Who Edits My Personal Essay?

I am thinking about the personal essay, whose story I tell. My own and, tangentially, others’. I am thinking about how to write my family. I am thinking about how to write an experience from my perspective while respecting personal and professional relationships. 

Years ago I had a conversation with Tara, a friend and writer, about what to do with all of our writing. She remembered telling a boyfriend the creative process was enough, that she didn’t need to share the finished poem or essay, and he said, Bullshit. Tara and I had this conversation when she was midway through an MFA in poetry and I was writing (generating, generating), sharing with a small circle of friends or posting to Piecemeal. And I wanted to believe that making a story or essay was plenty. I explore genre. I make up exercises with arbitrary deadlines. For a decade I have steadily developed my craft and now I agree with that old boyfriend: the creative process is awesome, but I write to share. This is now the direction I will go.

I am not afraid of sharing my fiction. I pull from my life. I imagine other. The fiction I share with few qualms. I am not afraid of sharing personal essay either, but I am more aware an obligation I have to the people who show up alongside my thoughts. So when I see other writers wrestle these questions, I am heartened. 

This weekend I read “Great Draft, Dad. I Have Some Notes” by Dan Kois. He and his wife took their two daughters around the world for a year, learning to navigate new cultures as a family. Along the way Kois drafted a memoir. His twelve year old daughter asked to read and edit passages involving herself. Kois was hesitant. But I like how his position evolved as a writer, allowing his daughter a voice in the process too. And I also like that Kois is not making an absolute rule about how he writes personal narrative, or who is involved in the editorial process. 

One Day A Mosaic

I rarely know the response or conversation my posts generate but in her comment to my last post, my mother-in-law suggested I find an antidepressant and see a therapist. She opened with love, but my first thought was that her note was great email content. But if I write publicly about being sad, well. 

Each day there is something – a gesture or conversation or street, a layer of sound or smell – that I think how to turn into words. This is me being a writer. And sometimes the things I turn into words are difficult or sharp, complicated, unflattering. And sometimes I choose to write about my mental health, not to mire in a situation but to be plain about the experience. 

I write, pray and talk to process the workings of my mind and settle my heart. Some of that shows up in essay drafts here, but the purpose of Piecemeal is to share my writing practice. When I sat to write about that conversation with my son I was not sad or anxious. I was curious how to write about the idea that one year measures differently to a child than to an adult. There was a lot I wanted to put on the page and I had thirty minutes at a Starbucks before meeting my family for dinner. I listed, started with unwieldy thoughts before deciding to make all of it bite size. How could I compress complexity into a vignette?

Yesterday morning on a walk (early and dark, light rain, swollen river) I pulled at a few ideas. I am thinking about the confrontation of vulnerability and the physicality of emotions. I also return to my motivation in sharing such personal experiences. I write my own life to examine, understand. But my mother-in-law’s comment makes me wonder why I choose to share details that make me weak. My temperament tends toward melancholy, yes. Darker moments are the go to stories of any day. For a few years I have written a lot about suffering as I’ve been near to those who suffer, gone through our family transition to a new country, learned more about how grief wracks a body, and walked through another long round of depression. I am comfortable being open, because I believe storytelling increases our empathy. I also believe that telling your story shapes your sense of self: know the narrative you carry. So the present answer to why I share is that this (the writing practice, drafting) is part of my process.

Alongside despair, hope. I journal. I meditate. The work of hope is like. The gift of hope is like. I wrangle my faith and hope into tangible images. This year prayer was desperate. My whole body prayed. In the middle of being afraid or angry, clear thoughts came, scraps of childhood church songs and memory verses from the Bible. Give thanks. Give thanks in all circumstances. Praise. Offer a sacrifice of praise. It is a choice, to speak thanksgiving. But I cannot help but remind God how glad I would be if – and I follow my thank you with another plea. And that word sacrifice! Again, the choice to give up self. I am not required to sacrifice my very breath, but with my breath I offer sacrifice, speak what is difficult, praising a God who is at work in the middle of these light momentary afflictions. So hope is present in the mystery that centers my heart again on Christ. 

Suffering is a rich mine. But before I posted a rough start to my thoughts confrontational vulnerability, or about the physicality of emotion (rage, sorrow: the favorites), I thought I should interject these notes. Just so you all know I am doing okay. I am at the middle end of a difficult stretch. Feeling that furious impatience to heal or understand or move on: recognizing the turn of my heart, the peace in my body. I want a thoughtless, easy day, and soon. But I also accept that I trade one bit of suffering for another. As I go I glean from each trial. But I also cry because when you are broken you cannot see how the pieces might form a beautiful mosaic.

56 Words

Over the summer two things happened. First I wanted to quit trying. Like quit quit. Trying was getting me nowhere. And then in August, a turn. New impatience to move on, be okay again. This was a relief, the furious impatience. Reckon the circumstance. Reckon the heart.

(I want to rage, really. I have this desire to scream, to be out with all the anger, hurt and fear. I want to rage until peace settles my body).

Recently a friend called me on seeing only myself in a certain situation. And he was right. I saw my frustration, my dissatisfaction. I could not think beyond my own want rooted in insecurity. The past year (longer) I have struggled to accept loss forever, yes, but also to accept those good things I hold. But along the way I discounted how who I am where I am affects those nearest me, so inside of my suffering that I could lack empathy for others.

A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with my son that made me think about how my kids experience – I don’t know how to talk about this. I can articulate how depression works for me, what my body and mind feel like. But I wonder at what it means for my daughter and son to see their mother as frail or sad or apathetic or afraid or angry, what it means for them to watch me work out the mess of my mind, hold slim hope, keep a faith that looks like letting go.


You know how I am sometimes sad – a question or statement. A late afternoon when I sit with my son. We lean together on the couch, look ahead. A lot of the times, he says. Earlier I cried, and he knows. For a year I’ve wept. It is a lot. He is right. We wait. Hold.


Twenty-nine of thirty-nine. Fifty-six words. From an old exercise: tell a story in ten sentences. First sentence has ten words, second has nine words, and so on. The last sentence is a single word.

Right To Be Forgotten

This year I have been thinking about memory. This is the first year I have noticed what I don’t remember, when my daughter or son brings up a place we visited, or when I flip through a years old notebook and read a conversation I could not have called up without the script before me. A friend talked about the unwillingness of social media to allow forgetting, putting before us our own names and stories that seem lived by another, or far away. Memory is a gift, but so is forgetting.

Shortly after reading So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, I listened to Radiolab’s “Right to be Forgotten” podcast about journalists in Cleveland, Ohio trying to decided who has that right, in their online paper. Listen to the piece. Before the episode was over I had an idea for a flash fiction piece. While I had fun writing this, the issue is very un-fun for a lot people.


Dear Sir or Madam:
I am nobody’s girlfriend

Dear Sir or Madam:
I haven’t been anyone’s girlfriend for over a decade.

Dear Editorial Board:
This afternoon my daughter

This afternoon my twelve year old daughter came home from school and asked why I dated a drug dealer before I married Daddy. I must have looked like I was going to throw up because she put a hand on my arm and leaned close to say, “It’s going to be okay, Mom. Take a breath. There you go.” And then she gave my arm a squeeze and pat. She is a delight, she is. What is not a delight is that my seventh grader knows her mother

knows her mommy

I dated one of the Midwest’s more industrious criminal minds for about six months in 2006. That is really all that is relevant here. I dated Marco Linney. I asked my daughter how she learned this. “We thought it’d be fun to google our parents,” she said. I asked if she won. She did. Everyone else’s mom knew better than to get involved with a man who carried three phones and a Blackberry. 

Really I had no idea what Marco was up to. He was a gentleman. He picked me up from class on Friday afternoons and drove me to the spa for a standing appointment I still miss. This is the spa through which he distributed gobs of opioids, yes. While I was getting a paraffin dip or a hot stone massage or a seaweed facial, Marco was behind a curtain down the hall doling out tidy bundles of pills and powders. I sat for approximately fifty thousand hours of police interviews but my only time on the witness stand was to confirm my many spa appointments, compliments of Marco, and to add that I did not witness anything nefarious. Which is true. And which also gave way to public public speculation that I was either in on it or so dumb I shouldn’t breed. (Never read the comments, even a decade later).

After the trial my cousin gave me a box set of The Wire seasons one through three. If my parents had had an HBO subscription I would have either avoided this episode completely or been knowingly complicit (and so so rich, living unfettered on an island the IRS cannot touch). 

There is one photo of me in the courtroom. I glowed with the rose cheeks and lips of the soon martyred.

My point is this: After the trial I met my husband who is my husband partly because of the aforementioned twelve year old daughter. I kept my name because his is worse. I was in this fog of new (very young) motherhood. And then we gave the girl a sibling, and then I returned to school to finish my degree, and the entire time Marco was far away. I really only think of him when I dab on a mask that never exfoliates as much as promised, or when I paint my own nails, and I do neither very often.

Three years ago I applied for thirteen jobs and no one called for an interview. I think I know why now. But I didn’t chase anything because I got pregnant with the littlest one (surprise!) and reentered that new motherhood fog. But last month I woke up one night and made a plan. I found thirteen new jobs (I like the number) and drafted cover letters. By the time the kids were up for school, I was ready to email prospective employers a robust cover letter and thin resume. I channeled the hope of Oprah. 

The hope of Oprah will be no help to me. I googled myself (first time for everything) and the top results are articles published in the online edition of your paper and its syndicates. Members of the Editorial Board, I am formally and desperately requesting you remove my name and photo from any article referencing Marco Linney or the Rox Pharmaceutical scandal. Please also remove my name and photo from the lifestyle article chronicling “hot crime sidekicks.” That should not even be a thing. 

I cannot say the pain and anguish caused by the decade plus of my name publicly linked with Marco Linney. I really have no idea the cost. At least twenty-six possible interviews, and very likely one nix on the neighborhood counsel run I attempted during the infancy of the littlest one when I was dying for a reason to leave the couch once every two weeks. But now that I know the specter of my poor relationship choice (poor only in hindsight: as stated, Marco was a gentleman) will dog me

Please. Sincerely,
Emily G–


Twenty-eight of thirty-nine. 788 words.

Drive Search

I am now going back through old drafts I started this year but haven’t posted yet. This summer I started a First Sentence Second Sentence exercise – the idea was to generate a first sentence to pair with five different second sentences, and then to write a story from each. I drafted three of the five, only typing two of the three. The one lost to my notebook(s) I want to find again because I liked the alternative space I created, a world whose best currency is a good secret.

Here are the first and second sentences from the exercise:

  • Her own family secret was not enough. Already there were too many novels or memoirs about illegitimate children. See below.
  • Her own family secrets were not enough. Diane needed a better currency. Started in notebook(s).
  • Her own family secret was not enough. Her grandparents insisted Diane could have learned that detail about the Ford truck from a newspaper and hollered her down from the porch that she was lying, and what did she want anyway? Modified first sentence after the story became something different.
  • Her own family secrets were not enough. Diane made grave rubbings of the entire Czewalski corner of the cemetery and spent hours in the public library squinting at the tiny print of period newspapers until she found the story about an axe down a well. 
  • When her own family secrets were not enough, Diane stole mine. Now I gotta answer questions all day from people like you who email or call or won’t leave until I answer the door. 

And now, the untitled (are we surprised?) twenty-seven of thirty-nine, at 989 words:


Her own family secret was not enough. Already there were too many novels or memoirs about illegitimate children. And it wasn’t like Diane’s great-grandmother had an affair with a mobster or movie star. Evelyn loved a migrant worker. It was the Dust Bowl. Diane opened her laptop and began typing what she could remember, that the boy was raised as Evelyn’s younger brother but the secret slipped on the eve of her wedding. And even then, there was no scandal. She married and her husband proposed her son join them in their new life and that was it. They moved to a farming town on the Wisconsin Illinois border. Diane closed her laptop. That was not a novel. She pecked a message to her friends, to meet for dinner and bring a family secret. 

I need new material, she said, when drinks were served. Drew chewed his thumbnail. Really, Diane said, I can’t do another Abigail book. Please. Abigail Raider was a series Diane started during her junior year of college. It was going to be a trilogy. Then she tacked on a fourth book because the copies kept selling and she wanted to go to Hawaii. But the thought of a fifth book brought on mild panic. She didn’t want to be just that kind of author, writing a character to death, writing in a genre she’d only tried on as a lark. But now she knew young adult fantasy and girls wrote gobs of fanfiction and school librarians asked her to speak and Diane hid in fear: she’d accidentally gotten good at peridwarves, sniggledragons, swampy meadows, fairy genealogy, and exasperated teenage sexual tension. Book four gave her readers the kiss they’d all been waiting for. Please, Diane said again.

Angie took a sip of her wine. You asked for family secrets, she said, I’ve got one. My father robbed a bank when he was seventeen. He was high. He was also a judge’s kid, got community service. Expunged record.

Diane took a small notebook from her bag. Can you say that again?
No. And don’t tell anyone. Angie took another sip of wine.
The point is I need a story. I could take that and make a novel. It’s exactly what I’m looking for! 
I get a split, Angie said.
Fine.
In writing. Angie waited a moment before smiling. Kidding. Just, really no one can know that’s my dad.

Of course. Diane scribbled what she could remember. Drew raised his hand. I’ve got something, he said, My uncle hanged himself. Diane waited. That’s it? she asked. That’s enough to start a story, Drew said. Diane made a note. Quinn said, Drew’s right. You need a nudge. You don’t need an outline. You’re the writer, you do the work. Quinn glanced at Drew and he winked.

Wait, Diane said, What’s that mean, you’re the writer? You write. 
Nothing, Quinn said, Just the figure it out part. That’s the point. 
It’s the reward of being a writer, you figuring it all out, Angie said. 
Drew shrugged. 
I mean, what’s wrong with what you’ve got going on? Angie asked.
It’s not what I want to write, Diane said.
But it pays.
It pays.
You got a tan. Drew raised his glass and they drank. 
Just don’t whinge, Quinn said, about how successful your dystopian romance weird underworld books are. 
But they aren’t what I want to write anymore.
Then don’t. Quinn opened the menu. I’m starving. 

They ordered. Diane listened to her friends talk about their work. As an office temp, an elementary school teacher, and an IT worker. In university she and Quinn studied English together and both submitted manuscripts to a contest the year Abigail got picked up for publication. What sells, she remembered asking Quinn. Harry Potter. Twilight. True crime. Romance. Yes, romance. Fantasy. And when Diane said she’d write that, Quinn double-dog-dared her and Abigail Raider took a shadow shape. Now Diane wondered if she’d betrayed the genre by beginning her work with skepticism and, worse, condescension, and if her readers would hate her for abandoning Abigail and Teo at the start of their love story and in the middle of Tallyway’s attack on the peridwarves. But when she and Quinn imagined being writers they had brains full of Flannery O’Connor, Hemingway, Joyce, dead writers and alive, serious writers who won awards and gave commencement speeches. Diane ate her burger without tasting the mustard and onion. Quinn was still writing. She sent pieces to obscure online magazines. All of her work was difficult to read but good. Diane took a drink of water and a waitress materialized to refill the sip. Drew was laughing at something Angie said and Quinn picked fries off Drew’s plate and Diane thought she could get up from the table, walk out the door and not be missed. 

Hey, Quinn said. She snapped her fingers across the table. Hey!
Diane shook her head, blinked.
Something in your drink? You look gone.
I’m fine, Diane said. She looked at Angie who liked Abigail, who dressed as Abigail for Halloween once. I think, Diane said, I think I’ll do a fifth book. Tie up the loose ends. 

Angie clapped. Drew raised his glass. Quinn nodded like she’d been expecting Diane’s conclusion. You did it right, Quinn said, Abigail sells. Diane shrugged. She said, After the fifth book, I want to try something else. But first Diane wanted to go to Abigail with a kind heart. First she wanted to visit a few schools, read the fan fiction. First she wanted to be sure she lived in the genre she wanted to move away from. Diane let her shoulders relax. She smiled. Quinn returned her smile. You can do this, Quinn said, and to Angie, I like that story about your dad. I might steal it. Angie laughed. Then Drew asked Quinn about her family secret and the night out was like any other.

Ms. Avery’s Serial

At university I had a professor who shared that he drafted maybe three hundred words a day on whatever was his current work in progress. I remember thinking that was so little. But there is an advantage to manageable, steady drafting.

I like to think of my writing practice as all inclusive. But while my writing practice may include drafts or ideas, the majority of that tiny cursive is readying me to write the pieces I want to write. So I may write a thousand words of observation, prayer, worry, repetitive thought, fragmented ideas or plans before netting two hundred words to keep. When I get the chance to rip through two thousand words on a draft, awesome. I love it. It’s rare.

Most days, if I’m working on a project, I manage five hundred or less (usually less) words, a doable pace that keeps me interested in but not overwhelmed by the narrative, giving me time between drafting to think about what to write next. Some of that thinking lands in my notebook as questions or lists until I am ready to focus on the work again. When I draft like this, the piece can feel like blocks. I draft the part of the narrative I am thinking about, which isn’t always the part that will come next in a finished piece.


I don’t know what happened, Vanessa wrote, I didn’t see Del much since I moved to Eau Claire but he and Bethie were married for five years and after they were married she still called me sometimes to tell me to stay out of their lives but I was always okay that they were together. Jennifer closed her eyes. Read that sentence aloud, Van, she would have said in the classroom. Vanessa would have hooked her feet around the chair legs of her desk and read aloud. I don’t know what happened. I didn’t – I haven’t seen Del much since moving to Eau Claire but – no, that’s the sentence. 

Jennifer moved to Denver, but not into Pete’s apartment. She interviewed with three schools and took a part-time position co-teaching sixth grade language arts at a charter school, and picked up early morning shifts at a coffee shop in her neighborhood. She learned enough Spanish to talk a little with her students’ parents but mostly communicated with the kids’ older siblings or social workers. There was a pleasant split between her morning and afternoon. The morning was steady, fast, and steady again, and Jennifer learned the usual orders of a couple dozen regulars within the first two weeks. Her hands and feet were always moving and she needed a good stretch before biking to the yellow brick rectangle that housed the charter school. But once there, the day was like sitting at a kitchen table, the administrators keen to nurture students, casual about test scores, trusting teachers to set the pace of their curriculum. Jennifer’s co-teacher was Karl, a man in his fifties who drank chamomile tea no matter the time. That first year at the school he invited Jennifer to join him for a weekend of making the space work, as he said, and they drove around to thrift stores looking for lamps, coffee tables and cheap, clean couches. When they found three hammocks, Karl said it was a good thing he had a concrete drill in the garage. 


Still twenty-six of thirty-nine, 339 new words for 1090 total.

Making More Work, But The Best Kind

Today is my first Flash Five story. The cheapest way to knock out five pieces, remember? I biked to Shinsegae this morning, sat with an iced latte and a blank page. Yesterday I was subbing in a grade four classroom and during the writing workshop a boy sat near me on the floor, spinning in a tight circle and whispering to me that he didn’t know what to write. Just start writing, I whispered back, and your mind will give you a story. I thought of that kid this morning. I wrote through two pages before starting a story. And one (long) paragraph in I realized it isn’t a flash fiction piece and I wasn’t going to unravel the characters in an hour. So I’m interrupting Flash Five before it’s begun and will instead post this untitled start serially for the next couple of days.


One of Jennifer’s former students emailed her about the murder. Vanessa Ridge neé Speth, a student in her freshman English class who was now a nutritionist and last emailed to announce the birth of a son, a year or two ago. Vanessa – all of her first freshmen – were now older than Jennifer had been when she moved to Cross Plains to begin her teaching career. The first year of teaching is supposed to be a nightmare but hers was not. She stayed late nearly every day, wrote lengthy responses to even banal notebook entries, cajoled Jeremiah to write one more paragraph, found audiobooks for Amber, decorated her classroom with literary quotes and twinkle lights, bought floor pillows and beanbags for Reading Fridays, stocked her class library with YA bestsellers and graphic novels. She let students bring their lunches to her room, spent one prep period taking on a study hall. Jennifer adored the need of her kids. She kept granola bars and crackers in a filing cabinet, half pints of milk in her mini dorm fridge. She listened to hour long recounts of family drama, and placed a hand on the shoulder of a student near or in tears, sat across many of those same confessing students in the counselor’s office as next steps were determined. (Her boyfriend called these kids her rescue project, and so what if they were?) Other students, like Vanessa who thought to email her a decade after that freshman English class, were bright with hope, excited to be in high school, arriving the first day wearing unscuffed shoes and toting backpacks full of clean spiral notebooks. These were the students who revived a dead socratic seminar, remembered to MLA format their essays, and returned books with an expectation to discuss what Jennifer thought too, before asking for another recommendation. Jennifer loved doling out, and her kids gave in return: cookies baked over the weekend, an invitation to a quinceañera, nods in the hall or calls out at a football game – Ms. Avery! Ms. Avery! Over here! – with introductions to parents (who never replied to her class updates emails), handwritten notes delivered in person the day before summer break, and later, hugs and ecstatic smiles at graduation. Jennifer stayed in Cross Plains four years to see Vanessa and her class graduate. Rereading the email, Jennifer remembered now that Del was Vanessa’s processional partner, and that the woman who would murder him was then only a girl named Bethie who was partnered with Jeremiah, and following a few paces back.


Twenty-six of thirty-nine. 423 word start!

Dropping It

Last week I started reading a book I wanted to like. I read the first page, the fragments a good turn from the long, winding sentences of the previous book. But I couldn’t find the place. I read the second chapter, a new narrator, the chapters trading voices, but then came two chapters of the same voice, and neither voice was well enough distinguished except by their individual thoughts – no defining stylistic choices, only that the man had this work, the woman had this thought. I have been reading widely lately, reading to examine what I might do as a writer too. But I still quit the book, picked up another I read in three days – a plural narrator, something I try occasionally but haven’t figure out.

My ThirtyNine Stories project ends in two months. I have fifteen pieces to write. Yesterday I thought about looking up the parameters I set and decided against the reminder: there is something, I am certain, about ten thousand word stories (as in more than one) and I haven’t put one together. There are stories I am mapping, but not for this project. In February I decided to apply to MFA programs but wasn’t ready to slam together a portfolio in three weeks so I have only just applied to begin next semester. I am not yet accepted. But deciding to pursue an MFA and thinking about my writing from a more professional perspective, and a conversation with an old friend this summer has made me more protective of some of my work. Which means that some of my better, recent work is only mine right now.

Yet I will post a thirty-ninth story in early November. Last week I thought about how to make that happen. I am always making up some writing assignment for myself so two ideas came fast: Five Flash and Snapshots. Five Flash is the cheapest way I can think of to knock out five pieces: starting next Saturday I’ll post one story a day for five days. To prep I’ll write first sentences, maybe second sentences. Snapshots comes from writing practice I did a couple of weeks ago when I thought about the little green house my family rented after we returned to Wisconsin from Italy. For the practice of writing place and period, I want to write about three of my childhood places.

Back to dropping it. The piece I’m posting below is a start I’ll likely never finish. I was thinking about Bonnie and Clyde. I was thinking about grandparents robbing banks to pay their granddaughter’s college tuition. They have to get caught. The sprees they got away with in their youth are just not possible in a world of GPS, surveillance, web sleuths. I still like the idea but am dropping it for now. I held it for a fun minute though.


Her grandfather hollered down from the porch that she was lying, and what did she want anyway? I’m not lying, Diane yelled back, And I only came out here to tell you I saw it on TV! Her grandfather, who kept the pantry stocked with peanut M&Ms for her, who remembered her half birthday with a twenty dollar bill, who called her sweetpea even though she was nearly twenty years old, her grandfather took a shade of red and hollered she best be on her way. Next to him, her grandmother leaned over the porch rail like she might leap, leaning like the forward motion might propel them all to a better understanding. Diane took a step back, reaching for her bike, pushing off and pedaling as furiously away from the old farmhouse as she had, minutes before, pedaled toward the same. Near the road, Diane turned to look over her shoulder. Her grandmother with both hands, palms flat, on her grandfather’s chest, face tilted up. Her grandfather with rare, unkind strength, hands at his sides. It was their truck Diane saw in the corner frame of surveillance footage from the bank. The truck that pulled flatbed floats in the homecoming, Fourth of July, and Dairy Days parades, the truck that stopped at empty four way intersections, the truck that rarely tipped past fifty-seven miles an hour even on a flat stretch of county highway. 

Diane was at Abigail’s when the news came on, the two girls microwaving popcorn to celebrate the summer home after a freshman year away to different UW campuses. At breaks during the year they had met to do this too, make popcorn and talk. About classmates who dropped at semester or broke up or got pregnant, about classes and what a bitch all that reading is now, how a C may as well be an A at university, about newly acquired or considered piercings or tattoos, about sending nudes once, about drinking beer versus vodka, about still going to mass. Diane hadn’t shed the strictures of her upbringing but the ties were loosening and Abigail’s stories were a peek at what sophomore year might contain. Diane was wary though. Her mother was manic depressive and Diane was raised in two homes during her middle and high school years, after her father fled, her mother’s small, high ceilinged apartment in an old brick building on the square, housed above the small, nearly extinguished town paper, and her maternal grandparents’ sprawling acreage two miles outside of town, the bordering fields leased out to other farmers now. Diane had started the summer at her mother’s apartment in town, selfishly because her mother was less attentive and Diane liked the freedom of hours she’d discovered at university. Her mother, at the moment Diane saw the news story in Abigail’s house, had no idea where Diane was, and couldn’t remember seeing her daughter the day before either.  

It was her grandfather’s truck. Diane recognized the decal on the back window. An unusual, unique decal, the reporter said. Stick figures of a man, woman, girl and four cats. The decal, enlarged and enhanced, and the make and model of the truck was featured on local newscasts across Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. Investigators were fairly certain this exact truck was at the scenes of bank robberies in the three states, the earliest seven years before when the truck was new off the lot. The microwave dinged but neither Diane nor Abigail moved to retrieve the bag. Both girls had drifted from the kitchen to the living room and stood numb before the gigantic flatscreen as the female anchor held her grave expression before a commercial cut in. Oh my God, Abigail said and pulled her phone from the back pocket of her jean shorts, thumb typing a search. Oh my God, Diane, it’s Papa and Nana. Look. She held out her phone and Diane looked at the silhouette of her grandparents sitting in the Ford truck at an Illinois toll booth. Police seek to identify suspects in tristate robberies. If you have information call. Investigators crossed state lines to piece together elaborate pattern of robberies. Diane put a hand to her mouth. The microwave dinged again and this time Diane moved, running out to the driveway where she’d parked her bike, hopping on, shoving off to race to Papa and Nana’s.

Papa and Nana didn’t believe in television, and that’s how they explained it when Diane asked could they please get a TV, at least for weekends. They did believe in internet though, even when it was molasses dial up. But even when they couldn’t get an internet contract without a cable contract, Papa and Nana resisted buying a television, compromising at watching the occasional movie on Diane’s laptop set on the coffee table. So when Diane arrived at her grandparents’ farmhouse, they hadn’t seen the news story about their truck, the link to half a dozen (or more) robberies, the decals everyone would now look for (the decals the whole town would know immediately, without the picture proof). You rob banks! Diane yelled before she’d even parked her bike. Banks! Her Papa and Nana  were on the porch with the cats, as they were most summer evenings.


Twenty-five of thirty-nine. 877 words.

Burn It Down

A year ago I liked the metaphor of a wildfire. Scorch my earth, burn the dead wood. I was already setting fire in my notebooks and I had this terrible, appealing idea that I may as well share all my shame and fear here, just lay it out plain. Always this is a temptation. I began drafting twin essays, unimaginatively titled “Shame” and “Fear,” cataloguing as much garbage as my mind could dredge, absolution by way of confession. I thought to do this so that when you read how I love Jesus, you can better understand why I am in such desperate need of a savior. I do not glory in the mess. Yet I write the mess and last year all I could think was how much I wanted to walk into the dry forest of past wrongs (mine, yours), smoke a cigarette, and flick the butt on tinder ground. And while I was curious what color my anger would burn, how high the flame of my sorrow, I was more interested in what might come after the fire caught and went hungry through my mind, over my body.

This year I like the idea of a controlled burn. If the wind is right my wildfire would char you. I may want the revival of undergrowth, the newest green at a cost, but I do not need to set fire to neighboring forests and fields. 

A week ago we were at a cabin on a lake near Eagle River. I called my friend Kate and confessed that when I woke up before light that morning I’d scrolled through a few old relationships and then messaged people I haven’t spoken to in over a decade. One a cringe, apology. One an appreciation. Neither wholly necessary and both unlikely to reply. Kate laughed, in the best way. What is it with Wisconsin? I asked. I return in the summer and all these things come to me. Like, I thought I was over whatever and then there it is again. And I am compelled to attend all the feelings, to examine and figure out, justify or let go, pray for comfort or healing or forgiveness, pray how to redeem, restore. Rarely do I let a hurt or regret be on its way without first stripping it to bone. 

It’s situational, Kate said. She experiences the same. We all do. A person, song, place. Something that rockets us back to an old bruise or cut, break. And usually I take this part of summer in stride, expecting a round of paralyzing shame or a flame of anger mitigated by the patient tenderness of my husband who reminds me everything will really be okay, yes it will, yes.

But this year I am impatient for a controlled burn after One: a year of thinking I might always feel a little dead, and Two: years of wanting to scream retroactively about situations I keep thinking I let go, brought up by an annual journey to the place and people of scream-worthy situations. Each year I return to my university town where I encounter some past Sarah that presses my spirit to change in some way. One summer I drove all my old running routes, recalling mornings after terrible nights when I tied my shoelaces and thought I might throw up one mile in. Another summer I recounted a list of misguided (can we even call them) relationships. I sat on a swing in Iverson park and wished I could be awesome at marriage. When the children were little I ran for miles on the fuel of fear Justin and I made a mistake to marry one another, but to negate our marriage was also editing our children from existence. And every summer I was angry at a situation that was awful but probably not as awful as I imagined, and angry that I was angry at all. 

The situation that wasn’t as awful as I imagined is my in-laws. And this is a controlled burn I crave. I want to write about when Justin and I moved abroad and his parents were wildly unsupportive. It was a parenting miss I just could not let go. But I want to write about that time, and the years since, because my relationship with my in-laws bears thoughtful reckoning – what I have learned (what have I learned?), the navigation of time together, slow forgiveness, fear of bitterness, the effort of love. And I think I can finally write this without wanting to set their lives on fire. Still, I marvel at the swells of anger, the summers home when I returned to our earliest disagreements at the dining table. My father-in-law reddened and shouting. Is there an escape clause!? he wanted to know, after Justin and I signed our contract with a school in Colombia. I remember my body going cool, thinking, This is the escape clause. Then, lifting from the flashback, I’d go about the regular, present day, my heart pounding. 

And during months away I would find a benevolent balance again. Compassion again. Only to drive up north the next summer in the States, tension in my body again.

For a long time I dismissed my response as something wrong with me. Why couldn’t I move on from that hurt? Why did that hurt come back new? And for a long time I supposed my in-laws’ response to our moving abroad wasn’t mine to share because the story does paint them poorly and caveats are insufficient cover. Things are better now and they aren’t terrible people, but they also dumped a lot of junk in one year, and that was terrible. Their response is mine to share because it was directed at me, and while my mother-in-law has patted my shoulder and kindly said I need to get over it, words and actions ripple. One of my prayers is to see people as people, to practice the love I need too. I understand why my in-laws were afraid of Justin and I moving overseas. Or, at least I understand their perspective better. Most summers home I engage my mother-in-law in uncomfortable conversation about that year and our relationship because I want to say what is necessary as I continue to process, and because I want to know her better too. I want to trust what we have now. I doubt my mother-in-law or father-in-law would react today as they did years ago. We grow. And that is part of this story too.

What I want to do is likely opposite what anyone would advise. Sometimes I wonder why more adults aren’t estranged from their parents or in-laws. Why we keep going back when very often the relationship is unchanged, when approval is withheld, when the best we take away is the sense we’re probably doing the right thing to not burn it down. Is there always something worth salvaging after a fight or pause of years? There are periods during my marriage when I did not want to visit my in-laws. Yet I held to the ridiculous hope that we could be a lovely family. Ridiculous hope because I was angry and hurt but still thinking I might somehow turn the whole mess to better – only to later abandon hope to tally wrongs. So this writing I want to do is about that one awful year, but also about who I am (we are) now because of that year, and what good and difficult work has come from this important relationship. This story, for the fun revel of a family fight (pick a side!), is mostly about heart change. Or rather, heart change is why I can now write about this without fear or shame. 

Also, a late note: that year was so much more than the disapproval of my in-laws. We loved moving abroad. We were excited and ready for adventure. I want to write the joy and relief of chasing a dream. Justin and I talked about moving abroad for years before it was set that next year (next year!) we’ll leave Wisconsin for somewhere else. Probably Europe. I want to write about the hours exploring school websites and maps, fitting ourselves to Belgium or Singapore or Argentina, and then our first job fair on a frigid February weekend in Iowa when our expectation was recast and to consider Colombia, Egypt, Senegal. I want to write about giving away stuff, culling our closets and cupboards for what to ship to South America. I remember the plane banking to land in Cali at night, the city lights flung up the Andean foothills, and the bus ride through the city. I looked out the window and felt electric and certain this was where I belonged. So all of that is contained in our last year in Wisconsin too. We took on a daring project. We played unsafe. And being away from home felt at home. 

When I talked with Kate about what coming back to Wisconsin stirs emotionally/ mentally/ spiritually, I was also curious if these issues might be resolved by now if I hadn’t moved away. Like, if I was always driving north to visit my in-laws would that single year figure so prominently in my definition of our relationship? Maybe I am finally hitting the exposure therapy quota. Maybe it’s all coming together. Maybe it’s time I learn how to be here, observe and honor past experiences as they come back, but choosing to walk the full present too, allowing the present as it is – looped to but not completely defined by the past. So I’ll sift through the burned pages. I’ll find the green shoots. 


Twenty of thirty-nine. 1613 words.

Process

A few years ago (several years ago, likely – the years and practice bleed) I started note drafting my narrative pieces. This is a way for me to pull my daydream drafts to a page, sketch a story while the ideas are in my head. Character names, places, motivations, situations or plot points, whole sentences, dialogue, whatever elements I can see in the moment I put on the page for later use. Sometimes my story notes weave through a few notebooks before I commit much to a draft.

Yesterday I thought about that line

I don’t take the heat like I used to

and what story I might make from it. We’re up in northern Wisconsin, on a lake with my husband’s parents for the week. I imagine any vacation as a potentially prolific time for my writing, and most aren’t, but here I’ve taken an hour or two each day to journal and draft. Last night, citing spotty wi-fi in the cabin, the kids and I headed to the camp lodge where they connected to play Minecraft and I thought about not taking the heat like I used to.

Today I headed into town for a coffee and drafted the first paragraphs of the story. I like to draft longhand, at least to get the piece started, before I begin typing, and I usually return to my notebook to draft scenes or think about a story further. Again, this can run through a few notebooks. Thirty-Nine Stories is supposed to cut the space between thinking and making so today I quit journaling (I have little new to say anyway) and started the draft. Then, with fifteen minutes until closing (at 2pm!) I began typing.


Maggie called Lynn on Monday night. Mom, she said, I have an interview in the Cities tomorrow morning. Maggie’s usual sitter caught a bug or had food poisoning, something gastric, and couldn’t watch Cheyenne. Can you? Maggie paused. Please? Within the hour Maggie pulled into the drive, popped the trunk of her old Honda to retrieve a duffel bag. Come on! she called over her shoulder and Cheyenne unbuckled, opened the car door and followed her mom up the walk. Maggie knocked but pulled the screen door open before Lynn moved from her view at the kitchen window. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Maggie said, I didn’t want to leave early and still hit traffic. She met Lynn in a tight hug. Third interview, she said, They actually booked a hotel for me. I think this is when – . She stepped back, shook her head.

Honey, that’s great! Lynn smiled. She sounded and looked like this was great news, and it was. Maggie caught the effort but didn’t know if it was Lynn, hurt by the surprise, or Lynn, still unmoored by widowhood. 

I’m sorry, Maggie said, I should have told you sooner. But it’s like, a little too good. I didn’t want to say anything. Behind her, Cheyenne scuffed the floor with her shoe. Could be fun, right, Chey? Maggie reached an arm around to pull her daughter into a side hug. Cheyenne shrugged. Maggie dipped to kiss the part in Cheyenne’s hair, then looked up at Lynn, made a face that said please help. Lynn was out of practice helping, though she’d been great help during her granddaughter’s first years as Maggie finished a degree and found work. Tether distance, Maggie said after landing her first job, echoing Lynn’s own joke about which colleges Maggie could apply to, when Lynn couldn’t imagine not seeing her daughter each day. But Maggie flung a wide net and moved to the ocean, returning with a baby, staying tether distance in the decade since. 

Lynn looked at her granddaughter, reached a hand to touch Cheyenne’s shoulder. I’ve missed you, she said, We should do all the things. Cheyenne smiled then, ducked her head at that, an old exchange that once opened their time together. What should we do? Lynn would ask. Everything! Cheyenne would open her arms wide. You mean, all the things? Lynn would lift Cheyenne to rest on a hip and they would begin listing: lunch first, then a safari, a walk to the playground, a trip in a hot air balloon, ice cream for dinner. Cheyenne became the small voice of reason. Grams, she would say, We can’t go to Paris. It’s a hundred million miles away! 

Thank you, Maggie mouthed. She hugged Cheyenne and whispered something. Cheyenne nodded. Then Maggie was out the door, backing the Honda down the drive. Lynn asked, So what should we do? and Cheyenne sighed, picked up her duffel and retreated down the hall to her mom’s old bedroom. 


Nineteen of thirty-nine started. 496 words so far.