Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Ending

           I completed my copy of Anna Karenina on December 31, 2015, my forty-ninth birthday. I had intended all along to make one final post, but as happens in my life, I put it off; a year passed, and still I had not written to you about the experience.
           In that year, one of my stories and an essay were published. I co-directed a play. I saw 17 (18 at the time, now 19 and rapidly approaching 20) off to college. My husband surprised me with a dinner party celebrating my fiftieth birthday. Three babies were born into my extended family. I applied for and did not receive grant funding to visit the Tolstoy’s summer estate.
And I wrote a story.
A short story.
A short—seven pages—story inspired by my field immersion into the life of Sophia Tolstoy, by our country’s election of a man with a history of degrading women, by a past relationship with a partner diagnosed with bipolar disorder, by my own recovery from mental illness, and by an ongoing struggle to balance creative work with my family’s needs.
I wrote the story down in two days, workshopped it with my writing group, stalled when the feedback left me feeling at loose ends. I sat on the story for several months, pulled it back out, cut it by half, polished it up, workshopped it again, this time with my Warrior Writer Women, and settled on a title.
Then I submitted it to a list of journals and contests. I received several good rejections. By good I mean the editors really like the story, but…
There was always a but.
The ending felt unresolved. Or she didn’t feel it was quite ready for publication. Or the story didn’t fit into the upcoming issue.
And then, while making breakfast on July 5th, nearly three years after I began the project, I received an email that said, Congratulations. “The Ending” had been long-listed for the Bath Short Story Award, included in their top 50 out of 1100 submissions.
I know, right? How cool! The short list was to be announced a week later, and the winner ten days after that.
 I was excited to see the title of my story on the Bath Short Story Award website. If I got short-listed, the story would be published in an anthology and read by a London literary agent, and then maybe, I could send him a query letter for the collection that I am trying to publish. My family heard the news and got excited too. When would I find out if I won? How much money would I win?
The next day, I received another email, this one from a small literary journal in Ohio, that supports a local public library. The editor loved my story and wanted to publish “The Ending” on July 25th.
I emailed my Warrior Women Writers. I had never been in this situation before.
They all said, wait it out, and go for the prize.
The night before the short list was announced, I couldn’t sleep. I woke early and checked my email, then their website. Nothing. I lay in bed, texted with a few friends and my husband.
I checked the website again. Held my breath. There it was.
My story did not make the short list.
I’ll be honest; I was deflated. I wanted the big win. I let myself sulk for a couple of hours. Then I pulled together a bio, accepted the small journal publication, and set a deadline to write this last post, which I am doing.

            If I could rewrite the ending to this story, I would have stepped away from the big prize, the possibility of fame (of a sort) and money. I would have joyfully accepted the offer from Fourth and Sycamore, knowing it was in line with my personal values. Because that is the very thought I had when I opened that second congratulatory message. I knew when I submitted my story to them that they and I seemed like a good fit. And it took them less than a month to agree.
            I think Tolstoy would agree too, but I wonder about Sophie.
            Sophia Tolstoy spent years working as an editor, publisher, copywriter, mother, partner, without any financial compensation. One could say she had that luxury as a woman of privilege. One could also say she had no choice.
This kind of work is what the world has valued in women, but I also recognize the deception inherent in using financial reward as a measure of artistic value. Unfortunately, we live in a world where money talks. And so, many women’s voices have been silenced. A member of my writing group and I often lament the pressure to make money, to not feel like a financial drain on our spouses, she on her wife and me on my husband. We talk about the value of our work to the well-being of our family and the world-at-large.
Rebecca Solnit writes in her essay “In Praise of Threat” that the current push to preserve traditional marriage is aimed at protecting the male-dominated hierarchy. Wives who make money, have access to birth control and become educated are no longer dependent on the old model (Solnit, 59). What would happen if we let that old model die off completely? What might the world become if we moved away from the of accumulation of wealth and exploitation of resources—human or otherwise— to a whole new kind of value system?
            Simone Campbell of Nuns On the Bus spoke with a group of highly-paid executives about why they need more money when they are already making millions of dollars. She asked them, “Well guys, I’m kind of curious about this. Is it that they’re not getting by on 10 million that they need 11 million? I don’t get it” (Campbell). The men (mostly) said it wasn’t about the money. It was a game, a competition, a way of valuing their worth. To which Campbell responded, then we need a new way to measure our value.
            We need to know that the work we do is valued as important and sustaining even without an assigned dollar value.
            I’m pretty sure Sophia Tolstoy felt the same way when her husband signed away the rights to a book on which she spent years laboring as unpaid help.
            School is about to start, and every parent knows that means money spent on supplies, school shoes, book fees. In the dream where I won the big award, I planned to use the prize money to buy a new laptop for my daughter. In today’s world, money is still a necessary means of getting what we need and want. I’m not poor. I’m not even broke (a distinction pointed out by Roxane Gay in her new memoir Hunger), but there is a part of me that would like to know that my work can help to provide for my family.
            Another part of me, the artist, is grateful that I did not make the short list, that I was given the opportunity to let my writing do a different kind of work, one that cannot be measured monetarily. Leo would be proud of me for that.
             But it is Sophie who has reached forward in time, across the divide between life and death to find me. I dedicate “The Ending” to her.

Works cited
Solnit, Rebecca. “In Praise of Threat.” Men Explain Things to Me. Haymarket, 2014, pp. 59-68.
Gay, Roxane. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. HarperCollins, 2017.
Campbell, Simone. Interview by Krista Tippett. “How to Be Spiritually Bold.” On Being. 11 June        2015.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Work, Work, Work

Two big things happened last week. I made it page 600 in Anna Karenina, and I began to write the first draft of my new book.

I have been inching toward page 600 for a while. And I have been ruminating the stories for the new collection much longer. And I have been telling myself every Monday, that this will be the week, this week I will begin the last quarter of the the Tolstoys' novel and begin the writing my own new stories.

Each week it didn't happen.

So when a colleague of mine said she was getting back to her early morning writing practice, I asked if I could join her. We do not write in the same physical space; she lives in the next state just south of me. But through the magic of technology, I know there is someone waiting for a response to her 6AM text: Making coffee.

I reply: Making tea.

And we begin.

The first day was easy, like the first day of most things: school, marriage, job. But Tuesday's writing was harder and slower work. Wednesday found me jiggling my leg and fidgetting in my seat, but I stayed right there. Thursday, I woke up late, but I managed to do some writing before the day was over, in part because my colleague texted me toward dinnertime, asking how things were going.

Friday was a bust. I overslept.

But I wrote Saturday.

I took Sunday off.

Monday another bust.

And today, this morning, I was restless in the bed at 5am. I rolled back and forth until finally I could not wait any longer. By 5:30, I was in the kitchen, boiling water for tea, putting away clean dishes while I waited. While the tea steeped in the pot (no single mug for me this morning), I lit the fire in the living room, got out my new binder, took out paper and pen.

Did I mention that I am writing the new collection by hand?

Yes, just as I round the bend toward the last leg of an 800 page novel, I embark on a new exercise in creative torture. I don't know why I am doing it this way. I only know that something suggested that I needed to get these ideas down on paper. By hand.

So let's time travel back to last week again. Each morning, after I wrote, or failed to write, I put away Anna Karenina binder and pulled out my other one. Well, actually, I left the binders where they were and moved my body to a table in another room. That was easier, and got me out of my seat, like walking from biology to English class in high school.

Each day, after I coped three pages of Anna Karenina, I took a walk and wrote my daily essay in observation, a practice I have had with another colleague. She lives in the state to the west of me.

Then I had lunch and read for an hour from Four Sisters, a book about the Romanov Grand Duchesses in the years leading up their murder during the Bolshevic Revolution.

After that, I collect eggs from the chicken coop.

Then I sit down to submit one or two stories to literary journals or writing contests.

The rest of the day played as it does for most of us: making dinner, washing dishes, folding laundry, and yes, to be honest, watching a little mindless television.

When I would finally lied down in bed and fall asleep, some partly conscious part of my brain was writing down my dreams. In the morning, all I could remember were words: dandle, atmosphere, cricket, running. The only visual memory I could recall was seeing my hand scrawl those words on my dream.

The life of a writer. This was supposed to be exciting and organic. Instead it is the same thing day after day.

A couple of years ago, I read a quote, written on a post-it note stuck to the desk of another collegeague, in the state to the east of me. "Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work." Flaubert, another old, smart, white dude (I'm quoting my colleague,whom I contacted after I failed to unearth the quote, because I thought it was written by Proust).

Still, there is truth in it.

In five days of practicing (and I do mean practicing) this routine, I have written about feeling for phantom uteruses, developing a vaccine to prevent adultery, drowning mice in the toilet, and rescuing baby opossums from a dead mother's body.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Jane Effect

Jane had it all. Her brother invited her to live on his estate rent free. Her sister managed the household. She didn't have a husband or children to suck every drop of creative energy from her soul so that she fell into bed exhausted each night, berating herself for not having written....again...

All I am saying is that she had no excuse NOT to write. This explains perfectly why, despite dying at 41, she wrote and pusblished seven novels. Right?


I am the master of not writing. Sometimes I am best at it when I have nothing else to do.

Here is a (partial) list of things I can do instead of write:


freeze 20 pints of blueberries.

sort winter clothes.

clean out the chicken coop (yes, some days, I would even do this to get out of writing.)

bake pumpkin bread to give to the teachers, the assistants, the school social worker, the school secretary, the school nurse, the cafeteria lady, and the principal on the last day before winter break.

watch What Not to Wear marathon.

watch Sex and The City marathon.

watch recorded episodes of Modern Family.

watch Angels in America.

watch Grey Gardens.

fold laundry.

drive two hours (one way) to rescue three hens.

walk the dog.

copy Anna Karenina.

If a writer doesn't want to write, she can find a way to get out of it. Jane could have done that too, even without cable television. She could have hand embroidered the bed curtains.

The most worthy of causes can be used to avoid our own work, the work we are meant to do. This becomes especially tricky when we avoid writing in support of those we love. Because of course we want them to succeed, to be healthy, to be happy. And this is a good thing.

In the winter of 2010, I was in my last semester of graduate school, the time when one is most likely to give up. I was revising my creative thesis, or would I call it now, my bookmanuscript. I worked in a little room off the kitchen that was the old butler's pantry. I turned the thermostat down to 60 degrees. I shut off the radiator in my little makeshift studio. I placed a small space heater beneath the desk, creating the only warm space in the house.

Once, when the kids were home, requiring me to heat the whole house, I stood up from the chair and yelled, I quit, I can't do this. In less than a minute, three faces appeared in the doorway, three daughters, one of whom was 17, though she was younger at the time, who put her hand on her hip and looked right at me and said:

"You can't quit. You have come too far to quit. And what kind of example would that set for me?"

Damn you, daughter who listens to my every freaking word.

Sometimes what we do for ourselves is what we do for the ones we love.

And so she write.

She carves out a tiny space where nothing can fit except her and her words, whether that is a small round table in her bedroom somewhere on her brother's estate or the one warm spot in an empty house, or the voice of a daughter who won't let her quit.


Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Cassandra Effect

I arrived in London at 8:30 on Tuesday morning. Despite having taken a red eye from Chicago, and knowing I had three days and no time to waste accomodating jet lag, I dropped my bags in the hotel room and headed back down to the front desk to call a taxi. I had read that we were close to Jane Austen's house, and I decided to venture out and find it.

This was not a planned trip to the UK. My husband had to go for work, and falling over our ten-year wedding anniversary, he cashed in ALOT of frequent flyer miles to surprise me with a ticket of my own. Our 25-year-old daughter, a teacher, agreed to stay at the house with 17 and 13 while I was gone. I located my passport and packed a bag, after I did the laundry, went grocery shopping, visited my dad at the nursing home and wrote out dinner menus for the girls.

"You should go to Bath," 25 said to me, having visiting the town when she was doing a semester abroad in college. "You will love it."

So I did my due diligence, read the train tables and made plans to go on Wednesday. (Details of this adventure to follow in the next post).

Jane's home, however, the house where she did most of her writing, is in Chawton. Her brother Edward inherited the Chawton Estate from a distant cousin, changed his surname to Knight, and invited his mother and two sisters to live rent-free in a small cottage on his property. They accepted. And it is here, at a tiny writing table by the window, that Jane wrote and revised her novels.

Standing in the bedroom Jane shared with her sister Cassandra, I read a plaque that told me about Jane's daily routine. She spent the morning writing. In the afternoon, she and her sister would walk for hours in the fields and pastures of her brother's estate. They spent the evenings reading, sewing and embroidering. Throughout the house I find examples of Jane's handiwork: a glass case of embroidered baby bonnets for her nieces and nephews, replicas of hand-sewn bed curtains, a pieced quilt top, and a delicate, embroidered shawl.

The plaque goes on to say that it is because of Cassandra that Jane found time to write. Those mornings that Jane spent at her desk, Cassandra managed the household. She oversaw the baking, the cleaning, the collecting of eggs and vegetables, as well as herbs from the medicinal garden. She planned meals, sewed her brother's shirts and took care of hundreds of other minute details necessary to keep house in the 18th century. She also drew and painted the only two known portraits of Jane. Reading this, staring at the little painting of Jane in a blue dress, I know who I came here to see.

Across the street is a teashop called Cassandra's Cup, a nod to Jane's sister, to her creative contribution. Two unmarried sisters, one of whom is wife to the other.

Instead of sitting in the teashop and enjoying scones and clotted cream as I had planned, I walk in the rain toward Chawton House, the old manor house of the estate that is now a library for women's writing of the 18th and 19th Centuries. I wander into the cemetery beside the church.

I find Cassandra's grave and pay my respects.