Crazy Sh*t That Really Happened

Crazy Sh*t That Really Happened

I have said that I feel a bit more liberal about mining my real life for writing topics – something I tried really hard not to do, basically because I didn’t want to just fictionalize my life. It was boring when it happened and it would be boring on the page. Jk, jk – it wasn’t boring, but it wasn’t – and isn’t – fiction. It’s real life, and maybe I’ll write a memoir one day, when I’m rich and famous – lololol – but until then, my goal is to write compelling fiction.

Even so, a lot of what has happened in my life has very definitely informed what I end up writing about in fiction. For example, here is something that happened in real life once:

I was driving on S. Carrollton Avenue in New Orleans, approaching Earhart, and a group of well-coiffed 7 & 8 year-olds were on the streetcorners with buckets, asking for money to attend a basketball tournament out of state.

I used this scenario to write a story, called Service Learning, whose protagonist, once upon a time, did this very thing. Eventually, her mother stopped giving a shit about her but luckily she took the reins, managed to get a scholarship to a private high school, hoping it would be her ticket out of her bad neighborhood. All goes pretty well for her, or at least well enough, until the service learning trip for her grade goes back to that bad neighborhood, her neighborhood, in order to “help” people like her.

The story is wildly different from the scenario at the corner that I saw, but the two things go hand in hand. I wouldn’t have had the story without this experience.

I was thinking today about some things that have happened in my life that could be good fodder for stories or novels – these kernels of things that could provide an image or a scene. I was also trying to describe a setting and fumbled, describing the place I was (a university) because it was right in front of me. I had to scold myself into writing the setting I saw in my imagination. Fiction, after all.

Anyway, here is a short list of some of the many crazy things that I’ve experienced that could inspire something fictional:

  • When I was climbing out of the above-ground pool in my childhood backyard, I slipped and slammed my vagina – straight-up scissor-style – on the wall of the pool, but was WAAAAY to embarrassed to let anyone see.
  • At 18, a bouncer checked my ID at ladies night, saw I was 18 – old enough to get into a club but not to drink – and then handed me an empty cup because, “Ladies drink free til midnight.” Ok, so he shouldn’t have really wondered why I ended up rolling around the concrete at 2 in the morning, completely blitzed. His fault, am I right?
  • My then-boyfriend, now-husband, and I had breakfast at the same place almost every Sunday when we were in college. Once, I opened a packet of butter and slammed it on his glasses, rubbing it in. He had to get new glasses. We still talk about this, ten years later.
  • I have stayed awake for 72 hours, biking, running, hiking and canoeing, as an adventurer racer on Team Engine.
  • I bought my first plane ticket abroad – to Paris – the day in fall 2001, on November 12, 2001, two months after 9/11, when AA Flight 587 crashed in Queens.

I’ve been alive now for almost 34 years and, trust, this is just a SMALL sampling of crazy or interesting stuff that I’ve seen, done, experienced or caused, that could inspire a short story, a novella, a full-length book. I think keeping this list is a great way to force myself to feel inspired, to remember something wild, to start with a scenario or a spark and then just free-write.

What would be on your list?

Storytelling

Storytelling

During one workshop, a professor offered a little nugget. Someone had submitted a story about a girl who was studying abroad, a satire that I didn’t recognize as such, and the professor commented that a story about a student in college may not resonate because the stakes weren’t high enough. He argued that, for the most part, college is this cushy, safe space where kids can try things out, seek how they go, and try again.

Of course, we immediately railed against him. What about “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” by ZZ Packer, we argued! Well, of course, there are exceptions to every maxim. Those exceptions are probably a large part of why some people dismiss MFA programs altogether. I grappled with his advice myself because I did not experience college as this kind of bouncy castle. Instead, I worked 40 hours a week to pay the tuition overage not covered by my federal loans. (Somehow, I had the wisdom to not take out a private loan, for which I am thankful to this day!) I was also still reeling from some teenage trauma that affected everything I did in college. I didn’t really make friends, I barely paid attention in class although I received straight A’s, I didn’t study abroad. College, to me, ended up being a piece of paper, an accumulation of credits that resulted in a document that meant I could make twelve dollars an hour instead of seven.

Long story long, college was tough. It wasn’t tough because college itself is tough, but it was tough because of the baggage I brought to the experience. So, I don’t think this professor was entirely right about his advice – there are stakes for some in college – but I understand his perspective. To write a story about someone in college, you really have to find the nuance that allows the conflict to matter.

We can look to the news to find ways that it can matter. A very widely discussed example is the Brock Turner case. *College* didn’t explicitly turn him into a registered sex offender, nor did *college* victimize the young woman he raped. But college, as a setting, provided a real, nuanced setting within which these two nuanced people converged and conflicted. I dare say they are both forever changed.

I’m thinking about this a bit now because I’m thinking of aspects of my life and my experience that I would consider weaving into a story or using to write a book. I think I’ve mentioned before that I used to feel conflicted about allowing my own life and experiences to influence my writing directly. But, I’ve let that go in writing my novel, in part because I read the incredible David Vann, whose work (or at least some of it) is taken a little bit from his real-life experiences. Other writers do it too! In writing The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, Vendela Vida was inspired by her backpack which was stolen in Morocco. Probably, most of us do it! The trick, I think, is to recognize the inspiration for what it is and then let the story’s path diverge when it needs to. (Thank you to a very wise agent, Brettne Bloom of The Book Group, who gave me that advice!)

In another post, I’ll talk about brainstorming my list of crazy stuff that’s happened to me (and not so crazy stuff, too) that could inspire my writing. I bring this up, though, because I go back to many formative, interesting experiences I had when I was college-aged, when the stakes felt pretty severe. I’m hoping one of those experiences will give me some direction on the next big writing project I plan to undertake, which will follow a young woman as she moves abroad for the year. The protagonist, as I envision her, will have quite a few naive beliefs about the place to which she is moving and the people who live there, and in being baptized in this new culture, she will come to learn how lethal her beliefs were, no matter that she shared them with most of her family and friends, people who still believe them. It will be a kind of coming-of-age story after she’s already come of age.

Cards on the table, I’ll admit that I work in international education at a university, so I am very interested in this topic. But, I have also witnessed the transformative power of a year spent meaningfully immersed in another culture. It doesn’t matter how similar or different the culture is. What does matter is the meaningfulness of the time spent.

I suppose the important thing about advice, in general, is that none of it should be universally accepted. Any piece of advice I hear, I always have to apply it to myself, what I know I am capable of, what I’m trying to accomplish. The noise of that advice, particularly advice that may be good but isn’t suited to a particular writer, has the power to stifle creativity and output. It’s a dangerous thing, to hear that advice and take it at face value. I could see it stopping me each time I sit down to write.

So instead, I take it as a caution sign. Be careful with this premise, he says; make sure your protagonist wants something and she will suffer if she doesn’t get it.

That’s advice I will make sure to take.

Writing through Trauma

Writing through Trauma

I have experienced my fair share of “the traumatic” in my life, some of which I didn’t even recognize as trauma for a good amount of time after it happened. Probably the most defining and pivotal trauma – the unexpected and violent death of my father when I was thirteen years old – has both shaped my life since then and provided the inspiration for my novel. With Father’s Day this weekend, and the imminent workshop I will be attending to critique this novel inspired by his passing, I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about how I finally came to write this book that is both about him and not about him, and how writing it has changed me.

Every fall that I can remember, I would start to feel antsy and unsettled as the warm October days became chillier. As soon as November hit, I would inevitably snap at my loved ones more often than normal and cry more often than normal as well. I didn’t really realize the cause of this until, in November of 2012, I was finishing my Master’s thesis at the University of Oregon and had some bad news from a potential job prospect. The stress of writing the thesis plus the disappointment of losing a job threw me into a bit of a tizzy. Luckily, I had lunch with my mentor and, in the process of debriefing with him, I realized that one of the contributing factors to my spiraling out of control – or at least out of a sense of wellness – was that the anniversary of my father’s death was coming up. In fact, I unwittingly scheduled my thesis defense on the very day he was found, his official date of death.

It’s crazy to think that I didn’t realize it, but it makes sense. I had, for fifteen years, tried so hard to prevent his death from defining my life. I came to this conclusion fully when I recounted the realization to my therapist and she was shocked, not that I had this experience but that she had been treating me for months and I’d never disclosed that my father was dead, much less the traumatic way that we lost him.

Three years later, as my husband and I were dealing with his mother’s sickness and ultimate passing-away, I started writing poetry about her. I wrote about how I imagined she was feeling, how she must be existing in that liminal space between our world and another, how close we are all to being in her position. I made an error here – I submitted these poems to my workshop that semester. After reading the rightfully-scathing feedback from my classmates, I decided that part of the reason the poems weren’t quite working was because I wasn’t writing about the thing I wanted to be writing about. I should have been writing about my dad.

But, I don’t want his death to define my life! I was kicking and screaming that…what did I have to say? What is MY story? Not his, but mine!?!?

I pushed those questions and second-guesses from my mind and decided to just go with it, to free-write whatever came to me. I wrote seven-thousand words, the opening chapters of a novel about a girl, not unlike me, on a quest to find her missing father. In writing that opening, I had to admit that, although he had been physically gone from my life for years, I had been seeking him, looking for him, from the very moment we put him in the ground. His death, it wasn’t my life, but it was a HUGE part of my story, a huge part of the story of my life.

So, I wrote. And I wrote. And I wrote. I edited. I revised. I rewrote. I shared the book-in-progress with people. I rewrote more. I cut huge chunks of what I wrote. On and on and on.

Although the novel is completely made-up – truly, it is not just memoir parading as fiction but is fiction in the realest sense – the protagonist suffers through much of what I did and, undoubtedly, every time I wrote about the father in the book, I thought about my own. The last 15 months, over which time I composed the text, off and on, have not been easy. During the weeks that I intensively wrote – sometimes, up to ten thousand words per day – I found myself feeling depressed, edgy, easy to snap. Other times, I felt as though I was in a totally different world, separated by some gauzy wall from my husband, my family and my friends.

But, I forced myself to write, revise, and rewrite.

Now, on the other side of the experience, with a moderately polished manuscript and the major tenets of the plot in place, I no longer feel the tense, antsy-ness that I did, consistently, while I was writing. As Father’s Day approaches, my husband said, Whatever you need this weekend, just let me know. And when I thought about what I might “need” I came to the conclusion that I didn’t need anything. Writing about this trauma, as difficult as it had been, actually exorcised so many of the negative and painful feelings I’ve had over the years, and has truly brought this odd sense of peace to me.

I never thought it would have been possible.

In the days, weeks, months and years following this personal tragedy, I could not write about it. I could barely talk about it. But, not addressing this thing that had become such a major part of my story really stifled my ability to write about anything. In suppressing this one event, I had to suppress everything. I don’t know exactly what flipped the switch in me, to make me feel like I had permission to write about the sadness I’d experienced. I’ve mentioned David Vann before and I will again here to say that his novel, Legend of a Suicide, freed me so greatly. The Rules of Inheritance by Claire Bidwell Smith also made it permissible for me to write about the grief I had inherited. I am so, so grateful that these authors, and others, had the guts and courage to write about their hardest things, so that I may have found that same courage. Once they opened my eyes, I was able to really look around and see how much of the art in the world is a reflection of the artist’s experience. It seems like a super-obvious thing to realize, but it took me a while to get there.

And if I ever get the book published, if I ever get into a position where I can teach a class about writing, I would want trauma writing to be a part of it. We all have traumas, large and small. We should write them. I’m so glad I did.

Happy Father’s Day!

 

Summer Reading List – Week of June 6

Summer Reading List – Week of June 6

I am currently **trying** to write/revise/rewrite short stories for my thesis/short story collection (first draft due date = December 1) and so in the spirit of reading relevant things, I will be turning to short stories for some inspiration. First stop, Alice Munro!

Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014 by Alice Munro

I have read a bit of Alice Munro, most recently her collection, Too Much Happiness, which included the short story, “Wenlock Edge.” The setting of the story, like much of Munro’s work, is so totally commonplace, but the turns the story take are diabolical and dark. Think, young girls naked at dinner at the home of a wealthy, older man and the intentional drowning of an annoying camper. I saw parallels between this story and what I hope to accomplish in my collection  – the devastating and the mundane mixing together, basically. So, I dug up this anthology of her stories for more inspiration.

Buttony” by Fiona McFarlane

Since reading the NY Times review of The High Places, I’m pretty excited to read anything by this author.

Crab Orchard Review & Glimmer Train & Virginia Quarterly Review & Tin House Magazine

One of my major, major goals this year is to go submission-wild. To do that, I need to have some polished work, of course. I look at my Submittable page now and am embarrassed that I ever sent stories out to such publications as the ones listed above, n+1, Guernica, etc., when they were so obviously and totally not ready. On the other hand, I’m glad I did, because I can see them and think about how much I’ve grown and advanced as a writer, despite the noise in my head that tells me I haven’t. (SHUT UP!) But, I have also built some confidence through submitting, first off, because it is a way of interacting with the writing world, and secondly, because, for all my rejection, I’ve actually gotten some good feedback as well. I’d just like to be a little smarter about it, sending stories out when they are closer to ready, to publications that actually may be interested. So, I have a bunch of back-issues of these magazines, and many others, that I will be reading to try and find a home for some of my work.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

I read this book once and it, well, ravaged me. Filled with images that slay, this book gets me.

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff

I don’t know where this recommendation came from – some interview I was reading, I’m sure – but I picked it up and read the first story, “Next Door,” which made me feel very sad, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason why it made me feel that way. In my work, I am sometimes too explicit about what I would like my readers to think or feel, and that story was the opposite of explicit. I had to really pick it apart to understand why it made me bummed. (Bummed in a good way, that is…)

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

I’ve heard that this book is fantastic for general inspiration and advice.

And finally, I will, will, will read the short story collection of my thesis director, More of This World or Maybe Another, which she (Barb Johnson) wrote while a student in the UNO MFA program, and M.O. Walsh’s The Prospect of Magicso I’ll know what I’m up against as I defend my work in the spring!

Funeral Cars

Funeral Cars

A funeral home not too far from my house has spent the last few months building a brand new chapel, designed to match the early 1900’s style of the rest of the building. I was running past the corner of Canal and Carrollton, a corner where I see a lot of things, and saw a funeral procession. Police on motorcycles blocking the intersections, a hearse followed by three black Lincoln Town Cars like my grandfather used to drive, followed by a procession of cars with blinking hazard lights. The motorcade didn’t block me up – I was running after all, not stuck behind the wheel – so I turned up Canal and passed the funeral home from whence they must have come.

The new chapel, finally, had been completed. The bulldozers and bags of roof tile that had been stationed all around were finally gone. I thought, wow, this looks like a great place to have a funeral. Ok, I admit, I didn’t really think that. But I did wonder how they would capitalize on this new addition to their facility. Would they take out an ad? Publish some news on their Social Media? Did they even use Social Media? Thinking back to the procession, I wondered, How did Lincoln get the monopoly on funeral cars?

Granted, the Lincoln Town Car was not only ubiquitous among mourners. My grandfather, and many Old Lawyer Men just like him, tooled around town in the LTC. (That he would take up both lanes on some of New Orleans’ narrower streets is another story, as is the Styrofoam cup of Taaka vodka always nestled in the car’s cup holder…)

But still, did Lincoln fight for the contract with all funeral homes everywhere?

I don’t really care about the answer to that particular question, I don’t think, but I could see a story revolving around these details: the fraught decision to expand the chapel, the increase in contract fees with Lincoln, the Social Media campaign – and the hipster content specialist who creates it.