Lake Cayuga, Ithaca, New York
It’s been said that if you’re related to a writer, you’ll see yourself on her pages sooner or later. The idea of being not only depicted, but laid bare for strangers to consume in a spirit of pity, mirth, or even annoyance, can be distressing. A writer must wear a thick skin to survive years and years of rejection, so too must those close to her, in order to survive having family secrets made known.
The trouble stems from the old adage, “Write What You Know.” We need a place to start, so we start close to home. In my case, I wrote about myself, though at the time what I actually did was to take a bunch of my own experiences and traits and gave them to a sort of alter-ego I named Nina. Hence, my “Nina stories.” Year after year of showing poor, down-in-the-mouth Nina go sullenly through life, wanting something more and not knowing what. Nina worked in a retirement home. Nina moved across county. Nina learned how to rebuilt old cars. Nina waited tables. Nina got married, went to graduate school in business, decided she didn’t like it and stayed home to pursue art – in her case painting, in mine writing – while her husband brought home the bacon. Nina was pissed off at life – just like her creator. The sad truth about sad old Nina was that she was a crashing bore!
Then someone said to me, “write in that cynical voice of yours.” I thought, who, me, cynical? Hm. But since another tenet of learning to write is finding one’s true voice, so I gave it a shot. In “Among The Trees,” a story I can no longer find, relegated years ago to a box in my basement and probably gone the way of some frenzied and overdue clean-out project years ago, Nina has a bit more edge, though she doesn’t really know it. Nina’s friend, Joan, stops by wearing a fur coat. Nina thinks the coat makes Joan look like a gorilla. Another friend, Stacy, stops in another time, snack in hand. Stacy is a big eater with a bigger waist-line, and while she rambles on cheerfully about some antic one of her children performed (Nina is childless), Nina realizes that Stacy’s face looked like a pillow. After a number of other surreal encounters that ended with Nina simply driving off up the highway to whatever fate the reader cares to devise in his own mind, I finally got the attention of my mentor at The Atlantic, Mike Curtis. He liked this woman “teetering on the edge of sanity.” He didn’t like it well enough to publish it, though.
For another two years I relentlessly churned out more and more Nina, until Mike finally said he was a bit worried (e.g. bored to tears) about this character who couldn’t seem to do anything but dither.
At that point, I’d been writing for nine years. Nine years!! During that time I’d also changed from one career I didn’t want to another one I liked even less, bought a house, and had a baby, all of which may have interfered somewhat with my creative juices, but I didn’t see it like that. Like Nina, I assumed I was an inveterate failure, despite having some very positive near misses with good solid publications like the New England Review, the Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, and even The New Yorker. Oh, for those bygone days when editors actually took the time to pen a personal note about why your story didn’t quite make the cut! In any case, I slumped, got grumpy, reconsidered my life choices, and complained (unlike Nina, who tended to suffer in silence).
During a visit, my mother said I should write about my crazy family. She used the word “crazy” as a fact, not as an affectionate characterization. I did some hard thinking about that statement. It was time to expand “what I knew” to “whom I’d known.”
My parents divorced when I was ten. My older sister was shipped off to a snooty boarding school in Vermont to spare her the trauma of their separation. No such thought was given to my welfare, leaving me on the frontlines. That meant watching my mother disintegrate into a state of smoldering rage, and my father carry on like the liberated fool he essentially was. He quickly married a woman fourteen years younger than he, and also a former student of his at Cornell. In “A Painful Shade of Blue,” all of this was laid out. There were some necessary updates to the real-life situation. The protagonist – I – was fifteen in the story, not ten. And my sister, Mona, (not her real name) wasn’t shipped anywhere, but stayed home to suffer along with me. In the story, the two sisters are left in charge of a bean dish cooking on the stove while their mother goes out to get her hair done. The mother is throwing a dinner party that evening to demonstrate to the academic community to which she belongs (she’s a professor, too, as was my own mother) that she’s getting along just fine, thank you very much. The sisters space out, forget about the pot cooking on the stove, and burn the beans. In the story, and in real life, the sisters flee the house after the elder writes a note of explanation and apology that ends with the words “P.S., have a bean.” The raw bean is placed curve down, to represent a frown.
Mike was very enthusiastic about this piece, but once again, didn’t find a home for it in the pages of The Atlantic. He did, however, suggest that I send it off the Staige Blackford, editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review, where it was accepted four months later, and appeared in print a year after that, in the fall of 1995.
I told my family about the publication. I didn’t tell then what the story was about. My father was thrilled that I was appearing in the VQR – which had been the home of his first, publication, too, years before when he published an academic while he was earning his doctorate at Harvard. At the time I was angry over what had happened to me, angry that my father didn’t support my writing one bit and actually didn’t want me writing at all, so I didn’t worry too much about how he’d receive the story when he finally saw it. In a very old-school notion of taking tough things in stride, he said little except to make a comment to my aunt that he wished my fiction were more fictional. My mother, who was represented equally poorly in the story, said she understood that her divorce from my father was the big event of my childhood. And my sister, portrayed as Mona, whom I had eating and eating and reaching a weight of 150 pounds, said wryly that the most she ever got up to in those days was 142.
I wrote a lot of other stories that were based more or less on real-life experiences for a while, and then one day began writing about people that were nothing like me or my immediate family. I was among strangers for the first time, but shades of the people and the situations I knew well remained.
Next time I’ll talk more about that – the winnowing down of time and place to something entirely new.
Until then, happy writing, happy reading.