Fiction

Lengthen or shorten here

Of late, I find myself thinking about sewing patterns: those brown-tissue sheets with dotted and forked lines meant for making clothes that look for all the world like a map of an alien land. My memories of these go back to around the Pleistocene Age, aka Pre-Internet Age, when we had to go to the local fabric shop to browse and buy the patterns for our frocks. For us, in 1970s-80s small-town Arizona, the shop was Cornet (other shopping venues: Revco, Yellow Front, and Bashas’, names that I wish I could take credit for making up). We bellied up to the counter and flipped the pages of the heavy Butterick and McCall and Vogue catalogs, running our fingers on the sIMG_1865ketched illustrations of slim, slouching models and the A-B-C variations of cuts and hemlines. We wrote down the call number and then turned to the giant metal file drawers to dig out the fat, squishy envelope, not unlike digging through a library catalog (ask your parents or grandparents) to unearth a book entry. For me, the instructions on the envelopes were like another language, with their sizing requirements and list of fabrics and notions: bias tape, straight butterick6839_Lzipper, with nap/without nap, front and back darts, topstitching, button closing, pinking shears, crepe de chine, pique, broadcloth, not suitable for plaid.

This curious language was one spoken by my mother, who sewed many of our clothes as well as curtains and other household odds and ends, and who passed that language on to me. (I also took sewing in Home Ec, where I additionally learned to measure a teaspoon of baking soda to within an inch of its life and “got my colors done.” I’m a summer). Unlike Mom, who seemed to intuit the curves and designs on that pattern tissue, who held stick pins in her mouth without swallowing them and sent fabric through the sewing machine with nary a bunched seam, I had a little more trouble in translation. I got tangled up in the instruction steps, or cut out a front section on the wrong line, or sewed together pieces backward. When the sewing machine would jam or my hemlines would wobble and wave, I’d melt to the floor in the fetal position, wailing at my lack of patience, my lack of skill, at the mess I’d made of it. I couldn’t see the steps. I couldn’t see my way from beginning to end.

I haven’t held a sewing pattern in my hands for years, and I never did get any better at it, but for some reason my brain today wants to connect those old sewing days to the writing process. I’m thinking about how we do use patterns in writing, but they are of our own making. In other words, we don’t usually start out with a prescriptive set of 1-2-3 instructions on how to write a story (if someone tells you these steps exist, be very, very skeptical). We have craft elements and examples that guide us in development, yes, but the pattern for every story differs; a skirt is not a vest is not a pair of gouchos, even if they are all cut from the same plaid gabardine cloth. Also, we don’t move step by step through a pattern. Story writing sometimes starts at the end — with the zipper, if you will, then switches over to early stages of cutting out the front right bodice, then shifts to the middle of pinning, then returns to that g-d zipper that you had to rip out, then focuses on ironing a seam flat for awhile. There is no beginning-to-end in the process. There are no set steps. There’s only the pattern that we discover as we go, the one that works for each particular writer and for each particular story. We are both the pattern maker and the seamstress.

At the same time, patterns in the sense of forms can be incredible productive. Using a pattern/form as a way into a story– as a “constraint” as Alice LaPlante calls it — can catalyze creativity better than a blank page; it counter-intuitively frees up the writer to forge ahead in unexpected ways. Right now, I’m teaching a Forms of Fiction class, in which students are trying their hands at a number of forms based on model stories. Thus far they have read and tried out monologues (internal or external), letters, diaries, how-to narratives (second-person), photographs, plural first-person (“we”), exaggerated repetition, and lists. Next up: folk tales or supernatural, science fiction, speculative, or post-apocalyptic story. The stories that these writers are coming up with are wildly fresh and original, with impressive improvements in imagery, characterization, voice, and other craft elements. I had a hunch that this would be the case, but they are far surpassing my early expectations.

With forms, writers start with the pattern but then make their own version of it. From the tissuey paper, they cut out the parts they need, even veering off the dotted line. They pick colors and fabrics that defy logic, lengthen a sleeve or shorten a hem on a whim, turn a Dickie into a cravat, change the empire waist into a dropwaist with a sweetheart neckline, add a row of buttons just for the heck of it. Voila: a new story. The stitches may be loose, and the hem might be crooked, but that’s okay. We’re also the tailor, but that’s a wacky analogy for another day.

Staying inside

Mercy. It’s grown a bit cobwebby here at U-Leaves HQ. I think I just saw something scuttle under the floorboards. Apologies to the spammers who keep landing on the same old posts. I know that you are awaiting more of my “extreme informational posts that exceed great influence.” I appreciate the “A+ for simply excellence composing.”

I have been keeping my head down, trying to keep up the rigorous summer writing pace I set for myself. I gave myself until Aug. 1 to work this way, to ignore the outer world that is starting to tap on my locked door. Alas, that deadline hits tomorrow.  That means I’m about to get jiggy (is this how one spells jiggy? Quick: to the Ridiculous ’90s Slang Time Machine!) with all manner of fall teaching prep. I will keep writing, of course, but will have to add other tasks. The ever-precarious balancing act.

Despite the intensity of the semesters, I am ever grateful for the summer to work, for the uninterrupted time to immerse, which can be difficult, if not impossible, at other times. All told, factoring in travel and other whatsits, I had about eight solid weeks of immersion: sitting down every day, getting quiet, thinking, typing, rereading, taking notes, stringing story boards across my office, staring out the window with “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration,” as the poet Elizabeth Bishop called it. Some days were a bust, but most were productive, and I met my self-imposed goal.

Even if I hadn’t finished what I planned, I think (hope) I would find myself mostly content as I transition back into a different pace. Because it’s not really about the tally. It’s about the extended time that I got to spend in my fictional spaces, dreaming and puzzling and mucking about in the stories I created.

In the study of a second language, immersion is commonly understood as the best way to reach fluency. Live in a place where everyone speaks the language. That seems analogous to creative writers: Our place is the page (or stage or screen), and we, too, must live there. Primarily that means 1) years of reading and studying others’ books/plays/films, absorbing the craft of storytelling; 2) years of practicing our own stories, poems, and plays; and 3) hours daily/weekly going inside individual projects — going inward to the imagination, to the heady twilight space of creation.

For all of it, we need to carve out time from this insistent world, the one that will always tap — knock, rap, pound — at our doors and call us outside. Some days we must heed the call — some days, the outer life trumps, as it should. But some days, we must resist. Keep the door shut. Stay inside.

The only downside was that I didn’t get to spend time on the first part of the immersion: the reading. I normally devour one book after the next in the summers, nary an annotating pencil in sight. With travel and work through the days and into evenings, I kept to mostly to shorter nonfiction: pieces in the NYT and the New Yorker, mainly. Here’s what I did, happily, get a chance to read:

All of them were good —  heck, look at the writers — but I was engrossed/delighted/left a little breathless by Bender, Goodwin, Livesey, and Saunders. This fall, I will be digging deep into the short story, both for a sophomore lit class and a Forms of Fiction workshop. Another kind of immersion, I hope.

As for fluency: um, I think my analogy may fall apart here. I have no idea at what point anyone reaches this, if ever. Does any writer ever feel mastery? Perhaps. I don’t foresee it in my case. Regardless, I will keep struggling with the strange syntax of this writing life, stumbling over its irregular verbs, its subjunctive tenses, hoping that one day I will dream in the language.

Re-Vision

Here is where I’m writing right now:

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I’m not gonna lie: It’s dreamy. I’m at the Penland School of Craft in the mountains of North Carolina; the incomparable TW is an instructor here right now, teaching a letterpress class, and I got to tag along. If you’re a visual artist, this is one of the best places in the country to study and practice. I am astonished by the talent and creativity of the people running around here. I can’t thank the Penland folks enough for their generosity and inclusion.

Though I had the chance to take an art class, I opted to use the time as my own writers’ retreat. I’ve never done a writer’s residency, but I imagine that it’s much like this. I hike in the mornings and write midmorning and all afternoon. I eat three meals a day– healthy, exquisite food served at set times. It all feels quite decadent, actually, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.

As for the work itself: In May, I got feedback on the first draft of my novel from my readers — again, the wondrous TW and my dear friend and wildly talented writer Elizabeth Wetmore, both of whom donated their time to read and offer critique. It’s no small thing to drop the draft of a novel on someone’s desk, especially when those someones also are artists and have their own work and lives, and I can’t thank both of them enough for giving me their invaluable input. Since then, I’ve been working at an intense pace, about 6 hours a day, with maybe one day off a week, for about six weeks, feeling the end of summer nipping at my heels. This full-throttle pace is not my natural state, but having a job in academia has changed how I work. Summer is the only time that I can immerse fully, so I’m trying to keep my head down and do as much as I can, for as long as I can.

The revision process is a complicated but important one: I’m both trying to stand back and see with a critical eye and also immerse in the world of the story to figure out what it needs. Re-vision: Re-seeing, re-imagining what you have already made. I know some writers resist this phase, but for me, I finally feel like I’m getting ahold of what I’m trying to do. It’s not that I didn’t work hard on the first draft; I did my best to work carefully and closely. But it’s this phase where I’m finding out what’s best for the story. For example, I gave one whole character and plot line the ax. And I liked that character. But she wasn’t doing the work she needed, and the story is better without her. Getting rid of her allowed me to more fully develop a different character, who is doing important work, esp. in helping me understand the protagonist.

Writers tend to fall into two camps in their writing processes: “eking” vs. “gushing,” a concept that I borrow from Tayari Jones. Ekers are those who tend to write minimal early drafts and need to elaborate in revision; gushers tend to need to go back in and pare. I’m definitely an eker. Much of what I’ve been doing is fleshing out and developing: place, character, and tension — especially tension. Much of the major overhaul has happened early in the book, but of course, everything’s connected. Changes to the beginning mean changes everywhere. I’m stitching and ripping seams and patching and nipping and tucking all over the damn place.

Before we came to Penland, I printed it out so that I could work long hand on edits. It’s a real pleasure to work on the actual page. Thanks to my graduate students, too, who bought me a lovely fountain pen at the end of the semester. I love it. I sit in a rocking chair on a porch, put my headphones on (for the record, if there is such a record: I have been wearing out Mumford and Sons), and go line by line, page by page. Once I have those, I go back in and work through the changes.

The good news, I suppose, is that I don’t feel in the least bit frustrated by the process. It’s invigorating to puzzle things out, to see your work anew and figure out how to make it better.

Home soon. The work will continue, minus the smoky mountain views, alas. But as Richard Bausch says, we should train ourselves to write anywhere.

Wishing everyone a creative summer,
BC

Spring, sprang, sprung

First, I must holler a mighty Congratulations! out to TW, who on March 1 successfully defended his thesis, Notebook, for his M.F.A. in Book Arts from the University of Alabama. Here is a digital scan of one version of his 50-edition handmade book: notebook tw. He will be posting more details soon on his website. Thus completes a wild adventure that spanned three years, two towns, and the unfailing support of family and friends. Thanks to all. I could not be more ecstatically proud of or happy for him.

So. Spring again, I see. Turned out to be quite the fallow winter here in Blogsville. Now that I’ve typed the word fallow, I’m stuck on it. I meant it initially only in the sense of inactivity, but of course it’s first meaning is related to farmland that is “plowed and harrowed but left unsown to restore its fertility” (New Oxford American Dictionary). Many writers use this word about their time between major projects, thinking of it as a restorative period. I wish I could reach that understanding about my own long uneventful stretches: to see them as beneficial — in fact, necessary — rather than as frustrating.

This past week was Spring Prep-Grade, er, Break at my school, and I had planned to squeeze in work on a short story, one I about which I had been taking notes. Here I am at the end of the break with two new pages … of crap. Ugh. That’s what happens, I suppose, by trying to “squeeze in” rather than “work on”; the latter takes time and intense focus that I can’t devote right now. (I knew this wasn’t going to work out, Semester.)

Writing two pages of crap, of course, is not wasted time. I know it’s not. I’ll figure it out when I’m ready to figure it out and no sooner. That’s the way this writing thing goes sometimes. Alas, such “failure” doesn’t help with my bluesy — nay, borderline morose — mood of late. Oh, the lack of spring in one’s step in the springiest of times! A most nettling (ha) irony. It’s not that I’m blind to the beauty and bursting forth around me. More like myopic, swaddled in a haze and befuddlement of my own making.

There are many factors at root, none of which I care to navel-gaze at here. There will always be factors. I suppose my frustration lies in my inability to see or move past those factors, on my tendency to allow them to build a nest and roost. On my tendency to broooooooood. (To betray my age and pop-culture-clogged brain, I just thought of Say Anything: Lloyd: Why can’t you be in a good mood? How hard is it to decide to be in a good mood and be in a good mood once in a while? Constance: Gee, it’s easy.)

These moody old moods are just part of my writing territory. The good news is, I know this terrain well, these old stomping grounds, these uneven highs and lows. I will traverse and stumble across them through all of the days that I am fortunate enough to be here — and with someone who will take my hand. Whether the sun is out or not, those uneasy clouds have their own beauty, don’t they? Yes, they do. When I finally remember to look up.

Notebooks (Capital N)

I’m trying of late to keep a better writing notebook. I assign students a dedicated writing notebook most semesters, 5 entries a week, knowing that this is one of the best ways to generate and/or develop material. The entries can be raw, messy, or fragmented, self-generated or responses to exercises, but the point is to sharpen observation skills, to tone and build the writing muscle. I see some great work emerge from these dedicated Notebooks with a capital N.

But in the secret guilt-ridden irony with which many writing instructors are familiar (we’re not writing as we insist on the importance of writing!), I had let my own notebook lapse. It wasn’t even a lower-case n; it just wasn’t happening. I would turn to it only in moments of desperation, late at night, trying to tease out what was at the root of my dark or saddened or frustrated state of mind. Time and again, these outpourings helped me get at the source of the wound; the act of writing in my notebook was the salve and bandage. Like, duh. It’s so freaking obvious, until it isn’t. So many times I’m like a potty-training toddler in this writing life. I will pee myself again. Just wait.

Anyhow, my notes thus far are pretty scratchy, bits gleaned during walks or out at a restaurant: sunlit raindrops hanging from a spindly branch; burnt-orange clouds through a stand of bare oaks; a little girl playing in the backroom of her family’s diner; a daughter up in a tree pulling down holiday ornaments while her father watched from below. None of these notes are particularly strange or, on the surface, even that noteworthy. But I have learned over the years that I often find ways to use those tiny, seemingly insignificant bits in my fiction. (I recently pulled some descriptive details from this blog and used them in my novel.)

Even more important, for me anyway, is that the more I do it, the more I turn my writing brain “on.” Active observation is work; it is much easier to shut the writer’s mind off, to go about your day and task without really looking, to slide right back into the “default setting,” as David Foster Wallace called it.. What I have discovered is that even before writing it down, just by noticing, something sparks in me.

Example A: that simple raindrop on the branch. It had been raining here for about a week straight, the skies obstinately gray, unusual for this part of the country, even in winter. It had just “snowed” — flurries that didn’t stick but shut down the university nonetheless — so I took to walking the neighborhood. The sky broke, and the sun hit that branch, and I nearly bent in half with the beauty of it, with whatever it touched off inside of me.

It’s nothing new that capital N Nature can do this for us (greetings, Romantics and Transcendentalists!). In prose and verse, such imagery can very quickly become problematic: banal, cliche, too direct. In John Gardner’s famous “barn” description exercise from The Art of Fiction (“Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war.  Do not mention the son, or war, or death”), Gardner cautions against obvious correlatives, that “the images of death and loss that come to [the writer] are not necessarily those we expect.” Agreed.

But in these initial notes, in the first moment of observation, I don’t yet understand what the branch made me see; that is for later, when/if I decide to give it to a character or scene, when I ask it to bear story weight. What work do I want this image to do? What does it add to character/story/tension/etc?

Right now I only know that I saw it. I looked at it, even marveled at it. I didn’t miss it, and I wrote it down. And that is enough for now.

These aren’t the droids: The feint of fiction

Confession: I recently re-watched Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope and Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back — or as I call them, Princess Leia Buns and Princess Leia Braids. Much to TW’s chagrin, I now have been walking around the house imitating Obi-Wan’s Jedi mind trick, complete with that awesome hand sweep: These aren’t the chips you’re looking for. These aren’t the ice cream sandwiches you’re looking for. I also asked him, “Don’t you have a Boba Fett doll?” He stared at me. “It’s not a doll.” I think he’s regretting his decision to invite me to that particular viewing party.

Aside from making me remember that I rode my Gold Fever Huffy (hello, handlebar tassles!) down to the one movie theater in my small Arizona town to stand in line to see it, that droid scene has made me think about fiction-writing and all of its myriad trickeries.

I really should just post Tim O’Brien’s wondrous essay “The Magic Show” here and be done with it. Seriously. Here’s one passage: “For a writer, and for a reader, the process of imaginative knowing does not depend upon the scientific method. Fictional characters are not constructed of flesh and blood, but rather of words, and those words serve as explicit incantations that invite us into and guide us through the universe of the imagination. Language is the apparatus—the magic dust—by which a writer performs his miracles. Words are uttered: ‘By and by,’ Huck says, and we hear him. Words are uttered: ‘We went tip-toeing along a path amongst the trees,’ and we see it. Beyond anything, I think, a writer is someone entranced by the power of language to create a magic show of the imagination, to make the dead sit up and talk, to shine light into the darkness of the great human mysteries.”

Seriously.

O’Brien also emphasizes the mystery that lies at the heart of this writing trickery, and I think that is what appeals to me about my jimmy-rigged Star Wars-fiction-writing analogy: Obi-Wan makes Luke (and us, the audience) believe because his trick is mysterious. We see the reality before our eyes: They are the droids! They are! Nonetheless, they are utterly fooled, and we blink in amazement. We see the trick performed, but we don’t understand it — and not understanding, counter-intuitively, is at the very core of why we believe.

Yet, the trick is no easy sleight of hand. Finding that exact language, as powerful and mesmerizing as it might be, gets complicated by each story that we set out to tell. I am thinking now about my current project, in which one of the characters is a young woman living in the mid-to-late 19th century American South. (I have written some about my imperfect process, including here.) As I (re)imagine her world, the choice of language suddenly becomes alien — because it is not my present language. She does not speak in this time or place. My trick is to make the reader believe that she is absolutely of that time and place. At the same time, she must be a fully fleshed-out character, with desires and longings and peculiarities and flaws, who speaks in her own specific voice.

In other words, to poorly mix a metaphor, I have a lot of Jedi mind tricks to pull out my little writing hat. Which means another kind of belief: in myself. And that’s the trickiest one of all.

Little writing brain cookers (or, why I got off Facebook)

I looked at the calendar today and realized that if I didn’t sit down and trip to the blog fantastic, I would go all of May without an entry. I know, alert the media. But here in the last days of the month, it finally seemed time to blather on about some sort of writing hoo-ha.

Well, the good news is I am writing. Of the fiction variety. The semester ended in early May, and after a few days of sleeping for 12 hours straight and a marathon binge of movies/TV and mountains of fro yo, I turned my focus to that book thing I’m working on.

Which reminds me: after AWP this year (which I did not attend, somewhat blissfully), my dear friend MG sent me this little number through the ol’ mail (courtesy of those ever hip folks at 826 Valencia):

It is? Hey, thanks, Postcard!

I love a good postcard pep talk. I love postcards, period. I love the mystery of the mailbox. I always sort of hold my breath when I open that sticky metal hinged door: what’s waiting in there for me? I guess email is the fancy, modern-day version of the mailbox: click on your email program, and it beeps at you. Hmm. This reminds me, weirdly, of my years as a bartender, when drunken patrons would wink, leer, whistle, or heaven forbid, snap their fingers to get a drink. Finger-snappers. I don’t know what to say about this, except, OH MY GOD. DON’T.

Which also reminds me: At the end of the semester, I said to Facebook, Hey Facebook, get the beep out of my face. (If anyone’s a finger-snapper, it’s that Facebook. Also, it’s certainly a non-tipper and probably will also ask to speak to your manager at some point).  How weird and complicated it’s become to get unplugged for awhile. Will actual friends think I “defriended” them? Will people be able to find me? And what does it say about me that I want them to? What about those ever-important writing contacts? Do I “announce” this departure, as I announce everything else: in a “status update”? And, oh no, what will happen to my “web presence”?

I finally answered those questions this way: Eff that noise, Chancellor. Sit your buns down and write. TW and I took the plunge together and signed off, which is lovely. We actually sit down in the living room together for long stretches without interruption. No desire to go “check.” Nothing to check. Except email beeps (see: finger-snappers). I also am limiting those checks to twice a day. As a friend says, folks can take an old, cold tater and wait.

Aside from the distraction/time suck of the Intertubes, something else has bothered me about how FB infiltrated my thought process. When something would strike me as funny, or I would observe something noteworthy out there in the world, I would begin to compose an “update.” To announce it on “my” page. Forget for a moment that I would then check repeatedly about who “liked” it or commented about it, neurotic little soul that I am; on its own, that impulse to announce strikes me as detrimental — to my fiction-writing process.

Once upon a time, back when we had this hilarious thing called “privacy,” I would take those bits of humor and observation and write them down in my notebook, or on a scrap of paper, or on my palm. I didn’t tell anyone about them. In other words, I would keep them to myself, and for myself. Those little bits, time and again, would become part of my writing work. By writing them down, I would add them to– for lack of a better description– my little writing brain cooker, and it would clank and hiss and steam for awhile, until voila, those bits would emerge, transformed and glistening, into something I could use in a story. It’s perhaps the closest thing to alchemy that I will ever experience. It’s one of my favorite things ever about being a writer, how my brain, seemingly without any help from me, does this strange, wondrous thing.

So why in the world would I want to mess that up by instead taking those bits and  flinging them like table scraps into a chattering morass (which, coincidentally, is monitoring me for advertising purposes) in the hopes that someone will “like” it? I guess it’s arguable that a status update is a kind of writing it down, thereby igniting the little writing brain cooker, but something about making it public deflates or diffuses the energy of it for me. Counter-intuitively, once it’s visible to everyone, I forget about it. It’s out of my hands.

By the way, I know that it’s terribly ironic that I am writing about being unplugged and keeping to myself while typing on a public blog. For this I offer you Whitman: “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then, I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes).” (Also, from the same poem, one of my very favorite lines of all time: “I depart as air,/ I shake my white locks at the runaway sun”). And anyway, hardly anyone reads this so-called blog. I think of this place as me, standing in a near-empty 7-Eleven parking lot and hollering like a madwoman at people as they zip on by. A few folks pull in for a Big Gulp on a whim. To them I say, Thanks. And, do you have some change for bus fare?

Hells bells, Mary, what was the point of all of this? Hard to say. So, I’ll just end by saying, Happy summer, and happy writing. May all of our little brain cookers fire on all cylinders.

Fragments of the whole

Oh, Insomnia. You’re like that college ex who keeps showing up in a bad dream, the one about the party at a house that’s not my house but is my house, and there you are, although it doesn’t look like you but it is you. You lurk off in the doorway to the garage, your lousy juju rising off you like cartoon stinklines. Jerk.

Alas, it’s nothing new. Even as a kid, I wasn’t a good sleeper. These days, when I am hyper-stressed, I fall asleep fine but then wake up at 4 a.m., my mind buzzing like a jar full of bees (who are using tiny bee chainsaws to cut down tiny bee trees). My waking days become a bleary-eyed mess, progressing from edgy impatience to sentence-mangling delirium (sorry, students). Luckily, this goes in waves. I think the final wave crashed last night; that is, I slept straight through.

Anyhoo. Writing about insomnia is about as riveting as listening to U.S. politicians these days; like those speeches, it’s also making me queasy and irritable, so let’s move on.

I’ve been thinking a lot about fragments. My novel-in-progress has a great deal to do with fragmentation, both in terms of subject (loss and memory) and of form (bits of narratives strung together out of order). This is not to say that I am actively thinking in terms of theme and structure while I’m writing; at this point I’m still figuring out the story. However, in looking at the pages I have, I see such a pattern emerging.

My beloved TW’s art projects also often are interested in fragmentation. Because of a project he is working on and because of a longstanding interest, we took a trip a few weeks ago to the Roger Brown Rock House Museum in Beulah, Alabama. Roger Brown was an extraordinary artist and collector who came to be known as one of the Chicago Imagists but who also kept strong ties to his native rural Alabama.

I am still emotional about this visit; this is a deeply affecting, inspiring exhibit/collection. Roger’s brother, Greg Brown, a great sculptural and collage artist who lives in Montgomery, oversees the museum and acts as guide. Because Roger passed away before the sale of the house was complete, Greg and his parents put together this space, which acts as both a museum and a memorial, a mix of Roger’s art and objects from his life. The pieces collected here reflect not just Roger’s obsession with collecting but also his family’s. Many items are those that their mother kept, or that Greg did, or related pieces that Greg found and added later. It would be impossible to list the thousands of disparate objects that come together this space, but some that stand out to me: Roger’s wildly gorgeous, cheeky art, including a large painting that hung for years in his parent’s grocery store in Opelika; old cigarette packs and a high school cowbell; an uncle’s Purple Heart; a junk drawer of a desk, kept exactly as it once was; Roger’s childhood drawings; a childhood devil Halloween costume; the roadside-store chairs that Roger wanted to buy and that Greg went back later and found; the prison matchstick lamps; the framed elegy that Greg wrote for his brother’s funeral; the photographs of their mother, whose ’40s-style hairdos are exactly represented in Roger’s female figures; the melmac dish collections; the sloping upstairs floor; the maps that Roger drew toward the end of his life, planning an architectural wonderland behind his parents’ home in Opelika; his Auburn beanie.

All of these fragments cohere in the most unbelievably beautiful way, and for me it’s because each object represents a story about Roger himself or about someone who knew and loved him. Even without Greg’s quiet, generous explanations, those stories are imbedded in these fragments of a life. They tell us about Roger — his artistic beginnings, his creative trajectories — but even more, they tell us about the people who loved him and about their connection. This is a space of collective memory, a jumble of pieces that reflect how lives brim and spill and ripple into each other. We are a complicated sum of our own memories, but also of others’ memories of us. When we subtract any part of that sum, what remains? Who is left? Are we still whole? Who are we when the people who remember us are gone?

The Rock House seems to ask these questions, and so far, here is my answer: We will spend much of our lives asking such questions, not as a way to stay in the past but as a way to move forward. In the act of retelling and reseeing, we do not relive; rather, we create a new connection, a new memory, give life to a life gone. We will do this again and again, creating pieces that we carry in our pockets like flat, smooth stones. Some days they will weigh us down; sometimes we will rub them obsessively with our thumbs. But sometimes, we will skip them across the lake of our lives, watching the ripples bend and fracture outward, until we lose sight of them in the shining sun.

The pedestrian view

Lately I’ve been doing some (half-assed) research into the concept of psychogeography. At the moment I’m reading (in short snatches) Merlin Coverely’s Psychogeography and Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Both have lots of great history about this somewhat amorphous subject, whose roots and contexts are heavy on the French, heavy on the urban environs, include Charles Baudelaire and the flaneur, Guy DeBord and the derive, and currently Will Self and his many walking adventures.  In an interview with 3 a.m. Magazine, Coverley gives a nice catch-all definition: “[Psychogeography] in its most general term, the main components: the political aspect, a philosophy of opposition to the status quo, this idea of walking, of walking the city in particular, the idea of an urban movement, and the psychological component of how human behaviour is affected by place. You can read that into many writers but especially Blake, Bunyan, and Defoe, this idea of the dream, or some psychological imprint overlaid on the landscape.”

It’s clearly more involved than that, but it’s that last bit, about the poets and writers and “this idea of the dream,” that has been at the heart of my interest. I’m not a philosopher. I don’t pretend to be a heavy thinker or scholar, even when I am in professor mode. But one thing I am, and always have been — long before I was a writer — is a walker.

My first experiences were not urban. I grew up in a small town in northern Arizona. From a very early age, probably 7 or 8 and till I was 16 and bought my first car, I walked everywhere. To school. To and from the bus stop, a mile from the house: up Coffee Pot Drive, cut through gravel Grasshopper Lane, over the fence, up the trail, and onto my street, Farmer Brothers Drive. I can see every step of it.  In a town with no bus system save for the tourist trolley, and parents who worked full-time, I walked home from friends’ houses and swim practice and the movie theater and the creek. In a town ringed by a famous red landscape, I walked up the sides of rocks, sometimes without shoes on, so smooth and climbable was the sandstone. From an early age, I saw the world from a slow, rock-kicking pace, a world of sun-heated hair and swarming gnats and mating grasshoppers, my cheap rubber shoes scuffing the edge of pavement.

It’s only looking back (of course!) that I see how much of that time trained me in solitude. Back then, I just wanted a freaking ride, to get home and sneak in some TV before my folks got home. But that walking was also very much a time of dreams. As my body worked externally, moving me forward, I went inside my head, into imagination. I remember, very clearly, wondering who lived in those homes on Grasshopper Lane, what their furniture looked like, what kind of dinners they had, if I would get in trouble if I stepped into their yard. I can still remember the shapes and spacing of houses on my routes, the shortcuts. I still remember the gray gravel, the powder-soft red dirt, the cat claws and foxtails and tumbleweeds that tugged at my pant cuffs.

Later, living in a small-sized city, a sprawling desert metropolis, and then a large Southern city, my walks were more recreational. Walking and hiking remain my two favorite modes of exercise. That urban environment indeed changed how I walked and how I saw, especially because otherwise I was driving everywhere. When I walked, I felt a little closer to the “traditional” psychogeographists, who are often working in resistance to what cities present. And at some point, I want to think more about those walking experiences, too.

But right now, I am going back to those early days, in part because I find myself again living in a small town, this one across the country from my original environs. The landscape here is softer, with towering trees that blur the horizon, a misty-heat. I am long into being a writer at this point, and I am conscious of how much walking plays a role in my sanity, as well as my creative process. During long weeks at my job, I find myself desperate to get outside, to slow down and breathe, to become aware of my feet hitting dirt and pine needles.

I don’t think of walking and writing as a direct connection; I’m not necessarily solving story problems or coming up with plot answers out there. It’s more, in some ways, that the physical act mimics the creative act. In both cases, I peer in windows. I gaze at the trees and clouds. I note weird things on the ground. I listen. I wonder.

(These are just some initial notes; I see more walking notes in my future.)

A love letter to the short story

Hey Short Story:

(I’d address you as “Dear” but “Hey” apparently is the American greeting of choice these days. You know, it’s sort of like, what-evs.)

This kind of comes out of the blue, I know. You might have wondered where I ran off to (although, maybe not, since you’re inanimate and all). Anyhoo, after our years-long love affair, I took a turn into Novelandia, then detoured off into Academiaville, found in the middle of the DeepSouthistan. But I hope you know that I never really forgot you. I didn’t abandon you as many have, adopting the novel as the form for “serious” writers, as though length equals depth, even as you plod on as the workhorse of myriad writing workshops. Not me. It’s true that I love novels, and films, too, anything that tells a story. But I find myself turning to you again and again, as a reader and writer. Why is that? What is this hold that you have on me, Short Story?

You’ve been especially on my mind these past few weeks as I teach a contemporary short fiction class. It’s all story, all the time, a kind of language immersion — REPETE, S’IL VOUS PLAIT, AVEC MOI– and boy howdy are the students tired. But I think they’re starting to see, as I do, all of the worlds and beauty and mysteries that you contain in your tiny, ever-evolving body, how you twist, contract, expand, fragment, and still somehow come together in the end, like origami or animal balloons or a math proof (or none of those things). You’re pretty fearless, now that I think about it. I admire your chutzpah, Short Story.

The point, if I have one, is that I feel that I owe you a declaration: I love you, Short Story. This isn’t a drunk dial, either. I’m perfectly sober, perfectly clear-eyed. I love you like I love the sky: for your seemingly endless permutations, for your sly ability to surprise after all these years, for your moments, those small, fragile turns that haunt and move me in incalculable ways.  How do you do that? You’re a mystery, I tell you. It keeps me coming back. In short, Short Story, you’re fabulous. You’re the one I’ll never get over.