Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Words from Philip Levine About Bouts of Not-Writing.

This week I got a letter from Philip Levine. I'd written him probably twelve years ago -- a thank-you, a fan letter -- and he wrote me back immediately something very honest and raw; he'd been suffering a bout of not-writing. In our recent move, I found that letter -- and many more from others I've kept over the years -- and I wrote him again. This time, I told him what he'd written and how important it was to me then and even more so right now. For so many complex reasons, I'm purposefully lowering the stakes; I'm playing but not writing; I'm struggling with the public act of publishing (as I always have, privately); I tell myself I'm gearing up for something, steeling myself while trying to soften; or, as Joyce Carol Oates might put it, I'm letting the pressure build and for my mind to become crowded. In counterpoint to my creative instincts, I am deeply aware of the vulnerability of publishing. Levine (86) wrote me back, again immediately. He wrote, "It doesn't get easier except when it does. That's what probably keeps us going -- the strange, mysterious glory of getting it right... We are such stubborn maniacs." I thought I'd share that with all of the various stubborn maniacs here, Striving, calling, waiting, pushing, inhaling, trying to create a protected space in order to receive, being patient and impatient, gracious with yourself and frustrated, toiling, laboring, marching off into the woods to try to carve out a plot of land from the wilderness -- one to hold you for a while.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Another way we are mothers. Honoring mothers.

This is the essay that I will never read in public. The only essay my husband and I have ever written together, it's deeply personal. When you get to the end, you'll probably know why I can't say the words of it aloud. It was first published in 2006.

I've posted it here once before a couple of years ago, but wanted to repost. I was looking for it for a friend and thought sharing it might be of some use.  It's one way we are mothers -- a loss that is often kept very private. If you want to read more voices on this subject, this is the anthology: About What Was Lost: 20 Writers on Miscarriage, Healing, and Hope. When the editor approached me to contribute, I said I could only write the essay with my husband, Dave. And here it is.



On Having Children, on Miscarriage, on Desire and Fear (and this Marriage):
A Conversation Between Husband and Wife




From Julianna to Dave:

I can hear people whispering that we’ve taken more than our share – as if children were our sustenance and we’re fattened already and still thinking about lapping the buffet for a fourth time. And on my last trip to the city to visit my lifelong girlfriends, New Yorkers for a decade now, all childless, there is a feeling of starvation, a desperation like that of the Great Depression. If I talk of our three kids, even lightly, the room churns with emotion.

Do you and I have a great hunger? If so, for what?

We’ve both confessed that we’re afraid of the way the world demands that we hand our children over. The more children we have the more we have to fear. Does fear work this way? Is it exponential? But, not only fear. Deciding to have a child is saying yes to more – more joy, more grief, more love, confusion, noise ...

And, the truth is, that the fear begins now. We already have four children – there’s the one we lost. I don’t tell you how he still exists. He’s a boy, tall, thin, with twisted legs. He’s five years old now. In August, I feel the emptiness of a birthday that has no birth.




From David to Julianna



Here’s where I linger: you’ve told me it’s my turn to write, so I sit with the laptop on my thighs and begin to settle in when the door opens. It’s you, my love. The great love of my life, my desire, my leg, my nourishment. What’s that? I can’t quite make it out because of your laryngitis. You look like you’re scolding me. “My god,” you whisper, “don’t put that thing on your lap. They say it causes infertility."

I love the way you protect me, and by protecting me, trying to give me more. You shake your head at our friends who’ve been snipped. The vasectomy–the great end of possibilities. What if, you say, I die, and your new wife has never had a child and wants to have children with you. See how you’re always giving to me, even in your imagined death. Death has come to us before. Your great aunts, my grandfather, who I barely knew, the neighbor girl who died in a sledding accident, and our friend, the suicide. We have loved our way through all this sadness.

And the baby...he was mine, too. As if the blackness on the ultrasound was a something that could so easily be taken away, but it wasn’t. I had to call your father and tell him. I said, “This baby didn’t make it.” And for the first time, I had failed a child. What hadn’t I done right? How could I have forgotten to help you: vitamins, exercise, vegetables. How could I have given you the wrong seed? I wish I hadn’t -- for all the pain it caused you, caused both of us. And still here I am, cocked for you. Aiming at you what has become (not to sound too melodramatic but ...) a dangerous weapon. I want more, in the face of what I know. It’s not money or stuff. It’s not the diapers or the sleeplessness or the pride in that first step. (Since I’ve been the one at home among the chaos of kids for years now, I’m not saying any of this with a blind eye to the reality.)It’s more of you that I want. One more angle, one more topic of conversation, one more knowing sigh we share in the day before we both fall asleep. You’re waving at me now, across the room, your voice only guttural and shushing. Don’t speak. Get your voice back. I want to talk to you about this next baby and the one we lost. Remember that wedding we went to, where the mother of the groom said she was meant to have more children – and she’d had six boys? We’ve wondered about that statement for years. I feel meant to have another child, I feel meant for the dizzying complexity that kid will bring.



from Julianna to David

It was a miscarriage, and I was the carriage – I imagine myself rattling over cobblestone, a wobbly thing on wooden wheels. It wasn’t your fault. I can tell you that as easily as you can tell me the same. Still, I feel sorry for you. I got to hold the child inside of me, and you never did. I don’t think it makes logical sense. I was nauseous, slack with fatigue. I wouldn’t get to feel him kick – just a few weeks shy. But still it seems like a gift to have been able to carry the baby with me, for a short time.

I am afraid. So many things wind back to this pain…. The dead bodies. Loss is loss is loss. It will find a harmony inside of memory – and pull it up more sharply. Loss resounds. It collects and magnifies. One loss calling to another and another.


From David to Julianna


Good God, the ache of it makes me stand and pace, even now. You cannot be sorry to me, sweet, sweet love. I’m only the beggar here. You’ve given me time and bodies I haven’t deserved. I’d been raised to believe that love was a resource, that it might be gulped and be gone. You’ve given me an understanding that the main property of love is that it ramifies, expands to meet need. (This is not a quality reserved for loss.)

But see how I didn’t linger. I was supposed to linger. It was dark. We had no idea if you’d be able to have another. And the technician in the imaging center handled it all so badly. I hated the way you moaned, the sob echoing from the black stain on the screen. “Is that the baby?” I asked the stupefied tech.

“Yes,” she said, extremely unsure. And then she left.

“What’s the matter?” I asked. “What is it?”

But you already knew, knew in a way that I couldn’t, knew in a way in which dread precedes devastating news, the way a phone ringing at the wrong time of night is never good.

Then there was the sterile hour I spent while you were in the D and E. I think I read about sports or some dry New Yorker short story where the characters obsessed on the dry fabric of a tablecloth and left a lip stain on their cup of green tea. I never felt further away from you. I looked around the waiting room. Old men turned inward, women my mother’s age knitting some fabric out of idle chatter. The news prattling on in high spirits. I didn’t know that what would come next would be a flood of miscarriage stories. It seemed like everyone I knew could tell at least two miscarriage stories: mothers, daughters, children, wives, teachers. The miscarriage was another secret society we’d joined by accident, by living.



From Julianna to David

And after, how you tore up the bathroom tiles, went rummaging through the house’s piping for a leak. You worked and worked, trying to make something right. (I do not want to join more secret societies. How many are there? I sense them everywhere.)


From David to Julianna

And after, how you tore into your first novel, a beautiful frenzy. You wrote and wrote. And I kept saying, “Write, write,” and I watched you at the door to your office lost in it, and I wanted to come in, and I wanted to leave you alone. Your metaphor was drowning, and I wanted to wrap you in the yellow flotation jacket and bring you back up, through the murk. But I’m certain it was clear at the bottom. So I left you to it. (The secret societies will keep coming. I’m sorry, but it’s true. There’s another society of survivors: suicide. I’ve left you alone with that as well.) I try to hold you up as much as I can. I want to take these losses away from you. I want to be a thief, with a specialty in loss, and one who refuses to give anything back, even when caught red-handed. Don’t make me give them back – even though you will want them, even though you’ll beg.


From Julianna to David


You are no thief. You would give my losses back to me, because you know that the losses are what have come to make up my constitution. One day our constitutions will be all that’s left of us. (I love your constitution.) I think our constitutions will age well together. As for today I can only whisper at you, at the kids. I’ve taught them all which clapping rhythm equals their name – one clap for Phoebe, two for Finneas, three for Theo, one slow two fast for the neighbor kid visiting. Fast, urgent clapping – by the way – that means you, that means I need you now. And when I whisper, the kids whisper back. It’s natural to forget my laryngitis and to assume for a moment that someone is sleeping somewhere nearby – a sleeping baby, a boy we refuse to forget – one that grows up alongside of the others – a baby not yet conceived.



First published in About What Was Lost: 20 Writers on Miscarriage, Healing, and Hope, 2006.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Dave Roberts, Baby Jessica & Writing: Saving and Being Saved

Dave Roberts said of his famous stealing of second base -- in a game-breaking moment, he had to do it; everyone knew he had to do it; and, impossibly, he did it -- that the call gets closer every year. It's as if, in his mind, one day someone will be able to call him out and take it away from him. When he says this in the interview, you can see the real fear in his eyes. I get it completely. There are these moments when your adrenaline kicks in -- or there's a feat that takes a stretch of time, of headlong concentration -- and it seems impossible except that you have to do it. And then after you've done it, it feels even more impossible -- especially now that the adrenaline is gone and the lens widens again. The thing about writing when it feels like things are fragile -- when times are hard -- is that the work itself can become a refuge. This world, no, you can't control it, but for a few hours at a time, you can control the world of your novel, and you're released into it. During the most difficult times in my life, I've written. Not because the work needed me, but because I needed the work. It saved me. But, looking back, I can see how it almost didn't save me. In fact, in retrospect, the failure seems clinched. I think of the man who saved Baby Jessica. He didn't get her the first time, as I recall, but he asked to go down again. He knew he could do it. He knew he had to. He went down a second time and emerged -- with the baby. But years later, he killed himself. I wonder if he replayed it. If the call got closer every time until he didn't save her and couldn't save himself. This has to be a kind of obsessive-compulsive thinking, like the people who circle the block afraid they've hit someone. Maybe the best thing about writing is that you don't have to retire early. There are always more bases to steal and wells to go down into. You keep getting to confront failure, and because the job of writing a novel is so very long, you get to build the place where you can dwell, work, dream, make. And in this way, you're not the one who saves, but the one who gets saved.

Monday, October 6, 2014

On Being the Youngest and Raising a Youngest

I'm the youngest of four children (born after a notable gap) now raising a youngest of four (born after a notable gap). We were watching old videos from before my youngest was born. The older kids were going around saying what they wanted for Christmas. I was the interviewer and cameraman (saying things like, "Huh. A Playstation. What do you think your chances of getting that are?" And "Are the chances poor because it's 5 days before Christmas and this is the first time you've mentioned it?" etc...) And the youngest is watching intently because her siblings seem foreign, seeing them so young. It's a little surreal -- a world in which her family existed but not quite wholly. I get it completely. The first child has the sense that their existence created the idea of the family, the idea that there was no family before they came along. But, for the youngest, the family existed before they existed. My own existence felt like an add-on rather than an act of creation. I told the youngest this and, finally, she got to the heart of her concern. "If I'd been there back then and you'd asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I'd have said, 'A butler.'" And I said, "Wow. Imagine how much better our lives would have been all these years with a butler." This is why the youngest is so important, people. They think of things the older ones never have

Friday, October 3, 2014

On Nick Krieger, memoirist.

Last night, I had the great pleasure of introducing Nick Krieger who wrote a piece for my blog years ago and, in it, he gave this advice, which I printed and posted above my writing desk -- it was advice for raising children but also for my own humanity: "I wish someone had told me, not that my life would be hard, but that it would be phenomenally rich. I wish someone had told me that through my own self-inquiry and my own unique experience, my empathy would deepen, my compassion would expand, my gratitude for being alive would be huge."
And in my introduction, I talked about memoir -- that in telling one's story, each writer is lighting a path through the dark woods. Each of us has our own path to light. But what I love about memoir – especially those as thoughtful, as rich and keenly insightful, as generous and clear-eyed as Krieger's – is that when we face the forest or find ourselves deep within it at night, we see those other lights bobbing in the distance, small globes that dip in the trees – what I think of as our collective human experience sending out a glow – and our paths are lit here and there along the way, by the thoughts and words and shared experiences of others.
I'm so thankful for Nick Krieger. He read from his memoir NINA HERE NOR THERE -- http://www.beacon.org/Nina-Here-Nor-There-P819.aspx -- posting in case you don't know his work or the work at Beacon Press.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

PS to the post below.

Years ago, I started calling the screenplay "a plot poem" because as the image and language of a poem must be able to hold the weight of all that white around -- like a small house burdened by snow -- the screenplay has to also shoulder the weight of the whiteness on the page with image, yes, but also plot (which, to my mind, equals character). And I've always wanted a writing program in which, before you take a novel seminar, you first take a screenwriting workshop so instead of oil-painting in one corner of the canvas and hoping it works to scale, you can get a sense of architectural scale through the full-length feature. Just thought I should add this to my call, below, to possibly send on your otherly-minded undergraduate creative writing students my way -- happy to talk to them about what we do at the FSU Film School for our MFA screenwriters, again, yadda, yadda, etc...

Those Otherly-Minded Undergrad Creative Writers -- What to do?

Anyone teaching undergrad creative writing, I'd love to talk to you about the students who shows up in your classes, bent on veering the conversation to WALKING DEAD or SNL or Oscar picks, the student who might be interested in writing for film/tv. This is a different kind of student than you might normally send onto MFA programs in fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction. In fact, this might be the student who drives you a little crazy. The student might be hyper-visual, but not language-driven. They might want to write comedic dialogue and have little interest in setting or the tone of exposition. They might keep asking permission to write a zombie story even though you've given the elegant warnings against it. This is the beginning of my third year teaching at Florida State's Film School, and I'm getting a feel for the screenwriting students we're looking for. Seriously, I'm happy to talk to you about our program or the interested students themselves. 

The program is intense, year-round for two years. They spend a semester in London, studying film and theater. They do one semester of production with the production students. They create a lot of work, screenplays, pilots, spec scripts, one-acts, stories. Last year, we had a pilot program for the graduating class that took them to LA for a week of meetings with pros in the industry -- producers, directors, writers, agents... -- a program we hope continues. 


Here's the link: http://film.fsu.edu/