March 2023: Others’ Words

I’m down on the mat wrestling with my larger piece of fiction which is several smaller pieces of related fictions, and have been reading widely for organizational inspiration. Here are tidbits that I’ve found memorable for the ideas they express, for their musicality, for their perspective, for their humor.

[P]erception is then language with which we attempt to grapple with the idea, the concept, the phenomenon [of time]. List any ten speeds for time: summer morning, winter dusk, boring lecture, first time making love with woman you actually really love, drunkenness, moment of death, car crash, heart attack, any and all meetings of more than seven people, childhood, and not one happens at the same speed as the others, some are blindingly fast and over instantly and others drone and moan on until you contemplate removing your spleen with a pepper shaker just for entertainment’s sake.

— Brian Doyle, Mink River

* * *

“Every greedy man-made thing dangling with a price tag

Has sunk into the darkness to be properly cleaned up by the starlight.”

–Nikki Finney, Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry

* * *

She looked at Philomena’s orange hair and smoke-colored eyeliner and at Justin’s mangy beard and demonic stare. She could see nothing of what her children had once been.
Bradford lifted his nose from the wineglass.
Did it occur to you that your mother and I actually worked to pay for this chicken? he asked.
Philomena shrugged. Justin said:
The chicken worked harder.

–Thasia Frank, “Enchantment” in Enchantment: New and Selected Stories

* * *

He had never experienced such a sky. In England, where heaven is a low-hung, personal affair, thoroughly identified with the King James Version, a sky such as this would not have been tolerated for a moment. It was a high, pagan explosion of a sky, promising indulgence for all kinds of offenses to which he had not the slightest inclination.

— Shirley Hazzard, “The Worst Moment of the Day” in Collected Stories.

* * *

One morning before dawn it got very cold in the guest room. Grandmother dragged the rag rug up on the bed and pulled some raincoats down from the wall, but they didn’t help much. She supposed it was due to the bog. It’s a funny thing about bogs. you can fill them with rocks and sand and old logs and make a little fenced-in yard on top with a woodpile and a chopping block–but bogs go right on behaving like bogs. Early in the spring they breathe ice and make their own mist, in remembrance of the time when they had black water and their own sedge blossoming untouched.

–Tove Jansson, The Summer Book

February 2023: the impossible

My hypervigilant brain has been wrassling with revision of my speculative-fiction manuscript. In an effort to get it to relax its anxious judge-y grip, today I dipped my writer’s craft toes into Geraldine Woods’ marvelous book, 25 Great Sentences and How They Got That Way. I jumped to the “Impossible” sentences section, where the “writer’s exercise” invited me to brainstorm impossible events, eg what could happen on February 30th. One example was, “have a good conversation with [relative].”

My hypervigilant brain sprung into action: but [relative] has their own experience of the conversation! Who’s to say what’s good or bad? Why categorize any living being as “impossible” to have a good interaction with?

Then my hypervigilant brain sprung onto a white steed of smug self-righteousness: I have done enough self-reflection, and practiced enough nonviolent communication, and meditated enough years to know that good/bad is an unhelpful dichotomy, a limited and constricting way to approach Life. I’m beyond such simplistic thinking! (I’ll give you a moment to get a tissue and wipe the tears of laughter off your face.)

Next, my hypervigilant brain slid sideways off its saddle of self-righteousness: there are [some people] that I’d cross the street to avoid. That I absolutely do not believe I can have a “good” conversation with.

And thus my hypervigilant brain finally came up with what seems impossible to me: inviting [some people] to my house for a meal. Preparing it with as much kindness as I do for my dearest friends. Laying in a bottle of good wine, and after-dinner port, and excellent chocolate. Feeling joy when they arrived, and bittersweet regret when the evening ended.

Just imagining this impossible scenario raised my heart rate a bit, tightened my stomach. But then questions bubbled up: how the heck are [some people] doing since the death of their parents? How is that wild child of theirs as a teenager? Do they still drink wine?

Imagining the impossible and sitting through the subsequent discomfort shifted [some people] to “my former friends.” Oh. Oh!

As my now-relaxed hypervigilant brain took a breath and dozed off for a wee nap, she mumbled, that’s a good way to make an effective piece of writing: imagine the impossible.

May it be so.

January 2023: in praise of editors

From the simplest lyric to the most complex novel, literature is asking us to pay attention. Pay attention to the frog. Pay attention to the west wind. Pay attention to the boy on the raft, the lady on the tower, the old man on the train. In sum, pay attention to the world and all that dwells therein and thereby learn at last to pay attention to yourself and all that dwells therein.

Frederick Buechner, b. 1926

I had the pleasure of finalizing proofs for my story with Chelsea Lemon Fetzer, of Little Patuxent Review, in early January. Because of what she paid attention to, I discovered that my timeline was inconsistent, as was my use of bulleted lists. The first is a Big Deal for the flow of the story; the second is a Smaller Deal that would distract only the copyeditor-inclined among us. But both made me think harder about the story, the questions it raises, and how choices large and small impact its effectiveness.

And that thinking in turn led me to ponder all my other life editors. My friend who reminds me that my tendency to go from “not-too-hungry” to “gotta-eat-now” was present when we met each other, thirty+ years ago, so maybe that trait isn’t an indicator of oncoming type two diabetes. My ex-husband who reminds me that once upon a time, I didn’t give a rat’s ass about accurately measuring coffee and just drank whatever–so maybe I can rethink my current practice of ditching an espresso shot that is a few grams above what it should be. My young-adult children, whose continuing participation in family traditions show that I did some parenting well and perhaps I could stop beating myself up about my mistakes. My current partner, who points out that I drive myself literally nuts when I try to do more than one thing at once–so maybe I can consider not-baking a (literal or metaphorical) cake from scratch. My own journal entries, which reveal that I’ve struggled with consistently submitting stories for my entire wiring life, and so maybe it’s time to stop spending time resisting my resistance, acknowledge it’s a thing for me, and move on. Because the odds of getting to learn from editors of all types and stripes increases when I accept that I don’t know what I don’t know, open up, and engage anyway.

May it be so for you, too.

Giovanni Mannozi, “Death Seated on Political and Religious Trophies,” study for the ephemeral decoration for the funeral of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Which I interpret as: pay attention and give it a go, we’re all gonna die anyway.