A Writer’s Drawer by Jamie Ritchie Watson

Jamie Watson

I can’t remember when or where I first heard the advice that a writer should place her work in a drawer for a period of time before taking a second look at it, nor exactly how long that drawer time should be, but clearly, it’s a good idea to give yourself some time and space from any creative work when possible.

For my essay “Baby, do you pay here?” the time from note taking to finished piece was longer than thirty-five years. The experience that was the impetus for this writing took place about two years before my first son was born and he celebrated his thirty-fifth birthday this month. I wrote the original draft nearly twenty years ago and it remained in a drawer ripening until late last year. It is little wonder it did not rot, but recently, in an effort to downsize, I was purging files, shredding documents when I rediscovered this manuscript. After rereading it, I thought it might be worthy of publication.

Don’t misunderstand. I never really forgot it. The individuals who inspired the work were never far away; their faces – their voices could be easily summoned, and as I age, the lessons learned in a geriatric-psychiatric facility come into clear view. While I am reaching back to recall, the distance between sympathy and empathy is shorter and the image is sharper.

Even as young person, I recognized the life altering opportunity I had in working with the patients in the manor. These were extraordinary people in a heightened environment where the stakes were high. Voices were louder, movements were frenetic, smells were pungent, emotions were unrestrained, and the doors were locked. Confusion was the common denominator on a regular basis, but in spite of that confusion, I made critical connections with people who had a significant impact on my life.

Trained as an actor, I was no stranger to the heightened experience of the theatre and I possess a more than healthy dose of empathy. I understand what Thornton Wilder’s Emily means in his play, Our Town, when she returns from death to ask, “Do any human beings realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?” The character of the Stage Manager responds, “Saints and poets, maybe.” I am neither, but I understand the importance of capturing an experience to share in order to move an audience from one emotional place to another. I could not deny my impulse to write. Though theatre is my formal training, I am no playwright. Initially, I tried writing poems, but they were not good, so twenty years ago, in an effort to get something on paper, I wrote a thirty-plus-page account. Not long after writing it, I read it to my husband and two sons. My older son, a high school student at the time, commented that there was a lot of description and that not much happened. I think he was looking for a plot. He had a point. With that critique duly noted, I placed the document in a drawer.

I rediscovered the document six months ago. The thirty-five year old son who had offered the initial advice is now an anthropology professor whose writing is exquisite. His younger brother who also listened to the reading of the first draft is a singer-songwriter and brewer – an artist.

So, I took the piece from the drawer, read it as though it had been written by someone else, and later that day told my husband, a professor of theatre and a writer, that I thought it could be worthy of publication in some form. He read it, agreed, and helped me to think about and edit it from its original length and scope. I am grateful to him for his support and encouragement and to our sons for listening to all their mother’s stories. I am pleased that “Baby, do you pay here?” lives outside the drawer to honor the lives of the individuals who inspired me to write about them.

 

In Search of the Right Word

Teresa Burns Murphycropped

In Search of the Right Word:
A Meditation on the Writing (and Rewriting) Life
by Teresa Burns Murphy

I spent a lot of time in graduate school sitting in the hallway outside my advisor’s office. I’d fidget. I’d fret. I’d check and recheck the time, waiting for the precise moment of my appointment to roll around. Then I would tap tentatively on his office door.

“Come in,” he’d say in a voice that didn’t sound all that welcoming.

As I talked to him about my latest project, he’d remove his glasses and rub his forehead, grimacing as if he were in pain. Frequently, before I even finished speaking, he’d regard me with an icy stare and tell me how I’d gotten pretty much everything wrong. His comments were usually accurate, but his delivery left a lot to be desired.

Often, after these sessions were over, I’d meet with a friend to discuss the advisor’s remarks. This man was also her advisor, and we found these postmortems to be beneficial. Following one particularly brutal session, my friend listened patiently to my tirade.

When I finished, she gave me a sympathetic look and said, “I’m sorry he dismissed you.”

In that moment, I envisioned a judge pounding a gavel and shouting at an earnest petitioner, “Case dismissed!” I imagined a boss slapping a pink slip into the open palm of an employee who was expecting a paycheck and yelling, “You’re dismissed!” I heard a teacher, exasperated by a group of students’ lack of comprehension, bellow, “Class dismissed!”

Most importantly, I felt validated. I had known that my advisor could be curt with his criticism, but to be dismissed evoked so much more. I had been booted, discharged, given the ax, and ushered out. And then I began to think of my own tendency to be dismissive and wondered who had felt dismissed when interacting with me. I was determined not to be dismissive or dismissed.

The impact of my friend’s word choice is precisely what propels writers to tear into their first drafts as well as many subsequent drafts, sometimes crossing out and replacing a single word dozens of times. Why do we put ourselves through such a painstaking process? The right word can make us feel heard. The right word can spark reflection. The right word can unlock the knowledge that is inside of us, helping us recover feelings we thought had been lost. So, we keep listening, we keep reading, and we keep writing (and rewriting) in an attempt to find those elusive right words – the ones that will resonate with readers.

(Read Teresa’s wonderful essay Peeling Away the Mask.)

 

 

Interview with Patty Somlo

Patti Somlo

Mary Akers: Hi, Patty! Thank you for agreeing to speak with me today about your emotional short story “Time to Go Home.” Warrior is a great character. And I find myself wondering if there was any specific inspiration for him. Do you have a “Warrior” in your life?

Patty Somlo: The character, Warrior, was actually inspired by a Native American man I sat behind on the bus one day, riding from my home in Southeast Portland, Oregon, to downtown. As in most of my writing, though, details of my own life slipped into the character and the story. My father was a career Air Force officer and a veteran of the Vietnam War. I also grew up in an alcoholic family. Many years ago, I worked on a documentary film entitled, Warpath Against the Devil, about Native American Pentecostal ministers, and we filmed several camp meetings on the Navajo and Apache reservations. I met many “Warriors” there who had turned to Christianity for recovery.

 

MA: One of the things I liked most about your story was the changes of scenery that divide the story into a series of vignettes. This strikes me as being very much the way memory works over time. Was that your intent in structuring this story?

PS: Yes, it was. As someone who has spent time in therapy, I understand how much the past unconsciously seeps into the present, affecting who we are. Especially for a character like Warrior, who for many years tried to drink away his demons and has lately begun to confront them, the past and present are inextricably linked.

 

MA: Many editors shy away from characters that express emotion in stories. But I worry sometimes that when instructors and/or editors equate emotion with melodrama they end up scaring writers away from exploring the deeper emotional lives of their characters. Honestly, I feel like we’re all overflowing with emotion all the time–some of us just hide it better than others. Did you ever worry about letting Warrior have his good cry at the end?

PS: I tried to make sure earlier in the story that what Warrior had experienced made it possible for him to “believably” sob at the end, and was the right thing for him to do. In some popular fiction and movies, emotional endings sometimes feel fabricated, because the emotion hasn’t been earned. Characters need to develop emotionally and then an ending suggests itself. I always have to fight against some pat ending, tying everything up too neatly and it seems false.

Time to Go Home

MA: When I choose an illustration for each piece, I sometimes find that the authors make connections to the artwork in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated. How did you feel about the image that Lori McNamara gave us to illustrate your story?

PS: I loved the painting for a number of reasons and thought it fit the story. “Home” is an important theme of my story and the image spoke of home. I also felt that the painting’s brush strokes, being more impressionistic than realistic, captured a quality of the story. And, of course, it is just a beautiful image with lovely colors that makes you want to look at it a long time.

 

MA: What have you read recently that knocked your socks off, or that you’d like to recommend others read?

PS: I would have to say the novel, The Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeev Sahota. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It’s young people from India who go to Europe for better opportunities. It had everything I like in a novel. I was pulled in almost from the first page. The story was compelling. The characters were well-developed. And it was dealing with something important going on in the world right now. Especially in this time when we have a huge refugee crisis in Europe, the book really gave me insight to the lives of people who, for economic or other reasons, have to leave their home countries and try to make it in the West.

 

MA: And finally, because we are a recovery themed journal, what does “recovery” mean to you?

PS: I think of recovery as both going backward and moving forward. To recover, one must go back and find what was lost, usually the person that was there, before abuse, addiction, illness or grief happened. Then, you can move forward, building on that, to create a new person you weren’t capable of being before. As the word suggests, recovery is active and ongoing, not something that happens in a short period of time, but a way of living.

 

 

Interview with Wendi Berry

Wendi Berry, photographed at Visual Arts Center of Richmond Tuesday evening, March 15, 2016. (Skip Rowland)

Virginia Pye: What possessed you to write “Be Still, My Growling Stomach,” a fantasy that builds on ancient mythical tales?

Wendi Berry: I didn’t set out to write fantasy. I was in my fourth semester in Queens University low res MFA program, working on a novel and stories, and I kept getting feedback that my male characters all seemed “pitiful.” My peers were asking, why so pitiful and why do the female protagonists see them that way? I was asking myself that question, when this story leapt out. In Steve Rinehart’s workshop, they said it was allegorical.

 

VP: What were you reading when you got the idea for this story?

WB: I was reading Jim Shepard’s short story collection, Love and Hydrogen, including “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” and wanted to try my hand at inhabiting a monster. A monster, I guess, who found men trifling. Out came this dragon. The most fun I had was creating the dragon’s lair and describing the flowers and plants. I needed a name for a dragon and when I read online that Jormungand was a great beast in Norse mythology, I thought that’ll work, and shortened it to Jormu.

 

VP: Your story starts with a great opening line: I ate a man for breakfast. When you wrote that did you know how the story would unfold?

WB: I knew I wanted a strong voice. Looking back, it felt as if I were channeling Mae West. She’s quoted online as saying: “All discarded lovers should be given a second chance, but with somebody else.” Through an encounter with Rodney (sympathetic because he had just lost his wife and was grieving), there was an opportunity to view how Jormu saw this one. Did she hold Rodney in contempt? Could she give him his second chance? Writing several drafts, I discovered that not only Jormu, but her mother, too, had been used and abandoned by men, so the disappointment had been handed down and was deep.

red hibiscus

VP: I gather you have a novel you’ve completed and hope to sell soon. Can you tell us about it? I’m curious to know if it relates to this story–even thematically?

WB: The Apple in the Jar concerns a reclusive woman named Leash (née Lisa) hiding away in Chapel Hill for 17 years and pondering what the local shaman meant when he said “to put the apple in the jar,” when she asked about relationships. Leash gets called back to Richmond, Virginia for a funeral and is thrust back into friendships she thought were long since over. Thematically, the dragon story relates in the sense that she’s disappointed in her relationships with men, but unlike Jormu, Leash emerges from her cave and breaks free of some old expectations.

 

VP: What are you working on now and what are you reading?

WB: A collection of stories on the dignity of loneliness. This includes couples who are lonely. The title story is “Eating Lunch in Cars.”

Recently, I finished reading Rick Bragg’s memoir, All Over but the Shoutin.’ I really admire his use of concrete detail (such as the mother’s flip flops and cut off dungarees), to tell such a heart-rending story of family poverty. This past week, I finished Pamela Erens’ debut novel The Understory and was enthralled by the first person narration of being evicted in New York. Two years ago, I had the great fortune to attend Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and I enjoy supporting the writers I met there. Pamela was one of them. Another novel that I can’t stop thinking about is Mona Simpson’s Anywhere but Here because of the mother/daughter relationship and the tenuous sense of home and place.

 

VP: You received your MFA from Queens University. Was that a good experience for you, and do you recommend long distance writing programs?

WB: Through the years, I had applied to full residency programs, and it wasn’t happening. The clock was ticking, and I knew there were gaps and things I wasn’t getting. I was publishing, but wanted to take my writing to the next level. Queens’ critiquing process helped me see more clearly the mechanics of storytelling and voice and how to flesh out characters. Seeing how other stories got built gave me patience with my own process. I read a lot of good books and met other writers during the residencies. Since graduating, the support has been tremendous. Queens offers not one but two alumni programs, so I continue to meet writers, and there’s a chance to promote my work. A bonus was I got to study with Elizabeth Strout who assigned me to re-write chapters from multiple viewpoints. I’ll never forget, during a spring residency, many of my peers were out trying the local cafes–I was in my dorm room discovering what was driving my most trying character. It was awesome!

 

 

Virginia Pye’s second novel, DREAMS OF THE RED PHOENIX, was called “Riveting,” by Library Journal and “Superb historical fiction!” by the Historical Fiction Review. Her first novel, RIVER OF DUST, was an Indie Next Pick and a 2014 Finalist of the Library of Virginia Award in Fiction. Her award-winning short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines and her essays can be found in The New York Times Opinionator, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, Huffington Post and elsewhere. Please visit her at: www.virginiapye.com

 

Interview with Tom Sheehan

Tom Sheehan

Diane Buccheri: A statement up front before we start: Tom, you keep alive everything that passes in front of, around, and in you, like flowers that never die. You pick each flower and write a story or a poem, recovering the details barely imaginable in daily life. I know you grew up with your paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather feeding your literary hungers and tastes, fighting for your palate. How do you tell younger writers to depend on such memories rather than ditching them like today’s plastic wrapping. Because you write in many voices, genres, do you know or recognize what makes a new day a poetry day or a prose day for you? Are there tell-tale signs saying where your energy is going, in what direction, for what cause?

Tom Sheehan: When I go down inside myself, searching or alerted to some knowledge, possession, kinship with an idea, a moment, it’s all of me being searched and telling me where I’m going, what I want to say. There are times when certain words leap to be said again, knock themselves loose from tissue holding them in place, to be used, to come out of their cover for a further idea, a metaphor, a stick to measure by. Such words are not created by me, but are borrowed for this occasion, this particular use … they’ve been around for a long time on their own, waiting to be picked up again by passersby, like me, like others before me. When a poem comes out of it, it’s hot light, lightning, illumination on the leap.

Prose takes another road and is often catch-as-catch can, simple as looking out the window from my chair where I can see the river (high tide, low tide, mid tide), the road, the wide cast of birds in the skies (pigeons, ducks and geese, cardinals, hawks, turkey vultures, yesterday an enormous black-winged eagle supposedly mastering his sky and being chased by a hawk a fifth of his size), the traffic, a chunk of history from the First Iron Works in America where I worked on the reconstruction 64-68 years ago, a site once operational from 1632-1638, and reconstructed and dedicated as a National Park, and my home being built 100 years after the initial operation. I am so travelled back in time, thrust into situations, exposed to characters who had a place in this founding … who hang around for the likes of me all these years later. Objects come at me, those past characters in their plights and situations demanding answers or resolutions, and I am impelled to complete the reconstruction of the whole site. I swear I hear the Scottish slave workers talking about home after their importation for laboring with iron ore, turning the world over on its side, ballooning great industries.

 

Diane: You get under the skin, into the hearts and minds and senses of each of your “characters” who are indeed real people or become real by your writing. Your sensitivity is astounding, even to me, after reading and publishing your work for over 10 years. How much is taken directly from real life?

Tom: Every word, every poem, every lie, every story, is taken from something, some place, someone I have encountered.

Not Yet an Angel

Diane: Do you ever know a piece or poem is done?

Tom: I fear there is always an imperfection that can be found, can be fixed. It’s nice to think that in 50 years, or whatever, someone will read a piece of mine and say, :”What he meant here is…” Perfection is search.

 

Diane: In your reading, what things stay with you?

Tom: Where words leaped at me, the explosions of the language, where a highlighter might go crazy on a page: Thomas Wolfe’s “O waste of lost, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this weary, unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door.”; Melville’s “Call me Ishmael”; McMurtry on horseback; a poem I’ve recited a thousand times … John F. Nims’ “Shot Down at Night”; hearing W.B. Yeats’ recording of “Lake Isle of Innisfree“; introducing Seamus Heaney to a standing crowd at St. Ignatius Church, Boston College, part of the James Joyce celebration, March 2, 1982.; a classic lead sports page paragraph of a Boston Globe sports report in October of 1941 by Fred Foye: Harrington-Shipulski, Shipulski-Harrington. Shipularington Harringpulskiton :The names Mike Harrington and Eddie Shipulski became a dizzying maelstrom of air bombs, bucks and touchdowns, and when the nose drops were administered here this drear day undefeated Melrose awoke to find itself defeated with Saugus High School, otherwise known as The Shipulski-Harrington Athletic Club, leaving town with a 13-0 victory.(I was in love with the language and the sport.)

And my father saying, early in the games, at the edge of my first failure, marked by the touch of his hand on my shoulder, You come into life with two gifts, love and energy, and baseball and football and hockey are going to take both of them for all you’ve got. I think his heart remembered a loss, his knees their pain. When they took his leg off, the pain did not leave him.

 

Diane: How often do you participate in readings?

Tom: At 88, only the regular venues over the years; Out Loud Open Mike at Beebe Estates in Melrose (for 15 years perhaps) with Melissa Wattenberg and Rick Amonte, and the Jellicle Literary Guild in Melrose, MA with Raymond Soulard, editor of The Cenacle.

 

Diane: Do you remember your first reading, the last?

Tom: The two go together, strange as it seems: On Wednesday night, April 27, 2016, I had a revelation as I sat in the audience, waiting for my turn in a reading at Out-Loud Open Mike at the Beebe Estates in Melrose. Out of nowhere I suddenly remembered my first public reading 80 years earlier in Marleah Graves’ 2nd grade classroom of the Cliftondale School in Saugus, MA. I have lived here in Saugus since 1936, 80 years of my lifetime. We second graders sat on little green chairs in a circle in front of the classroom and I had written a piece on two pages of math paper about the freight train logos that passed daily through a local train crossing, or came out of my rabid reading about “elsewhere,” such as The Route of the Phoebe Snow, The Lackawanna Valley, The Boston & Maine, The Nickel Plate Road, The Hiawatha Line, Aroostook Valley, Bangor & Aroostook, Chesapeake & Ohio, etc. The names, the geography of them, fascinated me and my quest for learning more. When I finished my piece the girl beside me jumped up and kissed me on the cheek. Shortly after my son Jamie was born, about 40 years later, my wife Beth and I went to a plush restaurant where we first had to stand in line and wait for seating, and when my eyes met the eyes of the hostess, she said, loudly, “The Sheehan party, please.” And it was the same girl who kissed my cheek on that long-ago day, and we were seated right away. (Note: the school building is now named in honor of the teacher, the MEG Building, and serves as a civic center.)

 

 

Diane Buccheri is the founder and publisher of the former OCEAN Magazine. OCEAN led her into photography. Words and images fill her days. www.dianebuccheri.zenfolio.com

 

Interview with Todd Follett

Todd Follett

Sage Curtis: Your piece, Placental Insufficiency, starts with an epigraph, which sets a haunting tone for the reader and puts them in a place of darkness and/or silence. How do you see the epigraph’s relationship working within the poem, and your work on the whole?

Todd Follett: At the time I wrote this poem, I was very interested in Dante’s Inferno, particularly this early passage about the sun going silent. It always struck me as a wonderfully haunting image that I was waiting to use. I was also reading a bit of David Wojahn at the time. The poems of his that were most striking to me dealt with an unborn child being lost and the complete devastation which that absence can have, the vacuity it leaves on people’s lives going forward. It resonated with me.

I felt the combination of these ideas was compelling, the land of the silent sun and the life unrealized, and I ended up writing something that in ways echoed the Christian story of the Harrowing of Hell, where Christ descended into the underworld to free the pagans and children who’d been condemned. I even called the first draft of this poem “The Harrowing”.
I think the epigraph represents the sort of dark, slightly romantic vision which I try to cultivate in my work.

 

SC: It looks like you’ve threaded a few different influences through this one poem. I know this to be a common practice through your work. How does this “braiding” inspire you and help to create your unique images and language choices?

TF: I’ve always connected with braided writing and poems that rely on metaphor and analogy. I think it’s a great way of exploring the emotional or existential intangibles that connect two somehow analogous moments without ever directly focusing on them. Also, for as long as I can remember, I’ve had a knack for explaining something by using a different moment or image, and I enjoyed making things clear that way. Perhaps this was because, growing up, I often felt like I didn’t understand things the conventional way, the way most people understood them. Analogies and metaphors helped me realize there are many ways to approach an idea. It’s certainly a reason why I’m such a big fan of Larry Levis – I view him as a master of that braiding, metaphor-driven style.

For the last twenty years, as I’ve dived deeper and deeper into poetry, the more I see life as a series of moments that echo and resound within each other, almost like a patchwork of meaning. For me, it’s a rewarding way to learn to see the world. As an example, the other night I was going on a walk, feeling a bit stressed out and indecisive, and I saw the moon looking exactly half-full – I thought, “even the moon is unsure what to do”. It’s a weird synergy like that which can drive me to write a poem, or at least start one. Whether I write about the experience or not, though, I tend to take a real comfort in those connections.

 

SC: So poetry is always happening in your brain, essentially. Besides being inspired by the world’s strangeness, what else gets you motivated to write?

TF: When I feel a negative emotion that’s hard to contain, that’s a time when I want to write. Over the years, people have commented on how dark my writing is, but it always just felt natural to want to get the negative things out on paper and connect with others over the experience. I’ve always thought of it as an exorcism, really. I don’t tend to write about times when I’m happy, because there’s nothing to get out; I want to live in those moments, not vent them.

I’d have to say other writers get me motivated as well, whether we’re at that phase where we’re both trying to get our work published or they’ve been getting published for decades, it always feels like a bit of a relief to be around other poets and their work, as if I can be more myself in those moments.

Reading great poetry books is probably the biggest thing to inspire me, though. It’s hard for me to read Matthew Dickman, Jamaal May, Tracy K. Smith, Frank Stanford, or Larry Levis and not at least jot a few ideas down, even if it’s the tenth time I read it. I feel like some of my best poems are love letters to my favorite poets.

 

 

Todd Follett’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Spoon River Poetry Review, Natural Bridge, The Pedestal Magazine, Flights, and several other publications.

Sage Curtis is finishing her MFA in poetry at University of San Francisco, where she looks for microphones to read into and sometimes (always) find poetry on the streets. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Reed Magazine, Vagabonds Literary Journal, burntdistrict, 34th Parallel, and more.

Interview with Scott Loring Sanders

Scott Sanders

Mary Akers: Hi, Scott. Thank you for agreeing to talk to me today. I really loved your SOS piece (Argument with Myself on How to Write a Competent Essay). I know that the argument is a literary device, but it kind of begs the question: do you argue with yourself a lot when you write?

Scott Loring Sanders: I argue with myself about everything, writing or otherwise. And it’s funny you ask because I’m in the middle of an essay right now where I’m trying to explore exactly who this other self is. I see him (or me—it gets a bit confusing) as the one who keeps me grounded, my voice of reason. “He” is very logical and often talks me down off the ledge, if you will. But in this particular essay I just mentioned, I’m exploring how different that voice might have become if a few turns of fate had been slightly altered. If a few close calls had gone differently, that voice might not be nearly as stable and helpful as I currently find it.

And by the way, I got this arguing with myself honestly. My mother has talked out loud to herself for as far back as I can remember. My sister and I get a chuckle out of it sometimes, but really, we’ve always accepted it as perfectly normal. There were times, for example, when my mother would be in the kitchen cooking dinner and I’d be in the living room, and I’d hear her having full-fledged conversations. But there was nobody else there. Not a soul. I’m assuming this probably sounds odd to most people, but to me it was no big deal. My mom laughs good-naturedly about it if my sister and I try to poke a little fun at her. It’s just part of who she is. I think it’s simply her way of working through problems and issues, the same as all of us do, she just happens to do it aloud.

She has always walked for exercise, and back in the day I’m pretty sure the neighbors thought she was bat-shit—walking along, carrying on a conversation with herself, her hands flying in front of her face as if swatting gnats. Today, people passing by probably just think she’s got Bluetooth. I find it endearing, actually, partially because it doesn’t bother her in the least. She’s not embarrassed or self-conscious about it, it’s just who she is.

I occasionally do it too, talking to myself I mean. Usually when I’m frustrated with some sort of manual labor. Changing spark plugs, for example. I might bust my knuckles and say, “Come on, Scott. Don’t be such an idiot.” Yes, always in third person. Also, everything that I write, I read out loud, which is rule number one for me. And if I come across a problematic paragraph or sentence, often I’ll “talk it out” and/or make suggestions to myself.

So that’s a long, roundabout way to say, yes, I argue with myself all the time, and certainly when it comes to writing.

 

MA: I love that answer. A Bluetooth connected to the other self. I’m digging that idea. I argue with myself, too, except it’s my last name that comes up. As in, “Get a grip, Akers.” My Bluetooth other has a very sarcastic, paramilitary tone. I’ll know I’m really off the deep end when it says, “Drop and give me twenty.”

I am fascinated by internal struggle. I feel like we must all face some form of it, yes? (It’s not only me, right?) The thing that seems especially brilliant in your piece is that the internal struggle is–on the surface–about writing, but it is also about addiction and moderation imposed by the self, and anger at the intemperate self, the immoderate self, even the creative self. Would you like to comment on that?

SLS: I suppose my first answer covers this to some degree, but I could certainly expound on the writing aspect. And “brilliant” might be a bit strong, but thanks all the same! I’ll take everything I can get.

Generally speaking, I’m a pretty confident person. But when it comes to writing, I never am. I question everything. Is it good enough? Why would anyone want to read this? I have no idea where I’m going. What the hell am I trying to say? It’s pretty normal, I guess. I’ve heard plenty of highly successful writers say the same thing.

No matter what I write, fiction or nonfiction, these doubts constantly pop up. It’s always an internal struggle. When I get a piece accepted for publication, often I’ll think, “They must’ve really needed material for the issue” OR “Wow, I fooled them, didn’t I?” Every once in a while, one of those pieces gets nominated for an award, and occasionally even wins, which you might assume would provide some pretty solid validation. But I’ll still tell myself, “The field must have been weak this year” OR “I got lucky and happened to hit on a theme the judge was interested in.” I swear to God, I’m like an awful, domineering step-parent to my own self, where no matter what I do, it’s never good enough. But you know what, I don’t think that’s a bad thing anymore. Over time, I’ve learned that beating myself up in that way is actually healthy when it comes to writing. It helps push me, it helps make me better, it helps squeeze every little bit I can out of a piece. Early in my career, as I guess many young writers do, I’d knock something out, say, “Voila. You’re a genius” and then send it out, only to receive 100% rejection. After getting pummeled repeatedly, I learned humility and patience. And tenacity.

I struggle with every aspect of writing—composing, editing, rewriting, etc. But over time I figured out that that struggle is part of the journey and process. I now accept it and trust myself that eventually I’ll produce something (hopefully) worthwhile. Those internal struggles and arguments have only made me a better writer. A more thorough writer. But it never comes easy, that’s for sure. Not for me anyway.

 

MA: Agreed. I work hard to remind myself (and others) of the need for persistence in writing. In fact, it’s kind of a thing with me. I run a writing office in Zoetrope Virtual Studios and the title of the office is R.I.P which stands for Rejection Isn’t Personal. The tagline that goes with it is “Writing is a game of Attrition. Don’t attrish.” I stole this from the director of my MFA program, Fred Leebron. (Let that sentence serve as my attribution credit.)

I know you also had a short story published at Prime Number with a character who was addicted to crystal meth. Is addiction a theme that recurs a lot in your writing? (It does in mine.) If so, why do you think that is?

SLS: Substance abuse does show up pretty often in my work. I don’t know that I’d call it a theme, necessarily, but it is certainly a means for developing a character, if nothing else.   Addiction creates obstacles for a character. Which in turn creates tension. Which in turn raises the stakes. Which in turn makes things interesting. And besides, they say “Write what you know” don’t they? In real life, the vast majority of my friends have had—or still have—problems with alcohol and/or other drugs. This doesn’t make them bad people, it just means they have issues they are coping with and/or hiding from. It has been a constant in my life ever since I was a little kid, so it only makes sense that it would infiltrate my writing.

You’d be hard-pressed to find many adults in the world today (or teenagers for that matter) who don’t have some sort of experience with addiction, whether it’s their own or a loved one’s or a friend’s. It’s simply reality, so yes, it often creeps into my work. I’ve written a few essays about my own struggles, but I rarely talk about it in public (though I guess that’s exactly what I’m doing right now!) If somebody reaches out because they’re hurting and seeks my advice, I’m happy to discuss it, but I sure don’t go around preaching about it. Addiction (and recovery) are very personal things that every individual has to contend with in their own way.
ARGUMENT flowers for him

MA: Agreed. What other themes do you find popping up often as you write? I know you have a YA book with a Vietnam vet who plays an important role….

SLS: I often write about males who have issues with their fathers. It’s no mystery where that comes from. I’ve written about my own father in various essays, warts and all. There were plenty of years where our relationship was tumultuous at best, but we got through it, and I’ve never been closer with him than I am now. With that said, tough and sometimes unreasonable—or downright eccentric—fathers often factor in to my work. And by the way, since you mentioned it, my dad is a Vietnam vet.

As far as other themes, I’ve noticed that bodies of water, usually rivers, often show up—even acting as tertiary characters in some ways—though I can’t exactly tell you why that is. Trains and railroad tracks, too. I’ve always found railroads to hold a gritty, grungy mystique which instantly helps create mood and/or setting. In fact, now that I think about it, that story you mentioned in your last question has a meth addict, an estranged father, a river, and a train. See what I mean!

I’ve never really thought too much about theme or symbolism or the like. I just write what I write, but it’s clear that some ideas and topics pop-up in my work more so than others.

 

MA: Thanks for answering that. I know it’s a tough question, and perhaps one better left to those who read our work with a critical eye. (Or perhaps the Bluetooth eye.) For what it’s worth, I think you did a great job of answering it.

You share almost the same name with a well-known essayist and short story writer. That must be mildly annoying at times. Does this ever cause problems for you? Has it ever helped you? Is there something definitive you would like to say about it for your readers?

SLS: Ha, that’s pretty funny. It might be mildly annoying for Scott Russell Sanders if someone ever compared my work to his, but the opposite has certainly never been a problem! I say this because I think he’s topnotch, and I highly respect him. To have my work confused with his would be an honor. Seriously. I mean, he’s one of the original masters of the creative nonfiction genre as far as I’m concerned. And talk about some amazing writing which deals with addiction and fathers? He’s got an essay that I often teach called “Under the Influence” which is a must-read for anyone who’s ever lived with a family member struggling with addiction. Damn near perfect if you ask me.

But yes, I did decide early on to publish under my full name in order to draw a distinction between the two of us. To answer your question, it’s never caused a problem for me, nor has it helped. However, I did receive a handwritten rejection once from an editor at a highly prestigious journal, commenting on how my work was always stellar, etc. It was flattering, but the story I sent wasn’t all that good to begin with. In retrospect, I feel pretty certain that that editor probably got confused and thought he was responding to Scott Russell Sanders and not Scott Loring Sanders.

And here’s a somewhat humorous anecdote. Last year, an essay I published received a Notable mention from Best American Essays 2015. As did an essay written by Scott Russell Sanders. So, thanks to the power of the alphabet and the fact that the letter L comes before the letter R, my name appears directly above his at the back of the book. When that anthology hit the shelves, I pointed this out to my wife, stating, “Look who just one-upped Scott Russell Sanders.” It will probably be the only time, so I’ll take it.

 

MA: I’m a big fan of Scott Russell Sanders’ work, too. I love that story about BAE. And on the plus side, you can tell that critical other voice of yours to stuff it, because there’s no chance you were mistaken for him if you BOTH got noted.

And finally, because we are a themed journal, what does “recovery” mean to you?

SLS: You know, that’s a tough one because I’m not sure. I do know that I’m much happier sober than when I was drinking. You could’ve never convinced me that that was possible when I first quit, but every aspect of my life has gotten better. My marriage, being a father, my health, my work—both writing and teaching. I’d never written a word (not a serious word anyway) until after I got sober. That’s been fifteen years now, which sounds crazy to me, even today. Fifteen years without a drink was truly unfathomable when I first quit. Hell, a week was unfathomable. To be perfectly honest, the idea of not drinking again scared the shit out of me. But I’m so glad I did it.

I have a saying which I share with people who come to me asking for advice about getting sober. It goes like this: “Not once in all my years of sobriety have I woken up and said, ‘Man, I wish I had a hangover today.’ Not once.” It seems to always hit home on a fundamental level. So, yeah, I’m proud of being sober. I’m proud of my recovery. I was able to drink a lot back in the day. A whole lot. And somehow I equated that with being tough. With being a man. But you know what I learned through getting sober? Anybody can take another drink, or puff, or hit, or snort. That’s easy. There’s nothing to it. You know what’s hard? Not taking one. That’s real toughness. So, yeah, I’m proud of it. And if those words offer some encouragement to somebody out there who’s having a difficult time, then better yet. I had some great support from friends and family, and I’ve also helped a few people along the way. Maybe this interview will help a few more. So maybe that’s what recovery means to me. Helping. Helping myself, helping others. I guess I’ll leave it at that.

Thanks so much for the great questions. I think there’s a new essay buried in here somewhere.

 

MA: Gosh, I’ve enjoyed this interview so much. I wish we could continue it over a…cup of coffee. Thank you, Scott. (Also–yet another aside–I named my son Scott, almost twenty years ago. Good name, that.)

Homepage Spring 2016

Cover image (Approaching Storm)
All artwork appears courtesy of the artist.

Welcome to our Spring 2016 “HURRICANE” issue. We’re thrilled to share the exciting and diverse array of voices in this issue, all enhanced by the beautiful artwork of Lori McNamara which she has graciously allowed us to use for this issue.

After a slow start, the issue came together beautifully and I’d like to extend a big thank you to my devoted editors and readers who make my job so much easier, and to the contributors who have trusted us to bring their writing out into the world. Also, thanks for the gorgeous artwork, Lori. You made each essay, story, flash, and poem pop just a little bit more.

Our July 2016 issue will have the theme of BLINK and October 2016 will be SPIRITS. As always, thanks for reading.

Yours in Recovery,

Mary Akers
Editor-in-chief

Interview with Simon Perchik

Simon Perchik

Mary Akers: Hi, Simon. Thank you for agreeing to speak with me today. I loved your poem “as if these leaves” in our January issue. In preparation for this interview, I visited your website and read a previous (2003) interview with Susan Tepper. In that interview, you said that you often work from images. Is this still true today? And if so, what sort of images are inspiring you these days?

Simon Perchik: Thanks for the kind words about that poem. With reference to how I work from images I would like to refer your readers to Magic, Illusion, and Other Realities an essay I wrote that more fully answers that question. The short answer is that I confront the image or idea from a photograph with a contradictory image or idea from science or mythology and resolve that difference. Exactly what a metaphor does for a living.

 

MA: I’ve noticed that in much of your work you switch images or feelings in a way that might be considered abrupt, but that to me is more about trusting the reader to follow along and catch up, as needed. Or even better, to form their own connections, their own bridges between the words. Is that how you want your readers to see the leaps you make–as a challenge?

SP: Exactly. It’s as if my subconscious is talking to the reader’s subconscious. If I do it right the reader will experience an emotion the origin of which is nowhere on the page.

 

MA: Along those same lines, when artwork is used to illustrate writing it’s almost as if the interplay between the two forms creates a third meaning that is different from the separate meanings that each work might have on its own. Given that you work from images, would you agree with that?

SP: Yes. There’s a word for this kind of collaboration. It begins with synthe but I can’t remember it just now.

 

MA: Synthesis? I think that could describe two art forms merging to create a third. What sorts of themes or images do you find yourself returning to over the years and why do you think these recur?

SP: Death and love are the only two themes worth writing about. I find myself in cemeteries a lot. No matter how a poem starts out it ends up at a gravesite.

 

MA: And finally, because we are a themed journals, what does “recovery” mean to you?

SP: Recovery, to me, is a process. We never recover. At best, we take in music, art, literature, dance and whatever else to hold us up for a while.

“Cuddle the Schizophrenic and Fear the Bipolar” by Olaf Kroneman

Pink Lily Lagoon (Cuddle the Schizo)
“Pink Lily Lagoon” by Lori McNamara, 2011, oil on masonite

1967: “The Summer of Love.” It was a great time to be in San Francisco and Haight-Ashbury, smoking pot and dropping acid. But not an ideal time to be a first-year medical student in an inner-city Detroit hospital.

Location, location, location.

For five days in July 1967, Detroit burned. Forty-two civilians were killed. It was the Detroit Riot or Civilian Rebellion from Oppression, depending on your viewpoint. They brought the dead and injured into the emergency room. I saw firsthand what a fifty- caliber bullet could do to a child. Black orderlies and white nurses and white surgical residents gently, but rapidly, placed a five-year-old girl on an operating room gurney.

I heard, “She’s still breathing.”

Her hair was braided in pigtails, held in place with pink ribbons.

It was a psychedelic mix of sights, sounds, and smells.

The lights were bright and illuminated the carnage. No shadows. Nothing left to the imagination. The entourage raced out of the emergency room. The custodians followed behind, mopping the floor. An impression of her body remained on the steel stretcher. It was like a photographic negative made in blood. I was ordered to clean the stretcher. As I did, the girl’s silhouette disappeared.

Finished, I went to the lavatory and vomited.

~

In medicine we can be witness to some beautiful miracles. Childbirth always restores me. Witnessing a sick child’s fever break and health return brings professional salvation and affirmation.

But my experience in the emergency room won’t be expunged. Perhaps a neurosurgeon could remove that section of my brain that remembers. There is no debriefing in the medical profession. We are instructed to “hike them up.” Remain silent. It often works. Time is the second-best healer.

With all the women in medicine now, there must be a new expression. But the sentiment remains.

The emergency room experience was harrowing. I had to talk to somebody. I couldn’t talk to my fellow competitive classmates. Medical colleagues didn’t reveal weakness. Angst was managed with silence. Perhaps it is different now.

At age twenty-one, I reflexively turned to those with whom I shared a filial history, a strong genetic and DNA bond. I would try to reach them once again for our mutual benefit. The DNA bond was weakening, but I had to try again. It would probably be pointless; the more education I obtained, the more estranged I became. My academic accomplishments were like a wall. I was learning so much. I was learning to diagnose. I would be able to save lives. In retrospect, my enthusiasm was focused, but intimidating and threatening. I was obsessed.

My studies led me to the family secret, the hereditary curse that doomed my ancestors. At that time it was called manic-depressive illness. It was obvious. I believed it was my duty to tell them, help them. I tried once to enlighten them. I hoped they would be receptive.

My father loved it when I played football or boxed in the Detroit Golden Gloves. He basked in my glory. But once I got into medical school, there was a distance. He seemed afraid of me. My mother too. She held her breath as I talked about my studies and the things I learned. I’m sure they realized I would come to the inevitable conclusion. I would diagnose and explain why so many of our ancestors ended their days in insane asylums or prisons or as homicides or suicides. I wanted to enlighten them and educate them, get those in the family who were affected help. Help before something bad happened.

But now I needed their help. I had to talk to them.

I drove to my childhood home, which was a two-bedroom red-brick bungalow built after World War Two. My brother, sister, and parents still lived there. I looked through the big picture window. My parents sat in front of a large color television, watching Bonanza. Ben Cartwright lectured his middle-aged sons while Hop Sing waited on them.

I entered. They looked away from the glow of the television.

“Well, who’s this?” my father asked. “Too busy to see your mom and dad? Without us there would be no you.”

My mother stood. My father remained seated. “It’s good to see you, son,” my mother said. I kissed her on the cheek.

“Get your son and me a Blue Ribbon, some crackers and Velveeta.”

My mother went to the kitchen. I felt sorry for her. She was a good person but weak and lived in fear. Fear from a volatile husband who could go from paralyzing depression to a high-pressured manic zealot. During his mania he could be very funny, buying us gifts he couldn’t afford. He would entertain us with unbounded energy. He could also get rough. I grabbed my father’s arm once, when still in high school, and told him, “No. Never again.” I was his physical superior, and he was afraid of me.

I warned him about hurting any of us in the family, especially my mother. My father became an expert at psychological abuse. It left no physical marks. I asked her to divorce him. She was too afraid, and she said she didn’t want to hurt the children.

“We’re not children anymore.”

“You’ll always be my children.”

“I know, and you must protect the one with the broken wing.”

“Yes.”

She returned with the beer and snacks. “Son, what brings you here?”

I did not know how to start. I sipped the beer. “Mom, Dad, I’m seeing things in the hospital, things that upset me.”

My father rolled his eyes. Played an imaginary violin. It was what I expected. I should have left before things got worse.

My father sipped. “Beer’s not cold enough, Sue, put a few bottles in the deep freeze.”

She left to put the beer in the freezer.

“Son, when I was in the marines, there were things that were upsetting.”

“But you got in at the end of the war. You didn’t see action.”

“True, but I talked to guys who saw all sorts of things, and I saw pictures.”

I hesitated, then I told him, “I saw a young girl die.”

“How old?”

“Five years old.”

“Well it beats seeing a baby die. You ever seen that?”

“No, not yet.”

“Well,” my father said. “I saw pictures from the war.”

“What a horrible thought,” my mother said.

“I saw your sister almost die when she cut her wrists on a glass jar. It was a bad accident.”

“Dad, it was no accident. It was a suicide attempt. She needed treatment. She still does. I told you before. You can’t just keep her locked up in the house.”

“She just has headaches,” my mother said. “The light hurts her eyes. She has to stay inside, or she starts to act peculiar.”

“She has manic-depressive illness. It explains her behaviors. She’s unstable; she can’t help it,” I said.

“You think she’s crazy? Is that what you’re saying?” my father asked.

“She needs to be on medication. I told you before but you wouldn’t listen. She needs psychiatric help to undo her bizarre behavior patterns.”

They both stared at me just like before. Deer in the headlights. I could tell they didn’t get bizarre behavior patterns. I told them again about the disease; a disease that causes out-of-control emotions, anger, rage, sex drive, but short-circuits the area that allows the ability to love. The conversation ended in insults and denial. They looked at me as if I were the man from Mars speaking another language. But they knew. They didn’t know it had a name.

I changed the subject. “I’m not sure I’m cut out to be a doctor.”

“You’re not a weakling. You never backed down,” my father said. “We had such high hopes for you. You could be rich.”

My mother said, “Doctors are special people. Perhaps you don’t deserve to be a doctor.”

Her words stung. I was no longer special. I couldn’t talk. The bitterness and abuse of my father had finally leeched into my mother. She had hurt me. She’d never done that before.

“That a girl, Susie. Give him a swift kick in the ass. It’s about time.”

My mother had tears in her eyes. She knew what she did and instantly regretted it. This would be of no help. I stood. “Gotta go, thanks for the beer.”

My mother followed me out the door.

“Why don’t you leave him?”

“It would have upset you three.”

“Not me.”

“Then the other two.”

My mother walked me to my car. My sister was busily scratching the side of my car with a butcher knife. I didn’t say anything. It would be pointless now that she had entered one of her manic episodes.

“Laurel, you get away from your brother’s car. Put the knife down.”

“She can’t hurt that wreck. At least she didn’t puncture the tires this time.”

“She wants you to be able to leave.”

My sister ran toward us. I didn’t know what she would do with the knife. She waved the knife at my mother and me.

“You got into med school, but you’ll never finish.” Her voice was too loud, almost like a shout or growl. She laughed and ran into the house.

“That reminds me of those old jokes,” my father shouted. “How do you unload a truckload of dead babies? With a pitchfork. Ha.…ha…ha.”

My sister laughed as well. Her laugh was higher in pitch, but just as loud.

“I don’t know how you live with all that madness. They both have it. He passed it on to her. You have to save yourself.”

“Sometimes they’re not so bad.” My mother turned and walked into her home.

That’s all I needed. I couldn’t go back again. I knew too much. They would always be afraid of me. I decided to transfer to a medical school on the West Coast.

~

That was almost fifty years ago. In 2017 it will be fifty years since the Detroit Riot. The young girl on the stretcher would be about fifty-five had she lived. The issues then were racism, police brutality, unwanted foreign wars, and gun control. Nothing much has changed. Abortion is on the front burner again.

Naively we thought the Middle East problem was over after the Six-Day War.

Leaving Detroit was a good thing for me. I went into academic medicine. All the academic opportunity was on the coasts then, as now.

Initially I went into a psychiatry residency. I wanted to learn as much as I could about manic-depressive illness, now called bipolar disorder. It’s said that unstable physicians go into psychiatry in order to heal themselves. I don’t believe that. Unstable physicians stay as far away from psychiatry as possible. They’d be too easy to spot.

But I’ve learned enough about the disease that I can spot them. The untreated ones or the ones that go off their medication act bizarre. I saw a surgeon one time get manic, and during a surgery throw a scalpel against the wall. The scalpel ricocheted, just missed the anesthetized patient, and stuck in the surgeon’s leg.

While being sewn up, he was committed.

Unfortunately, the laws protect them. You can’t be proactive. They must do something bad. Someone must get hurt before you can intervene. I’ve seen it too many times.

The treated ones always carry water or are always at a drinking fountain. The medication, the lithium, makes them thirsty. It hurts the kidneys and they always have to pee. They chronically carry coffee because the medication makes them drowsy. I’m on alert. I’m afraid of them.

And they have a peculiar twitching at the mouth or sometimes a locked smile. The mental patient smile.

I’m not the only one with the same fear. I attended a lecture by a famous forensic psychiatrist. The lecture was titled, “Cuddle the Schizophrenic, and Fear the Bipolar.” The gist was that most violent people are not crazy, and most crazy people are not violent. But some are and psychiatry is inept at spotting the suicidal and homicidal.

This hopeless ineptitude led me to change careers in mid life. I became an anesthesiologist. I put people to sleep. I keep them safe. I control their every move while they are under. When they wake up, I’m done. I don’t have to worry if they are suicidal or homicidal.

~

I rarely went back to visit my family. I was not invited to birthdays, weddings, or holidays, but they couldn’t keep me out of the funerals. You don’t need an invitation. I never missed one. I saw them all buried. I paid for them.

Only my sister and I are left. The court got her the help she needed. She attacked her fourth husband with a hammer. Killed the dog. That husband resides in a nursing home drooling and wearing diapers.

I am one of the few physicians that smokes cigarettes, Pall Malls, unfiltered. The red pack looks regal, sophisticated. Opposite the surgeon general’s warning is the phrase “Where Particular People Congregate.” Pall Malls are hard to find. But I have a good tobacconist.

I blame the government attack on smoking as the cause of the obesity and diabetic epidemic. Smoking is a great appetite suppressant. The lives saved and the lives lost is probably a wash.

Nicotine is also a good antidepressant. It seems to me that the social ban on cigarettes caused the pharmaceutical explosion of expensive antidepressant drugs. Big tobacco’s loss is big pharma’s gain. The problem with the new antidepressants is that they unmask and unleash bipolar disorder. Add to that the lack of gun control and large clip AR-15s.

I have been spared; so have my children. But I watch for signs. So far, so good.

I sit in my library. I enjoy my Pall Malls and listen to music. I steer clear of the new antidepressants. I can’t listen to Prozac. I’ve never been adequately debriefed. But I keep myself safe: I smoke.

 

 

Olaf Kroneman has had work appear in Forge, Hawai’i Pacific Review, The Healing Muse, The Helix, inscape, Left Curve, Quiddity International Literary Journal, RiverSedge, Gemini Magazine, paperplates, and Diverse Voices Quarterly. His story, “Fight Night,” won the Winning Writers Sports Fiction and Essay Contest, and “The Recidivist,” won the Writer’s Digest short story contest. His essay “Detroit Golden Gloves” was selected as Editor’s Choice by inscape, honoring the top nonfiction piece of the issue in which it was printed.