Story As Story

We went to Petra but did not see the monastery. When you go, Marcia said, you have to see the monastery. She followed a Jordanian guide at night, to see the sky, but rain came, the rock was slick, and the sky hid. We walked to Petra in the bright morning, leaving a street of restaurants and souvenir shops to wind through ancient, quiet caverns. Claire was two and half and surprised us by walking all the way to the Treasury, racing ahead and turning back, cheeks pinked by the early heat. Grant was six months and I carried him, belly to belly, dipping my face to blow air on his neck, lifting him to nurse in the dark mouth of a cave carved from red stone, soot on its ceiling, a scent of cat piss. We ate mid afternoon lunch with a crowd of tourists. We talked about what to see next. The monastery, I said, thinking of Marcia telling me that even in the rain, it was beautiful. Claire was tired and Grant was heavy and the monastery was up a steep hill of uneven steps. We could ride a skinny mule led by a skinny boy. We wandered dusty ruins, walked past impossible columns, stood in the amphitheater. And I knew we wouldn’t trek up to the monastery. We could. We could but we were tired. That year after my son was born was a yield to motherhood, and that afternoon in Petra a stone to mark: let go, let go.

I remember the late afternoon sun turning my children’s hair to gold. We walked out of Petra and I thought I probably would not see the monastery, ever, and that was heavy and light.

Now I am wondering what to do with this story.

Now I am thinking of story as story, only.

When my daughter was born, I labored several hours alone before I called my husband to come home, it is time. I was alone when the baby shifted and my right leg went numb. I sat wide to ease the pressure on my hips and the baby dropped. In my body it was like an audible pfff-wok, two distinct, startling movements setting my daughter in place to be born. I looked down at my swollen belly and said to her, You’re ready. She and I were about to be new, together.

These two experiences are more than the words here.

I am writing a collection of stories about living abroad. A year ago I wondered if I could write a multigenre collection, tucking essay alongside fiction. A year ago I thought I might write a memoir about summers home, that odd way of knowing family, friends and country six weeks at a time.

Since January I have played with a different idea, to write a collection of stories without distinguishing my lived experience from the work of my imagination.

I lived it
if I put it on the page
I was there
when it happened

These are first thoughts. But I am finding a way to tell it all.

As I Draft: Choosing One Story (but Writing Two)

In Kuwait I got massage from a Filipino woman named ­Charo. (Her name is not Charo). In our time together she told me stories about arriving to Kuwait, working for an abusive family, finding placement in salons, learning massage, supporting her family back home. For a few years I thought about how to make a story of that story. I was naked. She was clothed. Something about that dynamic – the physical reversal of constructed authority (me, a white woman in the hands of brown woman in a country where racism was daily apparent) and Charo’s interruption of the usual relationship between masseuse and client, her filling all the silence with her story so that I had to listen – something about that dynamic is powerful.

I began to draft the story and yesterday I thought there should be something else happening to the narrator too. Like Charo’s story is a contrast or complement to another narrative. Many of my stories are like this: two or three lines to trace through. One of the stories I submitted to winter workshop is about a woman looking for the hottest water at a public bath in Budapest. But inside that story is another, of the trauma she carries around. Because that is how it works to be a person: we walk through good and terrible days carrying a bunch of good and terrible things.

And events or emotions entangle. I appreciate and examine the complication. There was a year when I wanted to have an affair. That same year a friend’s infant died. When I think of one, I often think of the other. Or when I remember traveling to Australia, I go my grandfather. We were at the gate when I saw my mother’s email. When I think of Australia, I think of a twinned narrative: that I might have canceled a plan and gone home to Wisconsin winter instead. When I think of Australia, I am seven, balancing on the crossbar of Grandpa’s ten-speed, racing down the hill. There was wind and his perspiration and the command not to fidget.

So yesterday I thought about what to add to this Charo story. Give the narrator a separate experience. Entwine the two. But I wonder if the better story is to understate the narrator’s separate life: it is there, given in a few lucid details, but not brought forward.

I consider who is telling the story. And whose story am I telling. The narrator is a white woman like me. I want her to listen like I listened to Charo. How do I write to make the narrator listen, to let the reader hear too? I think now this story is still an entanglement of two: listening is its own story.

Aggressive Drafting

Semester one of Stonecoast MFA: cannot be precious about drafting. Must draft. I am so glad for Anne Lamott’s birds right now. I am also glad for a café with good light and ginger lattes. I am glad for my kids who come along with their art supplies so I am not always off alone.

When I write essay, I am quick. I am only quick because I’ve banked dozens of pages on an idea already so that when I decide to write its essay, the sentences are easier to put together. So the first draft is really a midway iteration of what I am trying to say. When I write fiction, I putz. I daydream. I note draft. I think it is probably a dumb story I shouldn’t bother with. Then I write out a few paragraphs. Sometimes I type two or three pages before I decide I have a better idea and it isn’t this story at all – it’s a new story, one that catches me before revealing that it is also probably a dumb story too. Finally I draft a story to its completion. Then the (great) work of revision. Then the wonder if the finished story ever is.

One reason I chose to pursue an MFA was for its rigor and due dates. I got really tired of making up my own assignments. Now I have lots of pages of new fiction due each month. I had the smallest panic my first week back in Korea when I thought about how to manage the process while also covering a maternity leave and then decided that no one dies if I teach well or even adequately (rather than spectacularly), but I don’t want to squander this MFA. I think teachers aren’t supposed to admit to doing enough. We’re supposed to froth inspiration. But I trust my teaching ability and care, and know that I can guide this group for the next few months without ruining my sleep or neglecting my own creative work. I shared this with a colleague who said it was great, that saying no to more for more feels good. My identity was entangled with my profession and I realized that when I left my own classroom and its warm circle of routine and rapport. Really I was headed this way, to let go teaching to pursue writing, but I didn’t know when: well, now.

This is what my writing looks like: on the flight back to Korea I sketched out two story ideas. I love note drafting. For the first few days back I steadied myself at school and continued to roll around a story, started drafting in my notebook. Then I parked myself last weekend for a couple of hours and typed. I thought I must be halfway to a page count. I was about a fifth of the way. Think of the birds. Midweek I got bogged by how to write one part of the story so I just typed LEAP and then wrote another block of story. All of this gets rearranged or removed or rewritten anyway. Yesterday I drafted a piece of flash fiction alongside the creative writing class and today I typed that up with light revision, to add it to my page count – flash pieces are like little pep talks: look what you can do! Then I wrote a lovely scene for the story at hand, a return to Colombia, the town a mash of two places Justin and I visited when Claire was a baby. It’s a little like going back which is nice on this dead winter day.

And this work is so much fun. Absolutely pleased to be aggressively drafting.

Busan

A couple of weekends ago we took the train to Busan. Our friend Sarah organized a get together with a group of Kuwait friends. We met at the beach. The kids spent the afternoon in the sand and water. We talked and laughed. The next morning I walked to a Starbucks and sat looking out at the sea. I miss the Gulf in Kuwait. I wrote about that. I wrote about how simple it was to sit next to friends I haven’t sat next to in years. That weekend was essential: I needed to know there is a place in Korea that gives me the Gulf, and I learned again how perfect it is that we remind one another who we were, or who we are, with stories, sharing memory.

Back in Seoul, I drafted a thousand words quickly. I let the draft sit a week. Today I took thirty minutes to halve the piece. The idea is to work swiftly. Develop editing intuition.

In my notebook I am turning over the idea of friends gathering after years. I will likely pull together an essay about that afternoon gathering on the beach because there was a moment when Angela remembered us and I saw how she saw me, and I thought that is such a gift, to remember one another to each other. (I wonder who I am, if composed from the memories of others). I may also work that beach afternoon into a fiction piece.

Below, the revised excerpt (447 words) and the quick draft (1006 words). Thirty of thirty-nine.


We took the train to Busan for the beach. I told my husband that we should spend a Saturday in Busan, just to find a place away from Seoul, a place easy enough to get to by train. Thirty minutes into our trip south, the countryside and smaller cities passing by, Justin said, Good idea, dear. And a few hours later, walking down a side street in Haeundae, I decided Busan is our second place in Korea: we turned a corner and there was the beach, a long run of sand, the sea.

The week before, I laid on my osteopath’s table while he manipulated, coaxed my body into alignment. I began seeing Dr. Joseph after a running injury. My left side was weak, arch to hip. Progress is incremental but my body is more balanced now, stronger, and Dr. Joseph tells me I need to run again. It is like I must teach my body it is healed. At that appointment, Dr. Joseph asked, What is your emotion? 

I miss the Gulf in Kuwait. I miss our Friday walks along the corniche, the kids biking ahead, pausing at playgrounds to climb, jump. I miss the wind and choppy water, the heat shimmer on stone, the occasional and welcome gray day. I miss the palms and grassy spaces families settled, spreading blankets and unpacking carafes of tea, the kids running out from these hubs, and back again for a juice or ice cream money or an afternoon nap. The pace of our walks along the Gulf was only unhurried. 

Our bodies are so much water. Our bodies respond to the presence of water. Dr. Joseph pressed one palm at my back, the other on my hamstring, and held. He said, You should go to the sea. The water calms. I know this from the Gulf, its undulation a meditation. I am finite. I am finite but God is more than sea and sky. 

I did not grow up near an ocean. I grew up with lakes of the midwest. Quiet, mirror surfaces at dawn. Lake Michigan was the wildest water I knew and at oceans after I recognized the belly pull to be near a body I could not contain. I do not need to surf or sail, but only be near the sea. And so at Busan. There was a ledge, a small leap down to the sand. I sat. I rolled my neck, turned my face to the sun. Claire crouched next to me. Mom, she said, We have to come back here. Grant was already at the tide line. Claire jumped to the sand and I watched her return to the sea too.


First Draft

We took the train to Busan for the beach, and to visit with friends. To visit with friends at the beach. I wanted both when I told my husband we should go spend a Saturday in Busan, just to find a place away from Seoul, a place easy enough to get to by train since we do not own a car. We like not owning a car, but for two years we’ve been hemmed in by the subway system. Thirty minutes into our trip south, the countryside and smaller cities passing by, Justin and I decided we should do this again. And a few hours later, checked into our hotel and walking down a side street in Haeundae I thought how this could be our second place in Korea. We could belong here too. We could take the train on a Friday afternoon, sleep, wake up and walk to the beach. 

I miss the Gulf. I miss our lazy Friday or Saturday walks along the corniche, the kids biking or rollerblading ahead, pausing at the playgrounds to climb and jump. I miss the wind and choppy water, the heat shimmer on stone, the occasional and welcome gray day. I miss the palms and wide grassy spaces families would settle, spreading blankets and unpacking carafes of tea. I miss the kids running out from these hubs, and back again for a juice or ice cream money or an afternoon nap. The pace of our walks along the Gulf was only slow. 

Busan is more relaxed than Seoul. I heard this from Koreans and expats. We turned off the side street and there was the beach, a long run of sand, the sea. The water relaxes Busan. My osteopath told me to go to the sea, to be near the water. Our bodies are so much water. Our bodies respond to the presence of water. The water calms us. I know this from the Gulf, its undulation a meditation. I am finite, and this is a reassuring truth. I am finite but God is more than the sea and sky. 

I did not grow up near an ocean. I grew up with lakes of the midwest, swimming the width of one at summer camp. Lake Michigan was the wildest water I knew and at oceans after I recognized the belly pull to be near a body I could not contain. I do not need to surf or sail, but only sit, be near the sea. And so at Busan. There was a ledge, a leap down to the sand, and I sat. Claire crouched next to me. Mom, she said, We have to come back here. 

Our friends arrived. The day was warm, bright. All week was cold, they said, We had rain. We sat in a line on the ledge, talking about the years in Korea, or remembering Kuwait, naming old friends and where they were now. Our kids and the Nelson kids reacquainted themselves and chased after one another, built a sand city below the tide line, looked for crabs, collected shells and thought they found a shark egg. We filled in the years. Iain and Angela’s child was a toddler when I last saw him. There were two children whom I hadn’t met before, belonging to a couple who moved to Brazil after Kuwait, and then to their hometown in Canada. Why did you leave? I asked Scotty. He laughed. Years of dinner conversations about when we should move abroad again, he said. So they sold their house. We’re international now, he said. Sarah set out snacks on the ledge, and Justin went to the GS25 for beers, and the sky moved to early evening.

For a time I sat next to Angela. I remember going to your apartment, she said, And setting Jameson down in a little chair. Grant was there. I remember your baking, she said, and asked if I still bake. In Kuwait I baked bread, cakes, bars, cookies and carried plates to neighbors. I once spent eight hours baking a single cake, whisking salted caramel and remaking the ganache, whipping buttercream that didn’t break. But I don’t bake often now. It was odd to sit on a beach in Busan and remember that in Kuwait I sifted powdered sugar and fine almond meal half a dozen times before folding the ingredients into macaron batter. Remember me back to me. When I think of Angela there are a handful of vignettes I keep, but one I go to first, of an evening I stopped at her apartment because I thought of her, due soon. We stood in the arc of the open door. She kept a hand at her belly. I’m ready, she said, or, I am so ready. Her son was born the next day, and at his doljanchi a year later, I watched him lean forward, reaching for his future. 

Later at dinner, Christy looked at our four children drawing together. Look at them, she said, and I did. Two years is not so long. We ordered hommos, tabbouleh, fattoush, kebab, shawarma, curries, Lebanese bread and naan. We ordered what we missed from Kuwait.

Before we parted that night, Christy said, You know what Elsie remembered about Claire? She remembered a kitty cat game they played. Claire would be the mama cat with all her kittens. I looked at Elsie, two years taller with more of her father’s expression on her face now. The kitty game, I said, I remember the kitty game! When would I have remembered the kitty game if Elsie had not remembered it first? How good to be with people who give us our stories. We said goodbye, promised to meet again, and soon. The next day we met the Love family at the same beach and I thought again how long and short the time apart is, how easily we can slip into conversation again, how simple our kids are about reestablishing a dynamic. We spot the easy change. We recognize the core of friendship.

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

Likely the last of this I will post, though I will continue to write the story. So twenty-six of thirty-nine with 1714 words (624 new).


On her drive to Colorado, Jennifer stopped a night in Nebraska. She went through a McDonald’s drive thru and watched half an episode of CSI Miami before turning off the television. The motel was near the interstate. There was the hum of traffic, even that late, and the sounds of a family just arriving two or three doors down, and a ringing in her ears brought on, she guessed, but driving at ninety with the windows rolled down and the radio cranked. She remembered to call her mom. Later, signing the lease in Denver, and then the teaching contract, seeing Pete for an evening that closed with a handshake, spending a Sunday night meal prepping for the week, purchasing a coral cardigan from a shop her mom liked, deciding that she would be Ms. Avery even if she married (someone, someday) – later, Jennifer would feel like an adult but that night in the motel she considered driving back to Wisconsin. Her job was gone. Her classroom was already someone else’s. The last week of school she told her students she was moving west, like it was an adventure, and she wrote her personal email on the board, promised to write back, thanked them for such a great year of learning together. The news traveled through the grades and her former students stopped by to write their emails on slips of paper Jennifer tucked into a manila envelope. In Nebraska Jennifer was afraid she would not be as loved ever again. 

But she was loved again, by childlike eleven and twelve year olds who wrote fantastical stories or single sentences in the course of two hours, who played Bananagrams, who brought tamales to share. A dozen of her Wisconsin students emailed that first year, and fewer in the second year, and then it was only Vanessa sending out a line every year or two as she graduated university, married, had a baby, surpassing Jennifer who dated occasionally and thought her students were babies enough. Vanessa continued to address Jennifer as Ms. Avery, though Jennifer signed her replies with Best, Jennifer. Best, but far away. 

Vanessa’s emails were mostly bright, a little gossipy, returning Jennifer to names and situations she would otherwise forget. I went to the five year reunion at Riley Lake which was a mistake, Vanessa wrote, because Bethie came up to me when I was talking to Del like she thought I was coming on to him. I’m only telling you this Ms. Avery because you were there when I broke up with him. And now I’m engaged so I showed Bethie the ring and she said out of nowhere that her and Del slept together while he was dating me. Jennifer read that email during a lull at the cafe one morning. She remembered Bethie at the high school commencement practice, rolling her eyes at the partners, glaring when Vanessa laughed at something Del said. And after the ceremony when all the families gathered in the foyer, spilled onto the school’s lawn, when Jennifer moved from student to student to wish the best, shake hands, offer brief side hugs, she found Del and Bethie standing together, Bethie wearing heels she tottered on and a brown lipstick. Stunning, Jennifer said, and Bethie smirked. So Vanessa’s emails were like a rope that went slack for a time but snapped tight to connect Jennifer again to this other time. She was surprised by what Vanessa would confess, maybe a holdover from the journal practice Jennifer instilled in each class, the permission to write anything. Jennifer wrote back a congratulations on the engagement, and observed Vanessa was the exact age she’d been when she moved to Cross Plains to teach her first class ever.

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.

Ms. Avery’s Serial

Still twenty-six of thirty-nine, with 751 words so far (328 new today). Not much to show for two hours of note form drafting. I’m working out the story of Del and Bethie. But I can’t put that together yet. I need to stay with Jennifer rather than stray from her point of view.


Jennifer left Cross Plains to follow her ex-boyfriend to Denver. In college half their friends talked about heading west for the climbing or the mountains, and Jennifer wondered if this yearn for adventure was a trickle down doubt in Norwegian and German family lines who hadn’t pressed west a hundred and fifty years earlier. After graduation, Jennifer and Pete, like most of their friends, took the first jobs offered in Wisconsin, Minnesota or Illinois. But after three years in Cross Plains Pete quit his job, packed his hatchback to the roof, and left. If I have to do another winter here, he said, and shuddered. It was August, the start of Jennifer’s fourth school year with the district, and she’d just arrived back to their apartment after the first day of inservice. I can’t just leave! she said. She pointed at the flowers in a vase on the kitchen table. I thought – I thought you were proposing, she said. Pete shrugged. They were fifty percent off at the grocery store, he said, Sorry. 

Even so, they parted amicably. That winter Jennifer was probably as depressed as Pete had been the previous winter, seeing only the churches, bars and snowmobile trails. At school she was bright and continued to stay late to help student council run the concession stand at basketball games or wrestling matches. She revamped curriculum, attended professional development courses. She wrote college recommendation letters for the seniors who had continued to drop by her room through their sophomore and junior years. My babies! she had teased Vanessa and Del when they asked her for letters. At home Jennifer went to bed within an hour of locking the door. Finally she called Pete to ask did he mind if she joined him? By the fourth quarter when Vanessa came to her after school crying because Del broke up with her, Jennifer was starting to guess why most teachers quit during their first five years in the profession.