I’ve probably told part of this before, but I’ve decided to string it all together here, because otherwise I’m just telling it to myself over and over and that starts to feel compulsive.
I remember sitting at dinner one night with my stepfamily when someone noticed that I hadn’t uttered a word for most of the meal, and someone else said, “Watch what you say, it’ll go in her book.” I was probably twelve. And I wasn’t writing in my head, I was just too shy to speak up. Certainly there were stories that could be told, but I had no interest in telling them. I wanted to tell mysteries or stories of heroic journeys of epic proportions, not tales of domestic quirks.
Fast forward to the last few years, and the ever-growing chorus of people who have said, “You should write about [that thing we're not going to identify here].” My answer is always no. “It might help you,” they say. “Or someone else.” That line only strengthens my resolve. I’m not in this to “help” me or anyone else, as heartless as that may sound.
But then two things happened. Someone I didn’t know, a near stranger, suggested that I think about writing the thing I swear I won’t write about. Just hang it up somewhere in my mind, she said, and let it do its weird work, like a billboard you pass every day for a year, see if it changed my thinking. That very same day I met a woman who told me she couldn’t write anything else until she wrote this one particular set of stories, but she couldn’t write them because they were too painful.
“So change the stories,” I said, probably too quickly, as if it were easy. She said no, and declared that she hated writing, and our conversation ended soon after that. And while we had opportunities to speak later, neither one of us seemed to take them. The conversation stayed with me, though, in that I’m sure I never want to be that person who simply says no. Then again, I’m always willing to change the story. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if that’s the problem.
Coupled with that question, I started thinking about that whole “write the book you’d want to read” idea. So I started paying attention to the books I choose–which books I love, and which books I avoid–and slowly, I’ve decided to put my head down and read the books that scare me (literally scare me), in addition to identifying that I like a sweeping seafaring epic once in a while. It’s data collection.
And because I’m someone who hates to admit I’ve said no to anything without at least trying it (except for stuff like bungee jumping and caving–I have my limits), I started to write the stuff the Greek chorus keeps urging me to write. What few people seem to hear all the way is that to write that stuff depresses me so severely that I get angry about it, and it throws me off for days, and I see no reason to do that to myself. It’s not a productive kind of anguish. But I did it anyway, because I came up with this theory: If there’s broccoli in the fridge and you need to make dinner, you don’t close the door and order out. You find something to do with the broccoli (unless it’s rotten, which is a different metaphor). You see, I really can’t stand the characters I write. They’re wussy. They don’t have real problems, and they seem to fade into the background rather than charge ahead. What if the reason for that is that I’ve been, creatively speaking, ordering out all this time? What if there’s something there, in the metaphorical fridge, that I refuse to make use of?
So I wrote. Angry, depressed, embarrassed and petulant, I wrote it out. Some of it. A tiny bit. And it sucked. I mean, it made me feel horrible and it was also unreadable. Delightfully, it’s so bad that no one will ever mistake it as something someone should read. However…however…There’s apparently something productive about being repulsed, because in the last four days I’ve written drafts of two stories that might not be half bad. They may even have–or at least hint at–that quality I’m convinced is always missing from my work. Do they tell the stories people have asked me to tell? Nope. Or maybe a bit, but beneath the surface, a line here and there, which is what fiction is supposed to be–the story first, hopefully done in a way that’s smart enough to raise it up a smidge higher than the thing itself so everyone can see it, not just me.
But so what? Who cares? Why do it? Because a few weeks ago I was flushed with the thrill of having written and written and written until I hit 75 pages and then the inevitable happened. I looked at my main character and thought, “I wouldn’t talk to her if I was standing in line at the bank.” She’s the same drip I’ve been writing for fifteen years (feel free to take a moment to psychoanalyze me here–I’ll wait). So I stopped. The story was going nowhere, as quietly feared and predicted in the back of my mind, and I’m sick of that. Those 75 pages need help–it’s not all crap–but there’s work to be done off to the side in order to get ready to go in there and make it come closer to what it could be.
There’s one more thing: several years ago, before Boston finished the Big Dig, the project that submerged the elevated highway that ran though the city, my dad was friends with an artist who rented a studio in a building that was pressed right up against the expressway. During open studios one year, I noticed something, and I’m not sure if I’m remembering it correctly, but this is what I’ve told myself about it. In one of the studios in the front of the building there were all these canvases covered in brown and gray diagonal lines, and since the paintings were set up near the window, you could see the artist had been painting his view of the exit ramp to the northbound side of Route 93. They were strange and a little scary, and it took me a while to figure out where they’d come from. I also remember sculptures made with hubcaps and exhaust pipes and windshield wipers that had fallen off along the highway and on to the street below. These artists took what they had–or rather, what they got–and made it into something else, something someone could enjoy, or just absorb somehow. They’d taken something ugly, something broken, something they maybe wished was different or wasn’t there at all, and turned it into something new.
A few weeks ago a friend asked me to write about my 20th college reunion. It didn’t matter to her that I wasn’t going, she just wanted me to write about it. Somehow. When I first started thinking about it, I had all sorts of ideas for jokes that aren’t that funny. Jokes that included the words “golf outing,” for example. Then there were jokes about my classmates being old, or bitter, or far more famous than I am. None of them are funny, or they’re funny the way that jokes can be when you’re trapped at an event and you’re dying for something to be funny. I’ll leave them out.
I have no beef against reunions. I’ve seen some chatter about it by some long lost pals on Facebook and I had a brief flicker of interest. There are some people I’d love to see, and there’s really no one I’d dive into a shrub to avoid, but the truth is, college was complicated. To regroup as part of a class would be tough.
The fact is, those four years (which probably should have been extended to five) can be described as a time that I curled in on myself. Sometime in the fall of my junior year a guy knocked on my door during a random sweep for matches. In the midst of his plea, he interrupted himself to say, “Is this your room? Do you go here?” He had lived down the hall from me for three months by that time. Compared to high school, when I launched myself at all sorts of new stuff, college was a time that I tried nothing new. I went to class, I hung out with friends, I got into some trouble. That’s it. The one thing I can say about it is that I was lucky to be in a safe place.
I have no interest in disavowing my college years, they were important. If nothing else, they remind of where I don’t want to wind up again: fearful, angry and stuck. It’s not quite right to say that wasn’t me back there, it was. It was me at my smallest. That time showed me what I was capable of in the negative. When I finally got up the nerve to live my life, I didn’t walk away from the jittery young woman I became, I brought her with me. I show her almost every day how she was wrong about her future. Every once in while I tell her I’m sorry for all the stuff I kept her from experiencing.
I think it would be hard to go back to campus and be reminded of all the things I didn’t bother with; I honestly think it might depress me a little. But there is one person out there I’d like to see. She’s someone I wouldn’t be in touch with if it weren’t for Facebook, and for the most part she blends in with all the other people who show up in my news feed every day with photos of their kids and complaints about the weather. We weren’t close, but we had friends in common. We were just close enough that one day I walked by her in the student center and she wound up sitting with me for a couple of hours while I started to dig myself out of the hole I was in. I’d been looking for someone else that day, frankly, someone who I knew even then wasn’t quite the right person to help me. It might have been easier to talk to that other person, but it probably wouldn’t have worked. I’ve probably seen this friend one other time since graduation, and sometimes I forget the part she played in helping me get my act together, because honestly, it took several years. It was also a long time ago–a lot’s happened since then. Most of it’s been good, and the not-so-good was far less bad than it could have been.
That’s a very long way of saying I’m not going to my reunion, but thinking back on it now, maybe I’d like to go someday, if for no other reason than to find that bench where I began to puzzle out how to become myself again. And to think, it all started just by walking by someone I hardly knew. Such a simple thing, to say hello to someone, and yet some days it changes your whole life.
This, friends, is a story about regret. A little tale about taking something for granted, looking away at the wrong moment, thinking for just a second everything’s fine and will continue to be fine, because that’s just how things go. It’s a story about arrogance. Ego. Loss.
It begins on a campus in upstate New York, at the tail end of the eighties, in a class on 19th century American Lit, where I read Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville and Edgar Allen Poe. My usual academic apathy aside, I actually liked this class. Every book we read described a nation of maniacs and loners, people who had created a country out of a murderous level of self-centeredness. A group of people so ambivalent about community that they frequently came unhinged in a way that couldn’t seem to happen anywhere else. What I liked about these folks was the sense that I was getting a look at another side of the story, especially after growing up in Massachusetts and being raised on rousing descriptions of the Battles at Lexington and Concord, Paul Revere’s ride and the arrival of pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. Less blind heroism, more paranoia–that sounded more balanced to me. Who, upon arriving–entirely uninvited–on New England’s rocky, wooded, unforgiving shores, wouldn’t glance over their shoulders?
It was Poe that hooked me. I can’t say I remember much about The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket except that I loved it so much I kept it and brought it with me on more than ten moves that spanned from Saratoga Springs, New York to Cape May, New Jersey. I’ve never read much Poe–to be honest, he always gave me the creeps–but this book was so weird I couldn’t let it go. It probably didn’t make sense to me at the time, but I didn’t care. What hooked me was the complete madness it described, except it’s been so long since I read it, I can’t possibly tell you about it. I just remember the feeling of loving it.
Enter, Pym. After reading about it for months and waiting not so patiently, I finally got my hands on a copy of Mat Johnson’s new book about a college professor obsessed with Poe’s only novel. When I saw that the New York Times reviewed it, I only skimmed the first and last paragraphs. I didn’t want to hear about it from anyone else; I wanted to read it myself. The night before I started it I was finishing another book, but I kept staring at it, flipping the cover open and then closing it. Pushing it away and then pulling it toward me. Then I had an idea: I’d read the original again. I’d steep myself in the insanity. Springing from my couch, I started to look on the shelves downstairs. Not counting the bookshelf in the kitchen and the one in my son’s room, there are six bookcases in my house. I remembered that my copy was one of those Penguin Classics, the one with the black box at the top, the title and author’s name in white type above some appealing painting that takes up most of the cover. The spines are black. I found Melville, Hawthorne…Sophocles. I found Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot. Not Poe. Not anywhere. For a few days, I would look again, just in case. I would imagine my name written on the title page, proof that I never could write in a straight line. I started to wonder if I’d taken notes, or underlined anything and who was reading it. I wondered, but I’ll never know. I don’t even remember when I might have said, “Oh, that? Yeah, let that go. When will I ever read it again?” I must have said it, though, because it’s gone.
Losses aside, so far I like Pym, but I’m a bit distracted by how much I have to just trust Johnson, which I do (it would be damn silly not to). Then again, I recently read another novel (that I otherwise loved) that took place in Massachusetts and it referred to the body of water that separates South Boston from the rest of the city as the Four Point Channel. It’s actually the Fort Point Channel. And yes, it took me a good ten pages to let that go (maybe more, since I’m still talking about it four books later). So maybe it’s a good thing that I can’t find my copy of this foolish, hallucinatory book. Maybe I’d hate it. Maybe I’d throw it across the room. Maybe I’d be backseat driving through all 300 pages of Pym, enough to make Mat Johnson himself feel overcome with this strange feeling that makes him want to scream, “Shut up and let me tell the damn story, already!” Maybe I inadvertently did my myself a service, like when you see an old boyfriend after a long time and have the vague feeling you did the right thing by moving on. And this is why, much as I’m tempted, I’m not scouring my local library. Leave the past where it is. The present will do just fine.
I’m not sure if this happens to everyone, and it probably does to some extent, but I’ve been thinking lately about the time I decided I could probably do my life a lot better than I was doing it. (I actually have some form of this thought almost every day, but this one was big.) I was twenty-one, and I was sitting across from my mother in a hospital. I was in some barely washed outfit and she wore a pale yellow sweatsuit and nice clean sneakers. She looked good; I didn’t. A social worker sat between us talking about how sad my mother was about our relationship. I was probably angry to be there, and also ashamed that this woman was telling me how I could do better, but we’d done this a dozen times before and I was tired.
I left there shaking and panicked, with two thoughts racing through my head: my mother was actually furiously angry (and looked great doing it), and I was just like her (minus the looking great). For three years before that I had done everything I could to distinguish how I was happier than my mother, and that day I realized that all my efforts had only created a mirror image. Things weren’t going well for me then; I had grand plans for myself that I knew were ridiculous and I was in the midst of using that understanding as an excuse to throw everything away. I spent the next few weeks proving what a fool I really could be. The whole time, I couldn’t shake the image of my mother and her pretty yellow sweatsuit and wondering how much longer it would be before I might wind up in a hospital. It became an almost physical sense of pressure inside my head, the warring factions of “You’re an idiot” and “You don’t have to be.” The hardest part of choosing to see what would happen if I stopped doing the stuff that was wrecking me was that I had no idea what the end result might look like. There was no guarantee that I would get a PhD/write a book/win awards/enjoy my life. But I felt the urge to try it, I felt that pull, and I stumbled in that direction.
What’d I do? In the classic tradition of “what the hell,” one Friday morning I opened my mouth. I told someone what was going on, and as soon as I did things slowly shifted. They didn’t shift easily–notice that I used word “stumbled” up there–and I didn’t always like it, but one thing I kept hearing over and over was that I needed to stop using the word “no”. My life until then was all about what might go wrong if I took a chance, and over the next several years I trained myself to remember that the worst case scenario was never all that bad. It took work, though; it took a lot of opening my mouth. It took walking blindly into situations that might be good for me with no guarantee.
My dad always talked about the gift of desperation–that moment when you realize there’s nothing else to do but try something different. 20 years later, I don’t get particularly desperate anymore, but I’ve internalized the habit of asking myself if I need to open my mouth. The problem for me comes when I decide that yes, I do, but that’s okay. A little dread never hurt anyone. Keeps the blood flowing. The point is, I’m conscious of those moments, those pivot points, because even if they’re very small, or they’re leading me into doing something that might be difficult, they remind me that I have another chance to take a step in the right direction, if I choose to. It’s always invigorating when I do, even if I have no idea what will come of that decision, and I’ve done it a thousand times by now. It’s rarely one set of questions, one session of wondering; it’s always days, weeks, months, sometimes years of questioning. This thing you’re reading is the direct result of one of those little internal tangos–that started in 2006.
The thing I’m leading up to may sound small to most of you, but to me it’s pretty big. I signed up the other day to write something here (and someplace else, too) for Blog Action Day.* Frankly, I’m terrified. It feels like I’m pretending to know something that I don’t, taking on a position of authority I don’t have. The scenarios of all the ways I could do it poorly are vivid and horrifying. This is exactly the kind of opportunity that 20 years ago I would have considered, decided I’d suck at it, and then read with the world’s most poisonous envy what everyone else did. So in the spirit of “what the hell” or “how bad could it be” (both very different from “what could possibly go wrong”, which is a question that always leads to disaster) I’m going to write here about water on Friday. Big topic. Important. One I have no expertise with besides drinking, bathing and swimming.
So, on Friday morning I’m going to open my mouth. My decision to do this is a much smaller version of the decision I made 20 years ago, but it’s no less intimidating, and in some ways no less important to me because, just like that other Friday, it gives me the chance to take the next step in the right direction.
*There’s supposed to be a widget on here about it, but I can’t get the damn thing to work.
When I was about nine I became convinced that if I wished hard enough, or said my prayers right, Donny and Marie would be waiting in my closet when I woke up the next morning. I loved Donny and Marie. I loved the outfits, the skates, the terrible hair, the awful jokes. I loved their smiles. Regardless, it didn’t take long for me to figure out this was a ridiculous thing to spend my time on. First of all, we lived in a condo; my closet was small, there was no way they’d fit in there. Yes, that was my first point of doubt. Second–as if there needed to be a second–we lived in Massachusetts, and not in Boston, but way out in the suburbs, off a highway that was off a highway and then way down a road. And all the houses looked the same. They weren’t coming; I knew that. But I looked every morning and was always a little disappointed, even though right before I opened the door I’d think the nine year-old version of “What the hell am I going to do if there’s two grown people hiding in my closet? What kind of maniac does that?” For obvious reasons, I avoided telling this story to anyone until I was about 35.
Skip ahead. That’s all you need to know about that. It will come in handy later.
Yesterday, I got on a train at 7:30am and made my way to the Brooklyn Book Festival. I saw a lot of writers. A LOT. I sat through five hours of readings, panels, and Q and A’s. I came home with a whole new list of books I need to read. I’ve since emailed more writers I’ve never met. I politely ate something called a pupusa, and did so with a fork, while being rained on without either a coat or an umbrella. Then I bought “artisan” ice cream from a truck that had the most beautifully illustrated menu I’ve ever seen. It turns out I miss public transportation and busy sidewalks. By 3:45 I was fried, but there were two things that stuck with me.
First, Steve Almond read a piece about how his wife discovered Metallica when she was a kid and how she became obsessed with the song “Fade to Black” and how she eventually went from being a straight A student to a kid her parents didn’t recognize. I don’t know the song, and knowing now that it’s about a guy deciding to kill himself, I’m choosing to hold off, because ultimately that’s not my point and I also don’t feel like getting freaked out. What is the point is that as I was listening to him read, I got sort of lost in the fascination I always have with kids who felt like they could rebel to that extent. I never had that courage, or whatever someone would choose to call it. I can count the number of times I’ve raised my voice to my mother on one hand, and I never once yelled at my father, although they gave me plenty of good reasons to scream like a wild-eyed maniac at the top of my lungs.
I did run away once. Sort of. The summer before my senior year of high school, my dad and my stepmother had an argument that had, for some reason, moved out into the driveway. We were all out there, whichever of my step-siblings were home, and somehow we were all outside. It was a scary night, and at one point I was pacing and I paced all the way to the top of the driveway and realized no one had noticed, so I just kept walking. I walked to the T station near my house. It was nearly midnight, and I called a friend collect who lived at the end of the line, since the train was free in that direction. When I got to her house, the first thing I did was call home. My dad demanded to know where I was and I begged him to stop asking and just accept that I was okay, but I think I eventually told him. I couldn’t do it, just take off. I couldn’t run the risk of coming back the next day and finding out that they were done wondering where I’d gone.
My point is, there’s a part of me that wonders if I’d missed anything by never really telling my parents to shove it. Most people would say no, and in a hundred ways they’d be right, but there’s a way they’re wrong, too. I know it whenever I’ve had that feeling like I want to scream at the top of my lungs and curl up in a ball at the same time and I stand perfectly still because I can’t do both at once. That energy has to go someplace. Where?
Here’s the second thing that stuck with me. I was in a reading with Steven Millhauser and Cristina Garcia and Peter Straub, and they all got to talking about “realism”. Millhauser sounded miffed at the term. I’m paraphrasing here, but they all started talking about what constitutes realism and reality and asking why reality had to be defined in such restrictive terms. I thought of how I used to write what I considered realism, but yesterday I wondered, what if it was just a lack of imagination? One of the things that used to frustrate me about writing fiction is that everyone sounded the same. I wrote about the same conventional people doing the same conventional things with the same perfectly reasonable neuroses; I couldn’t get beyond essentially reporting what I saw. I got bored. I gave up.
So yesterday I wondered where my “Donny and Marie” side went. Of course part of me knows where it went. It went wherever things go that get you made fun of. For me, when I was nine, there was a lot to squeeze into that space, and frankly not all of it got archived, nor will it. As much as people to this day shake their heads at whatever kooky, out-left-field things come out of my mouth, I don’t mind being considered a little nuts. But I don’t write that way, or I haven’t. In fact, the way I write here is weirder than anything I bothered to write when I had the time and freedom to play. What the hell was stopping me? Or a better question would be, why didn’t I even know how to start? It’s not as if I forgot how to try to will famous people to surprise me by sneaking into my closets…
The other day I wrote about signing up to do The Sketchbook Project, which I’m completely unequipped for, but I’m doing it anyway because I’m too curious not to. It’s all connected, the festival and the sketchbook thing, and I don’t really care how, I just want to see what I do with it all. I don’t plan on running away, but I want to know what happens when you decide to do the thing you’re not known for doing. At this point, after writing all this business about dismembering Dressy Bessy and now C-list celebrities of the 1970′s, I feel a duty to myself, and to you poor people who have been reading this, to do something with it, to take it somewhere. All that energy has to go someplace. Where?
Sometime around age four, my love for Dressy Bessy began to wane. It seems I’d done all the tying, lacing, buckling, snapping and buttoning I was going to do with her. We needed to take our relationship in a new direction. I needed a new way to engage with her. So one day I looked Dressy Bessy over, trying to find something that would bring the spark back. Maybe it was because my mom was a nurse, I don’t know, but I decided that Dressy Bessy was going to break her arm. I quietly got the scissors out of a drawer and cut it off.
Then I did what every four year-old does when they take a on a project that’s too big for them to complete on their own, I brought the pieces to my mom and asked her to fix it. Like a good mother, and a polite woman, she just let her mouth drop open a little and whispered, “What did you do, Hope?” Then she took poor, dismembered Bessy and sewed her back together with black thread. Apparently, she spent the next several years watching me for signs of pathological aggression and other dark habits. Sorry, Mum…
It’s here where I should point out that my mother was the offspring of a ballet dancer. My grandmother’s two daughters are (as was my grandmother) beautiful women who pride themselves on their appearance. My mother remembers outfits she wore before I was born and can describe them as if she bought them yesterday. I went through my young childhood in smocked dresses and patent leather shoes. My mother ironed my hair ribbons. On special occasions I was always cold, itchy, and overtired from not having slept the night before thanks to the eight thousand bobby pins attempting to curl my limp hair. I was my mother’s doll. (I say this affectionately, I really do. One of the saddest moments I have with my mom now is hearing her sigh over having to wear sensible shoes.) My mother’s efforts to make me just as pretty as could be, however, could not hide the fact that I was…well, a little odd, within the context of soft-spoken, mainstream suburban girls. Dressy Bessy was only the beginning.
In elementary school, I scoured the library for books on witches. Growing up in Massachusetts, I was lucky to be swamped in Salem lore. Later it was The Creature Double Feature on Saturday afternoons, watching movies like The Head That Wouldn’t Die. Then I wanted to hunt ghosts, become a coroner, be a homicide detective. I wish I still had my copy of the book I think was called Murder Ink, which taught me how to tell when someone’s in rigor mortis, or how to tell when a body’s been moved. I scared myself half to death.
It had unexpected uses, though. When I first met my stepmother, sometimes I would hang out in her house without my dad and the only thing I could think to tell her about were the horror movies I watched. She listened politely while she made dinner, day after day. She cemented our relationship that way, since my mother had the luxury of familiarity and could just tell me to go away. Even luckier, my stepbrother liked horror movies, too, so the rest of the family would slink away while we watched awful titles I can’t remember.
This whole monster thing has me thinking about myths, so the other day I put out a call for suggestions on which Joseph Campbell book to read. One person suggested (I’m paraphrasing wildly here) that Campbell has nothing to say to women; another friend suggested privately (more wild paraphrasing here) that just because his theories focus on men doesn’t mean they’re not valid, that they still explain how that aspect of our culture evolved. That boys needed stories to tell them how to live, while girls had childbirth to force them into learning that. I didn’t buy that all the way. There was some back and forth of a chicken and egg variety, about how much stories are shaped by culture and how much culture is shaped by the stories we choose to tell. I got a little testy, as a former girl ghost hunter in Mary Janes.
I should say here this friend is a dancer, a man in a predominantly female profession. It wasn’t until he reminded me of this specifically that I a) lowered my weapon and b) realized we were both coming from the same place. We have both stepped out of our respective myths. For all the other ways we’re just fine, thank you, at some point in our lives we wandered away from the conventions and experienced, as he said yesterday, the sense of being The Other. They were, comparatively, small, safe rebellions, but at least yesterday they forced us to consider how they’ve shaped the way we experience the world.
If there’s one thing I’m grateful for, it’s that when my son asks me to scare the pants off him I can oblige, thanks to my unique expertise in this area. I don’t have to say, “Ask Daddy.” I can deliver the goods. I’m proud of that skill, questionable as it may be. But this seemingly small amusing thing from my childhood, this slightly irritating course we’re on this summer, has launched a whole new curiosity in monsters and mayhem and what they mean, what they do to us, or for us, and why on earth it was all so appealing to a kid who is still remembered by her elementary school friends more for her hair ribbons than anything else. Sorry, Mum. I guess I’m not done yet.