Monday, February 27, 2012

Start Spreading the News

I’ve just returned from a quick trip with my daughter to NYC. The weather was glorious.

I walked Abby's poor little feet off, mostly because walking is the least intimidating form of transportation in the big city. My modus operandus is to take a subway to the general area we want to be in and then walk and walk and walk.

And I go briskly, of course. This is New York. For a little while, I’m Holly Golightly but with a nine-year-old attached. I’m Mary Tyler Moore, but in New York, and in the twenty-first century. I’m the bored-looking twenty-something in a black dress and a nice pair of boots stopped at the crosswalk beside me. She’s clutching a Starbucks and a canvas bag stuffed full of papers. She sees nothing around her because, of course, she’s seen it all before.

We saw Mary Poppins on Broadway. I fell a little bit in love with Bert, the dashing and very wise chimney sweep whose dancing defies the laws of physics. Who makes every move look so spontaneous and easy. Oh, if I could drag him off the stage and onto 42nd Street, walk on his arm like Mary Poppins, whose hot pink booties I’ll have to borrow. Her parasol, too. Bert at my side, whistling and heel-clicking and touching the tip of his hat to every passerby.

At the airport, I put on a mock scowl for Abby. “I don’t wanna go home,” I tell her, crossing my arms and stomping my feet.

Good-bye, Bert.

Ostensibly, this trip was for Abby. As a friend of mine said of her own first trip to NYC: it broadens a girl’s horizons. Of course it does; that’s travel. That’s going anywhere. The more you see of this world, the bigger it gets. I want my girl to be adventurous and brave and—above all—curious. I want her to seek.

Traveling is for the girl. Traveling is for the writer, too. And, it’s not just about broadening horizons—although it is that, too. It reminds us how very big this world is—how much is out there, how alike and different we humans are.

I also think, though, that going to a new place brings out new desires. Or desires we didn’t know about ourselves. Me and my dancing-off-with-Bert fantasy. My Mary Poppins’s high heels and parasol. Me in my imaginary perfect black dress, clutching the morning’s first venti Americana, me knowing New York well enough and long enough to be bored with it.

I could be living inside a whole different life.

Years ago, when I was twelve, I went to Hawaii with my family and wanted to be a hula girl with long, lustrous black hair and graceful, slender arms. In Russia, many years later, I wanted to be a babushka tucked away in a Russian dacha. Cooking borscht and taking in an early-morning banya. Living under all those Russian-cold-winter stars. Or, one of the ballerinas at the Bolshoy Theater, dancing Swan Lake. When I was very young, I knew I’d grow up to be a shuffle skater at the local skating rink. Or a second grade teacher, a divorcee, who wore high heels and corduroy vests. I could have been a Charlie’s Angel. We drove through Illinois and I thought to myself: I could be a farmer’s wife from my grandmother’s era. I could wipe down a vinyl tablecloth and make chocolate German cookies.

No wonder I have to write fiction.

Saturday, February 18, 2012


Drexel Furniture, circa 1906

By the time I arrived in western North Carolina during the summer of 1997, the furniture industry was already dwindling away. I had hoped to find a teaching position in Asheville but I was late to apply. I ended up here, in this small town at the foot of the Appalachians. In time, I would get used to the sight of those far-off mountains, gently sloping and green, bare in the winter.

First driving in, I passed a sprawling lumberyard with stacks of rough lumber and jagged-mouthed machines parked on precarious-looking inclines. Their mechanical appendages were extended as if they had been frozen in place, mid-task. Running parallel on the other side of the street, there lay railroad tracks and trailer parks. A Mexican restaurant the size of a gymnasium with an attached video-rental place. Farther down, past a few stoplights and gas stations, three enormous cinder block structures stood side by side, each with a narrow row of square windows just below their roofs. These were Broyhill plants 9, 11, and 3; across the street, a shorter building was marked Bernhardt number 4. I’d stumbled upon the furniture giants, the powerhouses of the region.

The massive, unadorned buildings, pumping purple-gray haze from their chimneys, were eyesores against the backdrop of those ancient mountains. And yet, I think I felt it already then. The primordial quality to those stopped machines in the lumber yard, the sheer size and heft of the factory buildings. The thunderous bulk of the freight train, the weather-dampened green and orange crepe paper at the Mexican restaurant’s entrance. I had found my imagination’s home. Years later, in my fictionalized account of the region, I reasoned that this place had settled into a dip in time. I had discovered something like a lost world. It was as if those huge buildings, like bigger-than-life paper weights, kept the town and its people in place.

I had never before lived in a town where everything centered on a single industry. The traffic swelled at four o’clock, when the shifts changed. Thanksgiving was celebrated on Friday instead of Thursday since that was the day the factories stopped production. Everyone left town the week of July fourth, when the factories were closed. The movie-house and liquor store were jam-packed every other Thursday afternoon—payday. The Baptist churches were just as crowded. I learned that, though many held a deep and sincere faith, for others, religious observations were a sort of superstition. Drinking and Friday night cruising were life’s biggest sins, and it all was washed away during Sunday morning altar calls.

I was there, in those churches. On weekdays, I taught the children of the factory workers. In time, I was invited to be a part of their families. My fiancĂ©’s little boy’s maternal grandmother—who adopted me as graciously as if I weren’t engaged to the man who had impregnated her teenage daughter a few years earlier—labored over a sewing machine in one of the Broyhill plants all day, and in the evenings, she laid a heating pad across her sore shoulders. There was a weariness to her and the others that came not just from the long hours bent over loud, cranky, often outdated machines, but also an accumulated weight. It came from her years at that machine, the heavy upholstery fabric slung over her shoulder, her stiff fingers quick at the machine—this was piece work and she was paid according to how many seams she sewed. It seemed to also come from the factory workers who had come before her, as if physical tiredness and the sort of exhaustion that comes from being watched by the critical eye of a foreman all day were connected to her workstation, hovering over her spot in the long line of production.

These jobs paid well enough that people rarely thought of working elsewhere, yet not so well that, aside from factory mistakes, they could actually afford to purchase anything they had produced. The evidence of their craft was shipped off to the showrooms in High Point and, once upon a time, the fancy resort hotels in the mountains. The workers stayed behind, and their beautiful furniture went out to houses in cities they would never themselves lay eyes on.

Eventually, all this gave rise to a story I had begun constructing, dimly, in the back of my thoughts the day I first drove past those somber, half-empty spaces. I started writing it in earnest years later, and the town I constructed, Goliath, became my fictional rendering of not just Drexel, where I live, but it also incorporated bits of all the small factory towns scattered in this area. I found an exquisite, almost mystical beauty to the timelessness of these places, and to the unspoken tragedy unfolding around me. These people were as hopeful as they were frightened, watching the furniture companies shift production—these people’s very livelihood—bit by bit overseas.

In my novel, I describe the factory, now closed, as something like a cathedral, and there does seem to be something sacred and beautiful to the emptiness of the huge, gutted buildings. I have given my made-up characters something the real-life factory workers in this area will not likely see: a definitive ending. In reality, this lost world is simply fading away, plant by plant. The workers retire or drift into other occupations. I wanted to instead give them a final day, a send-off. I wanted to commemorate their life and their work and to flesh out a microcosm of this place, a place we all, to different degrees, inhabit—the intersection of hope and foreboding. In Goliath and elsewhere, I believe there is a yearning to both see and not see the depths and uncertainties of our futures, a tendency to both forget and hold fast to our pasts.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

I Suck, You Suck, We All Suck

It was the most extraordinary day. The sky was the bluest blue and the grass densest green. Wispy high white clouds, light breeze, bright sun. I was sitting beside a student on a picnic bench on top of a mountain. It was early April and pre-seasonably warm.

I told my student, let’s call her Judy: Hard to think about doing anything but napping up here today, isn’t it?

We were just a few yards away from the writers’ studio at the John C. Campbell Folk School, which is about as far west as you can get in NC before you hit Tennessee. She had her laptop. I had twenty pages she’d given me to read. Her pages were marked up; this was to be our teacher-student conference, and here I was, talking about sleep.

But I was ready and willing to squint against the sunlight, hold the papers down against the breeze, and chat about her work. I had some notes about narrative momentum and character motivation. Setting. Clarity. All the normal writing-workshop stuff. But, Judy only had one question: “I just want to know whether or not I suck.”

Oh, Judy.

Of course, we all know what she was hoping I would say. Out there under that blue sky so serene we were half-drunk sitting there, looking into it. Or, I was. So in love with the landscape, the sun, I was full of warm-fuzzies—oh, the artist’s life!—and drowsy good will. Judy, on the other hand, was quick-talking. Fidgety. She had been writing for more than a year, had spent a week’s vacation time and several hundred dollars to be here, had spent several days now discussing the writing life with me and two other classmates. She was ready for confirmation of what she already believed to be true.

What she wanted me to say: Of course you don’t suck. Don’t be silly, Judy.

Which is basically what I said. What else could I say? I also gave her my little spiel about the importance of revision and how I believe nothing is unfixable (which I do believe: I don’t think I could teach or do any writing myself if I didn’t believe this…) and that her book was really intriguing and that what she needs to do right now and is keep writing.

Keep writing. This is what Bret Lott, whose novels were my first writing teachers, has twice written to me when I’ve hunted him down and asked him to sign a book.

All best wishes! Keep writing!

It still unsettles me to think of how much stock she put in my opinion. How vulnerable she made herself, to ask the question. Or rather: how vulnerable she revealed herself to be, asking this question.

But then, we writers live that way, don’t we? From validation to validation. From criticism to criticism. It’s a feast-or-famine thing, our tender little writer-egos. One minute, we are brilliant, the next, oh, so sad. So irredeemably stupid. So unforgivably bad.

This April, when I go back up the mountain to teach the same writing class to a different group of students, maybe I’ll incorporate a new mini-lecture. I’ll title it: "I Suck, You Suck, We All Suck. Bad."

It’s true for me and for Judy and for every writer: we will never write as well as we want to. We will never quite reach the it—the highest degree of non-sucking--we’re trying to reach.

Which is what makes my advice to Judy and Bret Lott’s advice to me the only worthy advice out there: Keep writing. Keep writing. Keep writing. Keep, keep writing...

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Liebster Award

Once, when I was fifteen years old, I was the eighth caller and I won a cassette tape of the Fine Young Cannibals. That pales in comparison with this.

Thank you so much, My Unpublished Life, for awarding me the Liebster Award, an award designed to bring new readers to small blogs like this one, with fewer than 200 followers. I am just thrilled that MUL thought enough of my ramblings here to think of me. Thank you, thank you.

(Btw, you need to check her out--she blogs about life, food, writing, friends, and shopping...)

What I'm supposed to do now is list five things you don't know about me. Kind of a tough to do since I'm pretty confessional--frightfully so!!--here. But, here goes:

1. My favorite food combo is Cheddar-Flavored Check Snack Mix and beer. Add in a late-night netflix sitcom from a decade or so ago and I'm all set. (I'm not proud of this...)
2. I was born in Indiana.
3. When I was a kid, I saw a movie called "The Incredible Shrinking Lady," starring Lily Tomlin and a man in a gorilla costume. For years, I had nightmares about shrinking. I worried it would happen to me and that I would someday disappear.
4. My scars: a short line under my chin from when I was four and vacationing in Florida with my family and my older sister dared me to put my face under and I plunged right down onto the concrete step inside the pool; one on the side of my foot from the time I was twelve and had snuck out of the house late at night to gallivant on the golf course with friends and I had fallen; another foot injury, from a shattering light fixture in a shower in Russia; a long, faint scar on the palm of my right hand from when my previous, psychotic cat Idgy ran away from home and I tried to rescue her from a culvert and she didn't particularly want to be rescued.
5. My first job was filling drinks and pulling fries at Sally's Hotdogs in Greensboro, NC.

And now, the fun part: I get to award the Liebster Award to five blogs that I deem most deserving. Please, check them out--they are SO worth it!!

50 Shimmering Pages, on the adventures of novel-writing

The Quivering Pen, writing inspiration, advice, and perspectives on the writing life

Annette Gendler, creative nonfiction and photography

Cathy Kidman, a cancer survivor turns comedienne tells her story

The Discriminating Reader, an insightful, well-written reader's blog