Thursday, October 30, 2008

Things I'm Remembering

Since returning from North Carolina in August, I've been obsessed with Young Adult literature. This is a genre I never thought I'd find myself in, primarily because I really don't like to be around kids. I like them in small doses, like a glass of wine, but it's really easy to fall down the slippery slope of kid-dom from which I need a week of solitude and silence to recover. It's nothing personal. I didn't even like kids when I was a kid.

When I was desperately trying to make a living in Phoenix as an adjunct professor, I was forced to apply for artist-in-the-schools grants to make ends meet. Nobody works harder than elementary and secondary education instructors. Nobody. I continue to want to bow at their feet when I see them. They have to be at work at 7 am for bus duty. They have to clean up vomit. They have to deal with parents. They have to turn in curriculum to a mysterious M.Ed. in a corner office whose never set foot in a classroom. They have to teach to a standardized test. They have to pay for their own school supplies. It was shocking to me to walk into Phoenix schools and see what these teachers were willing to do for $25,000. They are far far better creatures than I, and should be given all the tax breaks, all the benefits, and a 50K raise for starters. They work on their feet. They have to talk at a loud outside voice all day. They have to show up evenings for band concerts and parent teacher conferences. They have to sit in meetings and figure out learning outcomes. Saints.

To that end, when I would go into their classrooms, they were often very excited to get off their feet for the 50 minutes I talked about poetry to their 3rd grade class. They were even more excited to leave the classroom to go to the bathroom (yes, they can't do that because they can't leave their students unattended). Saints, I tell you.

I spent two years as an artist-in-the-schools, and although I hope never to have to do that again, I learned a lot. The biggest thing I learned is that kids love to read if you let them. They hate to read if you tell them what they have to read and what it's supposed to mean. They don't need help making up stories. Their imaginations are on full-tilt-boogie all the time. We just need to get out of their way.

I have been breathing a deep, delightful sigh during the last four years which have not involved working with children in any way. I'm thrilled with the college life. I love my students (none of whom can have their parents call me to complain about something) and I love talking about books with them. I have no 7 am bus duty, and no No Child Left Behind. Working with adults has shown me that a love of reading comes most often from an early childhood love of books.

When I wrote The Boy In the Walls over the summer, I wasn't really sure I had any idea what I was doing. I still don't like kids. But I began to remember something most unexpected. I remembered how vital books were to me as a kid. I read dozens, literally, a week. We were at the library every few days. My favorite days at school were the book fairs where we got to take home a brand new book. I escaped into books when my dad got sick, and I dove even further into them when we moved to Arizona. I didn't have many friends, especially not in grade school and junior high. Books were everything to me. Absolutely everything. I don't know what I would have become without them.

So I realized I didn't have to want a gaggle of kids around to write for them. I just had to remember what it was like to be one. Being in my childhood home again this summer kickstarted those memories. I reread some of my favorite childhood books. I went to the bookstore and bought contemporary YA books. My writing partner, Gayle, sold a YA book and began sending me more and more YA work to read.

What was this genre?

Well, it's the fastest growing genre in fiction today. It's the most open to experimental work, and it loves magical realism and fantasy. It loves bookish narrators. It loves gawkiness and trouble, and it addresses real issues (in spite of the attempts at censorship). It has a strong narrative voice and it shows kids figuring things out on their own without helicopter parents or multiple choice questions. It treats kids like people, not like kids. It doesn't hide things from them or couch truths with morality. There's an idea. Give a kid credit for his or her own brain. Give a kid a chance to problem solve. A chance to mess things up. An opportunity to see him or herself reflected in literature. There's some powerful work.

I'm remembering what books meant to me. Why I love to read. Why I wanted to write. What a cool audience to write for then. I know them, even if I can't play Guitar Hero or text message. I know what it feels like to be on the outside. That's what I need to access. The trappings change from generation to generation, but the heart of the stories stays the same. Talk to them, not at them. Let them uncover their own beauty. Let them learn to love to read by giving them books that matter, not books that have cleared so many levels of curriculum approval that they contain nothing that matters to anyone, and so are safe, and dull, and kill any spark of imagination that might be blooming. Let them think.

I'm remembering why I do what I do, and I'm remembering it by touching my childhood again and realizing it is still inside me, no matter how many theses I've written on books, nothing compares to the books themselves. The original primary sources for a life. Harriet the Spy. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Little House on the Prairie. Betsy, Tacy and Tibb. A Wrinkle in Time. Ramona the Pest. My primary sources. How cool is that?

I've spent the last month or so rewriting a novel I finished six years ago. I wrote it for an adult audience, but I've rewritten it for YA. My 15 years of teaching writing have shown me what was wrong with the novel as an adult novel. I didn't have a story -- I had a series of ideas and very cool sentences. Kids demand the story. What happened? Why? And then what? Why?

Will it sell now? I can't know. It's a much stronger novel though, now, and it addresses the same dark issues I was addressing with adults - racism, religious fanaticism, secrecy and silence. Here's chapter 1 from GHOST SWAMP BLUES. rewritten for older teens. This is Roberta du Bois, 18 year old mistress of Idyllic Grove Rice Plantation in 1859.

The sun was unusually hot for October on that morning in 1859 when I walked into Snaky Swamp, just south of our rice plantation in Alderman, North Carolina, wearing nothing but my pink feathered hat. The water was thick as wool and it clung to my skin like a net. Moccasins swam near me, skirting the top of the water, their eyes and fangs cracking the surface. I wiggled my toes in the soft mud of the swamp floor until the weight of the marshland was too much and my toes stopped moving. I walked forward into the swamp until my legs stopped lifting and I fell forward, my cheek hitting the water with a slap before sinking sinking into the blanket of algae and mosses, branches and vines, their tentacles covering my nostrils, wrapping my jaw tightly closed, my teeth fitted perfectly together until my skin fell away in clumps for the fish.

On the day of my death, my husband, Jonathon du Bois, ordered one of his slaves, my half sister Claudia, whipped. The overseer poured salt onto her open back and I screamed from the silence of the marsh. Claudia’s eyes rolled in her skull and her tongue dripped saliva onto the earth.

On the day of my death, talk of an uprising was beginning. A man named Douglass was going to be the next Moses. Jonathon believed it and took to craziness. Our plantation, our rice fields, our livelihood, depended entirely on the men and women who worked it. Depended entirely on that human property of ours, bought and paid for with United States currency, now sweating under the Carolina sun.

Idyllic Grove Rice Plantation as I knew it has long since returned to dust. It’s me who’s still around. Poking in and around the tall pines, crunching my feet over the dried pinecones just enough to make you jump. Me who drips clear water down the hallway, my nakedness shivering in the air. The house that’s there now, in the very spot where our big house used to be, is a five-room clapboard with a black shingled roof. The property has been divided and divided and divided until nobody knows who owned what or whom or even why much anymore. The clapboard house is on about a hundred acres of woods and bottom lands, bordered to the west by Snaky Swamp.

The folks who live there, Maggie and Hannah Green, keep a really nice garden in the back by the septic tank. They grow corn and tomatoes and butter beans and even okra. The soil is gray, loose sand that washes away when the hurricanes come. There are shells here now, brought from trips to Wrightsville Beach, and a rusted green chair out by the back steps that sometimes shelters a white cat. It’s been almost one hundred and twenty years, and to people driving by in their motorcars on the new paved street, everything is as it should be. Beautiful land, a carpet of pine needles and leaves, a quiet house overlooking the water. Idyllic.

But I still smell the broken bodies and bloody hearts. I press myself into the walls of this clapboard house and the vibrations are there still and again, still and again. When I dissolve through the walls into their living room with the single square of gray carpet in front of the fireplace, I see not Maggie and Hannah moving about, but the others. The shadow figures draped in blue with empty eye sockets and twisted fingers. The little girls, dancing in white flowing dresses.

Ring around the rosies
Pocket full of posies
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down!

The men, backs arched forward, arms over their heads swaying like reeds beside the swamp. The grinding sound of the wagon wheels plodding through the wet clay earth. The mosquitoes, big as big toes, swarming around the algae coated water. All of this I see, through eyes that never close. All of this wraps around my mind like satin ribbon, one layer at a time.

When I walked into Snaky Swamp I fully expected that would be the end of it. At least the end of it for Roberta du Bois, daughter of Thomas Saunders, wife of Jonathon du Bois, mistress of Idyllic Grove rice plantation. I had no idea it would just be the beginning of my story. Time looped around me, caught me in its square knot, and held me tight. Held me here. Watching all of this madness unfolding in front of me, unwinding like snakeskin, dragging everyone along.

I see others like me walking this property. It is an odd place though. I see them. They see me. But most of us can’t speak to one another. We can’t touch each other. We can only pass by, feel the coolness from each other’s paths, see the wildness in each other’s eyes. The only ones I can talk to are the ones directly connected to my own sorrows, and sometimes all I want is for them to go on back to their own sadness and leave me be.

On the day that I walked into Snaky Swamp, I was eighteen years old. I had been married less than six months. I had no noble intentions. I wasn’t protesting the plight of the Negroes. I wasn’t lamenting my own role in the Southern society of oppression. I wasn’t even mourning my own wretched marriage. It was the four girls, really, who called me into the water. The swamp sirens.

Ring around the rosies.
Pocket full of posies.
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down!

Over and over that rhyme. The little girls. Two white, golden hair flying around them like capes. Two black, hair full and wild on their heads as they spun in endless circles on the other side of the swamp.

Roberta! Play with us!
Oh, yes! Roberta, come dance with us!
Over here! Over here!
We’ll wait for you!
Come! Just a little bit closer!

The little girls played on the sand bar in the middle of the swamp. You can’t see it anymore, but it was right over there where the pier ends now. They danced and danced. They came to my room and danced on the ceiling, carrying vines and pine knots. They danced in my dreams, bound together at the waist with snakes.

When we were little girls, Claudia and I used to dance with these four spirits. We both saw them, and when the six of us played together, we laughed as loud as the Carolina parakeets. Now I only see glimpses of them in the trees. A bit of a dark ankle. A strand of blonde hair entangled in a branch. A square of indigo fabric. A whisper in my ear when the ospreys take flight.

I have walked these acres for over a century trying to come up with the best way to tell my story to you. How to describe to you the slaves? The way it was for a white woman then? How to say these things to you without preaching, without being condescending, without telling you what to feel? The only solution I have come up with is just to tell you, and to hope that in the telling I can reach some truth.

Perhaps the facts are wrong. Perhaps they never existed at all. It has been a long time. I am left with memory, unreliable in the best of times. I can only tell you what I know and how all this is wrapped up with Maggie and her daughter Hannah Green and Gabriel Wilson and Jay Transom and the mad boy Tommy Green in the crazy house up in Mecklenburg County. I can only hope you trust me enough to believe that what I’m telling you is truth.

Friday, October 24, 2008

I Always Knew it Never Got Any Better than San Francisco

When I was doing my second masters degree, I read more journal articles and scientific studies on the grieving process than I ever knew existed. I learned that during "healthy" mourning, a vast majority of grievers will experience some sort of dream that helps the griever feel more at peace with the loss of their loved one. A "healthy" time frame for experiencing such dreams varies based on the depth and complication of the relationship with the deceased, but sometime between two weeks and six months from the date of death is within "normal" range. Last night, I had that dream about Jeffrey. To put this in perspective, I didn't experience a dream like this about my father until 8 years past his death.

We were in San Francisco. Jeffrey was well and bouncing around in his usual way, very excited to show me his new apartment. When he was alive, he lived in an apartment at 207 Gough Street. In my dream, he was moving just down the street to 111 Gough Street. He was very happy, carrying a cardboard box filled with his most precious things. To my eyes, the box was empty, but he carried it on his shoulder as if it were overflowing with books.

111 Gough Street was a big glass structure. He buzzed us in with an electronic key card. When we got inside, he said he could go on up because he'd signed a lease for the apartment. If you hadn't signed a lease yet, you could only go inside once you passed through a very elaborate security system. At the security checkpoint, I had to leave my purse with my wallet and my ID and I had to leave my shoes and proceed barefoot onto a train. The train took me to a maze of escalators. Jeffrey and I were constantly on parallel escalators. He'd be going up while I was going down. Then, I'd try to find the right escalator so I could follow him and we'd end up passing each other again in the opposite direction.

"Come on! Hurry!" he said. "I want you to know where my door is so you can find me."

But we never could get on the same escalator. Finally, we decided to just meet at the Farmer's Market for breakfast. The Farmer's Market was also located inside 111 Gough Street. I got to the Farmer's Market without an ID or shoes. The sun was yellow and bright. There were pumpkins, squash, apples and homemade breads. Lots of people milled around by the tables eating. I couldn't find Jeffrey, and I knew then that I wouldn't.

A male gospel quartet performed on a makeshift platform in the middle of the Farmer's Market. Both Jeffrey and I love blues and old spirituals. I decided to get some bread and wait a little longer for Jeffrey. The quartet began to sing "Lonesome Valley."

You got to go to the lonesome valley
You got to go there by yourself
Nobody else can go for you
You got to go there by yourself
Oh, you got to ask the Lord's forgiveness
Nobody else can ask him for you
You got to go to the lonesome valley
You got to go there by yourself
Nobody else, nobody else can go for you
You got to go there by yourself

Ain't that just the truth?

May we meet again one day in the Bay, my friend.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What's it all about anyway?

"If you're really listening, if you're awake to the poignant beauty of the
world, your heart breaks regularly. In fact, your heart is made to break; its
purpose is to burst open again and again so that it can hold ever-more

—Andrew Harvey, The Return of the Mother

Most of my creative writing classes are hitting the big R word in the next few weeks. Revision. Dum, dum, dum, dum ... DUM!!! Some students handle this better than others, but students who are new to creative writing, and new to writing as a process rather than a product, often have a very difficult time handling the idea and stages of revision. You all know the cliche -- real writers revise. It's one of those cliches that's a cliche because it's true. But revision in creative writing isn't like it was for your English classes. You don't just go in and do what the teacher said to do in her red ink and call it a day. That's lazy at its best, disrespectful to your work at its worst.

I ask a lot of my students, and I ask a lot of myself as an instructor and a writer. I know I'm asking them to lay it all on the line and then chuck it and lay it on the line again, and again, and again. I understand the resistance to it. I understand the need to feel like you can be "done" with something. But in truth, you're not ever done with the writing process. There's a point where you cut it off, but we can continue to go deeper with every draft.

Nothing begins to break down the sneaky edges of the ego like the writing process. Let it happen. Let yourself be opened over and over again, as far and as deep and as wide as you can go. Many of my students start off as closed as a fist. They are afraid. They've been hurt. They've been "red inked" to death in English classes in school. They want to please (but whom, they're not quite sure). They want to write (though perhaps they don't yet know why). There's something inside them that keeps calling them to the page, and it's that something, which manifests differently for every writer, where we need to make and maintain contact.

Here are some thoughts on revision that may be helpful.

1) Accept that you cannot see your work clearly. All writers have "readers" -- friends in a writing group, colleagues, agents, etc -- we need them like we need oxygen. The more you write and the more you read, the better you'll be able to see your work, but there will always be blind spots because you're looking at it through your own beautifully tinted eyeballs.

2) Accept the necessary detachment from the work. Just because you wrote it doesn't make it precious or priceless or perfect. You just wrote it. Let that be enough. Over time and practice, you may come to believe that the fact that you wrote it really is enough, and that is far more than you thought it could be. No good, no bad, just what it is. Everything you write -- everything -- brings you closer to the next place. No words are wasted. No attempts are worthless. You wrote it. It is that, and nothing more. Yet, see how that is everything?

3) Think of early drafts (like, say, the first five or so) as scattering seeds. You throw a handful of seeds into a hole in the earth and you wait. You don't really know what you put in the ground yet. You don't know what will be able to grow compatibly, or what will have to be pruned out and planted somewhere else. You've got to let things grow a little bit before you can see what's up.

4) Hard part here: WAIT. Imagine some buffed up cop saying (or maybe Johnny Depp), "Back away from the manuscript, ma'am. Just back away now!" To go back to my seed analogy, what happens after you throw the seeds into the earth? You've got to water them and then wait. Sometimes we have to wait two whole seasons to see what pops out of the ground. Yeah, really, writing is like that. I'm currently going back to a project I wrote seven years ago. The time for it is now. Yeah, really, writing is like that.

5) After you wait awhile, read it again. Not with an eye for tearing it apart, but with an ear for listening with compassion to what you were trying to say. One of my favorite teachers told me to use "teabag listening." He was talking about letting the tea steep for awhile and then over time, listening (tasting) to what flavors surfaced. Be gentle here. Don't be manic with your work or with yourself. Let your work speak to you while you turn off your critic/editor/shame-based voice (whatever your baggage is from other classes or groups or family) and nod and say thank you. Don't listen to your work with a knife at its throat. How much do you think it'll actually say to you that way?

6) Now, if you've listened well and authentically, you might now notice that you threw a seed for a pine tree in the same hole as a seed for a strawberry plant and a seed for a sunflower. What are the odds all three arcs of a story can co-exist in the same hole in the ground? Pretty slim. So which one is fighting for survival? Which one desperately wants you to hear it? I don't know the answer for any individual, but I know a key to a writer finding it out is to ask this question: which one did I not know was there? You might do well to remember that the plant (yes, I'm going to extend this metaphor all the way through) which is bullying the other plants may not be the one you really need to write about. The loudest isn't always the most powerful.

7) Start again. Yes. Again. Dig a new hole (clean piece of paper, empty computer file) and scatter a different handful of seeds again. Maybe this time 75% of them are the sunflower seeds and only a few are oak trees or eggplants. Wait some more. Maybe you'll wait as long as the last time, maybe not. But wait. Let things settle and integrate and assemble without you constantly hacking at the roots.

8) What blooms now?

Get the picture? All throughout this process, you're reading. You're still writing. There's no rule that says thou must only work on one thing at a time. You're reading, and did I mention, you're reading?

Revision teaches you a lot about yourself. I encourage you as you begin your revisions to observe your own behavior. Observe it with the same non-knife-wielding compassion that you are listening to your work. Notice something, and say, "Hmmm. Look at that." If it's not working for you, stop doing it. But don't shame yourself about it. We're all beautifully flawed. As Leonard Cohen says, "It is the crack that lets the light in." If you're tearing yourself up inside and causing suffering to yourself, well, stop. Ask yourself why you're causing yourself pain. The answer might surprise you. Over time, you'll clear out the gutwrenching resistances of revision, and you'll find the absolute freedom and joy in re-envisioning a piece of writing. You'll know that you can toss those pages because more will come. You'll know that nothing is wasted. But it takes time to know these things in your body, and if you're doing this for the first time in your life, expect the suffering. I offer these things to you in the hopes that you can shorten your period of suffering and move more quickly into the freedom of the process. We as writers can resist this stage or we can embrace it. The act itself (the revision) is neutral. Our reaction to it shapes everything.

Revision teaches a lot, indeed. But the biggest thing it will teach you is: Are you a writer? And if it turns out you're not, no big deal. There are lots of glorious things to do in this world that don't involve so much solitude and ink. Approach everything with openness. Where there's resistance, there's struggle. Where there's struggle, there's conflict. Go back to that voice I mentioned earlier that's compelling you to put something on paper. What does it have to tell you? My guess is, it's that you're a writer.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Reflections on Writing a YA Novel

I have finished revising The Boy in the Walls, my first young adult novel. This writing process has been different for a number of reasons.

1) I actually had a story from the beginning. For those of you who know me, I'm usually pretty story-challenged. I am extraordinary at characterization -- not so much with the actual story. When I begin a book, I know nothing about it. I perhaps have a voice, or a bit of a music piece, or some other sound, but not much else. I follow the sound and see where it goes. I had a sound this time too -- the line "I can't feel!" spoken by the boy in the walls. But I knew who he was, why he was there, and what his role in the story was.

2) I actually had a fully-arrived protagonist, fourteen-year old Dee Hamilton. In any other kind of writing situation I would have questioned this fiercely. I would tell my students to question it. But I remember Annie Dillard in The Writing Life talk about sometimes getting something in one fell swoop and knowing enough to just fall on your knees before the writing goddess and say thank you, recognizing you'll likely never get that again. I think I've been on my knees throughout this whole process. Thank you, Writing Goddess.

3) I actually had a story arc, not just a story. I had a yearning. A driving question. Tension. Multiple characters and a historical component (the polio epidemic in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s). I'm still shaking my head at this one. Maybe I'm learning more than I think I'm learning after writing for 25 years. Maybe I'm learning more from teaching than I think I'm learning after 15 years. Regardless, thank you, Writing Goddess.

I have always believed that authentic writing emerges when the author is in harmony with his or her surroundings -- meaning, the author is open to what is available to him or her at that time. The writer, fully awake, is dedicated to knowing and not knowing. I've got that right at the top of my blog pages all the time.

As I've posted here, I took a trip back to North Carolina this summer. The general arc of the trip was planned, but I picked up a lot of unexpected things. I learned my aunt jumped up and down outside the hospital room my dad was in when he had polio. She was trying to see inside the window because she wasn't allowed in. Visiting with my aunt showed me how lonely she was as a result of Dad's illness. His disease took precedence, and she was left in the cold. I learned that although I don't recall too many pleasant experiences with my own grandmother, and Dad certainly never gave me any, my aunt talked about how afraid my grandmother was that Dad would die from the polio, and how she devoted everything to him, to the point of smothering. What my Dad perceived as controlling, my aunt perceived as loving too much. Fabulous insight.

I visited my childhood home in Charlotte at a time I had not originally planned to see it, and because of that, I was allowed inside to touch things. I touched the doorknob of my father's closet and I felt the energy charge. I left the house with a book. An entire book. And I was ill and lethargic and heavy with it for six weeks until it emerged.

I learned a lot more about polio than I knew before, and I felt for the first time how lonely Dad must have felt trapped in an iron lung, and how angry he must have felt with the paralysis. In the novel, Dee's father kills himself. I already knew this when my friend Jeffrey killed himself, rather than face the certain death of multiple myeloma. Grieving for Jeffrey and feeling the unique emotions around a suicide helped me understand Dee, my protagonist, more. I already knew that the father in the novel killed himself because he had post-polio syndrome. Virtually all of the first round survivors of polio contracted post-polio syndrome if they lived long enough. My dad had it, and was, perhaps, fortunate enough to have a heart attack before he ended up flat on his back, unable to move again. In the novel, the father chooses suicide. When Jeffrey died, one of my thoughts as a writer was, wow, J, look at what you gave me to work with. Since Jeffrey was a writer, he would have understood.

Perhaps the biggest shift in this process for me has been beginning to address mother-daughter relationships instead of father-daughter ones. Although the inciting incident in the book is Dee's father's suicide, and the gist of the book is the aftermath of that, the heart of the book is the different ways in which Dee and her mother grieve, and it's about their estrangement and attempts to come back together again. Well, Writing Goddess, it's about time. It should be no big surprise, my mother and I grieve very differently. I have felt abandoned by that difference, even though I intellectually understand it. Through the novel, I have an opportunity to try and recreate it and change the ending a little. I sent the book to her today. She'll read it. Bless her heart; she reads everything I write.

I have always thought I became a writer because of Dad's illness and death. Those things gave me my grist for a lifetime. But I learned how to be a writer because of my mother. Every day, she showed up. Every day, she made sure we had food and clothes and our homework done. Every day, even though we grieve differently, she stayed. These are the things it takes to be a writer. Showing up every day, especially on the days we least want to. Taking everything as it comes and remaining steadfast. My father gave me content and my mother gave me her unique brand of secular Lutheranism. Get up. Get it done. Rest. Get up. Get it done. Rest. This is the path of a novelist. What a lucky writer I am -- each parent's half made a whole.

The manuscript went out this afternoon to several editors who'd requested the full manuscript after seeing the summary and first fifty pages. Wish me luck. The young adult market is the only fiction market expanding.

Here's the summary, (for your temptation!) which is usually the hardest thing to write when you write a novel. Funny, it's easier when you actually have a story. :-)

Laraine Herring
The Boy in the Walls
YA novel – approximately 40,000 words

Fourteen-year-old Dee Hamilton is hearing voices. Not voices, exactly, but a single voice in the wall of her bedroom. It's the summer before her freshman year of high school, seven years from the day she came home to find her father, who had long suffered with polio, had killed himself. Now, her mother, at her wits end, wants to move them 2000 miles across the country, from North Carolina to Arizona, to Start Over. Dee is afraid to leave the house because if she leaves, her father won’t know where to find her.

The house she lives in has been in her dad's family for three generations. Her father spent much of his childhood trapped by polio in his bedroom, which has become Dee's bedroom. When her grandparents died, they passed the house to him. The house is more important to Dee than anything in the world, and now it's talking to her louder than ever before. Even after Dee moves to Arizona, she hears the house calling her.

Instead of starting high school in Tucson, Dee boards a Greyhound and heads back east to Wilmington to rescue the boy in the walls. Once she is back in her old house, her aunt, the crazy "bat lady", Marydolores, who lives alone in the big house next door, begins coming over to chat. First she brings food. Then she brings pictures and bits of information about her father's polio and his life before he met her mom. Dee begins to see a part of her father she never knew before, and begins to understand a little bit of the isolation he must have felt as a young boy with polio, living in an iron lung and then stuck inside his house for five years.

Marydolores and the boy in the wall pull Dee deep into her father's past, and as a result of exploring his past, she begins to examine her own. As Dee understands some of her father's anger, she's able to access her own anger at her father's decision to kill himself. When she allows herself to get angry, she finally begins to feel again. Once Dee is able to let her feelings move, the boy in the wall, who is her own projection of her father's pain, is able to go to sleep, allowing Dee to begin the next phase of her life.

The Boy in the Walls is a book about complicated mourning, attachment, home, and the journey we all must take to find an identity separate from family.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Edge of Everything

The day before our division meeting this week, my dean asked me if I would prepare a short presentation on how I'm surviving five preps this semester. I said I would, but had to point out the irony in being asked to prep something else to talk about the challenges of prepping. Say that five times fast.

The hardest part of prepping this semester has been keeping all the texts straight. I'm teaching eleven different books. I have lists taped to my computer of what chapter I need to read in what book by what date in order to be prepared for the students. It's OK. I've taught more in a semester than five classes. Frankly, I'm grateful to have a job.

This week, one of my classes was studying The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. It is a drop-dead gorgeous book, and the timing couldn't have been better. Before we even opened the first day's discussion, several students were already wiping their eyes. My friend Jeffrey had died the previous week and I had thought about postponing the discussion. But what better time to talk about a book about grieving than while I'm grieving?

I love to talk about grief because no one talks about it, and it occurred to me this week in class that I have felt abandoned in many ways because so few will talk about grief with me. So few can bear an open-ended conversation where nothing is fixed or changed -- where emotion just hangs in the air like fog. Where do you find people who will just sit with you while you breathe and not try to fix you or figure out what's wrong or help you move on?

Well, we start to create them in writing and literature classes. Someone writes about their experience from a place of absolute vulnerability. Someone reads the book and then has the courage to talk about their own grief, which opens the space for someone else to talk about their grief, which opens up still more space. Soon, the room is empty and at last we can be real people -- not mothers, daughters, teachers, professionals -- just people. Grief eviscerates us, and when we can face one another with our organs dangling in the air and our bones whiter than our teeth, we can be as present in life as the sparrows.

Literature creates space.

This is Banned Books Week. It's a week of economic turmoil. A week of frightening statistics and unemployment figures and a huge bail out plan that no one understands. Publishing is in crisis (again) and (again) we fear that no one is reading books. Times like these up-end us. They can call into question why we do what we do -- and why we don't do what we don't do. Questioning is good. It leads to self-examination and to growth. But, to quote Natalie Goldberg, "Don't get tossed away." Don't become so unrooted that you succumb to fear. The pull of the pen across the paper in your singular gorgeous hand will root you. As each letter unfolds into the next, you cannot help but be present in the writing. Your writing will show you what is next.

Transitions are required for the next event to occur. It's never been any different than this. When something passes away, something else is born. Attachment to what is passing from our grasp will create suffering. Let go.

A former student of mine, Clint Van Winkle, contacted me earlier this month about his new memoir, Soft Spots: A Marine's Memoir of Combat and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I remember Clint very well. He was a student of mine in Phoenix, and had just returned from Iraq when I met him. His publisher sent me an advanced readers' copy and I read the book in a single evening this week. He wrote so authentically about his experiences in Iraq, about his experiences with his own shadow, his own deep deep darkness, that even though I have never, and hope to never, be in a combat situation, I could connect to my own deep deep darkness through the expression of his pain, self-loathing, and trauma. It is a raw book to read. No rah-rah America. No goddamn America. Clint just cut open America and cut open the Marines and the war in Iraq and his own wounded heart and gave it to us between the covers of his book. There is no greater gift.

Literature creates space. Inside us and around us. The more things fall apart, the greater the reconstruction will be. When you are afraid, return to your pen, your breath, your body that for this moment is working perfectly. When you are most afraid, find your path in language. When all around you are holding their breath, release yours.

Stay steady, no matter what rages around you. Stay grounded in your stories. Your poems. Your alive-ness. The time will come when you are not alive on this planet. Make space now, so that your transition will be effortless, just a stroke of your pen from one line to the next.