Here is the day

One of the first lines I wrote in the wake of The Vote was “I have lost my words.” I had gone mute with grief and rage and fear. But I had to teach, to stand in front of young scared faces who looked to me to tell them the world would not end. I tried. I found some, cupped them in my palm like pears, sliced and shared what I could.

Weeks have passed, and I still can’t find them. This scares me, since I know, I know, I know: words are the way out. I have known that since I was a girl who slept and woke with books in her hands, my mind and heart on fire. My faith in words has not failed, just my faith in my will. And in the world.

As I sit down to the page now, all I can think of is an old tip on how to write well: Go small. To the short words, those with one beat. Their strength lies in their good bones. I think of a prompt from those same years: Write a scene (or more) with all one beat words.

So I turn to them now, the small, lone, bright ones. I get low, slash through the brush and weeds and lo! There, like lost coins lodged in the dirt. I claw them out, dust them off, watch them glint in the sun. They smell of stars and mint. I scuff their curves with my thumb. They burst, tart as a bell chime, on my tongue. I taste their punch and hiss, their thrust and twang.

Here are some that I clutch hard as we ride out the last days of this rough and dour year:

Fire
As in breathe, go through, hair on, set the world on. Light. It. Up.
As in stoke: for warmth, to cook, to share.
As in The Fire Next Time, The Fire This Time, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, The Mind on Fire. Seek those who write their truths, and take heed.

Rise
As in, Stand. Don’t back down. Know your rights. Know what’s right. Know the facts, and that facts count. Stand with those you know and those you don’t. Hold them up when their knees go weak. Cling to them when yours do.
As in, Wake up. This is real. This is ours now.
As in to the test. Know your strengths. You’ll need them. We all will.
To the surface. Gasp for air. A space to breathe. Float on your back. Watch the sky and clouds and rain, the moon and stars. Then get back to work.
As in the sun will. Look: here is the day. Meet it. Some days you can’t. You just can’t. Oh, love, it’s fine. Hang on. We got you.

Art
As in, write and read prose and verse and script. Words that for me mean pray. The Bad One and his ilk shun this life of the mind and heart as if it is dull, a bore and a chore, when those of us who write and read know: here is where we seek and find hard and good truths. Here is where we find joy. Here is grace and hope. Trust in these acts, for the self, for the world.
As in make. Make films (big screen, small screen), make plays, make sets. Draw, paint, sculpt, print, glaze. Waltz, leap, spin. Bang a drum, sing, pluck strings. Teach and learn. Make waves.

Earth
As in, What on? For real. What the f*ck have we done?
As in dirt. Where we dig and plant and grow.
As in our home. Home to land, sky, seas, lakes, trees, air, beasts, fish, Home to homes, streets, farms, work where we live, die, love, fly, ride, bike, walk, hop, skip, dream, hope. Home we must save.

Heart
As in: Take! You are not alone. The world can crack this red heart of yours, but it can heal it, too. The arc is long. The fight is hard. Chin up, Love. Look back at those who blazed the way. Look now at your feet on the path, at the ones next to you, old and young. Look up. Keep on.
As in, love. As in the greatest of these is. We’re not dumb fools, we who have faith in love. To love is a grand act full of risk and hope and fear. Its wild force —how it wounds and heals, how far we’ll go in its name—is at the root of much great art. Say it loud to those who need to hear it: I love you. You with your flaws, you with your charms, you with your scars. You, you, you.
As in, not hate. To the Bad Man and his vile dolts: you will do much harm, or try to, in the name of hate. Its force is strong, too. But we will stop you. There are more of us. For god’s sake, love wins. (You would know this if you read.)
As in with your whole. All of it. To the edge of what you think you can bear, and one step more.

Beauty
Not a one beat word, but I can’t think of its match, not one that holds the same sense of art, god, thanks, good, and joy at once. At times, beauty is plain: the sky on fire as the sun slides out of the sky, a bare tree at dusk, a thumb on a cheek. For me, it’s best when it comes by chance, when we have to peer past what we know to see it: a man on shift who runs to a sick guest, kneels in puke to hold her head and hand; a shared smile on a train; a drop of dew on a bent branch. Some days, these can bring me to my knees, a bright hot bloom in my chest. We must look hard for them in dark days. They are there, even in the dark. Look, and look, and look. Share them. Keep them close.

That’s all I have for now. But just this act, this search for small words, brought forth more far more than I knew it would.

From my heart to yours. I can’t wait to see what you do.

BC

(pssst For those who like to keep count, there are four words up there (at least that I see) that break the short-word rule: surface, alone, greatest, and beauty. This does not mean the rest of the words are the right or best ones; I’m could find more apt ones, clean it all up, cinch it tight. But as a prompt, it was good work and made me test and push past my first urge. Try it!)

When the brakes fail, and other metaphors

The US election and its fallout coincided with our move across town. We’d spent ten months searching for a place in a bonkers housing market, which ran parallel with a total-barking-bananas election season. Finally we found a little house we could afford; we were thrilled and optimistic, even though the timing stunk (how could the semester get harder? Hey, let’s move!), even as we watched the country convulse and howl as the election neared.

As a writer, I dwell in metaphor, in double meaning. In both the move and election, I couldn’t help but see beyond the literal: houses, divided. On the threshold of a new doorway, hoping for a good life on the other side. Work, repairs, and changes, yes, but progress toward something better.

And then the Night of the Orange Terror struck.

Amid my weeping and gnashing and blaring of punk rock late at night out the windows of my Kia Soul (!) in hopes of waking sleeping neighbors (WAKE UP, YOU F*CKERS, I yelled, WAKE THE F*CK UP!), and trying to face my students to give them something worth holding onto (Art, I told them. Stories. Language.), I was glad to have something tangible and practical to do with my hands. I wasn’t ready for social media. I appreciated the calls for standing and fighting, but I had no fight in me yet, only despair and rage, a deep darkness that dredged up the 21-year-old grief of losing my father, of the days post 9/11, when I would look around at the bright desert sky and wonder how the world kept spinning on its axis. This time, I wrapped cheap plates and glasses in newsprint and stuffed them in bankers’ boxes and plastic bins. I tugged black trash bags over hanging clothes. I wrote in marker on the sides: Kitchen. Office. House (Fragile).

On moving day, two days after the election results came in, our movers, two young men, showed up in a truck. Strong, strapping young men, ready to heft our many boxes of books, our poorly manufactured bedframe, our shitty particle board shelves, while we middle-agers schlepped the smaller bins and blankets and scraggly bags. But the guys had forgotten the parking wedge for the 26-foot-moving truck, which apparently had a dodgy brake, and so they parked on the street, a long haul down the long slope of our driveway. I offered to drive and retrieve the wedge, to save their backs and legs, to save ourselves time. I felt a thrum of optimism when I found the wedge in the company’s empty lot, when I held it up to them through the windshield upon my return. A small triumph. In the face of the past few days—nay, eighteen months—of our country’s dumpster fire election, I’d take it.

They backed the truck up the drive, stuck the wedge under the wheel, and they were off. Lifting, loading, sweating. I suspected one of them was hungover (I’ve held enough office hours post-Thirsty Thursdays, y’all), but I was grateful for their strength and youth. I loaded our vehicles, making goo-goo eyes with the neighbor’s puppy (he was in a laundry basket!), trying not to think of the shaky voices of my friends and coworkers and strangers, the raw fear and anguish I’d seen in my students, especially my students of color. I tried to think of all the ways we’d fight back (donations, protests, calling Congress, newspaper subscriptions, local volunteering—things I’ve done for years), but right then all I could do was cling to the dumb metaphor I tried to cobble: moving forward. I embraced words, stripped down to the elementals: Books. Bed. Home. Belongings. Be. Longing. I looked in the young men’s faces, black and white, tendons and muscles strained with the weight in their arms, and I thought, Strength. Carry. Stand.

The truck grew heavy, three-quarters full with the burden of our belongings. It creaked and shifted as the young men went up and down the metal ramp. We were close, only a few boxes, a mattress, odds and ends.

But then: the small wedge under the tire, our safety barrier, my earlier triumph, wasn’t enough. It gave way. From inside the house, I heard the scrape of the ramp on the concrete, the shout of the hungover kid. I ran to the door to see the driverless moving truck flying down the driveway. It plowed over bushes, plunged into the busy street, ran up into the neighbor’s yard, and finally rolled back down into the street, rocking to a halt. In the tumult, our neatly packed possessions tumbled loose, their fragile parts splayed and jumbled on the floor.

We stood for a moment, speechless. Finally, I said, Is any one hurt? Is everyone okay? They were, we were. No one hurt. Cars pulled up and stopped in the road, inching forward with impatience, unaware of their near miss. The hungover kid, wide-eyed and awake now, got in the truck and managed to pull it to the side of the road. The cars rolled past. All that remained as testament were maimed bushes and tire tracks in the grass. Otherwise, like nothing happened.

Rattled, the young men finished the last of the load and drove the truck across town to our new house without any other hitches. Unloaded in a hurry, filling our garage and dropping most of the furniture in the living room since we’re having the floors done in the bedrooms. I gave them a hefty tip (but still need to call the moving company to tell them to fix their g-d brakes and stop endangering their employees). So far, all we’ve found broken is our footboard, with a ding and a crack. A cart missing the weird little plastic thingys that hold it together.

For the past three days, as we wait to finish the floors, we have slept in the dining room. Mattress on the floor. We’d laughed about it when we’d planned it. Just like college! Kids again, like those young men who’d hefted our furniture, who’d come close to a tragedy.

Each night, I wake around 3 or 4 a.m., groggy and aching, my shoulder seized, terror and rage and despair in my throat, haunted by what could have happened in our driveway and what actually did in our country. I look around in the dim light of this strange place that is now ours, at dressers and desk and day bed muddled in the living room, our clothes in duffles on the fireplace brick, our beloved books and art supplies absent, languishing in the garage. A metaphor, I think, in my sleepy rage. Who knows what else we’ll find broken. Who knows when we’ll ever pull ourselves together again.

Joy outside the door

And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips/Bidding adieu — John Keats, “Ode on Melancholy”

August. You again. I lamented your presence a few years back, and I stand by it. This year you also coincide with a hellacious US political sh*tshow featuring an overtly racist, sexist, xenophobic, hate-mongering, spray-tanned stinkbomb of a presidential candidate (not to put too fine a point on it). In short: Oh, joy.

Actually, it’s that short word snarkily employed up there — joy — that I’ve found myself ruminating on amid my late-summer anxiety and despair, and not in an eye-rolling way. Rather, I’m thinking about joy’s relationship to melancholy — thus the Keats. (To clarify, by melancholy, I’m not referring to clinical depression, only the temporary state of “having the blues” or “the blahs,” or “being out of sorts.” States of which, by the way, I currently am in. See: August. And the Cheetos candidate. Which is an insult to Cheetos.)

Anyhow, as I often do, I started with the word itself, perusing the OED in high nerd mode. Joy has a vividness, ebullience, and fleetingness that Happiness lacks. Joy is kinda like Happiness’s plucky older cousin (NOT to be confused with Glee or Bliss. Nobody wants those f*ck-ups at the reunion; they’ll only end up naked in the pool). Joy swings by the house on a lark with a fresh batch of chocolate-chips and a bottle of your favorite wine and daisies in her hair. You’ve been waiting by the window and fling open the door as she skips up to you. But, as ol’ Keats intimates, Joy’s on her way out the door as fast as she screeched into the driveway. With a wave and a blown kiss, she hops back on her moped, sunglasses flashing in the waning light of day. Watching her go, you want to hold her radiant perfection in your two hands. But then, she burns rubber, baby, and all you can do is watch the tires smoke, nibble a cookie, and hold the door frame for balance.

To seek a permanent state of joy is impossible, if not idiotic, unless you’re a Golden Retriever. The joy of joy is in its ephemeral nature (uh-doy, as my tween self would say). And there’s something, well, a bit embarrassing about an adult seeking joy, as if it is a simpleminded or insipid or sentimental pursuit. There’s nothing hip about Joy. She’s a little goofy, naive, even. Yes. She is. And maybe we need a few more conscious doses of her, especially when faced with so much rage and violence and fear in the world.

And I do mean conscious. It strikes me as I write this that some of my greatest moments of joy come when I’m writing, usually when something in a story reveals itself — the joy of clarity, of discovery. It also comes from the intensity of focus on words and sentences, trying to render them both logical and beautiful. Just writing this simple post has got my brain firing in a way it doesn’t when I’m passive, a mere recipient of my emotions. Here, I’m making conscious choices. I’m awake. I’m alive. I’ve flung open the door, and there it is: joy.

I’ve written before about humor and tragedy, an abiding interest of mine, and I guess I’m beating a similar drum. (Humor is Joy’s boisterous brother with the unlaced high tops, cracking wise over the cheese cubes). Joy likely won’t banish melancholy, and it shouldn’t (Melancholy’s tempestuous children are Art and Beauty). Anger serves an important purpose; sometimes we are right to be afraid. We have serious work to do, and joy won’t solve problems, or fight inequality, or make change. Yet joy can be part of the emotional equation, too. Like love and hope, joy can be trangressive, if we remember to look for it, if we remember to open the door.

No Idle Talk: The Dynamics of Dialogue

Dialogue’s vital role in fiction first came into focus for me when my creative writing professor at the time read aloud a passage from Don DeLillo’s White Noise, riveting our class with a hilarious yet touching car scene in which a father and son argue about whether it’s raining or not. When he finished reading, the professor tapped the book’s page and said, “Look at all the work DeLillo is doing here,” and I no doubt scribbled down the word work in my notebook; I’m sure I underlined it, doodled emphatic stars and arrows around it, imagining the author toiling over a typewriter, sweat dripping off his brow. It took me a bit longer (years) and many failed, frustrating attempts at dialogue in my own stories to get a better grip on what the teacher meant: Work means that dialogue, like other fictional elements, is contributing on multiple levels in a story. Good dialogue should always be about more than characters talking; it should be integral to readers’ understanding of those characters as well as to the movement and depth of the story.

I’ve been working on this handout for awhile (and wearing out my students, who at this point are like, Sheesh, Chancellor, we get it! Dialogue is important! and I’m all, But do you? Do you?) and did a craft talk on it recently at Tucson Festival of Books Masters Workshop, too. I’ve drawn from a number of resources, of course. Citations below. Still developing, but thought I’d share here.

No Idle Talk: The Dynamics of Dialogue

Dialogue can be one of the thorniest story elements for writers, but when it’s done well—when it’s doing work—it can have tremendous impact. Here are some things to keep in mind.

Keep the story moving forward. A story’s arc hinges on movement, propelling readers toward something—a moment of crisis or change or resolve, or perhaps more simply, in John L’Heureux’s terms, “a moment after which nothing can ever be the same again.” Nothing in the story should stall that momentum, including dialogue. It always should tell the reader something, whether about character or plot or theme or facts; it should ratchet up the story’s tension. In other words, characters should not talk in a vacuum; they aren’t out chatting on a smoke break. Dialogue should be incisive, exact, and essential.

Reveal and distinguish characters and show relationships. What characters say, and how they say it, can give readers vital insights into that character’s personality and emotional state, as well as about the facts of their lives. Speech also is an excellent way to capture a character’s voice, including dialect that reflects region, community, or social group. Take care with dialect: It should be believable and natural to the character, not a caricature. It’s usually better to avoid phonetic misspellings and instead focus on rhythms and syntax to suggest accents. Each character should have their own voice. How your characters speak to one another reveals much about what’s going on between them.

Avoid exposition or detailed description in speech. These are better handled through narration—through telling, not through having characters say them. (Example: “Jerry, I know that you’ve been working hard at your job at the coffee shop, down on 15th Street, where the one of the red shutters is falling off the building.” Instead: I knew Jerry had been working hard at his job at that hellhole of a coffee shop with its hangnail red shutters. “I’m sorry, kid,” I said. “What can I do?”)

Weave speech, silence, action, and the sensory world. How characters respond or avoid response, as well as characters’ body language and gestures, can add great depth to dialogue. Body language brings more of readers’ senses into play, as does involving the concrete world around characters. Additionally, readers infer meaning in the interplay what is said and unsaid, between speech and gesture. The best dialogue operates both as text (what is being said and shown that contributes to the general events of the piece) and as subtext (what’s not said but what’s being implied or revealed, or the emotional undercurrent).

Yes, it’s like real-life speech, but it’s more pointed and dramatic. Though realism is something for which writers strive in dialogue, the kinds of banalities found in real-life conversations (e.g. “Hello?” “Hello, is Jerry there?” “This is Jerry.” “Hi Jerry, it’s Selma”) don’t play well on the page. Summarize or eliminate the niceties and hems and haws and get to the point. (When Jerry picked up the phone, Selma said, “You trust me, right? Do you?” “Yeah,” he said. “I guess.”) It’s a realistic approximation, not an exact replication.

Think balance. Dialogue is one of the most visible story elements because it demands space. This visibility can be a strength, shifting momentum and making a story more active. But overuse of dialogue can be a problem. Direct quotation suggests something of importance, so save it for that purpose. Also, consider balance, pace, and texture within dialogue. Intersperse summarized dialogue with direct dialogue; alter the placement of speech tags or substitute action/thoughts as attribution; weave in characters’ thoughts, description, and exposition between direct dialogue; or keep short lines of dialogue in paragraph for quick infusions of voice without length.

Take care with attribution and speech tags. In reality, people don’t “smile” or “grunt” or “chortle” a sentence. Such verbs used as speech tags are clunky and draw attention to themselves. The attention should be on the dialogue spoken, not the tags. Dynamic verbs are good in narration, but not here. Remember: the speech tag’s only job is to indicate who is speaking. Stick with “said” or “asked,” or eliminate and let the speaker’s action indicate who’s speaking. Sometimes if you’re using other verbs as tags, you’re narratively trying to sneak in story work (dramatic tension, tone) that better happens elsewhere or through other techniques. Such verbs make the author intrusive, when—especially in a moment of dialogue, where characters are front and center—we want the author to disappear. Be sparing even with subs such as “told” “replied,” “yelled,” “whispered,” all of which stand out more than sit back.

Avoid “telling” adverbs. Adverbs often indicate the writer is telling rather than showing—which means a missed opportunity for work. Rather than falling back on telling the reader (she said emphatically), better to convey the emotion or inflection through the syntax or word choice of the sentence or a narrative addition—sometime known as a beat—of action, gesture, thought, or description. (“Stop that,” she said, slapping the table.) If you’ve done your work, readers will get it. Think of adverbs as a missed opportunity to do work.

Get technical: know your formatting and punctuation. Because dialogue is so visible, errors in format and punctuation stand out. They also can interrupt movement and pull readers out of the story. Reminders:

  • All new paragraphs and lines of dialogue should be indented, not left-justified. The speech tag or narrative beat generally should be on the same line as the person speaking.

indent   After escaping the prom, Juliette strolled the aisles of the Piggly Wiggly, looking for a late-night snack. Something salty. She was thinking about Conrad, imagining his pug nose pushed inside his skull, and didn’t notice when she stepped in the path of a man mopping an acidic orange puddle.
indent   The man said, “Excuse you.”
indent   Juliette turned, hitching up the strap of her green sequin dress. “Sorry?”
indent   The man shook his head and lifted his mop. Orange liquid streamed from the gray strands. “I’ll bet you are.”

  • Make sure you understand when to use a comma or period and what to capitalize. A speech tag (said or asked) takes a comma when it introduces but a period if it completes a sentence.

No: Hannah said. “If you say so.” No: “If you say so.” She said.
Yes: Hannah said, “If you say so.”(introduces)
Yes: “If you say so,” she said. (completes sentence)

Also don’t confuse your speech tags and narrative beats. A beat (small gesture or action) takes a period as part of a sentence.

No: Gerald smiled, “That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard.”
Yes: Gerald smiled. “That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard.”
Yes: “That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard,” Gerald said, smiling.

Characters don’t smile a sentence. They say something; smiling is an action.

More here on punctuating from LitReactor https://litreactor.com/columns/talk-it-out-how-to-punctuate-dialogue-in-your-prose or The Editor’s Blog http://theeditorsblog.net/2010/12/08/punctuation-in-dialogue/

  • Go easy on the exclamation marks, ellipses, and dashes. Overuse of exclamation marks is like overuse of adverbs: you’re telling your reader this is dramatic! or emphatic! Instead, convey the drama or emphasis through the dialogue or a beat. Ellipses indicate a trailing off, but often writers rely on them to create a pause. However, ellipses are less specific than a gesture and thus a missed opportunity; further, a pileup of them interferes with speech rhythm. Same for dashes, which indicate interruption. If you find yourself using these tics, go back and look at them to see if you can eliminate or what other work you might do.
  • Writers also may opt out of using quotation marks, instead using dashes or nothing except the line break. In this case, make sure it’s clear what is speech and what is narration.

    Excuse you, the man said.
Juliette turned, hitching up the strap of her green sequin dress. Sorry? she asked.
The man shook his head and lifted his mop. Orange liquid streamed from the gray strands. He said, I’ll bet you are.

Finally, dialogue is an instructive tool in the writing process. The act of writing dialogue can be a remarkable way to learn about characters, to figure out their troubles, to pinpoint what’s on their minds. You don’t always have to know what they’ll say before they say it. You can use dialogue as what Alice LaPlante calls a placeholder, or serviceable dialogue that gets down what you want to be conveyed. The finessing can come later; at first, it’s okay just to get them talking and see what they’ll come up with.

Works Consulted

Browne, Renni, and Dave King. “Dialogue Mechanics.” Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. 2nd Ed. New York: Harer, 2004. 82-97.
Kardos, Michael. The Art and Craft of Fiction. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
LaPlante, Alice. Method and Madness. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009.
Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer. New York: HarperPerennial, 2007.
Stern, Jerome. Making Shapely Fiction. New York: Laurel, 1991.

Novel!

I generally don’t like to announce news here in the blog, which I prefer to keep about the writing process and other (neurotic) writing-life ramblings. But I also do want a note of record and to take a moment to express thanks.

Here it is: My first novel, Sycamore, will be published by Harper (HarperCollins)!

Since I got the news, I’ve basically been running around half with my hair on fire, half sobbing in gratitude, half hiding in the corner (half still unable to do math). Thus far, my favorite part of the story is this: Instead of going out for a celebratory dinner on the night of the news (champagne! confetti!), all I could manage was to stop in a gas-station Subway for a footlong veggie. Untoasted. TW and I shared it over the table at home, blinking at each other through tears and laughs (and let’s face it, more than a little panic and fear–this is me, after all.)

Amid all the fizziness, I’ve felt an abiding sense of thanks. The kind of thanks I’m not even sure how to get my head around. Over the years, how many people have supported me, loved me, propped me up, offered me refuge, told me to keep going, brought me coffee? Family, friends, mentors, students, colleagues, strangers–it’s one big-ass village, that’s for sure. Yes, I sat down to the page alone, but I didn’t do this alone. Acknowledgements Page, get ready. It’s going to be a humdinger.

Yesterday, though, I got back to work. Such news is heady, for sure, intoxicating but dizzying, too. Floating is one step away from untethered. The only thing I can control is the work, and so: I’m getting back to it. Delving deeper into a character, pushing and pulling at sentences. The book definitely has changed from its first raw draft (I posted about writing the draft at Jentel). It’s basically Draft 7 at this point, and it will go through even more editing, for which I’m excited and grateful. Soon, it will make it into readers’ hands; until then, I will do my best. And eat some more sandwiches.

ps Here’s the Harper  logo. I am in love.

19---Image.jpg

Save

Lost and found

THE SHEEPISH RETURN
Act I, Scene I.
Setting: Desk. Chair. Computer. Writer (ME) in mid-40s, hunched, hair frizzing to high heaven. Lights up on ME typing on BLOG.

ME: Hey, Blog. ‘Sup?
BLOG: New phone. Who dis?
ME: Come on, baby. Don’t be like that.
BLOG: Don’t ‘baby’ me. You’re the one who hasn’t come by in six months.
ME: Please, I’m sorry, I can explain.
BLOG: Six months, and all I get are comma splices. Wow.
ME: No, I missed you–
BLOG. (Snorts) If it were the ’90s and I had a hand, I’d tell you to talk to it.
End scene.

Okay, okay, okay. I’ve been away. I have excuses, none of which are particularly scintillating. Finishing draft + new job + travel + househunt hell + general existential angst = blog neglect. I’ve never professed to be good at this (and by this, I mean blog/social media/communicating with humans). But I also have missed my ramblings, this strange private-public sphere that lets me barf up my mushy writing-life hairballs in the ill-lit hallways of the interwebs. (Reminder: Wear shoes around here, people.)

Chapter XIVVLQ of Bryn’s writing life: No Writing Is Happening (subtitle: I Don’t Understand Roman Numerals). The fiction writing is on pause right now, primarily because I’m wrapping up the semester but also because I’ve stumbled into a bit of a creative dead space. Finished a big draft three months back (good) but have been foundering since, poking at one beached jellyfish of a story for three months with no end in sight (blerg). To mix my metaphor further, basically I cleaned the creative cupboards right the hell out. Didn’t even leave myself a dusty ol’ can of Spam.

The truth is, as I cried to my BFF the other day, I’m feeling somewhat lost, creatively, humanly. That nagging sensation of going in circles, of uncertainty, of being untethered. There are real-life capital-R Reasons, no question, but as BFF reminded me as she talked me off the ledge (again!), this feeling is also capital-N NORMAL in the writing life. We’re always kinda lost as we write, wandering around the spongy, shifting tundra of a story, in the erratic unknown of  the imagination.

This led me to thinking about the Lost and Found — as in a place, or rather, usually a box. In my mishmash of a memory, I have two bins: one at my hometown community pool, where I worked as a lifeguard, and one at the college bar where I worked as a waitress and bartender. What a collection of weirdness in those boxes: smelly damp towels, neon goggles, a lone flipper, broken necklaces, single earrings, sunglasses with loose lenses, left-handed glove, jackets that smelled of cigarettes and sweat and with wadded wrappers in their pockets. The flotsam and jetsam of sun-drunk children and drunk-drunk adults.

As a writer, of course I’m fascinated by such objects: all those potential stories tangled in one stinky box crammed in the bowels of the break room. To whom do these items belong? Who’s missing them? A popular writing exercise is to imagine the drawers and pockets of a character and then to write the story of one of the objects discovered there. Objects accrue meaning. Things can do story-work. And good grief, what heightened emotional stakes in those words, the Lost and Found. To be lost. But, oh, to be found.

But today, as I squirm around at my desk with my dulled mind and rusty fingers, I am most fascinated by the nomenclature: The Lost and Found. Not Lost or Found. And. Small distinction, big effect. An object can be both lost and found at the same time. Not opposite, but circular, entwined.

Time and again, the act of writing is my own Lost and Found. In writing, I am both missing and present, confused and precise, insecure and safe, stumbling and stumbling upon.

If I extend this circularity to myself, to my metaphoric sense of being lost, does this mean I also can be found at the same time?

Well, duh.

Takes me writing to remember it.

The girl on the wall

A guest post in which I attempt to answer the question, What is the source of your impulse to write stories?

Spoiler alert: Things get messy.

http://thestoryprize.blogspot.com/2015/11/bryn-chancellor-and-girl-on-wall.html?spref=tw

Here’s a .pdf of the post, too: TSP: Bryn Chancellor and the Girl on the Wall

Marking time

***

Is it okay to be me? … the answer was yes often enough that I went ahead and became her: the writer of plainspoken prose who would not shut up about her grief.”–from Dear Sugar, “The God of Doing it Anyway”

***

Today is the day my father died. On this day, twenty years ago, his heart up and stopped in the ICU, four days after falling ill with what we thought was the flu. Today, like every year, I mark it by the markers of fall: porch pumpkins, yellow and red leaves rusting on still-green lawns, yards trumped up like graveyards, cobwebbed and skull-strewn. Today, as every year, I wonder what to do or say with this private grief that spans two decades, that morphs with each year, rising and falling like a tetchy barometer. What’s there to say about it after all this time? And who wants to hear about it again? Not me. I want to be done.

But that’s not how it goes, it turns out. It turns out, the grief sticks around, showing up on my doorstep each year, holding out its pillowcase, begging me for an offering. Many years, I don’t open the door. Turn off the porch light, hide inside.

Today, because it’s a “big year,” a big fat marker, I suppose I feel obligated to say something, to commemorate, to note it officially: today he would have been 72, he would have been gray and bald and funny and irritating and argumentative and giant-hearted. He would have been fixing things, always fixing, Mr. Fix-It, as it says on the bench that commemorates him at the ballpark in my hometown, where new generations of Little Leaguers dart past with their stale nachos and sodas from the snack bar whose finicky ice machine he fixed and fixed and fixed.

But he couldn’t be. Every year, that fact stays fixed.

And I can’t fix it, either. Not with words, not with stories, not with memories.

But here I am, anyway. Trying to make sense of the insensible through words, through the world of language.

This year, I am struggling to find my words. All I can get at are questions: Twenty years–how is that possible? Who would he have been now? Who would we have been together?

Next year will be better. No milestone, no marker. I’ll open the door more easily, hand out Dum Dums to baby superheroes. I won’t have to think yet of the next marker, five years from now: the year I’ve lived longer without him than with him. I have some time to forget.

Today, twenty years on, stumbling to find words of my own, I thought I’d let poetry, quotes, and images do the talking.

Here’s to you, Alan Lee Chancellor (1942-1995): Beloved Father and Husband, In Our Hearts Always, as it says on your grave marker, our final note, as if that could capture all the wondrous, confounding, unknowable parts of you. Our Mr. Fix-It: hope things are good in the Big Garage in the Sky.

***

Dad, 1965

Dad, 1965, at a house in Berkeley, CA (I think).

Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same.—  from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman

 ***

Dad and me, 1993 or so, rockin’ the outfits, at home in Sedona, AZ.

…This morning I couldn’t get up.
I slept late, I dreamed of the single
sheet of paper, which I never managed to reach
as it stuttered and soared over the grass
and a few flowers, so that I woke
with a sense of loss, wondering who
or what I had to mourn besides
my father, whom I no longer mourn,
father buried in the earth beneath grass,
beneath flowers I trample as I run.
— from “In Dreams,” by Kim Addonizio
***

Dad, 1995, his final Father’s Day. We made the tie with my nephew’s baby footprints. (My nephew, now a gorgeous, brilliant junior in college.)

I buried my father

in the sky.

Since then, the birds

clean and comb him every morning

and pull the blanket up to his chin

every night…

— from “Little Father” by Li-Young Lee

When Are You Coming Home? out today!

My story collection, When Are You Coming Home?, officially lands in the world today!

When Are You Coming Home? Stories

When Are You Coming Home? Stories

Thanks to everyone at University of Nebraska Press and the Prairie Schooner Book Prize who made this happen (here’s a post from when I first found out). Thanks, too, to current and future readers; it’s a true honor.

BC

The Bee in the Window: On Friendship and the Creative Life

The bee, a faux stained-glass sticker, hangs on the corner of my home office window courtesy of Gigi, my college roommate and forever soul mate and all-around crafty gem. Poor old thing (the bee, not Gigi) has lost its buzz over the past decade as I’ve peeled it off for—count ‘em—three cross-state moves. Its wings and body are worn thin with holes, the yellow and gold colors faded from years in sunlight, one antenna lopped in half. On the surface, nothing remarkable. Just a kitschy gift from a funny, dear friend.

Except for the story that goes with it.

*

One night, about fifteen years ago, Gigi and I went to a gathering at the downtown Phoenix apartment of a fellow I was dating. Gigi, lovely, thoughtful person that she is, brought alcohol and a festive little gift: a homemade window-cling bee, which she stuck in that fella’s kitchen window over the sink. At some point, we partygoers left our things and walked to a nearby bar. Long story short, at some point that fellow started ignoring me and flirting mightily with another woman. Ugh. So we beat it the heck out there—only to realize that Gigi’s purse, with the car keys inside, was back at his apartment. No way was I going back in to ask him for a g-d thing. What could we do?

“Break in,” Gigi said.

“No, wait,” I said, half-running to keep up as she launched herself back toward the apartment. The girl cheetah-walks, even though she’s only 5’2 on a good day. Despite this height fact, she also always believes she’s as tall as the tallest person in the room.

At the apartment, Gigi rattled the door and then tested the window. Jackpot.

She slid the window open. “Gimme a leg up,” she said.

“No way,” I said. “We’ll get in trouble—“

She tilted her head and raised her eyebrows. “Bryn. Give me a leg up.”

You don’t argue with those eyebrows. I leaned down and cupped my hands. She stepped into my palms, and I hoisted her up. She scrambled inside the window in full view of a busy street, tumbling over the stereo on the way down. She grabbed her purse and started back toward the window but then stopped. She turned back to the kitchen. She ripped that bee off and then climbed back out the window with what I recall as one badass, long-legged, superhero hop to the ground.

She slammed the window shut and pressed the bee into my palm. She nodded. “Let’s go.”

Yep. She was taller than everyone who ever lived.

*

That little bee has traveled with me from Phoenix, AZ, to Nashville, TN, to Montevallo, Alabama, and now to Charlotte, NC. It’s always in my writing window, right in my line of sight when I look up from typing.

Of course the literal story never fails to make me laugh when I remember it, but as Flannery O’Connor said, “The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it.”

On the eve of my first book’s official publication, I find myself heart-swollen with what that bee reminds me, sometimes exhorts me:

  • Writing is solitary, but you are not alone. You have a hive, and all your people are (ahem) the bee’s freakin’ knees.
  • The families and friends you love are far away, but they are not gone.
  • The families and friends you love who are gone are still present. In memory, in imagination, on the page.
  • Call your friends. Call your mother and siblings. Send them an email or card just for the heck of it. Tell them, now, what they mean to you. (I love you to the tops of the tulip poplars and beyond, past the broken eggshell of a moon, past Pluto with her giant waiting heart, you splendid, lovely sons-of-guns.)
  • Stare out the window. A lot.
  • Don’t take shit.
  • Fight hard for what’s important, for what you love.
  • You are as tall as those others in the room, so keep on writing, love.
  • Sometimes the world will sting hard and mean in the tenderest of places, and there’s not a thing you can do but weep.
  • “There is a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in.” –Leonard Cohen
  • You will be afraid. Do it anyway.
  • Give someone a leg up when they need it. Reach back and offer a hand.
  • Say thank you and mean it.
  • You live in a house.
  • You live in a house where you have your own window.
  • You live in a house with another human being who makes art across the hall and who also makes you mixtapes and greets you over dinner with stories about starrrrr stuff and news and jokes and other miraculous things from his bright bonfire of an imagination.
  • “Stare. It is the way to educate your eye and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.” –Walker Evans
  • You are g-d fortunate to be here, bumbling around this bewildering honeycomb of a life.
The bee.

The bee.