Andrea Lani of Remains of the Day asked me to participate in the My Writing Process blog meme. Because I’ve got a stubborn streak against anyone who tries to give me a writing assignment (a remnant from my days as a newspaper reporter), I’ve declined other memes. But being part of a community means supporting and joining when one can, and so I agreed to answer the following questions:
What am I working on?
A short story.
A weekly blog post.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I’ve published a few essays about my experiences as a mother, as well as a piece of flash fiction that included magical realism, but I don’t have nearly enough published material to lay claim to a genre. Mothering is a lens through which I view the world, but what interests me is the working class, alienation and rural poverty, the drifters and do-gooders. So, I’m reading Larry Brown and Tillie Olsen. I’m looking forward to Willy Vlautin.
Why do I write what I do?
How does my writing process work?
I write stream of consciousness first thing in the morning. I write with a bright yellow pen in cheap spiral notebooks I buy during back-to-school sales. I return to the notebooks and search for threads of a story. I write some more. A better description of how I work can be found in the post Assholes All Around.
Who’s next on My Writing Process blog tour?
The meme’s instructions asked that I ask three bloggers to share their writing processes. But it’s the nature of memes to act much like genes in that they “self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures,” according to Wikipedia; I tapped one.
Piccalilli Pie is written by my friend Christina Wilsdon whose librarianish mind wanders hither and yon. Chris lives in the Seattle area with her husband, daughter, one dog, two cats, and a horse. She worked in the publishing industry in various production and editorial positions before becoming a freelance writer about 20 years ago. Chris writes mainly nonfiction books and articles about natural history, science, and other nonfiction topics for kids ranging in age from 4 to 14. Her blog, however, is for grown-up readers, and there she writes about anything that takes her fancy, from aphids to zweibacks.
Please visit Piccalilli Pie on April 14 to learn about Chris’ writing process. And thank you, Andrea, for this opportunity.
Last month I attended a panel on how to write stories that achieve a happy ending without being contrived, sentimental or manipulative. Don’t go sending your cowgirl off into a sunset of cotton candy clouds; what we’re after is a hope that is earned through her knowledge of the past, or her understanding that the future threatens it. How does one create such tension in an ending? Here are three variations suggested:
- The character achieves happiness, but leaves the reader feeling uneasy.
- Some of the characters are happy, others are not.
- The reader is pleased with the ending that leaves the character uneasy.
Chad Simpson’s story collection “Tell Everyone I Said Hi,” (which I will be passing on to those interested in second-hand reading material), is filled with tempered happiness, with yearning. In “You Would’ve Counted Yourself Lucky,” an unnamed boy struggles with the sadness and anger he holds against his sister as she grows up, takes on various boyfriends, and breaks away from the family. Toward the end of the story, the sister is sneaking in after curfew and the boy surprises her, freezing her in the yard with his flashlight.
The boy is worried she’ll recognize his voice, he’s worried he won’t sound intimidating enough, but he tries to make it sound like the gears churning in an enormous machine when he says, “No.” When he says, “Stay where you are.”
Miraculously, it works. His sister swivels toward him, her hands back int he air. The boy pins the flashlight to her chest again, and he thinks of the butterflies he pinned to a corkboard last year in school. They were so pretty and delicate, so dead and unmoving. Soon, the boy knows, his sister will be inside with his parents, and they’ll be hashing things out in one way or another, but right now she is a monarch. She is a swallowtail. She is all his.
His sister looks genuinely worried. She looks afraid. She says in a trembling voice, “What do you want?”
The way she asks this simple question makes the boy falter. The light bucks on her chest. He tries to regain his confidence — he doesn’t want to think how Leanne used to be, how she would make him breakfast on the weekend when his parents slept in, how she’d read him books each night before bed — but his eyes are getting hot. He’s worried he’s going to cry.
“I want you to stay right here,” he says. “I want you to stay right where you are.”
I know “You Would’ve Counted Yourself Lucky” resonated with me because I see this tension mirrored in my own children: The 15-year-old begins to read the first Harry Potter book to her 6-year-old brother, but the promise to finish it is broken because she’s too busy with school and friends and work — her emergent life. This frustrates the little boy. My twin 12-year-olds imagine a life where the family is no longer a complete unit because their sister will be away in college. They touch such thoughts gingerly before jerking away, startled that they feel like bruises. Such is hope tempered by a threatening future. An ending that carries the scent of a thunderstorm leaves me satiated, my heart content — happy.
I’ve read three good stories about boys; stories that were defiant, disturbing and desperately funny. None of them triggered all these feelings at once, but the result of reading them close together left me watchful over my three sons. Two turn 13 this spring, while the six-year-old matures too quickly in his effort to catch up with his brothers. I’ve found that mothering sons calls for a different set of skills than those I use with my daughter, where I rely heavily on my own experiences and memories as a girl. But with boys I’m in strange land, grateful for fellow travelers and guides like these three women writers.
Doris Lessing’s “Through the Tunnel” is a coming-of-age story about a 11-year-old Jerry who is vacationing at the beach with his widow mother. The mother is “determined to be neither possessive nor lacking in devotion,” and Jerry, in turn, acts from an “unfailing impulse of contrition — a sort of chivalry.” During the vacation Jerry explores a wild and rocky bay alone where he meets some older boys and accepts a physical challenge that is the rite of passage or bildungsroman. “Through the Tunnel” is read by Jane Kaczmarek at Selected Shorts.
“The Other Place” by Mary Gaitskill explores the consciousness of a man who fantasizes about hurting women and worries that his son has inherited his obsession. Jennifer Egan chose “The Other Place” to read on the New Yorker’s podcast because she said it conveyed “a feeling of intense menace, but mixed with a lot of other complicated humanity, specifically parenthood, and, I think, too, the feeling of redemption that somehow Mary Gaitskill managed to wrest from this very dark and threatening situation.”
The third story is found in Xhenet Aliu’s debut collection, “Domesticated Wild Things.” “The Kill Jar” is narrated by Kevin Jr., a fifth-grader who dreams of being an entomologist. His mom takes his Ritalin and sleeps with her former father-in-law, whom Kevin Jr. calls Old Dad, as opposed to his biological Actual Dad. This messed-up family is so funny and sad, their problems so deeply entrenched, that hope could easily suffocate alongside the bugs in Kevin Jr.’s kill jar, but Aliu won’t allow it. “The Kill Jar” is one of the strongest stories in “Domesticated Wild Things,” which examines the flawed, yet resilient people labeled The Poor.
I picked up “Domesticated Wild Things” at the annual conference of Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and it’s one of the books and magazines I’d like to share with you. If you’re interested in receiving slightly used, but generally good reading, leave a comment here and I’ll include your name in a random drawing at the end of the month.