks about that. I heard the story of a girl and her family who couldn’t afford housing and lived in the woods. I heard about a mentally disturbed man who was scalded to death by his prison guards in Florida. I heard some state official from Georgia or South Carolina talking about using firing squads for executions. I heard someone say we can’t release the men from Guantanamo, and I wondered where are those guys who are so fired up about the Constitution? I feel like I’m hearing stories from the Middle Ages, but it’s just NPR reporting on the United States.
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.
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.
It’s the image I want but it is also the face of a real child. I was looking for images for the Pinterest board I’ve created around my latest manuscript. I collect images for story ideas. I collect images around my books. In this latest as yet unpublished book my character Mavis “was a secret animist” as a child. I searched images for “animist” and found a stunning picture of a little girl, the perfect picture, the child’s face, the background, tone: all perfect. So I added it to my board. It’s the image I want but it is also the face of a real child. Her name—I go back to read—is Abi Gul. She is 7 years old and Kalash, from Rumbur Valley, Pakistan. For eleven years her father fought in Pakistani courts to keep their valley from being logged. Three years ago her father was murdered. For the Kalash the trees are sacred. Animists: those who believe “the natural world is inhabited by spirits who nurture or destroy in accordance to the respect they are shown.” Which brings us back to the child, Abi Gul, and the question of ownership and privacy, of using the sacred things of the world, including the face of a child, for own purposes. I don’t have an answer, but at least I can include here this website: Blue Earth, http://www.blueearth.org/blog/?p=1509 And look at her face. All the things in it.
I want to enjoy my own house the way I enjoy the funky hotel where we stay in Mexico sometimes. Not looking around to see the jobs that need to be done. I want to sit in my back yard and not think about what a failure I am at gardening. To sit in my studio and not wonder what the exact right configuration of furniture should be. This morning the sun comes up in front of me and from the studio window I see trees. Don’t think about the fact that one of them is the supposed dwarf that’s taken over and must be cut down. Stop the thought at the sunrise.
To the black man in the blue van on the road when I was walking. This is an apology. I was walking and looking at the big houses. I was listening to a tape of a novel about a serial killer by the Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø. I was thinking about being a white woman in the United States. I was thinking if I was a young black male, I probably wouldn’t walk around in this neighborhood simply for the pleasure of doing it. And I definitely wouldn’t stop to examine the houses, set back in their enormous yards. It’s a quiet walk. I hardly ever see people. I see the mother deer and her twins. I see trees, flowers, woods. I saw a van parked up ahead and I moved to the other side of the road. I’m sorry. Fear is a liar. I know this, and yet. Several years ago a woman was pushed into a van here and murdered. This is the kind of information females file away. I pulled out one of my ear buds, so I could hear. There was no one around but the blue van and me. I looked as I passed by, hoping for a female. I looked carefully, turning my head, squinting. A young black man was trying to look like he didn’t see me staring at him or notice the way I hurried past. He was looking at a map, but I didn’t stop to help. He was a gender to me. I was probably a race to him. A man looking at a map, a woman on a walk. Stuck with all that history and context.
I’ve been lying on the floor with the dog, Riley, index cards spread out all around us. I’m organizing the scenes of my screenplay. I have to be alone to do this. I talk out loud to myself. I try out different lines of dialogue. The windows are open and the sky is a brilliant blue. I can hear my neighbors. A woman rides by on a motorbike. But I’m thinking: would Bill really forget that Cindy works with his wife? Can I create a scene designed only to develop character? Is Jon Lewis right when he says my film will be upended if I include even the rumor of incest? Are readers more willing to experience trauma than movie-goers? Am I obsessive/compulsive? Is my writing a way to rationalize my neuroses? Am I agoraphobic?
I used to keep diaries but now I don’t. I have boxes of old journals starting back from when I was eight years old. Now, when I feel like writing in my diary, I think instead I should write for my blog. You cannot post to your blog once a blue moon and hope to keep your readers. Some of my journals are embarrassing and I think I should destroy them before I die. Some of my journals make it seem like I am mostly depressed, but that’s because I went through long periods of writing in them only when I was depressed. Journals represent us in funny, honest, dishonest ways. I used to write explicitly about sex. I used to be very interested in my own life and obsessively document it. I kept journals of my dreams for years. Once I had a violent boyfriend and when I was trying to break up, I took all the dreams I had ever had of him, starting from the moment we met, and I wrote them out and had them bound in a little book. I thought then he would see my point. Some of my journals are funny and, occasionally, interesting. Once I thought I’d start pulling out parts of them for my blog. There is so much material! I could post every week! I tried it. I started with an entry from when Chuck and I went to Antigua so he could set up a printing press for a group called the Antigua Caribbean Liberation Movement, but we spent most of our time doing acid and then we got arrested by the Antiguan intelligence service and deported. I thought I’d start there. But my audience was confused. They didn’t read the date. They wrote to me: I didn’t know you are in Antigua!
I like detective stories. Henning Mankell says that character is revealed in moments of crime, or something like that, and he uses his detective novels, many of which are also films, to talk about politics, too. Which makes me feel better about it, as if simple pleasure is not enough. I’ve watched all the Scandinavian crime TV shows on Netflix. The cops hardly ever carry guns. Fat old cops chase down young muscular criminals and catch them, somehow, through sheer force of will or authority. European cops often go right into people’s homes if the people are gone, and we don’t even mind because they are good. European criminals hardly ever think to say they want a lawyer. Usually detectives drink too much, but we don’t hold that against them unless they are female. If they are female, it’s troubling. We worry about them in a way we don’t if they are male, even if we are feminist and know this is illogical. When I read Donna Leon, I want my husband to be Commissario Brunetti, and I want to live in Venice. For a long time after the Supreme Court appointed Bush president, I only read detective novels. I wanted a world in which things got sorted out eventually, a world in which the bad guys lost, the good guys won, the truth prevailed.
Mimi asked how I find time to write a blog, and I said I only write about once a month so that hardly counts. It’s spring break, and I’m writing my never-ending YA adult Tarot card novel, which is so difficult because it’s all plot driven and figuring things out. Someone once wrote that I am a master of plot, but that is not true. Plot is my enemy. I just want to write. I want to run around on the page frolicking, letting myself go wherever the words lead, and saying whatever I want even if it’s stupid or mean. But writing like that is no good. In this story, it’s almost all holding back. Every day I look at the page with dread. Every day it seems impossible. So this is what people mean when they talk about the struggle of writing. Weirdly, the writing is good. Which seems wrong. Shouldn’t we see the dread, awkwardness and worry? It seems like we should see those things on the page.
(the official) NORTHWEST BLOG TOUR
in which writers answer four questions and then post those answers to their blog
- What am I working on?
So many things! Last week I finished a young adult novel, The 5 ½ Senses of Sophie LaVelle, based on the Tarot cards, a family curse and the 19th century secret society, The Golden Dawn. I did not write this because YA is a hot market, I beg your pardon. I did it because I imagined writing such a book would be a fun break. It was not a fun break. It was hard.
I’m currently putting final edits on another manuscript, Like a Little God. It’s a novel about betrayal and revenge. It’s about identity and family. And class, because I always end up writing about class. A short story pulled from that novel, The Man at Table Five, was published in The Sun last March.
I earned my Master’s Degree last spring (yes, I should be retiring by now, for crying out loud, but instead I went back to college), and for my thesis, I adapted my second novel, Twenty Questions, into a screenplay. This was harder than it might sound. I had to turn the story inside out. I’m an interior writer. I write thoughts, impressions, feelings; I write the interior landscape. A screenplay is all about the exterior: images, pictures, sound — the physical. I liked being forced to work within the tight parameters of the genre. My style of writing is already sparse, but this forced me to strip it down even further. I’m not completely happy with the ending of the screenplay and am working on it again. Or at least I’m thinking about it, which is the beginning of work.
Those are my big projects. I’ve also been writing short pieces, both fiction and essays. Not long ago, an agent told me not to say that I’m working in so many different forms. It looks bad, she said. But you get restless. You want to try new things. Maybe it’s not good for the career, but I think it’s good for the craft.
- How do I differ from others in my genre?
Regardless of genre, I tend to be sparse, to write in a stripped down way. I probably rely on voice more than most writers.
- Why do I write what I do?
Like most authors, I write about things that dog me. I wrote my first published novel about a town where my family moved when I was fifteen. We moved from Charleston, South Carolina to a little town on the Illinois River. It was a mean, racist, other-hating place, and I was a hippie kid. It was also a place of subtle beauty and unexpected kindness, I realized later, but then, at fifteen, it was hellish. The story idea for my second published novel came from a young woman who was murdered when she accepted a ride from a man after I had turned him down. My most recent manuscript, Like a Little God, is based on a foster child who rode my school bus. I write to grapple with things. When the mind won’t leave something alone, that’s the place to start writing.
- How does my writing process work?
I write in the morning. I write alone, in silence. People think the “ writer’s life” is romantic, but really it’s just someone sitting alone for long periods of time.
Also on the Tour: Karelia Stez-Waters
Dense, dreary and boring, one Amazon reviewer calls WG Sebold’s book, Austerlitz, like it doesn’t occur to him that he might simply be the wrong reader. Like maybe he doesn’t get it.
Man Ray says if you don’t like something, turn away, go find something else. Which is hard to do but good to keep in mind.
I was walking with Harrison yesterday at dusk, my favorite time of day. He stopped and pointed at the swallows flying high overhead. Look! Birds! He is almost three. I can tell he’s been practicing his “ir” sound. b-irr-ds. They are catching bugs, he tells me. Mosquitoes, he explains. He holds up his arm and pinches it. He tells me that mosquitoes bite us. He is concerned with injuries right now, with scabs, cuts, scars, burns and bites. He looks back up, watching for a long time. He whispers, “Thank you, birds.”
Harrison tells me he doesn’t love me. He only loves his other grandmother. He says I can only love him. I cannot love his baby sister. I tell him love is really big, but he says it’s not.
We arrived on Bloomsday and went to the pub. The sun shining and warm and all the girls were in their summer dresses. There is something automatically familiar about Ireland, although I might be imagining that. I like to say I’m Irish but I’m German, French, English and Scottish, too. Also Dutch. Americans pick their favorite nationalities and claim them. I always say Irish and French.
I see why this place has made so many writers. Something about it makes you want to.