Tonight I heard a story. The interesting thing--well, there are two interesting things--well, no, there are so many interesting things, on any given evening, in any place in the world, American or otherwise--the interesting thing among many interesting things is that it did not seem, immediately, like a story. The funny thing--not ha-ha funny, but isn't-that-curious funny, isn't that just what you might expect, but you didn't, funny--is that I was about to get up in front of an audience and tell a story myself. I was in Columbus, Georgia, getting ready to read a strange and haunting tale, when a woman I knew walked in with a woman I didn't, whom I had only just met. I knew the two were sisters--that much I knew--and I greeted them both. They sat down. We chatted while the rest of the audience found its places. What are you doing tomorrow? I asked. We are going to see our mother in her rest home, they said. How old is your mother? I asked. She is 91 years old. My goodness, I said, 91. How is her mind? Well, she knows who we are . . . and she knows when her mind isn't working properly. She's very aware when it isn't and she'll look quite amazed and smile and she'll say, "You know, someone really ought to try to get into my mind and study it and see what on earth is going on there."
Then, without really deciding that we were all listening to a story together, the sisters told me that their mother knew when something wasn't quite right about the way her mind worked, these days, and that she tried to describe it.
"My mind is so focused. It's strange. I keep coming back to the same thing over and over. I keep seeing the persimmon tree by our house when I was a little girl," she said. "I'm so focused."
The sisters do some quick caculations in front of me. Their mother would have been no more than ten years old when she lived beside that tree. At ten, she and the family had moved away from that house.
"But my mind keeps going back that persimmon tree, I tell you. I don't know why. I never thought about it much when we were living there. I never ate its fruit. I never climbed it. I never played around it. I never thought about it at all. It was just a tree. Now I think about it all the time. My mind goes there. It just goes, I can't stop it. Why, why am I thinking about that persimmon tree?"
The audience had all found their seats and it was time for me to tell my story. As it happens, this particular story is about an elderly woman whose mind is doing some very strange things, and as I am telling the story, a little part of my mind is caught, like a small paper kite, in that persimmon tree. I keep seeing the persimmon tree, as if it is growing straight out of the center of the audience. I notice, with that part of my mind that knows how to do these things while another part of my mind is doing something else, that everyone in that audience is gathered around that persimmon tree, a persimmon tree that we did not even know existed, and maybe did not even exist anymore, except that it did, because memory had turned it into a living, growing thing that had sprouted inside and then outside the brain of an old woman, who had connected it to two daughters, who had carried it like a cutting into this space where it rooted and grew in a place with no soil, where it grew in thin air.
And I thought, unable to tear my mind from the persimmon tree: here is a story about a persimmon tree. Except it really isn't a story at all. It is nothing really. Just a whisper, a snatch of conversation, a way to fill the time before a real, published story began.
And while I told my own story, my finished and published story, printed and bound story, behaving like it was the most solid thing in the world, outside it began to rain, and the rain caught in the trees and made a sound like a kite trying to get free.
And the sisters were nodding and giving me all their attention, and so was everyone, very nicely, in this audience in Columbus, Georgia, and I realized that this is what a story is, it is a thing we all agree to look at, and focus on, although it is not there.
After I am done speaking someone raises a hand and asks how I get my ideas, where my stories come from. I am not 91, so I answer quickly:
My new novella, The Wedding of Anna F., has been published this week in Big Fiction. Here is how the story, about a woman who believes she is Anne Frank, begins:
The interviewer is coming today. So. Here is the simple part:
choosing what to wear. I’ve told my little assistant buzzing
downstairs—no, that isn’t fair of me, she isn’t little, she looms over
my life, in fact, and she’s more than an assistant, she’s almost a kind
of nurse, at times—I’ve told Maia to leave me alone for a bit, to let
me be quiet, so I can get ready for my time with him, and then for my
birthday celebration to follow; because I need a rest after having spent
the whole morning in my study, organizing my documents and letters,
the private papers that will sum me up, in my eighty-third year—work
that has been the easier part of this day, now that I think of it, at
least compared to what’s going to come later on, compared to what is
coming on now.
I hope I can manage it all. I don’t tire easily, thank goodness.
For my age I’m still fairly sound—apart, that is, from the slight
deafness in my left ear, the result of being left lying in the mud at
Belsen. Of course, no one knows I’ve ever been there. But this much is
true: I’ve never needed or wanted much rest, since then.
Such "easy" lines, as I look at them now--easy in the sense that all
work has been erased, all the sleepless nights spent worrying over a
story, a voice, that wouldn't leave me alone; all the clumsy drafts
hidden behind this one, the final, polished version; all the hours spent
staring at the keyboard struggling to understand what this stranger was
trying to whisper to me; all the moments when I leapt from my seat
because something that had eluded suddenly barked, clear; all the doubt;
all the frustration; all the hours when I could have been out in the
And yet the lines aren't "easy," even now. They are a suspension
bridge, the kind made of ropes cast over ravines in jungle places. They
led and lead into a place that is both dark and light, both myth and
reality; they go places I didn't expect at all. Even now I can feel the
swaying, the tension, the danger, though all the work is behind me.
There were many times when I thought I wouldn't finish this tale. It is
too hard, I told myself. It is too strange. There be animals in the
How do we keep faith with stories . . . not just the stories we
write, but the stories we read? Where does that faith come from? A
story is such a fragile thing. Today I met with a few students, and we
discussed how stories are powerful, how they have the ability to move us
and arrest us, stop us dead in our tracks, at the same time. How anyone
who knows how to tell a good story holds the keys to a city.
But stories are tents, too. They are tenuous, canvas and stake and
knot against earth. They can, and do, collapse if we don't put our backs
into them, and even if we do. There are no guarantees. There is no law
on earth that says a story must be finished, or when it is finished that
it must be read.
I kept faith with Anna over several years. I put her aside
for long stretches of time. I came back to her when she grew noisy and
her mystery unbearable. I set her aside again when her impossibilities
wore me out. I lived. I worked. I moved to a new state. I picked her up
again like a cold I kept catching over and over. And slowly, slowly,
something started to take shape. I felt better. She got stronger. I
picked up an ax. The bridges behind you don't matter. Cut. Chop. Burn.
The only way, for a writer, is forward. A path through the trees.
Now here I am. The story is finished, the faith is . . . what? Not "rewarded." Reward is the wrong word.
Faith is not a stolen bicycle.
Perhaps it is the chair Anna sits in as she tells her story. Is that
what faith is? Hard but steady. Adirondack you take over and over again.
Forget all the rest, the story says, forget everything up to now.
I could tell you I have been busy. I have been. I can tell you I am sometimes overwhelmed by stories, that I don't always feel up to the challenge of honoring the real people I meet; that sometimes it's easier to write fiction; that often the people I meet contain, carry, stories so large that the very idea of trying to capture them in a blog entry seems paltry, even mad: like throwing a dart at a tidal wave.
Two things happened yesterday. I met a woman in a furniture store. And I read a poem by Minnie Bruce Pratt.
Klausen's Furniture in Greensboro, North Carolina, is closing its doors. "Lost Our Lease!" the brassy banners read in the windows. My husband and I are still trying to furnish our new home, so when we see the italics, Total Liquidation, Everything Must Go, we pull in, park the car, nudged like flies toward meat.
"Lost Our Lease" is, in North Carolina, a euphemism for We can no longer hang on and compete with cheap goods from other countries. Deserted furniture stores litter the landscape. Dying ones put on a bright face. To walk into a dying one is like picking your way through a tree farm after Christmas. You try to pay attention to what's still standing, but all you can see are the holes.
No sooner have we come through the door into the half-empty showroom than we are approached by an elderly saleswoman. She reminds me instantly of my grandmother: short, stout, close-cropped gray hair, bright eyes behind no-nonsense glasses, right hand leaning on a polished black cane. The hand itself is encased in a fingerless black leather glove, I guess to protect it from chafing. But it makes her look like a fighter, or a biker.
"Can I help you with anything?" she smiles and comes toward us, not slowly. She keeps ahead of the other sales people, who are half-lounging, as though they've given up.
"We're just going to wander through."
"Well I'm Nikki. Let me know if you see anything."
We walk quickly past the naked mattress and the sausage-link couches nobody, including us, seems to want. We make a circle through the store; and at the end of it there is Nikki again. I look at a pile of bright throw pillows, marked down fifty percent and more. My husband stands close by. He doesn't care about pillows. He turns to her.
"Nikki, is the store maybe moving somewhere else?"
"No. They're just completely going out of business."
"I'm sorry. Have you been working here a long time?"
"I'm--did--did you say four weeks?"
"Yes," she nods.
Pressed to my stomach I have two turquoise pillows originally marked at twenty dollars a piece. In a few minutes Klausen's will sell them to me for ten.
"Let me write that up for you and get you a bag," Nikki says, and balances her cane on a sofa table so she can take the pillows away from me.
My husband's eyes follow her limp. When she returns, he asks:
"Nikki, did you know the store was going out of business when you took this job?"
"Oh, sure. I had no choice, though. I'm sixty-three, and I can't afford to retire. And it's not easy, these days." Nikki doesn't say this in a complaining way. More as if she is genuinely amazed. She looks at my husband as if for a question somebody ought to ask. Then: "Because, if you're old, they don't want you, and if you're a woman, it doesn't help. And then they see this cane, and even though I get around just as quick as anybody, it doesn't help when they see it. Well. Here you go, dear." She smiles professionally and hands me a brown bag, too big for the small pillows inside.
They don't have the right size, I think stupidly. They're just using whatever's left.
"I'm sorry, Nikki," my husband says. "It's hard."
"You bet." She sighs. "I just start, and it's over. I was just getting to know people, and know what to do, know the place, and then . . . Those are really nice pillows," she turns to me, remembering, professional again. She has learned. She wants me to see it. "I hope you get lots of enjoyment out of them."
We go home. The pillows look wrong, as bright things against dark often do.
by Minnie Bruce Pratt
Leaving again. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t be
grieving. The particulars of place lodged in me,
like this room I lived in for eleven days,
how I learned the way the sun laid its palm
over the side window in the morning, heavy
light, how I’ll never be held in that hand again.
I'm very proud to announce that I am now part of new graffiti, a
grassroots publishing project that gets literature out of our iPads and
Kindles, off of our bookshelves, and onto the streets! Want to get
involved? Go to http://newgraffitipublishing.com/
and check out its latest project, which marries my short story
"Observatory" with artwork by Sarah Stone. Visit the "Downloadable"
page to print a poster-, letter- or postcard-sized image of
"Observatory"--and post it wherever you think it will create something unexpected in the world!
And thank you, friends, for all you do to support writing, words, and
creativity. It is a joy to be part of this time and place with you.
My husband, wonderful man, asks questions. He collects stories. He loves to listen to you. He is not, by choice, a writer. He's simply very curious, and attentive; and he would much rather speak to you about something moving and unexpected than about something dull and plainsong. This is why, sitting down to dinner with my parents this week--we hadn't seen them in quite some time--he turned to my mother, and rather than intoning "pass the salt" or "let's have a moment of silence" or "how was your flight," he looked her in the eye and smiled and began with,
"Now. Tell me a powerful moment from your childhood. Don't think about it. Just share the first thing that comes into your mind. What is it?"
"The smell of tin."
After a moment's surprise, and a pause, she said again,
"Tin! It's tin in the sun."
She went on:
"I'm very little. This is the first house I can remember. We had other houses before this one, but I don't remember them. This one had a backyard, and my mother used to give me baths in a tub in the yard. That's how children were bathed then."
"In the 1940's."
"Yes. You took the tin tub outside, and you filled it with warm water . . . And so when I smelled tin in the sun, I knew, I knew, I knew . . ." Her eyes grew big, and she smiled the way a child does, with eyebrows going up as if the sun has risen in the sky for the first time. "I was going to get a bath."
We all sat for a moment. Smell of warm metal in the air. Wet skin. Quick as that.
Fork tastes sharper.
Mama doesn't look the same.
All for the question. All for the asking.
You didn't know. How could you?
Not what you thought you should: something else, my husband reminds me all the time. Ask that.
My room on the 19th floor of the Palmer House in Chicago faces the open air, and then a mirror of brick. Out the window, across a gap of thirty feet, lies another wing of the hotel and another bank of windows, exactly like mine. Each has sheer curtains overlaid with heavier ones; some are open; some are closed. It's daylight outside, but gray. One of those days when it feels like the moon is shining rather than the sun. I turn and look at my room. It is a very nice room. I unpack my things and lay my books on the desk, then go out to dinner with friends. When I return, late, and look out the window, I see that some of the rooms across from me are occupied, others not; some have their curtains wide open, others half drawn. Two floors below me, brightly lit and curiously empty--not a piece of furniture in them that I can see--are two matching suites, each with its interior, connecting door slightly ajar. Curtains half open.
On the second night, when I come back late to my room, the two empty suites below me are the only ones with lights still blazing, their nakedness exposed. Everything else is darkness. Something else odd: the two interior doors, each a mirror of the other, that had been slightly ajar are now wider open. Well, probably work is being done in those two rooms, I tell myself. I'd read in the hotel's history that in one hundred and thirty-three years--it is the oldest hotel in the country--its doors have never closed, and that to accomplish this any work on its floors must be done in stages.
The next day, at mid-day, I look out. No one. Nothing. No movement. Only the interior, connecting doors are a little wider open, as if they are growing braver.
On the third night the lights across and below me still burn steady and bright. It occurs to me that someone must have decided these two rooms are better left empty and illuminated all the time. I decide to go and see for myself. But the Palmer House is a maze--1,600 rooms along white and gold halls that angle and twist and turn and wrap, so that you have to memorize your way, or else reach for the numbers like Braille. I guess with my feet through the windowless quiet to where I think the rooms ought to be. But I can't really be certain. One narrow hallway does seem more deserted than the rest--none of the usual human debris, no Do Not Disturb signs clinging to the door knobs, no silver room-service dish covers littering the floor, no newspapers left untouched by secret lovers who have stayed, murmuring, in bed all day.
I go back to my room. On the floor beside my bed is the book I'd left on the desk--I was certain I'd left it there, but maybe I had casually knocked it to one side as I went out. I can be clumsy. It lies face down on the carpet. I pick it up and read:
The end of roving. Though the heart be still as loving and the moon be still as bright. Who would have thought it would come to an end so soon and so suddenly: the roving, the loving?
The next day, still gray, the snow begins to fall, as if the moon is being pawed at, called back.
He roosted in a corner of our screened attic window, wadded tightly, a velvet sock rolled into the lower right corner. Sometimes he hung upside down, a hooded bulb.
Smaller than the paper lanterns hanging above him, the two empty wasp-nests.
Heavier than the dried leaves clinging in the spiderwebs.
Little brown bat.
I ran to the computer, looked him up. Little brown bat. That was, in fact, his name. Myotis lucifugus. American little brown bat. Male because solitary. Sleepy because summer. Works for four hours a day. Flies and darts and catches. But that's hard work, so he must rest much of the time. I understand this. I am a writer.
I fell in love.
Although I knew I shouldn't, I visited him daily. I have never lived with a bat, and I couldn't help myself. I opened the door, ducked under the beam, crept toward the eave to stare. Often I couldn't see his face. It was hidden like a pea in a mattress. When I could see it, it was small and strange and sharp, like something I should be comfortable with, but wasn't.
Little brown bat.
You are not allowed to kill the little brown bat. He is protected. When the exterminator came to the house, I made sure he knew. There are some things, of course, you are allowed to do--like turn on the light three times a day to look at him--but you probably shouldn't. Eventually I got a hold of myself, cut back like a smoker. I came late at night, to see that he was gone, off hunting and catching. I came in the morning, too, to see that he was back. Every time, this terrible dread that he wouldn't be.
One may fret over a bat in the same way one frets over a lover or an idea.
"The little brown bat can be distinguished from the Indiana bat by the absence of a keel on the caclar and the presence of hairs on the hind feet that extend past the toes"--but I have no idea what this means, and I never got close enough, and I am vaguely resentful. There are some things about a bat that should remain a mystery.
One day, late in fall, he didn't come home. I scurried to my computer (I wasn't at my computer because there is always something you can do that is easier than writing, and looking at a little brown bat is one of those things). A little brown bat must hibernate; he will fly south to find a mate, procreate, and seek a hibernaculum. The beauty of that word made up, a little, for the loss.
The little brown bat is now, I assume, in a cave or an abandoned mine. I too am drawn to caves and abandoned mines, and often go and live in them myself. Sometimes, it's important to not even try to do anything.
Now I am waiting for the bat.
The computer says he might not be back until May. It says nothing about whether the little brown bat likes to come back to the same roost, each year, it says nothing about ambition or variety. The little corner where he slept is an empty yoke. I don't go and look every day. The last time, I mistook a fresh leaf for his body.
The wingspan of the little brown bat is eight to eleven inches. Its membrane is dark brown.
I'm Mylène Dressler, novelist and essayist, and whenever I'm out and about I love to make time simply to sit still, listen to people, take in wisdom, mark down words. I also love to help people connect through the stories that move us--the natural result of a life spent first as a dancer, and now as a writer and professor devoted to the creative experience in all its forms. My call to you: Let yourself be moved. Move others. Move.
This blog is my love letter to the American journey, and to those we meet as we go on our way. My thanks to all the people who take the time to talk with me, or to write to me and share the story that is all of us, right here, right now. Keep going, my friends. Stretch. Reach. Speak.
To order one of my novels, click below. The Deadwood Beetle and The Floodmakers are now available on Kindle.
requires that I inform you, dear reader, that as an author and blogger I occasionally receive books from publishers, other authors, and PR firms for review. These are added to the already tall stacks in my office and on my Kindle. You can be too rich, my friends. You can be too thin. And you can have too much horseradish. But you can never have too many books.