Interview with Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is interviewed here by me, Briana Morgan. First, I should paint a picture for you: Matt is tall, funny, and fairly quiet until you get to know him—to look at him, you wouldn’t know that he had just written a novel and has been going through the publication process. In spite of having graduated from GCSU last year, Matt remains a prominent fixture in Milledgeville, where he spends his time reading, writing, and basically just becoming more awesome. I recently sat down to interview Matt just ahead of the release of his ebook (at the date of this publication, the book will have already come out). He had a lot to say.

Briana Morgan: How did you get into writing?

Matt Thompson: I have a very typical and less than exciting story about how I got into writing. I started college as a history major, but my 1101/1102 class convinced me that English is what I was supposed to study. My intro to creative writing class did the rest.

 

How would you describe your writing style?

I wouldn’t, but given no other choice I’d say my writing is to the point.

 

Which authors or works do you think have influenced your writing the most?

This is a fun question. Anyone who knows me could tell you that I read a lot, even for a person who studies writing/literature, so this is difficult. It’s impossible not to mention Hemingway, because I read him a great deal when I was younger and I think some of my techniques are definitely influenced by him, but his influence stops there, at the technical level. I wish I could write like Philip Roth—the way he weaves past and present is something I try (and hopefully at least partially succeed) to emulate. As far as subject matter goes I think Jonathan Franzen has had the biggest effect, especially on my newer work. While writing Oleanders In Alaska I actually read Freedom twice. It’s amazing to me how he’s picked up the family drama torch from his Russian predecessors and he’s even made me pick up old Russian classics that I’ve avoided in the past. So I like to write about families and relationships. Wow that was wordy, sorry.

 

What are you reading at the moment?

At the moment I’m reading Travels In Alaska by John Muir.

 

What do you think about e-books?

This is a question that I was hoping you’d ask. I’ve learned that there’s a stigma. There is a perception that there is no one out there writing serious fiction for e-books, that e-publishing is only an outlet for those who want to write their own vampire or s&m story. I’d like to change that perception. Just because a book is published as an e-book doesn’t mean that it’s glorified fan fiction. There’s good stuff out there, lots of it, and we’d like you to read us too. That isn’t to say I’m one of those people who thinks traditional publishing is dead and we should all ignore it. On the contrary, I have a few short stories that have been published…on actual paper! So I’m not necessarily against traditional avenues. Nothing as complex as this can ever be absolutely black and white. There are positives to both. Was that self promotion subtle enough?

 

What have you learned about the publishing industry?

Ew.

 

What’s the best advice you can give aspiring writers?

Just write. I write every day and a lot of it sucks. Some of it ends up being pretty good. The thing is, I rarely know when I’m in the process of writing. It takes some time to know if something is any good. So write every day.

The Stars at Noon

The Stars at Noon (Frozen Feathers)
Frozen Feathers, image by Karen Bell

She had been sleeping, it seemed, then she heard someone cough. Who is coughing? she thought. Then she realized: it was herself.

Silly old woman. Silly half-dead old woman.

Then she noticed that she was sitting up. Why? She looked around the hospital room. The vaporizer breathing the menthol odor of death. The late afternoon light on the linoleum like the outline of someone killed in a highway accident.

Anastasia shivered. Why did she have to think such thoughts? This was no time to think like that. This was a time for joy.

She lay back into herself, hugged the chill inside her. It wouldn’t be long now.

Now what was that? Nurses talking in the hallway? She raised her head from the pillow and strained to hear what they were saying. But she couldn’t make out the words over the hiss of the vaporizer, so she lay back.

Then it wasn’t nurses talking. It was cicadas buzzing in the trees around her father’s farm.

She’d heard that ratcheting hum every August when she was growing up. Once, she and Tom collected the brittle, umber-colored husks left in the elms after the humming stopped. She stood under each tree holding one of their father’s empty cigar boxes while Tom shinnied up and found the desiccated husks. At first he crushed a lot of them, they were so fragile; later, he learned how to cradle them in his palm.

She had that cigar box full of them somewhere. Where?

And who was this?

The nurse’s face hung before her like a question waiting to be answered. “Sister Anastasia? Are you awake?”

Why did nurses wear white, nuns black?

“You have a visitor, Sister.”

Hovering beside her in the half-light: Sister Beatrice. The children are right. We do look like blackbirds. She watched Beatrice pull a white handkerchief out of her black sleeve and blow her nose. The old nun laughed, then coughed. She hugged her ribs until she stopped coughing.

Was this how Tom had felt? Dry and ready to crumble?

“Sister Anastasia?”

It was that big-nosed nurse again. What do you want now?

“It’s time for your afternoon chest rub, but I’ll wait till you’re through visiting. Whenever you’re done, just buzz for me, okay?”

He would drop down from the tree with his hands full of husks.

“I’m dying,” she said, but Tom was gone.

“Pardon me?” a voice said. “Did you say something, Sister?”

Anastasia turned to the voice’s face: it was Sister Beatrice. Then she laughed. A blackbird with wire-rimmed glasses. She had to tell the children.

The children—she had almost forgotten the children. How they would suffer when they heard she was dead! She remembered how hard they had cried last spring, when the touring company of the Black Hills Passion Play performed the crucifixion at their school, and she imagined them at her funeral: the boys, bravely blinking, and the girls, their faces in their hands.

What was she thinking of? How could she think such a thing?

“I am an old sinner,” she whispered. “Forgive me.”

“For what?” Beatrice asked. “You’ve never done anything to hurt me. You know that.”

Anastasia looked at the young nun. She was about to explain, but the coughing started again. When it was over, Anastasia was sitting up. Beatrice helped her lie back.

“Are you all right?” Beatrice worried.

“I need a priest,” Anastasia said. She’d been asking for Last Rites for two days, but all she’d received were more pain pills. “Call Father Switzer. Please.”

“Don’t you talk like that,” Beatrice scolded. “Dr. Gaertner says you’ll be fine in a week or so. You’re going to be under the weather awhile, but what do you expect when you don’t wear your shawl when you should? You can’t say we didn’t warn you—and time and again.”

Anastasia smiled at her stern look. No wonder her children ignored her when she disciplined them: no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t look angry, not with that baby face.

Then Beatrice’s chin began to quiver and the stern look dissolved. Taking out her handkerchief, she turned away. “I’m sorry, Sister,” she said. “I shouldn’t cry; there’s nothing to cry about.” Then she began to cry even harder. She turned back to Anastasia. “Oh, Sister, I hate to see you so sick!” she sobbed, and threw her arms around her.

Beatrice’s wide wimple blocked the last bit of light from the hospital window, and Anastasia felt the darkness settling around her. She had been waiting for it, and it had finally come. She breathed it in, felt it fill her hollow cheeks and lungs.

But Beatrice rose, wiping her tears, and the light came back.

“I’m not supposed to tell you this,” she said, “but I will. We’re planning a big birthday party for you when you get back. We’re going to decorate the lunchroom with balloons and crepe paper and signs, and the kids are going to sing ‘Happy Birthday,’ and then we’re going to have cake and ice cream and play some games. Sister Rose is going to bake a huge cake, and I’m going to decorate it. I had the best idea ever: I’m going to spell out your name with candles! Can’t you just imagine how beautiful it’ll look when all the candles are lit?”

If a candle was still burning after you tried to blow it out, that meant you had a secret boyfriend. And if the stem of your apple snapped on the third twist, that meant his name began with C.

A young man was once in love with me, Anastasia said. Or did she? Sister Beatrice did not seem to hear. “I know I shouldn’t have told you,” Beatrice was saying. “It was supposed to be a surprise and everything, but I just wanted you to know how much we care about you.”

She shouldn’t be thinking about Carl now: she didn’t want to spoil her death with thoughts of old boyfriends. She was a nun, not a housewife. But everyone else who knew her when she was young was dead: Tom was dead, Mother and Father, her friends. Everyone. Carl was the only one left who would remember what she was like when she was a little girl.

Why did that matter?

The fall from innocence was fortunate; it was sinful to regret it. Adam and Eve banished to Heaven. The discarded apple making cider in its bruises.

What now?

Beatrice was patting her hand. Nice puppy.

“All the kids miss you terribly, and so do we,” she said. “I know Antoinette Marie is short-tempered with you sometimes, but she doesn’t mean anything by it, and she misses you as much as Camilla and Rose and I do. And Father Switzer—you know you’ve always been his favorite. Just this morning he said he can’t wait to see your smiling face again.”

Anastasia thought she heard Father Switzer’s lisping Latin. She rose to her elbows. He’s finally here. It’s finally time. She looked around the room for his shock of blond hair and boyish face.

But it was only the vaporizer, hissing its dark litany. What a foolish woman! Anastasia lay back into a laugh. She knew she’d start coughing again, but she didn’t care. It was too funny. She was too funny.

“What is it?” Beatrice asked.

Anastasia crossed her hands at her neck, trying to strangle the cough before it began. But it began anyway, and she coughed until she was dizzy, until green and gold burned neon under her eyelids.

She thought: so much pain. But what was this compared to the agony in the garden, the sweating of blood, the scourging, the crowning with thorns, the crucifixion and death? No, it was wrong to complain about a little cough. Her suffering was meaningless. She wished she could cough blood, to make herself more worthy of death.

“Are you feeling all right now?” Beatrice said. She was wiping the old nun’s face with a hand towel.

Anastasia couldn’t speak for a moment, and when she did, the words seemed heavy, as if she had to draw them up from deep in her lungs. “I don’t know how to die,” she said.

“You’re not going to die, Sister. You’re just sick and overtired, that’s all. You’ll be back to normal in no time.”

The laity at least had the luxury of making wills, disposing of property. But she had nothing to will, she had given everything, even her will, away. Be it done unto me according to Thy word. All these years she had been exhilarated by that surrender, and her subsequent nothingness, but now she was frightened. She remembered the afternoon Tom lowered her into Grandpa Emery’s dry well so she could see the stars: only from the vantage point of darkness could you see the light buried within the light. And she had married the darkness, worn its black habit, so she could be reborn into that light. But what if she had not really surrendered but only given up?

After Tom died, she was the dead one. His absence was so complete it was presence, but no one noticed her, the true ghost. Father sat on the porch rocker, smoking and staring into the night, never saying anything about him or even mentioning his name. But Mother couldn’t talk about anything else. She’d sit in the kitchen and talk for hours with Mrs. Willoughby about him. He was born to be a priest, she’d say. When he was little, he’d pin a dishtowel around his neck like a chasuble and pretend to celebrate Mass, distributing cookies to the neighbor children as if they were Hosts. And he was always praying. Sometimes he’d even talk to his guardian angel as if he could really see him.

How could she tell her parents she too was no longer of this world? Something had died in her when Tom had died, but something had been born, too. A vocation. She stood in front of her bedroom mirror and practiced her announcement for days before she finally told them.

“You must be cold, Sister. Your lips look a little blue. Do you want me to get you another blanket?”

Tom had not been afraid of death and neither was she. But she was almost ashamed to die. Tom was so young, he might not even recognize her. He had been only seventeen when he died. A year later, her first in the convent, she was seventeen too, and all that year she had cherished the thought that they were twins, in a way. But now she was old enough to be his grandmother.

“Why, you are cold. And it’s so warm in here!”

Just then a cough caught in her larynx, choking her. She opened her mouth and gulped, but there was no air. She gulped until her ears rang, until air no longer mattered, and then she lay quietly, watching Beatrice’s white hands flutter about her wimple.

What was that silly girl so excited about?

Then Beatrice lifted her up and her breath came back in sobs. Each swallow of saliva scalded her throat.

“Oh, Sister, are you all right?”

She had almost touched bottom that time. She had come so close, so very close, and Beatrice had ruined it.

Beatrice’s lip was quivering now. “I hate to see you like this,” she said. “You mean so much to me . . .”

Anastasia lay back. I want to die now. Why won’t you leave me alone?

“You’ve been like a mother to me. I don’t know what—”

“I’m just an old nun,” Anastasia snapped. “I’m not your mother.”

“What’s wrong?” Beatrice asked. “Did I say something wrong? I didn’t mean—”

“Why don’t you just go away? Can’t you see I’m tired?”

Beatrice took out her handkerchief again. Tears, tears. Won’t she ever stop?

“I’m sorry, Sister, it’s just that I love you.”

“What do you know about love?” Anastasia said. And she remembered how once, when they were playing Statues, Carl kissed her to make her come alive, and she fell giggling into grass so green it shone. But that was before, that was when they were still children. Years later, he took her for a buggy ride behind her father’s big chestnut mare and, stopping in the woods, kissed her twice before she could say a word. All the way home, the wind lifted the pale underbellies of poplar leaves, and the woods purred.

But the last time she let him kiss her was the Sunday before Tom died. It had rained while they were in church that morning, and the hay in the loft smelled pungent and musty. It was the smell of loam, of a freshly dug grave, and each time Carl kissed her, he drove her deeper into the hay, deeper into the smell, until she couldn’t breathe. She thought of Tom lying in his hospital bed, and asked God to take her instead of him. He was the good one, the holy one: he should live, not her. All the while Carl kissed her, she prayed for her death. She let him kiss her a long time, until he began to moan with the desire to do more. His moans confused her: they sounded like Tom’s, though they came from pleasure instead of pain. That didn’t make sense to her. But nothing made sense to her anymore, except her desire to die in Tom’s place.

After Carl left, she went to her room and waited for her parents to come home from the hospital. By the time they returned, she had a fever, but she did not tell them: it was her secret, her private miracle. She wept herself to sleep, imagining her funeral. But the next day her fever was gone, and four days after that, Tom was dead.

Beatrice was drying her eyes again. “I don’t understand,” she said. “You’ve always said you loved me like a daughter. So why can’t I say you’ve been like a mother to me?”

Later she went to the loft alone and lay in the one window’s shaft of sun, sweating in the prickly hay. Dervishes of dust spun in the stained light, descending on her with an almost suffocating weight. She had never realized how omnipresent, nor how active, the dust was.

“Maybe you wish I didn’t love you,” Beatrice sniffled. “But I do, and I always will.”

Anastasia looked at her. She was young and pretty, her whole life ahead of her. She’d never pray to die in her place. She’d never beg God to let her lie on this bed, her skin wrinkled and liver-spotted, her lungs congested with pneumonia, her heart running down like a clock.

“No, you don’t,” she said.

“Why are you saying these things to me? You know I love you.”

Anastasia tried to answer, but she couldn’t. Where was her breath? She tried to cough, to open her lungs, but the noiseless spasms only made her throat hurt. It ached the way it did when her children knelt at the communion rail for the first time and stuck out their tongues for the Host. There was a throb at the root of her tongue, a desire. But for what?

Then she coughed so hard that something seemed to snap in her chest. A knot of phlegm humped onto her tongue. It tasted like rust.

Beatrice’s face wavered in front of her, stippled with sweat. “Please be all right, Sister. Please.”

Anastasia spat onto the bedspread and turned to the wall.

At the wake, old ladies dressed in black hovered in the vestibule like crows. They hugged her and said they were so very sorry, Tom was such a fine young man, he would have made a wonderful priest. Their mouths were crumbling, their yellow skin smelled like sour milk.

“I’m sick of your sympathy,” Anastasia said. She closed her eyes. “I’m sick of you.”

“How can you say such a thing?” Beatrice said. She was wadding Kleenex to wipe up the mucous. “Try to think how I feel.” And then her thin-glass voice broke: “What have I done?”

If he had lived until his ordination, he would have been buried in complete vestments—cassock, surplice, amice, alb, maniple, chasuble, and stole. Not a black blazer and bowtie.

“Why are you so angry at me?”

It had to be a mannequin in the casket; it couldn’t be Tom. It had to be a mannequin wearing Tom’s clothes.

“His skin looked like plastic, but I kissed him anyway,” Anastasia said.

Beatrice stopped. “What did you say?”

Anastasia refused to believe the diagnosis. The doctors can’t be right. He doesn’t look sick at all. See how big and strong he is?

But in his marrow, a blizzard of white blood cells.

“Please tell me what’s wrong.”

A hand on her shoulder. Anastasia looked up. Beatrice again: her face fish-belly white.

The old nun turned over onto her back. “Leukemia,” she explained.

Beatrice put her hand to her forehead. It shook as she rubbed her eyebrows with her thumb and forefinger. “No, Sister, you don’t have leukemia,” she said. Then: “I think we’d better call the doctor.”

“Just let me die,” Anastasia said. And then her phlegm-clotted lungs closed up. But this time she did not struggle for air. This time she closed her lips into a thin smile.

Her lungs were gray cocoons about to burst. Inside, the soul’s wings beating.

My Lord, my Lord, take me for Thy most humble bride!

Beatrice clutched her handkerchief as if it were holding her up. “Oh, Sister!” she cried, and hurried out of the room, her habit scything the last light.

This was it. This was what she had been waiting for all these years, the end of all that passion and memory. She had no fear of dying. She was a bride of Christ: death was her dowry, nothing more.

All day she had been travelling backward, a flower folding back into its bud. For years she had thought only occasionally about Tom and Carl, but today she had returned to that age when she thought about them daily. And now she was almost back to her birth.

Tom: the husks of cicadas’ songs in his hands. A touch could shatter them to shards. Oh, what music the soul must make as it shucks the body!

All she had to do was shut her eyes and the earth would close over her, and she would be lost, perfectly lost. She did not need Father Switzer or Carl or anybody. She laid her hands palms-up at her sides and waited for the last ecstatic moment. Then the dark began to murmur as if it had silt in its throat. She closed her eyes. What joy! she thought. And she sank into the darkness until the whining of the winch stopped and Tom’s head appeared over the ledge. “Didn’t I tell you?” he shouted down the well. “You can see them, can’t you?” But she didn’t answer, couldn’t answer. She just clung to the rope and swung there in the darkness, staring up at Tom, his hair blond as an angel’s, and beyond him, the stars in the noonday sky.

 

Father Switzer drove down the exit ramp of the hospital parking lot, paid the middle-aged woman in the booth, and turned out onto the boulevard.

“The painters just finished today,” he continued. “I think they did a bang-up job. They’ve changed the whole atmosphere of the lunchroom. You wouldn’t believe the difference.” Then, as if he’d just thought of it, he added, “Say, why don’t we swing by the lunchroom before I take you back to the convent? That way you can see for yourself how nice it looks.”

Anastasia noticed a smile starting around the corner of his mouth. The smirk of a boy who tells a lie that is technically true. The pleasure of sin without the guilt.

“It’ll only take a minute,” he persisted.

She looked out the window of the station wagon. The houses they were passing were among the oldest in the city, but none of them had been built before she was born. Some of them had For Sale signs stuck in their brown lawns. She thought of the children in their art smocks, painting signs for her birthday party. She couldn’t say no, but neither could she say yes.

“How could we afford to paint the lunchroom?” she asked wearily.

But he was ready for that question. “Some of the parishioners volunteered to do the painting, so it cost us almost nothing,” he answered.

She knew he was grinning now. She continued to look out the window. I will do it for the children, she thought. For the children and Beatrice.

But when Father Switzer wheeled her into the lunchroom and she saw the balloons dangling from the undulating rows of crepe paper streamers, the banners that read HAPPY BIRTHDAY!, WELCOME BACK, SISTER ANASTASIA!, and WE MISSED YOU!, the tables set with pink and yellow paper cups and plates, and the children in their party hats leaping up from their chairs shouting, “Surprise!” and twirling noisemakers, she could not act surprised or happy. She tried to clap her hands to her face in a dumb show of shock, but they stopped halfway and fell back into her lap like broken-winged birds.

Rose and Antoinette Marie welcomed her back. Camilla took her hand and pressed it softly between hers.

But where was Beatrice? Anastasia looked around the room and found her standing by the far table, pretending to be supervising her third- and fourth-graders. She put her finger to her lips unnecessarily.

Just then, Father Switzer raised his hands in a pontifical gesture. “Quiet down, children, quiet down.” The students sat back in their seats heavily. Father Switzer waited until the chairs quit squeaking, then looked at Anastasia and winked. “Didn’t I tell you the painters did a great job? Just look at these signs. The boys and girls spent half the day painting them. Not to mention blowing up balloons and hanging crepe paper and whatnot. And Sister Rose has baked a gigantic cake.”

At this, one of the boys let out a whoop. Antoinette Marie rolled her sleeves up her plump red forearms and frowned in a parody of discipline.

Father Switzer was getting serious now. He had his hand on Anastasia’s shoulder. “I wouldn’t be telling the truth, Sister, if I didn’t say we were all pretty worried about you. We spent a lot of time on our knees, especially after you had your close call.”

Anastasia closed her eyes. The reflector on the intern’s forehead had shone like the eye of a monstrance. She’d heard Beatrice say, “Is she breathing?” and then the oxygen mask descended over her nose and mouth like a new, unwanted face. A horrible face. She tried to push it away, but it fit too tightly. And now the face was hers, though no one else could see it. She opened her eyes and saw that Beatrice was watching her. She tried to smile, but Beatrice looked away.

Could Beatrice see it too?

“But God heard our prayers,” Father Switzer was saying, “and now you’re back with us and we can finally celebrate your birthday. I know we’re a few days late, but we hadn’t counted on your illness. In any case, we intend to make up for lateness with style.” Father Switzer grinned and nodded at Antoinette Marie. “Ready, Sister?”

Antoinette Marie produced a pitch pipe from her pocket and hummed the key of C. Then, flourishing her arms and vigorously mouthing the words, she led everyone through two choruses of “Happy Birthday.” When they were through, some of the children jumped up and swarmed around Anastasia’s wheelchair. “I’m so glad you’re not sick anymore,” a skinny blue-eyed girl said. “Me too,” said the boy standing next to her.

Anastasia looked from one face to another. She couldn’t remember who they were. She had been away for only three weeks and already she had forgotten their names.

“I’m happy to be back,” she managed.

Beatrice stepped into the circle of children. “Let’s not tire Sister Anastasia, children. She shouldn’t have too much excitement right away.” She turned her wrinkled brow to Camilla. “Perhaps we should have the cake sooner than we’d planned.”

Camilla looked at Anastasia. “All right,” she said. Then she turned to the children. “Let’s bring out the cake and ice cream!”

“Yay!” cried the children.

“Take your seats,” Father Switzer ordered, and the children scrambled into their places. Antoinette Marie and Rose disappeared into the kitchen.

“Are you all right?” Camilla asked Anastasia. “You don’t seem yourself.”

“I think she’s overcome with surprise,” Beatrice answered for her.

The children cheered then, for Sister Rose had just emerged from the kitchen, carrying an enormous sheet cake. Antoinette Marie followed her out the double doors, pushing a cartload of vanilla Dixie cups and tiny wooden spoons.

“Stay in your seats, children,” Father Switzer commanded. “Sister Rose, the first slice is for our guest of honor.”

They set the cake on the table in front of Anastasia. There was only one candle on the cake, stuck in the middle of waves of chocolate frosting. Rose struck a match and lit it.

Anastasia looked at Beatrice. “Where are all the candles?” she said.

“We wanted to save your breath,” Beatrice answered, and looked away.

“Come on, Sister!” some boys shouted. “Make a wish and blow it out.”

The old nun stared at the candle. The cake was so big, the candle so small. In the dark frosting, the flame’s reflection flickered, a dying star.

“Come on, Sister!”

Anastasia clasped her shawl tighter around her neck and leaned forward in the wheelchair. For a moment, everyone was silent. She felt them all watching her, waiting for her to blow out the candle, and she closed her eyes. Behind her eyelids, the darkness was private and peaceful, a refuge, and she wished everything were so dark that no one could see her, not Father Switzer or the children or even Beatrice. She wished she were invisible, there but not there, a darkness inside the darkness, like Tom, like God.

“Sister?” Father Switzer said.

With an effort, she opened her eyes and looked at the candle’s puny light.

“Have you made your wish?” he asked.

She nodded. Then she took a deep breath and blew the flame out.

 

 

David Jauss is the author of the short story collections Glossolalia: New & Selected StoriesBlack Maps and Crimes of Passion, and two collections of poems, You Are Not Here and Improvising Rivers, as well as a collection of essays, On Writing Fiction. His short stories have been published in numerous magazines and reprinted in such anthologies as Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards: Prize Stories, and, twice in The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a James A. Michener Fellowship, three fellowships from the Arkansas Arts Council, and one from the Minnesota State Arts Board. His collection Black Maps received the Associated Writers and Writing Programs Award for Short Fiction. He teaches creative writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and in the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

I Am Always in Transition When Disaster Strikes

I am Always (Flower Petals and bugs)
Bugs, Leaves, and Petals by Karen Bell

This is what I’m thinking, melodramatic as always, while Rajani and I watch Tsunami: The Aftermath. It’s mid-October 2009, the weather is strange and warm with warning signs, and I am laying into this miniseries as I have never laid into anything before. How the camera preens the hotel guests like royalty, exoticizes the Thai people in the midst of routine: the way they slice open the bellies of fish, wait on rich guests at the luxury hotel, fold trawling nets over and over onto themselves like elaborate curtains. Everything is a portent, or a mistake. Rain dripping from a palm leaf. Birds a black spiral in the sky like snow crash. How a little girl crayons a picture of her family splashing happily in the bright blue water, when the series is told in reverse, starting with Sophie Okonedo’s character running through debris, screaming for her husband and daughter, gashing her leg open on splintered metal.

“Oh, fuck this,” I say, “Really? A fucking flashback? They started with a fucking flashback?”

We see the hotel guests dining, complaining about minor issues, and it all seems like an obvious rhetorical device. Look how happy these people are, how unsuspecting. How the story, in spite of the one Thai character native to Khao Lak, gives us a Western perspective of trauma.

Later we are shown a Buddhist temple, the grounds strewn with bodies, the monks, of course, serene in the face of death. “Helloooo, stereotype,” we say. They are seated in a prayer circle, the Thai journalist prays too, and then the white Western journalist sees they are cremating Western and Thai bodies alike and insists on taking a photo because Western people like to bury their dead. Maybe have an odd prayer or two. The Thai journalist is incensed at around the same time Rajani and I are, he snarls, You syndicate that photo, you slam us back to being a Third World Country. It doesn’t matter to you. You’re not Thai.

Later the British ambassador says, My priority is the British nationals.

Maybe this is the point.

When the tsunami struck in December 2004, I was on layover at an airport, Minneapolis, I think, on my way back to college after Christmas break, wearing jeans and winter boots and headphones blaring Dir en Grey’s “Kasumi,” and I glanced at the TV and saw CNN’s footage of the Sri Lankan coast, ravaged by water. I was standing then, my Discman popping open on the floor and ripping the headphones from my ears. People around me staring. I must have looked possessed, walking up and down the length of my departure gate, on the phone with my parents, voice shrill and rising, waiting for a word or inflection to make me believe everyone was all right.

Of course it never came. Was it then or later that I learned about a temple drifting in the current to the shoreline, a family of seven plucked from the beach? We took a picture with them when we visited. The children were small and dirty and curious. They had that look about them already, like nothing would surprise them.

When I got off the phone I went to the bathroom. Sat on the toilet with my jeans around my ankles, stared into my underwear, dug my nails into my thighs searching for pain. I thought about all the things I called mine: dorm room, laptop, bed, clothes, pencils and pens, dinner plates, prescription pills, furniture, a sorority house full of sisters, a real sister, stuffed animals and action figures, parents who loved me. When I returned to my dorm room I unfolded the Internet like an origami crane, stripping image away from image until I found the one I wanted: titled Merry Christmas, a wet slab of dirt-strewn concrete, palm frond tatters, the top half of a Sri Lankan man’s head, resting on the pavement on its shredded half-jaw. One white eye rolled open. The other shut and bulging. Had he seen the twelve-foot wave coming for him? Was he looking at it when it swept him up? Was he looking at the ground beneath him, praying each time his feet struck the pavement that they would bear him up to safety?

It wasn’t so arbitrary, surviving the wave. If you ran, you died. If you climbed, you lived. If you held on, you left it up to luck.

 

I am reading all I can about Harvey Dent, who made his own luck every time fate dealt him a bad hand. I’m mixing my metaphors now, cards and coins, but it all amounts to the same thing. Plausible deniability. Everyone gets to claim they never saw it coming.

 

On 9/11 I was in transition too. I was starting college, I was on a bus full of rising freshmen, I was making friends. We sat in the back and parodied boy bands as we rode back to the campus lodge after a class trip mountain hiking. Our bus was stopped by through-hikers and we groaned because we were starving, we thought the bus had broken down. We couldn’t see or hear anything, but suddenly a hush cloaked the entire bus, and our chaperone got back on and stood at the front. The World Trade Center has been hit by two planes, she said. If you live in New York, we’ll arrange transportation for you once we get to the lodge.

It was on her face, that look.

I was born in New York. I didn’t buy it. But a girl who lived in Soho started to cry.

For the rest of the ride I looked out the window and tried to remember all the movies I’d seen where the towers defined the New-York-at-night skyline. I couldn’t remember any. There was no television at the lodge, so it wasn’t until we got back to our dorm rooms the next day that I could pull up the footage online, and read the accounts of people who survived, or who were so close when the planes hit they claimed they could see, amidst the black smoke and flames, the shapes of human figures leaping to their deaths.

This disaster turned everyone into me: people searching for reasons and patterns in anything, trying to make the tragedy theirs. Satisfying their urges with the numbers 9 and 11, which made for an answer better than We have always been vulnerable. 911 is the emergency hotline, they say; or 9+1+1=11, which is the number of martyrdom in the Koran, or 19 al-Qaeda terrorists plus 4 planes minus 3 buildings hit is 11 again, and the number 911 is a Sophie Germain prime and an Eisenstein prime and a Chen prime, and whatever that is it has to mean something, right?

Read backwards, as 119, it can be plucked from Biblical Hebrew with number theory to mean the perfect sacrifice.

 

They say most people remember where they were when they first hear of national tragedy. One of my grade school teachers told us he was in sixth grade, in class, when his teacher made the announcement that Kennedy had been assassinated. His teacher, a man, was crying, and that impressed him more than the fact that the president was dead. Class was dismissed early, and he treated it like a holiday except when he got home his parents were crying too.

Kennedy died on November 22, 11/22, which added together yield 33, the age of Christ at his death.

When ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka exploded into war I was four months in the womb. The year was 1983. As many as 3,000 Tamils were killed in organized massacres. My parents, Tamil, stayed in America. The street number of their address was 33. I was born on November 13, 11/13, which added yields 24, a semi-perfect number, the number of hours in a day, and the age I was when the bus bombings in my parents’ hometown became newsworthy. When the tsunami struck I was 21, coming of age, able to drink and vote and go solo to R-rated movies. Four months prior I had almost drowned.

4. 9. 11. 13. 21. 24. 33.

When we know what we want them to mean, we always force the numbers to work.

 

I didn’t cry for 9/11. Not for the tsunami. Not even for the bloody end of Sri Lanka’s civil war. The only time I did was in January 2009, when I read the full text of newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunga’s posthumous essay about journalism, politics, risking your life for the truth, accepting that for this you will be killed.

The line where he says: No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism… Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened, and killed. It has been my honor to belong to all those categories and now especially the last.

And I had tried to kill myself for so much less.

 

For months after the tsunami, I found myself singled out by white people, standing in line at the grocery store, for the bus, for a seat at my favorite diner, asking, “So what do you think about the tsunami?” as though there is anything to think. I’ve been asked this about the end of the war, too, by a woman who on the same breath added, “It was so hot when we traveled there for the first time; we were so uncomfortable!”

No one asks this about 9/11. It’s an American tragedy. This makes it global. We all know how horrific it is without having to ask.

 

Toward the end of the second half of Tsunami, the British ambassador says: While no one will forget what they have seen over the last six days, out of tragedy has come the most astonishing resilience and strength. The overwhelming love and care of the many volunteers who have been brought together by this sequence of events, and the extraordinary selflessness and compassion shown by the people of Thailand to perfect strangers has been very humbling. I’m proud to have been a part of this. None of us will go home the same.

The mini-series was filmed on location in Khao Lak, Thailand, one of the hardest-hit areas, to the protests of victims and grief counselors who thought it was too soon. It was filmed and released in 2006, barely a year after it actually occurred. Others thought it provided employment, could help speed up the healing process, raise awareness. They recreated part of a hotel to destroy it, and then used a hotel that had been rebuilt since the wave struck. They may have used amateur footage of the wave.

My problem is that it seems to say that not all victims are equal. The only Asian character, the only one who loses everything, family, house, job, land, is sidelined by the foreigners’ grief.

It’s equally true that when I first heard about the tsunami I was waking up at home, groggy and uncaffeinated, to the sound of a CNN anchor talking about tragedy. No mention of airports or razor blades. And I remember, just as distinctly, huddling on the couch next to my mother on the morning of December 26, she in her housedress and me in my ratty plaid pajamas clutching my coffee mug as it slowly cooled.

Maybe, my shrink says, You saw a clip on the news the following week, when you were on your way back to school. It made the top headlines for a long time.

If I think too hard about it I’m no longer sure if I saw the amateur footage of the wave or the aftermath flashing across the airport TV screens or the decapitated head of a man who looked like an uncle who’d already died. Or when I heard about my kid cousins pointing out the corpses washed up and floating on the veranda. Or if I even did.

You have a right to your feelings, my shrink says.

Do I? I was never there.

In the end Tsunami is what I have been constructing all my life: a composite of fiction and fact, real location, special-effects waves, real photos, characters inspired by real journalists, survivor stories, footage that could have been lifted from the camcorders of hotel guests and workers, who filmed the wave unsuspectingly, though even if they’d recognized it for what it was, it probably wouldn’t have saved them. But it is, apparently, the only way the story can be told.

 

 

Vyshali Manivannan is a Ph.D. candidate in Media Studies at Rutgers University. She has published and presented scholarship on comics and animation, Internet subcultures, and the value of transgression, most recently in Fibreculture. Her first novel Invictus was published in 2004, and she has also published work in Black Clock, theNewerYork, Consequence, and DIAGRAM.

Homepage Summer 2014

Cover Image (Recent death)
All images appear in this issue courtesy of the artist, Karen Bell.

Dear Readers,

Welcome to our Summer 2014 “ENDANGERED” issue. We’re incredibly proud to present to you the wonderful and diverse array of voices in this issue, all complimented by the beautiful photographic art of Karen Bell which she has graciously donated for this issue.

We’ve got a poem about penguins, stories about stars, and a farcical essay that is really a short story. We’re pushing a lot of boundaries here and having loads of fun in the process. You should find a lot to enjoy in this issue. I hope that you will take the time to explore it.

Our final theme for 2014 will be APPALACHIA, published in October. Our January 2015 issue will be themed CAREGIVERS. And (a quick reminder) we are closed to submissions during June, July, and August.

Yours in Recovery,

Mary Akers
Editor-in-chief

Archive – spring 2014

Cover Image1

spring 2014
vol. xi. no. 2

Gravity

Fiction


I Am the Widow

By Leslie Pietrzyk

Seeds

By Matt Thompson

Thanksgiving

By Cezarija Abartis

Poetry


Scar Tissue

By Carrie L. Krucinski

Labradorite, or Black Irish

By Kyle Laws

Tilt

By David Faldet

The Body of an American Paratrooper

By Ashaki Jackson

Essay


What I Know of Madness

By Sarah Einstein

Old Colony

By Tim Hillegonds

All the World Before Me

By Jennifer Cherry

Shorts on Survival


If You Kill Him

By Amy Gustine

Breezeway

By Kim Church

People Eat Chickpeas Bathed in Vinegar

By Zarin Hamid

Pulled Under

By Amanda Meader

Squandering the Fellowship

Squandering (Row of petals)
Row of Petals, image by Karen Bell

As usual, you’re late. You take the wooden stairs two at a time, round the landing, and stop in front of the director’s office, where you gulp air and try to look confident. (It doesn’t work.) Then you knock. Nobody answers. You dither in the hallway for a second, then decide to wait for her.

Once your eyes have adjusted, the office is frighteningly venerable. Shelves and shelves of voluptuous bottles glow in the afternoon sunlight, all shining with their own importance. The empty Jim Beam black label might have come from the grocery store down the street, and there’s even a whole row of PBR cans, which is surprising, it’s so mass-appeal and pulpy. But then there are the true exotics that let you know you’re in the Workshop director’s office: emerald-green absinthe bottles with necks like lamps. A diamond-shaped blue flask, almost knee high. A series of tiny bottles that look like they should hold perfume. All of them beautiful rarities, and all of them expect something of you.

You sit down at the long wooden table, run your index finger around one of the many beverage rings. It occurs to you that hundreds of people have sat here before and many of them have never been successful. You’re very late. It seems impossible that she could be this late too. You are just starting to really panic when something thunks against the door. When you open it for her, she blinks in surprise, then says, “Hello! I almost forgot we were meeting!”

It’s still really strange to see her in person, but today, she looks nothing like her black and white photos. Her arms are packed with what’s got to be student work: cans clank in an empty 30-rack of Rolling Rock, and a 40 of malt liquor is tucked under her elbow. She lets all of it tumble in a pile next to her desk, then opens a drawer and pulls out a fifth of Absolut. The Director pours four fingers into a glass, adds ice, then tops it off with a splash of kiwi juice and some strawberry-flavored Sobe water from the little refrigerator. It’s an innovative, gorgeous combination, and frankly you are filled with jealousy.

“Just got to finish this up for this afternoon,” she says. “Deadlines, you know?” and she rolls her eyes conspiratorially.

You thank her for seeing you. “I’m having trouble.”

“Mm-hmm,” she says, sitting down behind the desk, neither confirming nor denying what she knows. And so, for the first time, you start to talk about your problem.

“Sometimes I set out to, you know, start early. The way the really successful people do it.”

The director raises her eyebrows. She has pulled a square of knitting out of her bag, but somehow it’s not stopping her from sipping at her cocktail.

You forge on. “You know – you know how it goes, right? You just get in the store right when it opens, pick up bourbon or rye or whatever. At first it’s great, it’s going like gangbusters. You just sip away at it, little by little, just like the manuals tell you to.” You point at the empty Bulleit Bourbon on her shelf. “Last workshop, right, I thought I’d finish one of those. Just something real classic, mixed with a little coke, over ice, in a nice glass, savored on my porch. I’ve got a great porch.”

“Aren’t porches nice?” she murmurs, rounding a row.

“But you can’t drink all the time. You’ve got to take a break. There’s sort of a digestive process in which you set it aside, give the old stomach a rest, mull it over….” You sound like you do when you’re teaching. She nods.

“Me, though?” You gulp, and your stomach starts to churn like it did around 4 am last night, when you knew you had to see her. ”This keeps happening. Every time I’m up. Like, I buy the thing, but I get a few sips in, barely a dent, and I – I just become convinced it’s all wrong.”

“Huh,” she says.

“I think, like, this isn’t what I’m meant to be drinking. It’s not me. And I just get disgusted with myself, and so I start out on some other project. Beer mixed with lemonade in Hickory Hill Park, say. Or… six Long Island Iced Teas at the gay bar, washed down by Jack and Coke. Or something exotic, really exotic…”

She finishes the sentence. “Absinthe, or something.”

“Yeah, like absinthe.” Or something. “So – so I start off on all of these projects, and then sooner than I realize workshop is coming up, and I panic, because though I’ve, you know, started a lot,” you’re exaggerating, “I’ve finished nothing. Sure, I’ve gone to Prairie Lights a few times, just to be seen drinking, but what do I really get done there? Just a Houndstooth or two…” The truth is, it’s getting oppressive on your porch. The open bourbon bottles are gathering dust, and the red wine is filled with odd chunky flakes. “The morning I’m due, I panic. I open the same bottle of bourbon I started with, and just resolve to really do it right this time.”

She sighs, understanding. “And then you have to finish the whole thing, and you’re too wobbly to get down to Rye House, and your friend has to pick you up.”

“Literally.” Has she been watching you? “This isn’t how it’s supposed to work, I think. And once I get there, here’s the worst part, I think it’s all gone, I’ve done what I needed to do, but once we’re sitting around the table, I look at the bottle in my hand and it’s, like, two-thirds of the way there. It’s not even finished, and I can’t even sit up straight. All the while there’s Ethanol Grainin sitting across from me, two bottles in and he’s fine, he drank them on the treadmill this morning for God’s sake…” You breathe.

Sam Changover nods. She bites her lip, then lifts the knitting from her lap. Somehow, while you’ve been talking, she’s knitted an entire baby sweater. Then she looks at you, and she says, “Have you heard of Arthur Pullock?”

Politely, you say, “What?”

“Arthur Pullock,” she says again.

It’s like that time her agent asked you which drinkers you most modeled yourself after, and it was like your mind had nothing in it. You just opened and closed your mouth for a minute and then what came out was “Amy Winehouse” and the agent laughed and said “Sure, if the singing hadn’t gotten to her…”

Finally you say, “Nope.”

“Well.” She finishes the cocktail, then pours another. “Not many have. But I think you should really look into his work. You’re from Minnesota, right?”

“Er, Wisconsin, yeah…”

“Well, Pullock was Minnesotan, and your stuff kind of reminds me of him. He did a really interesting body of work with bourbon in the fifties. Look him up – he just, he drank in a lot of fascinating places,” and she spins for you a narrative of Pullock’s ability to swig bourbon in the bath, while plowing, while copulating, to stay out in bars til half past three even though the town was a dry town and the speakeasy closed at ten. “He was just– so forceful with his habits. Of course, you’re young, I’m not expecting you to…”

“To be a Winehouse,” you say. “Or a Churchill.”

“Of course not – you’re young. But really: look into Pullock. And we’ve got a lot of cool drinkers coming into town for the festival, maybe you’ll find a role model there.”

You breathe, because she’s not quite getting your problem. It’s not like you need more inspiration. You’ve been to John’s, you’ve seen the wall of possible drinks – the problem isn’t drinking them, it’s finishing them. And the worst are the times when it just all becomes too much and you pull out a notebook – then, when you look at the clock, it’s five a.m. and you have a drunk due at noon the next day and you don’t even care.

“Can I borrow a beer?” you say. “Sorry, I just want to get something down.”

“Of course,” she says, and she rummages around and hands you a cold PBR.

You click it open and take a swig. And sure, it feels right, the way it did when you were just a kid, sitting in your mom’s garage, but it doesn’t come as easy as – as other things. “Professor Changover, can I be honest with you? I’ve got – I mean, I think I’ve got – a writing problem.”

She furrows her brow.

“I mean, I don’t think this is insurmountable, not at all,” you assure her. “I was born to drink. It runs in my family, my mom could’ve gone pro if she hadn’t had to support us.”

“Of course. You’re in at the Iowa Drinking Workshop,” she murmurs. “Best program in the country.”

“Yeah! And I know a lot of famous drinkers have writing problems. I mean, I saw the series downtown last year, and half of them were just reading through all of it. One guy got so excited I didn’t see him pick up his gin-and-tonic once in the second half, he was that into reciting some epic poem.”

“Hm,” and she sips carefully around the little umbrella. “Well, they do seem to go together, writing and drinking.” But you know she’s never had a problem with it. Maybe she’s thinking of the really successful drunks in your program – the ones who maybe, like, write a page or two in the company of others, but then they go on home, finish their twelve-pack for workshop, then start a bottle of wine, two. Just as a side project.

“I’ve got to confess,” you say, your throat gulping, “that it’s bigger than that.”

She looks up.

“See… I spent… just a lot, a lot of my stipend this year on it.”

“Mmm.”

“I know. I got the Mel Gibson fellowship and that meant you expected so much of me, and really it’s just weighing on me, how badly I’ve disappointed you. But what am I supposed to do, left alone with two thousand extra dollars?” You croak, “I spent it on a… a really nice desktop.”

It’s waiting at home. It’s got an extra monitor, even. You are such a hedonist. You wait for her to fire you.

“Look.” Sam Changover places a hand on yours. It’s cold from the drink. She says, “If you’re serious about drinking, well, it will find a way. But there’s only so much we can do for you, you know? When it comes down to it, the only person swallowing those quirky little cocktails is you.”

“Silly derivative fluff,” you choke.

She smiles. “Look up Pullock. Sometimes you’ve just got to drink through the derivative stuff in order to get to what you’re really meant to do.”

Though you’re swallowing beer over the lump in your throat, you cannot help but feel inspired. You suppose she’s the Drinking Workshop director for a reason.

“Well,” you say, your voice quavering, “at least I’m not turning in the crap my students do. The other day, I had a girl show up for workshop with, like, four half-drunk cans of Miller Lite. Can you beat that?”

“Sometimes you teach them, and sometimes they teach you,” she says, unraveling the sweater and starting over again even though it looked great the first time.

 

 

Jessie Hennen recently received her MFA in fiction (and other subjects) from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Before her time at Iowa, she worked in Munich, Germany, first as a nanny and then as a marketing project manager. Her work has or will appear on The Millions.com, in Untoward Magazine, Fiction365 and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. She is currently at work on “Flight,” her first novel.

Recovery

Recovery ( At Rest)
At Rest, image by Karen Bell

Just last month I was forced to sacrifice
My Muse on the altar of Our Relationship
and today I read that poets must also give up
the “Confessional I”—
it has become irrelevant and self-indulgent.
It is also recommended that one wean oneself
from the “Lyric I,” as it does not address the
postmodern, posthuman, world—
the “Witness I” might, in some poems,
remain admissible although suspect.
I’m working on it:
it’s difficult to give up one’s Muse
and one’s I’s in the same year.
I’m attending meetings, working the steps…
I’ve made formal amends for having a Muse who
is not my significant other, cut off all correspondence
and promised to stop gazing toward the northwest.
My Muse-dry date is June 29
and I am now a recovering Muse-user
a recovering I-poet
a recovering alcoholic
a recovering addict.
My mind is flooded in clear white light
that eliminates sublimely obscure corners;
my inner-self is an IKEA catalogue
bleached clean, angular, and bereft
of any lingering romanticism.
This subject position is now
obsession, addiction, and poetry-free.
They call this a good recovery.

 

 

Jeanetta Calhoun Mish is a poet, writer and literary scholar. Her first poetry book,Tongue Tied Woman, won the Edda Poetry Chapbook Competition for Women in 2002 and her second poetry collection, Work Is Love Made Visible (West End Press, 2009), won the 2010 Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry, the 2010 Western Heritage Award for Poetry from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and the 2010 WILLA Award for Poetry from Women Writing the West. Mish has published poetry in The Fiddleback, Naugatuck River Review, Concho River Review, Poetry Bay, Blast Furnace, and others. She is also the editor of Mongrel Empire Press and Director of The Red Earth Creative Writing MFA program at Oklahoma City University. www.tonguetiedwoman.com

Breathing Without Air

Breathing without Air (Glacialwaters)
Glacial Waters (BC/Jupiter), Direct Digital C-print by Karen Bell

WARNING: To avoid danger of suffocation keep this bag
away from babies and children

Keep this bag close to you, adult:
you are a visitor clutching her coat, a limp crooked accordion-fold fan
against your thudding chest,
the person you’ve come to see has apparently been
moved elsewhere, rescheduled, released—so you wait, rehearsing
what you’ll say
although you are free to go—there are cabs
in the street and a bus stop at the corner,
it’s just a short walk home,
but if you linger—well, perhaps the bag
is all you’ve got.

This bag is a danger to others, it is
like a safari net weighted with rocks on its circumference, flinging
from a tree
onto innocent wildebeests or leopards, it is
a noose, a drowning, a body count—
it might have carried explosives
that, upon exploding, leave behind exotic toxic wind and powders
choking bystanders—
you are watching this on video in a darkened room, your wings
folded, feathertips across your knees.

In the event of emergency this bag is not an adequate flotation device—
you are too substantial, it will not keep your head above
water, it is not a pool toy
but if you are sinking and no one
is around to rescue you, or if you have sunk
into a nosedive, the cracks in the sofa, the river of forgetfulness, quick—
before you lose awareness
put your head in the bag,
listen to what it calls you, the way you hear your name, the name
of your dog, the name your mother chose for private parts,
the name you wish to see on your grave—
take slow shallow breaths and you will survive.

 

 

 

Leslie L. Nielsen, originally from Ohio, immigrated to Denmark in 2013 where she continues editorial work for Poets’ Quarterly and River Teeth Journal. Her poems have appeared in journals such as r.kv.r.y., The Missing Slate and Literary Mama.  She holds an MA in English Literature from The Ohio State University and an MFA in Poetry and Creative Nonfiction from Ashland University. She teaches writing, leads workshops in creativity, and occasionally blogs.

Tips for Writing About Loss

Tips for Writing (CIwinter8)
Coney Island Winter #8, Archival Inkjet, by Karen Bell

**Excerpted with permission from Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss by Jessica Handler. St. Martins Press/Griffin, 2014.

 

“I don’t know yet” was my sister Sarah’s de facto motto. She didn’t know when a set of lab tests would come back or what new information they might show. The unpredictable nature of her illness kept her from ever being sure she could attend a class, go to a movie with friends, or if a minor discomfort meant something greater. In a larger sense, our whole family didn’t know yet what would happen to any of us. Write whatever you like in those early brain-spark sessions, and as you do, remind yourself that you don’t know yet what shape your story will take.

TIP: Perhaps no one asked you or encouraged you to tell your story. Go ahead now and give yourself permission: invite yourself to tell your story. Just as there is no “right” way to grieve, there is no “right” way to remember. Your memories are your own. Writing your story is just that – your story.

If your story matters to you, then that’s more than enough reason to write. Writing from your perspective is your privilege. Writing through your grief and loss allows you to claim the way the things happened for you. If you write with honesty and attention to character, imagery, plot, and theme, your memoir will resonate with your family, your friends, and if you choose to write for a wider readership, your story will matter to people you don’t yet know.

Early in the process of writing my memoir about my sisters, our mother gave me a box of Sarah’s journals, calendars, and school notebooks. Mom wanted me to have all the material I might need to tell our family’s story. I had lost my two sisters, and she had lost her two youngest daughters. Our stories were similar, but they were profoundly different.

“I have Sarah’s writing,” Mom told me. My husband helped her carry in a battered cardboard crate. The box was piled high with folders and notebooks. Although my mother is traditionally organized down to the last file folder and rubber band, this box wasn’t labeled with her usual black marker pen and taped-on index cards. The box wasn’t labeled at all.

The crate lurked on the floor of my writing room for more than a month while I debated with myself. I wasn’t sure that I had the right to read the contents or if I even wanted to. Sarah’s diaries, yearbooks, creative writing assignments from high school, her entrance essay for college, and submissions for a writing workshop she was ultimately too sick to attend would have put me in close touch with her most intimate thoughts. Her words would tell me in her voice exactly what had been on her mind and in her heart.

I couldn’t deny that I had the rare opportunity to see into my beloved sister’s heart and mind. She was no longer here to answer my questions in person, and I missed her terribly. Maybe the answers would be on those pages, in her deliberate, rounded, cursive handwriting, but I couldn’t shake the mental image of my little sister not-so-playfully slapping my hand and laughing, telling me, “that’s private!” She wouldn’t have let me read her diaries if she were alive.

Ultimately, I read her death certificate and a few writing-class essays, knowing that those items had already been seen by others; the death certificate by the Suffolk County, Massachusetts medical examiner, the essays by writing teachers and classmates. But I chose to respect Sarah’s personal diaries by not reading them. I put the box in my attic, because the story I wanted to write was the story of the sister who survived. That is my story. My sisters lives and deaths are central to who I am. Their illnesses and deaths shaped our family, and that was what shaped my memoir’s plot.

Permission to write meant not reading Sarah’s diaries, and not pretending to see the world through Susie’s eyes. Permission meant agreeing with myself that this would be my story, told the way I saw it.

 

 

Jessica Handler (Tips for Writing About Loss) is the author of two books of non-fiction, Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss and the memoir Invisible Sisters. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte and her essays and features have appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Drunken Boat, Full Grown People, Brevity, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and More Magazine. Jessica lives in Atlanta, but frequently travels to teach workshops and give readings. She is techsavvy—tweeting @jessicahandler and ready to Skype with book groups, bloggers and journalists. Learn more at JessicaHandler.com.

Sleight of Hand

Sleight of Hand (Moth on Polaroid Sky)
Moth on a Polaroid Sky by Karen Bell

All warfare is based on this:
deception. Tonight, your mask
alcohol and brass and disarray
to hide your self-impersonation.

Mahogany bar, sports on twelve
flat screen TVs.
Happy hour cheese
hard to the touch.
Tiny cold
hot dogs on sticks.
Drunks laughing,
your face
unreadable,
gaping mouth socked,
duct-taped eyes full
of ancient shadow.

You’re growing older
younger
than your parents did.

You pose, display what’s on tap
for the night. Bog woman.
Out of your black cave
into the ragged firelight.

Now you see her, now you don’t
see a woman in a bar,

You are the retribution artist
dead rabbit in your hat,
bloodied rags up your sleeve.
Pull out
a moment of distraction, false
impressions, fake confessions,
jokes
on you.
Now you see it
now you don’t,

the usual toast
just another wet defeat.

Always, a man appears
out of nowhere
lacking the gold doubloon
of his own mutiny.

He slides over, leans in,
handsome after three drinks
delightful after more.

You: up for whatever
comes after that.

You call the shots.

 

 

Mickey J. Corrigan publishes pulpy fiction with presses with names like Breathless, Champagne and Bottom Drawer. Her most recent novella is the spoofy romantic comedy F*ck Normal. A coming of age novel is due out later this year. Poetry and short fiction have appeared in literary journals. Visit at www.mickeyjcorrigan.com or on Goodreads.