Saturday, November 3, 2012

Wedded to My Seat: Keeping Faith With a Story

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 sun.

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 shadows.

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.

Sit with me.


Saturday, September 8, 2012

Lost Our Lease

It's been a while since I posted on this blog.

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?"

"Four weeks."

"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.

   Temporary Job
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.

From Pratt's new collection of poems, Inside the Money Machine.

Nikki estimates she has three weeks of work left.


Photo: Detail from the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington, DC.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

At Fifth and Market

      An old woman sits at a window. A street runs below her.  It once shuttled fattened taxis past her building. Now buses, on natural fuel, run silent as fog.

      Men, one day, stopped wearing hats. Young people dressed without buttons. Taxis lost their hips. In its center, a mirror grew a round spot, like a coin fused to a fountain.

The demolition crew comes. Window, she thinks, you’ll give up before I do.


Photo by Bruce Barone

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Story on the Streets!

Dear Friends,

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 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.


Friday, March 16, 2012

Six-Word Memoirs

From some of my freshman writers at Guilford College, who this week celebrated the power, mystery and impact of brief language:

Bills unpaid. Memories destroyed. Kick. Push. --Joe Able

Missed Period. Frightened Girl. Waiting Results.  --Kimberly Newton

What a jerk. Who's she?  Broken.  --Haley Andrews

Alone. Music blasting. Clenching the wheel. --Mollie Sewell

Darkness, black.  "PERMISSION."  Brightness, white. --Soobin Park

Time never dies, powerful, powerless . . .   --Issa Abdallah

Dread-head. Honor Student. F**k Stereotypes. --Devin Martin

Rock, air. Look down. Life, death.  --Elliot Freshwater 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Ask That

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.


Sunday, February 26, 2012


I am waiting for the bat.

In July, when we moved in, he was here.

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.

What is the definition of little?


Sunday, January 22, 2012


I want to remember this, and so I write it down.

Ted spoke today.  Ted doesn't often speak, but when he does, I listen.  Ted is eighty-six years old, a former chemistry professor--he and I have taught in the same classrooms--and an emigre who as a young boy was lucky enough to escape Hitler's killing machine.  During his long career, he taught both philosophy and science, and asked his students to think not just about how the world is bonded together, but about the very idea of bonding itself.  Ted has been retired now from teaching for many years; his hands are calm, and when he stands in a meeting to speak, he grips the back of the chair in front of him, if one is there.  If not, he stands and folds his hands over his belt, balancing himself from the inside.  His voice is soft, and it shakes slightly.  I should be clear: this is a bit like saying a tree shakes softly.  You don't confuse the delicacy at the edge with the welded rings of the core.

Today Ted stood and gripped the back of the chair in front of him, and this is the story he told, as nearly as I can capture his words, and his lilting voice:

"Today, I am thinking about meditation.  I have practiced meditation for a long time.  When I do so, I do it by focusing on a single sound, or a word; or else I will concentrate only on my breathing, my breath going in and out.  It is very important to me, this meditation, and I am very interested in meditation as a subject.

"But one day, not long ago, something began to happen to me.  I did not only meditate, but I began to think about meditation.  I began to read a few books on meditation, and then more and more.  Then, in the way of things, other people began to recommend books to me, and before I knew it I had quite a pile of books beside me, books about meditation and about other subjects that are also very important.  At about this same time, I became aware of a feeling--a feeling that I had not only so many things to read, but so many, many things to do, so many things that I must do.  I became overwhelmed by this feeling, and began to be quite unwell.  I went to my doctor, and my blood pressure was elevated--it had gone through the roof, in fact--and he put me on medication, and told me that we must do some ultrasound tests to check my internal organs.  At this point, I contacted my sons, who do not live near me--one of them lives in Tokyo, and has done so for a generation now--and I told them what was happening, thinking that I should let them know just in case something was going to take me off to the hospital.  My son in Tokyo wrote back to me right away, and this is what he said:

'I want you to go back to breathing.  I want you to think only about your breath.  Your body needs oxygen, and so you must take it in.  You must breathe in what you need, then you must breathe out what you no longer need.  You must breathe in the oxygen.  You must breathe out the carbon dioxide, which you no longer need but that something else--the plants--can use.  I want you to do this, and think in this way.  Breathe in what you need.  Breathe out what you no longer need.  And I want you to do this for twenty minutes.'

"It was amazing, the difference this made.  I realized, as I breathed this way, that the books that I had did not have to be read right now.  And that the things that I had to do, they did not have to be done, not right now.  When I went in later on for the ultrasound tests, nothing showed up on them at all.  My blood pressure was normal again, and the doctor congratulated himself that it was the medication that had done it.

"As I breathed in and out again, I remembered things that other people had taught me about breathing.  That, for instance, when we breathe in we have the chance to take in the suffering of the world, of a group or an individual, or maybe of the suffering we are immediately aware of . . . and then we have the chance to breathe out our compassion and love.  This memory came back to me as I breathed, as I concentrated on taking in what I needed.

"When I told my son about this memory that had come to me, he reminded me that the idea that we breathe in the suffering of others and breathe out our compassion for the world is a practice known as Tonglen, and that it has been practiced in India and in Tibet.  And I wasn't at all surprised to hear this.  And then I thought of something else."

For a moment I had trouble, as Ted's voice shook, understanding.  He was saying that he had been watching a television program earlier this week, and the program had been about . . .  I breathed, and then I decided that the word he had said was "god."  But that didn't sound right.  Then I breathed again, and I realized he had said the word "garden."  He was saying that he had been watching a program about gardens here in North Carolina, and that one, the Charlotte Botanic Garden, had a section devoted to a meditative garden, a space in which to sit and breathe.

". . . out what you no longer need," Ted ended, and sat carefully down, feeling the chair beneath him, while in the room around him the words god, garden and breath danced, forming an unstable compound.