Fiction Workhorse: Week One 1199 Words

Jon knows but doesn’t ask. I keep the key to our old house in the cup holder of my car and stop there after my nursing shift. The kids are already in bed and if I stay at the house late enough, Jon is sleeping when I get to the apartment. The apartment has a front door like it’s a cheap motel. I go in quietly. The smoke from the last tenant is worse now that it’s winter and our boots track in snow. When I crawl into bed, Jon scoots near me, throws an arm over my waist, kisses my shoulder. Sometimes he whispers, Poor man’s theater, and I roll over. I pretend we are back in our house.

The bank owns our house. Elliot was sick, admitted to the ER. Jon lost his job a month later. I picked up extra shifts but we couldn’t make the mortgage.

It’s an old house. The family that lived there before us had three kids. They left their swing set when they heard we were expecting a baby.

The first time I went by after my shift, I was surprised the key turned. I thought the bank would’ve changed the locks. We brought our sons home to that house. I painted its walls. Jon tiled the bathroom. I opened the door and went in. When we’d moved out, I hadn’t gone in a last time, after the boxes were out. We moved nearly everything to storage. I was there with my mom, making sure stuff we needed at the apartment didn’t go in the locker. Jon drove up and parked, called me over to the truck.

Wanna go take a last look?

Mom heard and said she could watch the boys. I shook my head. He turned off the ignition and got out, pulled me into a sweaty hug. That house was good to us, he said. I nodded against his chest. He kissed the top of my head. I started to cry and had to pull it together because the boys would notice and I didn’t want them to think that anything is wrong.

Bluebird Acres has a playground we can see from the living room. Elliot thought it was awesome he could slide the patio door open and race across the grass to play. He and Sam are usually the only two kids out. I thought maybe it was because of tv. Another mom two doors down said the complex had eleven registered sex offenders. Everyone can see the playground, she said. I followed the boys out one afternoon and sat in a swing facing the U of apartments, watching for blinds and curtains to move aside. I didn’t see anything. It might be a terrible idea to let them out by themselves.

Jon is with the boys all the time now. He made friends with the manager and gets a few jobs thrown his way, mostly painting when tenants move out. This winter he’s shoveling and salting the walks. He’d take a job at a gas station or flipping burgers but the hours aren’t fixed. I keep adding extra shifts each week. I’m never home a full day.

I want to move to Towering Pines in the spring. It’s next to the highway, cutting ten minutes from my commute. It’s two hundred more a month. We moved to Bluebird Acres to save for another down payment. I don’t think we’ll ever be allowed to buy another house again, but Jon believes in discipline. We don’t touch the savings unless one of us is dying, he says. I think of Elliot, if we’d had savings then, we’d still have our house. That isn’t true at all, but I think it anyway.

I go online and look up how many registered sex offenders are at Towering Pines. Two. And it’s a huge complex. Jon thinks the boys are okay because he’s around. He’s probably right.

At night when I visit our house, I do math in my head. I buy a cheaper car. We don’t fix the truck. We don’t have pizza night. We eat more rice. None of it adds up to cover the hospital bill and Jon’s missing income.

I walk from room to room. Elliot took his first steps in the kitchen. Sam in the living room. We had our Christmas tree in this corner. We pulled up carpet in the boys’ room and found a girl’s diary from twenty years ago. Sam played hide and seek in our closet. The boys built a Lego city in the hall upstairs. My sons are alive but I see their ghosts. I sit in my bedroom, where our bed was. The light from the street and moon falls in slants on the painted wood. When I was in nursing school, one of my roommates did sitting meditation. I think of her when I am in my bedroom, the slants of light moving incrementally closer. I think of my friend breathing the quietest deepest breaths, facing a wall. I breathe deeply. I try to let it out slowly. I get caught on a jagged cry every time. I can’t stop anything.

When I go home and roll over to kiss Jon, I whisper for Towering Pines. We won’t get a house, I say, But we could live somewhere better than this. Our savings covers the deposit, first and last months’ rent.

Jon pulls me into a hug so tight I can’t breathe. He puts his lips close to my ear. His whole body trembles. I don’t know what he will say. When his body relaxes, I touch his face. I tell him I’m sorry, I know we’re okay here.

In the morning, Jon lets me sleep while he gets the boys breakfast and walks them to school. When he returns, I’m still in bed. He lays down with his winter coat on, his giant boots hanging off the edge. He nudges me, says, Let’s go take a last look.

I roll over. His cheeks are chapped red. Come on, he says. He gets up and pulls the blankets from the bed, tosses a pair of jeans at me.

We take my car over. The heat kicks in as I pull up to the curb and park. I take the key from the cup holder and we go up the walk, let ourselves in. It looks different in the day. Empty, but not as sad. The rooms echo with our footsteps. Jon rubs a thumb on the door frame marking our boys’ heights. I open the kitchen cabinets and drawers, the liner paper with tiny orange flowers. We stand in the doorway of the boys’ room, looking in like we did most nights before going downstairs to our own bedroom, playing poor man’s theater.

Now Jon and I hold each other in our room, standing where I’ve spent the last six months sitting. Anyone walking by could see us, statues keeping balance. I pull a deep breath in, let it out slowly. I don’t cry. I look up at Jon. We look at each other. We must want to say something. Little puddles of melted snow show where we’ve been.

Recent Reads

Two books, the second underscoring my thoughts on the first.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. The story follows a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and a young German soldier, Werner, both of whom land in Saint-Malo as WWII is ending and the English are securing the French coast. The chapters alternate time and character so we see Marie-Laure and Werner grow up. They are connected by a radio program Werner and his sister listened to as children, records broadcast by Marie-Laure’s uncle, Etienne. The wonder of words and music making their way from France to Germany fascinates Werner who learns to repair radios and later serves the German army by finding resistance broadcasters. Marie-Laure meets her uncle when she and her father flee Paris and find safety in Saint-Malo.

There is more: Marie-Laure’s father is the locksmith for the National Museum of Natural History and when the Germans enter Paris, he and three others are given one of the museum’s most guarded artifacts, a one hundred and thirty-three carat diamond called the Sea of Flames. The stone is so valuable, three replicas and the original are scattered over Europe. A Nazi sergeant is determined to find the genuine stone.

From the beginning of All The Light We Cannot See, we know Marie-Laure and Werner are in Saint-Malo. Their parallel stories leading to August 1944 show how and why, each chapter investing the reader equally in Marie-Laure and Werner. I love this kind of reaching narrative, bringing characters to a single point. Doerr carefully structures to the book to keep the pace even. There is no rush to the end, even at the end. I read Doerr trusting he will tell the whole story.

The last part of the book brings the read to 1974. Questions left in 1944 are answered, not completely, but with the same graceful narrative as the first three-quarters of the book, each chapter following remaining characters and their overlap in turn.

All The Light We Cannot See feels like a many-stranded braid. This is how I read the book as a writer: knowing that I do not yet have the ability to craft a story that tells so many stories at once, each strand adding to the whole. I read the book appreciating the time and research Doerr put into the story. He spent a decade on this book. So I read wondering if I’ve got the endurance to stay with a project, let it go, return to it, finish it, as he did.

That part of the story – the author’s heavy work – reminds me of another book, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Another long project, well-researched. Please, someday, let me find a project I want to keep at for a decade.

Which brings me to:

“The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing And Life” by Ann Patchett. I will reference this essay again (and again) in the coming months, but let me first say that if you write, you need to read this. Patchett’s advice to writers is direct. After years savoring Natalie Goldberg’s writing practice encouragement, I started reading other writers’ approaches to the writing life. Practice underlies it all. But for more, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions On Writing And Life by Anne Lamott and On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft by Stephen King are two of my favorites. I’m adding “The Getaway Car” to that list.

Since I’d just finished reading All The Light We Cannot See, I kept thinking how Patchett’s essay emphasized Doerr’s craft. (Except in this: Patchett doesn’t like short chapters. All The Light is crammed to the ceiling with short chapters). On the whole write-what-you-know idea, Patchett says no, go ahead and research something new. Allow your research to compost (à la Goldberg!) so that what you’ve just learned comes out in your fiction as needed, not referenced for the sake of showing how well versed you are in German radio technology. Doerr’s technical references / explanations do not feel separate from the character narrative. As per Lamott and King, Patchett shows her willingness to keep writing as it is just part of her life, even when it doesn’t pay bills. Knowing a little of Doerr’s biography, I am glad he did the same, adding up the hours of practicing his writing craft to reach his latest.

Patchett is plain about the effort necessary to be a good writer, admitting the small luck involved in finding our way too. Go read it.

If By Wishing: Still Holding Back

A week ago I started writing around the phrase

If by wishing

and filled a few pages. I wish a lot. I grew up daydreaming. Going to a story (wish, want, fantasy) is easy. This is great for writing fiction. But sometimes wishing can be dull ache under the perfectly fine present. It kills me.

This essay (draft excerpt below) hurt to write. I remember a lot my wishes. My childhood and early adolescent fantasies are unremarkable. But when I started writing my adolescent and early adulthood wishes, and then my marriage and parenthood wishes: something turned in my heart. It’s familiar territory, my selfishness and unhappiness. Answered by my dependence on God’s love and grace. Answered by the guilt-saturated sense that I have nothing to be unhappy about.

I wanted to end the piece with my current wishes. I wish a lot. But I couldn’t think what to choose.

I lack. I want. God sustains. I hold what I can in my hands. I let go. I am done fighting. I give up. Alone in my bedroom, on my knees, then stretched flat in security that demands surrender. I wish. I doubt. I go back to that posture of humility. I beg. I wait. That is where I am now.

I would love to post the entire essay here, everything that comes between the first paragraphs I’ll share below and the last above. But I’m in the middle of deciding where my writing belongs (seeking publication) and how much I’m allowed to post as a writer when I am also an educator. The way we share our art is shifting rapidly but publication continues to lend greater validation than a personal blog post and so I hesitate to give you my finished work here.

Be content with excerpts, friends. They are likely enough for now.

If By Wishing

I make my M&Ms last, like my brother, instead of eating them one after another because they were too good to save for later. I jump the alley distance from our roof the neighboring roof where an Italian girl invites me to come play. I listened to the funny belly feeling.

I have curly hair and primary colored wardrobe. I grin in a detergent ad in one of the women’s magazines. In the middle of the summer I toss autumn leaves for a fall catalog. At school, friends trade their sticker collections to me. At home, Mom doesn’t make me eat goulash. I’m not punished for saying damn when I failed a spelling test. In the spring, I get a ten-speed bike with taped curly handlebars I hunch over. The wind roared in my ears.

I need a training bra instead of the pastel undershirts I wear. My fifth grade teacher tells me my story is the best. Friends from my old school like my friends from my new school. No one leaves my slumber party crying. The boy with ruby lips I like likes me back. I’m allowed to read my book through math. I don’t feel so dumb when my teacher moves me to another math class with a lot of kids who don’t know what they’re doing. I’m a gymnast. I couldn’t stick the landing.

Try similar. Take

If by wishing

on a tour of your years.

Recent Reads

As per one of my writing goals, I am reading more!

Redeployment by Phil Klay A collection of short stories about the Iraq war. I read it for that. I read it for the close perspective Klay’s characters give a war most of us watched from far away. There’s a valuable range to this book, a plain telling of war and home, relationships, tensions. Klay doesn’t define military jargon. He doesn’t over-tell. And when he ends in the middle, it works.

This Fresh Air interview with Phil Klay is worth listening to.

Longreads From All Over I used to read the NYTimes Magazine cover story each week. Gave me a good taste for the longread. Here are recent longreads I recommend:

The Knowledge, London’s Legendary Taxi-Driver Test, Puts Up A Fight In The Age Of GPS” by Jody Rosen. I want to hail a cab and ask to see the little mice sharing a wedge of cheese.  A fun read about the determined pursuit of an iconic job. Also raises questions about the value of human knowledge in an age of digital information. (Keep learning. Brains grow).

The Race To Save Peter Kassig” by Shiv Makik, Ali Younes, Spencer Ackerman and Mustafa Khalili. I read this story because I heard Kuwait was in it. True. I wanted to know what kind of Kuwait was in the piece. I knew the end of Peter Kassig but I didn’t know how close a negotiation for his release came to almost maybe possibly resulting in not only Kassig’s life spared, but potentially a change in the current Isis model of ransom kidnappings. That is giving a tenuous negotiation too much credit, but the region needs  more than almost maybe possibly.

The Town Without Wi-Fi” by Michael J Gaynor. One exists in America. And a few electrosensitives have found it. Part of me wants to move there. (A very small part of me).

From The Bible Most recently Matthew, Mark, John, Romans. I like to read a book straight through, rereading chapters that challenge me. This time I read the Gospels (skipping Luke for no good reason) seeing just how deeply offensive Christ is to our pride. Thank God.

Please post your book or article recommendations in the comments.

Ending In The Middle

I like a tidy end. The messy made right. With my essay work especially, I want the last paragraph to tell me everything turns out okay. A year ago, an editor I work with encouraged me to resist tidying too much.

Readers don’t need a didactic summary after I’ve just unloaded all my junk. I need it. I want that conclusion to tell me why I went through a year or two of ___.

I’ve referenced my unpretty lust, envy and pride here before. There are certain experiences and relationships I want to write a tidy end for. Like looking at ___ from another distance, in a different light might reveal its purpose. I write ___ again, hoping this time I’ll understand something new. I wish composting would yield not only the right way to say what I want to say, but also a conclusion that makes sense of the sorrow, shame or anger. More often, an experience or relationship remains just that, waiting for time or heart to change the perspective.

This is my tenth year of marriage. The seven-year itch started early and ended late, unscratched. Finally, I looked at lust. I wrote about it in my notebooks, in essay and fiction. I didn’t find a tidy end to my experience. I’m still embarrassed. A little mad. Marriage and monogamy are work, boring sometimes, even when comfortable. I could have answered that without a long run of unsatisfied want.

Here’s an unfun prompt: Write what isn’t finished. Write the junk you want made into a mosaic. You might only find sharp edges and weird colors. Fine. Write it anyway. You’ll still see a bit of art.

I need to be okay with untidy ends. They reflect living in the middle. Which is where I am. You too.

(That wasn’t too tidy was it?)

January – June Writing Goals

  1. Fill one notebook a month
  2. Submit work to 10 different publications
  3. Take one writing day / date a month
  4. Read more!
  5. Experiment recklessly

First three are doable. Number four is my treadmill routine a few times a week (key: slow pace, big letters). If I can get through the year without smashing my iPad to bits when I reach for a towel, awesome. Number five contains multitudes. I’ve started experimenting with dialogue formats and tags. And I’ve played around with a George Saunders-ish style. Some of my WP is like dress up. I’m trying it on in a draft. I can change back into my tee-shirt and khakis after.

I like to tell this story, because I like me a little more to remember when I first read Kurt Vonnegut. I thought it was the funnest stuff ever and immediately started a story about a man named Milton. I had this whole wild story worked out, with wacky product names and invented countries, all inching toward some remark on society. It was fun! I even made a screen print of Milton. I dropped him a month later, but I still remember how great it was to be taken in by a character I made up. And how great to try on a style that didn’t quite fit but looked neat on the rack.

Because I haven’t got a story burning in me, I think it’s a good time to play. Good six months of writing ahead!