objects

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.

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Notebooks (Capital N)

I’m trying of late to keep a better writing notebook. I assign students a dedicated writing notebook most semesters, 5 entries a week, knowing that this is one of the best ways to generate and/or develop material. The entries can be raw, messy, or fragmented, self-generated or responses to exercises, but the point is to sharpen observation skills, to tone and build the writing muscle. I see some great work emerge from these dedicated Notebooks with a capital N.

But in the secret guilt-ridden irony with which many writing instructors are familiar (we’re not writing as we insist on the importance of writing!), I had let my own notebook lapse. It wasn’t even a lower-case n; it just wasn’t happening. I would turn to it only in moments of desperation, late at night, trying to tease out what was at the root of my dark or saddened or frustrated state of mind. Time and again, these outpourings helped me get at the source of the wound; the act of writing in my notebook was the salve and bandage. Like, duh. It’s so freaking obvious, until it isn’t. So many times I’m like a potty-training toddler in this writing life. I will pee myself again. Just wait.

Anyhow, my notes thus far are pretty scratchy, bits gleaned during walks or out at a restaurant: sunlit raindrops hanging from a spindly branch; burnt-orange clouds through a stand of bare oaks; a little girl playing in the backroom of her family’s diner; a daughter up in a tree pulling down holiday ornaments while her father watched from below. None of these notes are particularly strange or, on the surface, even that noteworthy. But I have learned over the years that I often find ways to use those tiny, seemingly insignificant bits in my fiction. (I recently pulled some descriptive details from this blog and used them in my novel.)

Even more important, for me anyway, is that the more I do it, the more I turn my writing brain “on.” Active observation is work; it is much easier to shut the writer’s mind off, to go about your day and task without really looking, to slide right back into the “default setting,” as David Foster Wallace called it.. What I have discovered is that even before writing it down, just by noticing, something sparks in me.

Example A: that simple raindrop on the branch. It had been raining here for about a week straight, the skies obstinately gray, unusual for this part of the country, even in winter. It had just “snowed” — flurries that didn’t stick but shut down the university nonetheless — so I took to walking the neighborhood. The sky broke, and the sun hit that branch, and I nearly bent in half with the beauty of it, with whatever it touched off inside of me.

It’s nothing new that capital N Nature can do this for us (greetings, Romantics and Transcendentalists!). In prose and verse, such imagery can very quickly become problematic: banal, cliche, too direct. In John Gardner’s famous “barn” description exercise from The Art of Fiction (“Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war.  Do not mention the son, or war, or death”), Gardner cautions against obvious correlatives, that “the images of death and loss that come to [the writer] are not necessarily those we expect.” Agreed.

But in these initial notes, in the first moment of observation, I don’t yet understand what the branch made me see; that is for later, when/if I decide to give it to a character or scene, when I ask it to bear story weight. What work do I want this image to do? What does it add to character/story/tension/etc?

Right now I only know that I saw it. I looked at it, even marveled at it. I didn’t miss it, and I wrote it down. And that is enough for now.

Fragments of the whole

Oh, Insomnia. You’re like that college ex who keeps showing up in a bad dream, the one about the party at a house that’s not my house but is my house, and there you are, although it doesn’t look like you but it is you. You lurk off in the doorway to the garage, your lousy juju rising off you like cartoon stinklines. Jerk.

Alas, it’s nothing new. Even as a kid, I wasn’t a good sleeper. These days, when I am hyper-stressed, I fall asleep fine but then wake up at 4 a.m., my mind buzzing like a jar full of bees (who are using tiny bee chainsaws to cut down tiny bee trees). My waking days become a bleary-eyed mess, progressing from edgy impatience to sentence-mangling delirium (sorry, students). Luckily, this goes in waves. I think the final wave crashed last night; that is, I slept straight through.

Anyhoo. Writing about insomnia is about as riveting as listening to U.S. politicians these days; like those speeches, it’s also making me queasy and irritable, so let’s move on.

I’ve been thinking a lot about fragments. My novel-in-progress has a great deal to do with fragmentation, both in terms of subject (loss and memory) and of form (bits of narratives strung together out of order). This is not to say that I am actively thinking in terms of theme and structure while I’m writing; at this point I’m still figuring out the story. However, in looking at the pages I have, I see such a pattern emerging.

My beloved TW’s art projects also often are interested in fragmentation. Because of a project he is working on and because of a longstanding interest, we took a trip a few weeks ago to the Roger Brown Rock House Museum in Beulah, Alabama. Roger Brown was an extraordinary artist and collector who came to be known as one of the Chicago Imagists but who also kept strong ties to his native rural Alabama.

I am still emotional about this visit; this is a deeply affecting, inspiring exhibit/collection. Roger’s brother, Greg Brown, a great sculptural and collage artist who lives in Montgomery, oversees the museum and acts as guide. Because Roger passed away before the sale of the house was complete, Greg and his parents put together this space, which acts as both a museum and a memorial, a mix of Roger’s art and objects from his life. The pieces collected here reflect not just Roger’s obsession with collecting but also his family’s. Many items are those that their mother kept, or that Greg did, or related pieces that Greg found and added later. It would be impossible to list the thousands of disparate objects that come together this space, but some that stand out to me: Roger’s wildly gorgeous, cheeky art, including a large painting that hung for years in his parent’s grocery store in Opelika; old cigarette packs and a high school cowbell; an uncle’s Purple Heart; a junk drawer of a desk, kept exactly as it once was; Roger’s childhood drawings; a childhood devil Halloween costume; the roadside-store chairs that Roger wanted to buy and that Greg went back later and found; the prison matchstick lamps; the framed elegy that Greg wrote for his brother’s funeral; the photographs of their mother, whose ’40s-style hairdos are exactly represented in Roger’s female figures; the melmac dish collections; the sloping upstairs floor; the maps that Roger drew toward the end of his life, planning an architectural wonderland behind his parents’ home in Opelika; his Auburn beanie.

All of these fragments cohere in the most unbelievably beautiful way, and for me it’s because each object represents a story about Roger himself or about someone who knew and loved him. Even without Greg’s quiet, generous explanations, those stories are imbedded in these fragments of a life. They tell us about Roger — his artistic beginnings, his creative trajectories — but even more, they tell us about the people who loved him and about their connection. This is a space of collective memory, a jumble of pieces that reflect how lives brim and spill and ripple into each other. We are a complicated sum of our own memories, but also of others’ memories of us. When we subtract any part of that sum, what remains? Who is left? Are we still whole? Who are we when the people who remember us are gone?

The Rock House seems to ask these questions, and so far, here is my answer: We will spend much of our lives asking such questions, not as a way to stay in the past but as a way to move forward. In the act of retelling and reseeing, we do not relive; rather, we create a new connection, a new memory, give life to a life gone. We will do this again and again, creating pieces that we carry in our pockets like flat, smooth stones. Some days they will weigh us down; sometimes we will rub them obsessively with our thumbs. But sometimes, we will skip them across the lake of our lives, watching the ripples bend and fracture outward, until we lose sight of them in the shining sun.