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The Challenger: Writing Emotional Truth

challenger lift off

Yesterday marked twenty-nine years since the Challenger launched into a cold blue heaven only to explode into a series of chaotic contrails, resulting in the tragic death of all those on board–six astronauts and one school teacher. It was the first time a civilian had ever ventured into space. The shuttle shot up and then it fell apart; from the orange and white fireball, the debris fell into the sea below.

I was nine years old, in the fourth grade at Foothill Elementary in Boulder, Colorado; the year was 1986, but mostly I call it the worst year of my life. This was the same year I read The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder and promptly created my own “Calendar of Ordeals” based off the one ordeal the children do in the book to be initiated into the Occult. For those of you who don’t know, my novel Fig was originally titled, The Calendar of Ordeals, a topic I’ve written about before so let me circle back to what I was saying. Let me follow the looping trails of smoke that escaped from the space shuttle twenty-nine years ago and one day back to the post I’m writing now (memory is such a funny thing). While the book is no longer titled, The Calendar of Ordeals, there is still a chapter that goes by this name, and in this chapter, a nine-year-old Fig echoes a nine-year-old me.

At this point in the book Fig knows her mother has schizophrenia, and having read Keatley’s book just as I did, she’s created her own calendar of daily sacrifices hoping that by doing so she can and will cure Mama. I was not trying to cure anyone. When I didn’t touch metal for an entire day, my mission was entirely self-absorbed. I was trying to cope with loneliness. I was trying to remedy my melancholia. I was living in a world where I seemed to have no control and the Calendar was my attempt to bring a sense of order into my life. Raised by an agnostic and an atheist, there was no god to turn to. I had to learn to deal with my problems on my own. That said, I did know about magic. Magic was the key ingredient to the books I loved to read when I was nine. These books weren’t just for children either; my library was full of texts on witchcraft; books full of spells; books about persecuted girls and women. The Occult. Hexes. Familiars. Scrying. Crystal Balls. Magic Mirrors. Gypsy Caravans.

And so I made the calendar: I used crisp sheets of stark white drawing paper and black felt tip pens. I taught my hand, via hours of practice, to scroll across the page leaving elegant marks. I mimicked the art of Edward Gorey and Aubrey Beardsley. Through the months and weekdays, the stylized pen(wo)manship was created by a series of tendrils, spirals, and meanders. I particularly honored the capital letters, as is the tradition in children’s stories and fairy tales. The “J” in January for January 28th, 1986 choked on the flower-laden vines that twisted and turned around it like a snake. Any “O” was filled with a night sky, a sharp crescent moon, a scattering of stars, I spent hours making The Calendar of Ordeals. A secret, it was something holy. And it required devotion and ritual.

In Selah Saterstrom’s book, The Pink Institution, a young female narrator finds an eraser shaped like the cartoon character, “The Transformer.” She promptly decides the eraser is god. She keeps god a secret as I did the Calendar. She takes god out when no one is looking. She puts god into her mouth. The compulsion leaves her satisfied and the compulsion leaves her feeling guilty. This is magical thinking. Today I brought a basket to class full of household tools: a hammer, a pair of pliers, a sachet, a wire coat hanger, a Maglite, a hand broom, a letter opener, a Mason jar, a telephone, binoculars, a screw driver, scissors, a mirror, and a metal ruler. The name of each item was written on a piece of paper, folded, and placed into my husband’s bowler hat. Today we read the excerpt from The Pink Institution and then my students blindly drew a tool from the magic hat and were instructed to turn their objects into god. The followers of the coat hanger hang their problems on god. The “Holy Maglite” (which ironically, and perhaps quite significantly, it’s been called before in a different workshop) dispelled sin via illumination. Those who’d been living in darkness had not known that they lived in the dark until they saw the light. When the flashlight stopped working, the world went dark, and the followers have no choice but to make a pilgrimage to Ontario, Canada in search of batteries. Secrets and rituals are the most potent ingredients when writing a story of any kind. People perform rituals around places of threshold. Someone with OCD will lock the door three times before she can leave the house. Sometimes these thresholds are more figurative than they are literal. Sometimes the threshold is growing up.

The Calendar of Ordeals was my god. And Fig’s as well.

In the book, Fig’s teacher brings a television set into the classroom so they can watch the live broadcast of the launch. When I described the tinfoil wrapped rabbit ear antennas, I wasn’t “seeing” the television I had at home when I was nine, but the one I had in Tennessee around the time my daughter was born. This is an emotional truth traveling through an object or image, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I don’t remember a television in my classroom that day. The day a woman my age now tried to leave this world for another; the day she died doing so. The day she went to a whole other world as in: “the other side.” I don’t think we were going to watch the shuttle leave. I don’t know what the lesson plan was supposed to be. In the book, Fig and her classmates are instructed to sit in a half-moon on the floor to watch the lift-off. It is important to note that most of the ordeals followed by both Fig and I were all about avoiding contact with the world around us. We didn’t just avoid metal or the color white. There were days we couldn’t walk on cement; days we couldn’t touch wood; and there were days when we couldn’t speak or eat. It was difficult to get to school. To get through a closed door. It was difficult to communicate. Having been hurt by the world, and the people in it, we were terrified to make contact with it or them again. But I think we were also trying to see whether or not we existed.

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In the television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is an episode about a girl at Sunnydale High who becomes invisible because no one ever “saw” her. In the Creative Writing I class I’m teaching this semester we’re covering figurative speech right now–metaphors and similes and personification, oh my! Along with the Saterstrom exercise and the objectification of god, we read Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Mirror,” discussed the myth of Narcissus, and then we wrote our own poems from the point of view of our own mirrors. We personified these reflective objects. We anthropomorphized these items and through the detachment of this process we then reexamined ourselves through an outside eye. Meanwhile, the current series of (W)rites of Passage is called, “Discontented Winter” in which we are embarking upon our next theme: Gender. Based on the Buffy episode, the participating writers are supposed to write a narrative about a person who becomes invisible as a result of his/her/their gender.

The real challenge of the Calendar for both Fig and I were the days where we weren’t allowed to avoid the world. Sometimes the Calendar forced us to interact, and in the chapter titled, “The Calendar of Ordeals,” the day the Challenger explodes above the Floridian sea, the ordeal dictates that Fig must touch other people as much as she can. This ordeal is an important one. A true sacrifice because it’s an idea she can’t stand. As she sits amidst her peers in front of the TV she realizes it’s now or never. But also, she is trying to reach out. She is trying to make contact with the “other.”

Fig is just about as popular as I was in the fourth grade–as in, we were both the biggest outcasts not only in our class, but our entire school. Fig’s mother is schizophrenic, and everyone knows it. They know she’s tried to kill herself; they know that it was Fig who crucified the Barbie at school in the second grade. And to top it off, Fig’s parents aren’t like the other parents in Douglas County. While Daddy did grow up on the farm where Fig lives with her family, her parents are trying to convert it to all organic. Daddy left Kansas to get an Ivy League education. Mama is an artist who works with found and salvaged materials. She is a stranger who makes dream catchers from wire and the broken body parts of porcelain dolls and the bones she finds around the property. While the kids I went to school with had young hip parents who drove Porsches, snorted cocaine on the weekends, and listened to the Talking Heads simply because they were told by the other talking heads that they should, my parents owned and operated a mystery bookstore; my dad didn’t know how to drive, and when he didn’t get a ride from my mother in her puke-colored rusty Volvo, he rode a bicycle, walked, or took the bus. My mother was not only as old as some of my peer’s grandmothers, she was six years older than my dad (a no-no in any patriarchal culture). Back then ALL mothers were young. Now everyone is having kids later on in life and the norm is still for the male in the relationship to the older one. My parents listened to Utah Phillips and John Prine, gardened, boycotted Campbell’s and Nestle, and baked brown loaves of whole wheat bread. We were part of the X class while everyone else (with a few exceptions) were filthy 80s rich, as in they lived in mansions; as in, they were all about materialism and brand names.

If only Fig and I had been able to disappear life might have been easier for us both, but instead our classmates noticed us; they noticed every way that we were different. One of these things is not like the other. We weren’t in the spotlight but under the microscope instead and everyone was looking at us and everyone had shiny sharp scalpels and they didn’t hesitate to dissect us to see how else we might be different. In a way, they acted as our mirrors. They showed us new ways to see ourselves. They were not forgiving like the moon or the candlelight Plath calls, “The liars,” in her poem.

In the book, Fig is trying to touch her classmates because the Calendar insists on it when the Challenger lifts off and falls apart on the television screen in front of her. I was sitting at my desk when the principal came over the intercom to announce the catastrophe. There was a boy from our school, from my grade even, who’d gotten to go to the Kennedy Space Center to see the shuttle leave our atmosphere. He was somewhere in the crowds of people in the footage I watched on YouTube when I researched the event for the scenes I wrote in Fig years after the disaster had happened. The principal told us that we would remember this day for the rest of our lives. Like the principal at Fig’s school, he led us in a moment of silence. My teacher then told us where she’d been when Kennedy was shot. I’d heard my dad also tell the story of where he’d been too, how he wrote about it for his college newspaper, then had too much to drink and crashed through a window. It wasn’t until I was older that I learned the specifics of this story, that he’d been trying to undress his lover when he broke through the glass. My teacher said, “You will remember this forever. It is your equivalent to my Kennedy.” 9/11 is my stepdaughter’s equivilant to my Challenger, to my parent’s generation’s Kennedy. These events thread through us as a common experience, a shared narrative–they connect us. Like alchemy, they make all the differences suddenly, but unfortunately only temporarily, something valuable.

We make contact with each other when we talk about it, a connection we normally wouldn’t make. When we say, “I was sitting at my desk at school when the Challenger happened,” we all nod.

I can still remember the slant of sun coming in through the windows and the way the static crackled on the intercom when the principal made the announcement. I remember how my teacher looked at the ceiling like she was trying to keep her tears from falling. What do you remember?

When the first plane hit the Twin Towers on September 11th, 2001, I was still asleep. And I was asleep for the second plane too. A mother with a baby at the time, I remember shuffling out of my bedroom to get a cup of coffee and wondering why my husband was glued to the television at such an early hour. When I sat down next to him, the replays were beginning, and the next thing I knew we’d been watching the attack over and over again for hours, hooked. When my nine-year-old stepdaughter picked up my one-year old daughter and flew her through the sky of our tiny living room into the two towers she’d made from the same set of wooden blocks I’d played with as a child, I knew it was time to turn the TV off. Where were you? Who were you with? Who were you worried about?

Also, please note the television I just mentioned in the paragraph above; this is the television with the tinfoil wrapped antennas I was describing before. The one I wrote into the fabric of Fig’s classroom.

My former writing teacher, Junior Burke, used to talk about the emotional truths that show up in our work. After he read my creative thesis he’d asked me how much of it was true and I was offended. I thought he was doing what so many male editors have done before when they assume I’m writing memoir when I am not. They even send the work back and say, “Sorry, we only publish fiction” as if I was writing something else. But then Junior clarified what he meant. He said the emotional truths are the bits of ourselves that slip into the writing. For example, when Fig goes home after watching the Challenger explode at school, her mother, who’s been doing so well as of late is starting to unravel again. Fig thinks this is because she’s been failing the ordeals. When Mama sits there, watching the news and the Challenger breaking apart again and again, the emotional truth is how I watched the planes fly into the World Trade Center, on repeat, obsessed. There is an emotional truth in the connection Fig and I have over Zilpha Keatley Snyder and the calendars we made and religiously followed. Furthermore, I am connected to her mother by emotional truth just as much, if not more. Mama is me questioning myself as a mother and a feminist. I make art from broken things. I talk about Chinese footbinding. I worry I overload my daughters with too much information, too soon. I might not be schizophrenic, but I do hear voices. I heard Fig talking to me three years ago. Her voice wasn’t the same as the voice my thoughts used. I literally listened to her change as she grew up and I had no choice but to write down what she had to say.

In class today no one wanted to share the “Mirror” poems they had written. I didn’t expect that they would. I asked, “Did they come out super personal?” and they all nodded. Most of them looked sad. What they might not know is that the truths they recorded today will resurrect in other works–that is, if they keep writing. I hope they keep writing. Please, keep writing. Don’t stop.

Many of these same students are still struggling with the practice of “free writing” or “automatic writing” as Gertrude Stein liked to call it. What I’ve realized from working with beginners again is how much I still free-write. I free-wrote my way through Fig, and I’m doing the same with Roadside Altars. Writing this way is the only way to call upon the muse, to hear the voices you need to hear, and to plumb the recesses of our hearts and psyches for the emotional truths that are lingering there just waiting to be delivered.

My editor tells me that YA set in the 1980s and 1990s is hot right now. All the rage. Indeed, on GoodReads I’ve watched Fig pop up on lists titled exactly that: “YA set in the 1980s” and “YA set in the 1990s.” My publicist thinks it’s because there’s been a resurgence in 80s fashion, but I think something else is happening. I’ve also read that 2015 is going to be the year of feminisn in YA. I think the writers writing these books are my age. We’re writing the landscape of our youth. We’re writing our shared narrative. We are writing what we know and that is where you’ll find the truth and all truth is emotional even if the truth seems to be a lie like a work of fiction seems to be a lie when it is anything but; the truth is what makes the page begin to shake; the truth vibrates and hums; it trembles and screams and laughs and cries and rages and sighs, and sometimes, it sings.

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Creative Writing

Namesake

“They,” as in The Powers That Be, say: “If you change your name, you change your destiny.”

In June of 1976, I was delivered by Julie Carpenter at Boulder Community Hospital; it was a Saturday, the eleventh day of the sixth month of the year, and the moon was full. I was named Sarah Elizabeth although I was close to being Daisy (I’m currently dreaming of a novel about a girl named Daisy and her family farm near Rocky Flats circa 1980s; it’s tentatively titled, Black Star).

Kiki Smith Star Girl

I was two weeks late and had lost weight inside my mother’s body when I was born sunny-side-up with the cord wrapped around my neck. Julie Carpenter used her finger to keep me from choking to death, and once delivered, I was the ugliest baby ever seen: all wrinkles, loose skin, red and splotchy, this was the body I occupied as I entered into the world, into the namesake: Sarah Elizabeth.

Sarah means “Princess” and she was the wife of Abraham and mother of Isaac. Elizabeth means “consecrated to God” and/or “bountiful” and she was mother of John the Baptist. Schantz means “cabin in the woods by a castle.” Both Sarah and Elizabeth were in the top twenty most popular names for baby girls born in 1976.

When I was pregnant with my daughter I read about a Cherokee custom where pregnant women receive the names of their children through a dream or other vision. I’d always known I’d name my daughter, Story–an idea I’d gotten from a friend who was never going to have children. But I did have two dreams while I was pregnant in which I presented my baby to the world by giving the baby a name that was not Story.

In the first dream, I gave birth in the crawlspace attic of the house where I was staying. The baby/monster I delivered had no defined gender–rather, the baby was most defined by its sharp teeth and long claws. In the dream, I carried the baby downstairs to introduce it to everyone by the name, “Claw.” Even in the dream, I was a mother-in-love with her baby, and I could not understand why everyone was recoiling at the sight of my newborn (in retrospect, I realize I read Wicked when I was pregnant and I’m sure the birth of the Wicked Witch of the West had infiltrated my tender psyche).

Elphaba holding her baby monkey and surrounded by her familiars

Later, I dreamed Story’s name was Thistle, and unlike Claw, this is a name I love. While I did not put Thistle on her birth certificate, it is nonetheless a part of her name–Story Anangka Thistle Fisher. This is her spirit name just as mine is Taz. Spirit names have no place on paper.

thistle

As a child I struggled with speech and had to undergo speech therapy. I spoke a language of my own–a language of words I’d made up, but a vocabulary which remained consistent. Other children could understand me whereas adults could not (with the exception of my parents who mostly could make the necessary translations). I began to keep the company of my imaginary friend, Pursy Nips–a tiny girl-version of Peter Pan who lived underneath my bed. Pursy Nips understood everything I said, but nonetheless, I was aware of my speech problems and what bothered me most was not being able to pronounce my own name. No matter how hard I tried, I simply could not say Sarah.

Pursy Nips

One of my earliest memories is trying to pronounce my name for my parents. In the memory, I’m standing in the living room and the sun is shining through the window turning the hardwood into gold. Once again, I try to say my name, and once again I say it wrong. So I try something new. I close my eyes and I really, really focus. In the sunshine-illuminated living room of my childhood home, I stand there with my eyes closed, and I concentrate harder than I have ever concentrated before. And I know this is the only way I will come to say my name.

trellis of roses

As I’m standing there with my eyes closed, super-focused, I have my first vision at the age of three: I see an old woman standing in front of a trellis of red roses. She has two long gray braids and she is smiling at me. In fact, she is me, only much, much older. She smiles at me, and she says, “When you speak again, you will say your name correctly.” So I open my eyes and speak without hesitation; with the greatest confidence, I speak my name out loud–to the world–and when I do, I say: “Taz.” And this is how I came to be Taz instead of Sarah (the “a” is pronounced like an “o”) for four solid years.

I attended preschool, kindergarten, and the first grade as Taz, as well as all my speech therapy classes. I was four at the time of the sessions and couldn’t yet read so my therapist provided books without text which I was supposed to narrate out loud to her. I’m sure she was trying to find ways to give me something to actually say so we could work on my speech, but this happens to also mark the time when I first began to tell stories; I wrote the world I saw in the illustrations of the books my therapist held, and as she turned the pages, I had to develop character and create plot by employing a beginning, a middle, and an end.

As I matured, my storytelling evolved; soon, whenever I drew (and I did so all the time), I’d tell stories about the characters I was drawing. I told these stories out loud, with my voice. A life-long insomniac, I began lulling myself to sleep by continuing to tell the stories in my drawings only now I was thinking the stories instead of saying them. As a teenager, I changed the storytelling to encompass the people I knew in real life; as I tried to fall asleep, I was forever narrating the dramas of my social life, trying to work it all out. As an adult, I’ve returned to the beginning; now when I lay down to sleep, I run through the fictional stories I’m writing at the time. In the morning, I wake up and write down whatever worked. I wake up and write my dreams and my dreams are my stories.

rebirth soul spirit, Kiki Smith

Until the second grade, I went to a Waldorf-inspired hippy private school where we made candles, sang songs, and fed chickens–a school where I was surrounded by other kids with strange names, but then we moved, and I was going to public school with kids who presumably would all have “normal” names. My parents offered to get my name legally changed to Taz, and I thought this was what I wanted until I buckled under the pressure of social conformity; with the looming fear of Foothills Elementary, I was so concerned about being “different” I decided to go back to being Sarah. Sarah soon found out kids are mean no matter what you are named. However, I can’t help but wonder who I would be now had I not made this decision? Had I remained Taz, would I have been bullied the way Sarah was? Who would strictly Taz be that Sarah is not? Aside from distinguishers like “Little” and “Dark” (used to separate me from the hundreds of thousands of other Sarah’s my age), Sarah I became once again at the age of seven, and strictly Sarah I would remain for the next twenty-three years.

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2006 marked the first year after the car accident I was in, a collision which turned my life upside-down, and operated as my Saturn’s Return. The doctors had hoped my pain would subside within this time, but it didn’t; in fact, my injuries were only getting worse, and these same doctors were now preparing me for a life of chronic pain. I wasn’t thrilled. Everything had been going so perfectly until the day the off-duty cop plowed into my car, and I was grieving the life I’d lost when his Dodge Dakota turned my Subaru Legacy into an accordion; I was mourning my former body, the one which had been transformed into a vessel of nerve pain, bone spurs, inflammation, herniated discs, and shredded muscles.

Frida Kahlo Broken Collumn

The accident unlocked two previous traumas: first my birth, and second, a violent relationship I’d long since left but had never fully processed. The injuries I sustained were primarily in my neck, coincidentally located around my throat chakra, a place which deals with speech and voice–with storytelling and existence–after all, god did speak the universe into being, just as we introduce ourselves to others and thus simultaneously announce our existence. When I was born, this chakra was obstructed by my cord (a psychic once suggested it was the noose which worked to kill me in a past life), and it was this chakra that barely survived all the years I’d spent getting belittled and silenced by a supposed lover. In 2006, I thought I had to move past all of this to get better, but now I know I had to work through my prior traumas to learn to live in the present. I’ve come to realize that we all live our lives in pain; it is the very definition of life, but it’s what we do in spite of it that makes us well–just look at Frida Kahlo painting her various different body casts. The body remembers everything and the healing process never stops except for maybe when we die.

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Within the first year after my accident, I’d tried everything from chiropractic work to Jin Shin; while I found relief from treatments like massage or acupuncture, it was usually only temporary, and always quite expensive. Watsu was one such treatment which seemed to help, and it was during a session, when I had another vision. The Watsu therapist had just taken my body through the warm water to simulate a rebirth without any neck trauma, and when she was done, I stood up to ground myself. I stood there in the pool looking at the sun-saturated garden all around me, and particularly absorbing the beauty of the white spiral-shaped stars of datura, when I saw her again: after a span of twenty-seven years, the old woman with the gray braids had returned. She was me, and I was her, and she wanted to remind me of my one true name.

datura

Wanting to change the destiny of chronic pain, I tried to change my name back to Taz, and it almost worked–my best friend and her mother made the transition and call me Taz to this day, while others compromised and call me Sarah Taz instead. My father never did stop calling me Tazzi, a nickname of a nickname, and in the end the only reason the name change didn’t work is because my husband couldn’t make the switch. But it doesn’t matter. I’ve fused the two people into one–I am both Sarah and Taz, and while my spine continues to degenerate, I refuse to stop writing. I am just as defined by the pain as I am not defined by it. I make a lot of sacrifices, I take a lot of baths, and I rely on medication, but I always write. I find a way through or around the pain, and no matter how much it hurts, I write. I am writer, hear me roar. I am the stories I have to tell.

Kiki Smith regurgitating a blue butterfly

Names and titles are hard because people and perceptions are forever fluid, we are always changing; names and titles are too restrictive in the way they attempt to sum a person or a story as “just this” and “not that.” Back when infant mortality was high, many different cultures waited to name a baby until he or she was one year, and sometimes even as old as three (as in the age I was when I named myself, Taz); one reason was that people believed the soul had not yet entered the child until this age, while another idea suggested that by naming a baby, the baby would then appear more important, and thus catch the attention of the malevolent fairy folk who are known for stealing human offspring (I think again to the age of three and my sweet friend, Pursy Nips).

baby being stolen

I’ve watched writers struggle to title their work just as I’ve seen friends struggle to name their babies. More often than not, the babies seem to name themselves as do the untitled texts. I also know writers who refer to their books by titles their publishers did not use–I suppose these are the spirit titles of these texts. Furthermore, I am Sarah just as much as I am Taz. I’m also “Little Sarah” and “Dark Sarah.” I am a particular Sarah to a particular person by the inflection of the voice that is either calling me, or referring to me. And even though I kept my maiden name, I am still “Mrs. Fisher” to solicitors, bill collectors, and certain in-laws who don’t realize or listen to the fact I didn’t take my husband’s name. I’m “Wonder Pig” and I am “Tougher than Dirt”–a moniker left-over from when I was fourteen. I am “Honey,” but only in the voice of my mother just as I am “Mom,” but only in the voice of my daughter. I am more than my name which means I am more than my destiny.

According to fairy tale narrators, Snow White was actually named Snow White, but what about Little Red Riding Hood? In the first version of the story she had no name, and she had no red cloak. In the original tale, the story wasn’t even named after her, but after her matriarch instead. Charles Perrault is the one who came along and kidnapped the girl from “The Grandmother’s Tale;” he had her clad in red to brand her as unchaste, and her brand became her name (what is the difference between a brand and a name?). Red was supposed to represent any girl who ever strayed, but still, she had to be called something. Perhaps she was just another Sarah who needed to be distinguished from all the others? While I came to be “Little Sarah” or “Dark Sarah” based on either my body size or my hair color, Perrault used the color of Red’s cape to name her. And what about Cinderella? Who was she before her mother died? Surely Cinderella was not her birth name, but who she became when her stepmother cast her into the ashes to then be reborn as the phoenix is? And who did she become after she married the prince? Did she live happily-ever-after as Cinderella? Can Cinderella even live that way?

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You might be wondering: what’s the point of this post? The point is this: I am changing the title of my first novel. It is no longer, The Calendar of Ordeals, although the eighth chapter still goes by this name. It is now titled, Fig. The title change was one of the suggestions my new editor made, and at first I was appalled. “No way,” I said to myself, and I even wrote this exclamation next to Ruta’s comment: Let’s discuss the title. Then I phoned my father to tell him the awful news. “She wants to change the title,” I said frantically, and he said, “Oh, to what?” “Guess,” I said, and without missing a beat, he replied, “Fig.” That was when I realized no one ever refers to the book as The Calendar of Ordeals; they always just say, “Fig.” The book had gone and named itself.

fig tree

I’d written a significant amount of the book before I found the name for my protagonist; almost all the other characters were already named by then: Mama was Annie and Daddy was Tobias–even the minor characters, like Sissy Baxter and Candace Sherman had been christened on the page, but not my female lead. The novel originated from a short story originally titled, “Cut-Out.” This story was a finalist for a New Letters competition and had received attention from an agent, only she wanted a book, so I had to write one.

“Cut-Out” soon won first place for a contest hosted by Third Coast, but the judge wanted the title changed, thus “Cut-Out” became “The Sound of Crying Sheep.” As I hit two-hundred pages in the novel, “The Sound of Crying Sheep” was nominated for the Pushcart and accepted for inclusion in Best New Stories from the Midwest, and yet I was still working with a main character who had no name. Because she had no name, she had no destiny, and it was beginning to be very hard to write her story. I tried substituting another name until the right one came, and while this technique works for other writers, it has never worked for me.

red light

Frustrated, I was driving home from class one day when I came to a red light at the intersection of Arapaho and Folsom. A friend had recently started a business and had given me a small bottle of her handcrafted lotion. As I waited for the light to change, I put some lotion on, and that’s when the label caught my eye: FIG+YARROW. A few years before this moment in time, my friend Osha had been brainstorming names for her newborn daughter, and one of the names I’d suggested was Yarrow; in the end, Osha named her baby, Zoe, and this meant Yarrow was available, but when I tried it on my character it didn’t fit. Then the light changed to green, and I had an epiphany: I was looking at the wrong option the bottle was trying to offer me. As soon as I got home, I called my mom and said, “Her name is Fig,” and my mother said, “That is perfect.” She’s also the one who said Fig is often a nickname for Fiona, and thus I named Fig’s grandmother as well.

Fig drawing

Fig is not only a distinct name, it is easy to remember. It’s also what my novel is about: it’s about a girl named Fig just like “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” and “Little Red Riding Hood” are all fairy tales about the girls they are named for. Furthermore, my daughter Story prefers the title Fig, as do my writer-friends Oak Chezar and Verna Wilder. My editor believes the title will better catch the eye of a passerby in a bookstore and I think she’s right, especially if there’s an image of Fig, herself, on the cover. I am envisioning a Victorian-style cut-out of Fig holding a flower and standing next to a dog while back-dropped by a washed-out farm-scape or Andrew Wyeth’s, “Christina’s World,” only without Christina. Would this title and cover catch your eye, dear reader?

CarrieemmaMaryanna_Hoggatt_Jane_Eyre

And finally, Fig will be joining a long tradition of books named after female protagonists such as Carrie, Emma and Jane Eyre. Fig gets to be a fairy tale like “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” and “Little Red Riding Hood”–three fairy tales which all play a significant role in the novel which was formerly known as The Calendar of Ordeals, but is now titled: Fig. 

distressed cinderella vogueWitch leaving Snow White in a puddle of death

                               Little Red Riding Hood with the Wolf in the Woods

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Creative Writing

The Mysteries of Growing Up in a Mystery Bookstore

rue morgue sign

After bringing my husband, Fish, to my childhood home for the first time I asked him what he thought. We’d liberated my mother’s old Plymouth Voyager and were driving across Kansas on our way back to Tennessee with the kids asleep in the back. We’d just spent two weeks in Boulder (this is before we moved here), and he’d slept in the house where I’d come-of-age, and had visited the mystery bookstore I’ve also always known as home (and where ironically, Fish now works). As he drove, Fish said, “I couldn’t help but wonder what it’d be like to grow up surrounded by all those books and title after title with the words ‘murder’ and ‘death’ everywhere, not to mention the book covers with the images of guns, daggers, blood and human skulls.”

daggersblood and gutshuman skull

This past August, Fish’s mother died and we drove to Vassar, Michigan for her funeral; while the occasion was sad, it was a blessing to finally meet Fish’s family and catch a glimpse of his youth. I saw his grandparent’s riverside home, I met his numerous relatives, visited his father’s grave, and thumbed through old family photo albums (Fish showed me one picture of his mother’s living room and pointed out the one shelf possessing the very few books he’d had growing up). Fish technically lived in Saginaw as a boy but he spent a large portion of his boyhood in Vassar; either way, he experienced a Norman Rockwell working-class American childhood whereas I experienced something quite different. I not only grew up in a bookstore, but the first mystery bookstore in the United States. I don’t know anyone else who grew up in an American mystery bookstore, if you do, please let me know.

My beginning memories of the store stem all the way back to the very first house where I ever lived; sandwiched between Hawthorn and Iris, it was on 14th Street not far from the iris gardens and the baseball fields for little league. We lived in this house until I was four or five, and at its start, the bookstore was literally in our basement. On the days when the customers would come, I was told to be quiet as I watched them from my island of Turkish carpet. As they perused the bookshelves, I felt my home be transformed into a space like the library which was already one of my favorite places in the world–a kind of church to me, and now my own home was serving a similar function; my home was now a place to worship at the altar of literature, and to top it all off, my own parents acted as priest and priestess as they ushered the customers through the stacks somehow knowing exactly what each person needed to read. Suddenly, these two adults didn’t just belong to me, they were more than just a father and a mother.

Later my parents moved the store into the basement of The Broadway Building on the Pearl Street Mall next to a bakery which always smelled like peanut butter cookies. To my absolute delight, I had a new front yard (in addition to the yard I had at home): just outside the store was the red brick-covered pedestrian mall with its tulip gardens and shady trees, and more specifically, directly in front, sat the infamous playground made from rocks; for those not familiar with Boulder, The Rocks is a play area comprised of six massive boulders surrounded by a gravel floor. The space is divided down the middle by a wooden bridge perfect for playing games involving billy goats and hungry trolls. The boulders go from easy to climb to difficult and one in particular served as the Mt. Everest for the children who played there (as is the case with everything, The Rocks have been significantly child-proofed in recent years). At any rate, I had the unique privilege of being able to play there all the time which meant I not only played there with local children (in particular a boy named Ben who was the son of another shopkeeper), I also got to play with the ever-changing flux of children visiting Boulder from other towns, cities, states, and even countries.

the mall at night

During the summer, once evening fell, my parents would close up shop, and together we’d step outside into a fairyland of street performers. With a few yards of purple velvet, Merlin the Magician, would have turned The Rocks into a kingdom of tricks; as Merlin pulled roses, rabbits, and long chains of rainbow-colored silks from a bottomless top hat, the tightrope walkers tiptoed across the sky. As I clutched my ice cream cone, I watched men swallow swords while others rode unicycles around in circles juggling fire to light the way from one sideshow attraction to another. This is my memory of growing up in a mystery bookstore and it has absolutely nothing to do with the actual books.

tight rope walkersword swallower

I do have one particularly strange and rather grotesque memory that must have something to do with all the “death” and “murder” that surrounded me; in the memory, I’ve skinned my knee and I am picking the scab and using my blood to dye entire sheets of Kleenex red. When I’m done, I take these gruesome prayer flags and try to string them across the window display. I only vaguely recall my mother noticing, but I honestly don’t know what she said, or what happened to those blood-stained tissues.

blood wallpaper

After a year or two, The Rue Morgue Mystery Bookstore, moved to the West End of Pearl where it would take root and share the block with other booksellers such as The Trident and Stage House, and for a short while, The Word is Out. The first storefront we were in on this block had a large brick courtyard (this is no longer there), and to get to the store one had to enter through the curved gateway and then travel twenty or thirty feet. The courtyard had tall brick walls and a brick floor like an appendage to a castle, and I imagined this place, my new front yard, to be somewhere in Italy. My mother showed me how to distinguish the new brick from the original brick as the latter contained real flecks of gold; using strips of scotch tape, I collected gold dust from the old red brick and entertained myself for hours.

We soon moved a few shops down to where we’d stay until my parents sold the storefront to High Crimes in 2000. Our new neighbor was Topaz, a shop specializing in gems, and as long as they weren’t busy I was allowed to go there and peer through their microscope at the complicated facets of real rubies and emeralds. It was in this store I came to fall in love with crystals and would spend a great deal of my allowance to purchase the small collection I still have including my beloved crystal (glass) ball.

woman with crystal ball eye

My parents store, Topaz, and The Trident, all shared access and use of the large basement below and what was really the remains of the original Pearl Street. I loved to venture down into the shadows and scare myself, and later as a teenager, I brought only my dearest friends to see this former avenue from another time: a place where it was easy to picture the streetwalkers of yesterday as they traipsed about in their crimson corsets and petticoats while gunslingers challenged each other to duel after duel as player pianos tinkered away inside the saloons to provide a soundtrack to these imagined scenarios.

When my parents grew sick of me, or I of them, I’d walk down to Stage House where I’d lose myself midst the towering pillars of books in the back or up top in the lofty areas reading books on the Occult. I also went to The Trident, a bookstore with a cafe (still there), and ordered steaming mugs of hot chocolate or fizzy Italian sodas. Growing up, I rarely had a babysitter because I didn’t need one; when my parents traveled out-of-town in search of books or to vend at conventions, I stayed with my grandparents in Fort Morgan. Otherwise, one parent was always available to be with me at home when I wasn’t actually at the store, or hanging out at the other bookstores that served as my nanny.

As I grew older, I could go to the library which was just a few blocks south of the store, or I’d seek out all the adventures the mall had to offer. Eight blocks east in the summertime I could go swimming at Spruce Pool and get a root beer float after from the rickety A&W on the corner. During the winter, I’d buy chocolate cigarettes from the candy store and go loiter on the courthouse lawn until someone scolded me for smoking (my hot breath and the cold air created this illusion). When I was ten or eleven, Old Tibet moved into the space on the other side of our store and I remember watching five monks in their lovely orange robes get a ticket for double-parking a minivan. The married couple who own Old Tibet (also still there) had children younger than I and I often helped entertain them when they grew bored as all shopkeeper children do; years and years later when I came back to Boulder with my own baby, they gifted us a gorgeous pillow which still adorns my sofa.

But again, my memories are mostly in regard to the location of the store rather than the contents. As I said before, I frequented the library, and on the days when I did go there my mother would give me money to buy a bagel and cream cheese from The Bagel Bakery. I’d then take my lunch down to the creek where it flowed beneath the wing/bridge of the library. One day, I needed to pee so I sought out a place in the bushes to do so and discovered the nest of a homeless man hidden in the foliage (needless to say, I ended up using the bathroom in the library). From that day on I never did eat my lunch but rather I would leave it for the man I never saw. In return, he left me little Thank You notes along with other small treasures like cloth flowers, buttons, and a marble; he was my Boo Radley.

treasures from boo radley

For a while, I tried to be a detective, and I suppose this had something to do with my parent’s store, but honestly I suspect it had more to do with restlessness than with my exposure to Sherlock Holmes. Besides, isn’t it just standard rite of passage for every American kid to try his or her hand at being a gumshoe? I wasn’t very good. Mostly I followed customers out of the store for as far as my allotted perimeters would allow while scribbling useless notes on my yellow legal pad: woman is wearing a suspicious shade of red, or: man turned right three times in a row (must be a secret code).

sherlock holmes

In retrospect, most of these memories are summer memories as school days were far more banal: I woke up, ran to school (I was usually late), sat through my classes, and either walked home to find one of my parents waiting there for me or else I rode the public bus downtown and walked to the store where I waited for closing time so we could go out to eat at Tom’s Tavern or Juanita’s. By this point we were living in my favorite childhood home, a little white bungalow on 5th Street between Evergreen and Forest back when this neighborhood was not pretentiously called The Newlands, and instead of mansions jam-packed together as tight as sardines, the houses were small and the yards vast. During the times I wasn’t sleeping in a loft or on a waterbed, my parents stored boxes of books beneath my bed; in fact, these boxes supported my mattress and depending on how business was, my bed was either very high or very low, and this is my version of The Princess and the Pea.

princess and the pea

Around eight or nine I became more cognizant about who my parents were and what they did for a living; I compared them to the parents of the other kids at school and found they were quite unlike the lawyers, real estate agents, chiropractors, and professional millionaires who were flooding the town in the 1980s. This was about the time I began to learn all the false stereotypes people place on booksellers; for example, customers were always coming into the store to tell my parents how jealous they were of them. With a long sigh, they’d say, “I’d give anything to have a job where I could just sit around and read all day.” The truth is most of them wouldn’t give anything to be a bookseller because unless you are already filthy rich, selling books means a life of financial insecurity. While my parents did read everything, they also worked hard. Not only did they go scouting and keep up-to-date on what first edition was worth what, there is the literally back-breaking work of physically lifting and carrying books and the reason my father relies on routine injections to ease the pain of his permanently damaged, book-torn sciatica. The store also hosted regular world-famous book signings and would be packed with people coming to see both established and up-and-coming authors read their work. My parents wrote countless reviews and helped jump-start many a career for many a mystery writer, and all of this was between or in addition, to traveling from one mystery book convention to another. Don’t get me wrong, they loved their job, but book selling is not as easy as one might assume.

During my youth hitch hiking and hopping trains around the United States, I tried to visit as many mystery book stores as I could; I was always sure to brag about who my parents were as they are indeed the rock stars of the mystery book world. In many ways these stores served as a safety net at a time when I was living rather dangerously. Booksellers often let me clean up in their bathrooms or call my folks from their phone. I ended up moving into a house called, The Castle of Chaos, which happened to be three blocks from Once Upon a Crime, a mystery bookstore owned and operated by my parent’s good friend, Steve. Every year I worked the sugar beet harvest up in southern Minnesota but I wasn’t yet stable enough to have my own bank account so I’d send the money I earned back to my parents and when I needed to pay the rent or something like that they’d send it to me care of Steve and I’d go pick it up at the store and visit with this pseudo uncle for a spell.

My parents named the shop, The Rue Morgue, after Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” because it’s considered the first detective murder mystery. Just recently, our bank teller asked if we really ran a morgue or not, and when we kindly explained, she said, “Oh, that makes so much more sense. I kept wondering why you got so many small checks. I couldn’t figure out what in the funeral industry could possibly just cost $12.99.”

As for the logo, my parents used Poe’s face but didn’t realize the striking resemblance Poe and my father have, and thus everyone always thought the picture on the sign and catalog was of my dad.

poe1

Like all shopkeeper children, I worked part-time for my parents. When I wasn’t cleaning the bathroom or wrapping packages to be shipped out, I was shelving books. This was indeed an intimate interaction with all those titles and images Fish had mentioned; however, I suppose I’d been exposed to them all my life just as the daughter of a pizzeria is exposed to dough, tomatoes, and pepperoni, and maybe these words and images are the reason for one of the reoccurring nightmares I had as a child.

In this dream, I wake up compelled to go outside lured into the night by some invisible evil force who tells me to walk toward the fire-lit backyard of the stone house on the other side of the alley behind us. Here I discover a humongous human skull and a long line of all my neighbors standing there with blank faces dazed and it’s obvious their souls are being controlled by the devil. Guarding the skull are two grim reaper figures who are ushering people to climb into the skull using the teeth as a set of stairs. Inside this skull is a vat of boiling blood into which my neighbors descend and disappear. When it comes my turn to step into this bubbling cauldron of plasma and be baptized by Satan, I wake up. But again, is this dream a result of growing up in a mystery bookstore or does it have more to do with Indiana Jones and his temple of doom? I do not know.

What I do know is this: I was raised by two booksellers who taught me to revere the power of words, writing, authors, and books as other parents teach their children to worship gods and the sacred text of their particular scriptures; I was raised to consider a library to be akin to a cathedral, as is any INDEPENDENT bookstore, whereas places like Barnes & Nobles, Borders, and Amazon are regarded as our antichrist.

I was raised by booksellers who encouraged me to read anything I wanted to read and to write anything I wanted to write; I am a rare bird in a world of writers whose parents all begged them not to write because, “There’s no money in it.” I am lucky. While I don’t read many mysteries, I’m not a literary snob who passes unfounded judgment based on the stereotypes of a genre. I know a good book is a good book. I also happen to know the categories within the mystery genre are as vast as the back yards in North Boulder used to be. There are cozies with cat-cuddling grannies solving crimes and there are hard-boiled and soft-boiled mysteries, historical, and many, many more. The majority of my parent’s customers are PhDs who choose to read mysteries in their downtime as opposed to sitting down in front of the boob tube and letting their brains turn to pudding.

In the 1990s when Amendment 2 was passed and it was deemed legal for an employer to fire a person based on their sexual orientation in the state of Colorado, my parents hosted a convention celebrating gay and lesbian detective fiction. I was fourteen when I watched each author take the stage to read his or her work and share his or her coming-out-of-the-closet story. I cried because I could not fathom having parents who would oppose or even disown me based on who I fundamentally was. My parents also fought hard to help make sure their store was not the only wheelchair accessible shop (something Boulder Bookstore has yet to do in 2013), and they both significantly contributed to the feminist undertakings of organizations like Sisters in Crime. In the end, because I grew up in a mystery bookstore and was raised by my particular parents, I learned there is so much more to a person than first meets the eye just as there is so much more to a book than its cover.

After my parents sold the storefront, they moved The Rue Morgue into their house on Hawthorn (the same home I brought Fish to originally), and then in 2004, to their new home in the mountains outside of Lyons, Colorado; they filled the barn with books and worked out of a home office. At this point, they had also started their own small press which reprints old mysteries. My parents were genuine friends with all their customers (including Jello Biafra’s mother who was a librarian) and in every catalog they always include a short narrative about their personal lives and share pictures of their granddaughters and all the various cats, goats, and donkeys they have accumulated. When my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I moved in for a while to help out.

Sara and her Mom copy

My father managed to keep the business afloat while she was dying yet he was never more than a few feet away from her as he took orders in the office across the hall from their bedroom. Not only were they married for forty-two years, they worked together and were rarely ever apart (and they still enjoyed each other’s company). Who else can say the same about their parents? When my mother died in 2011, I was the one who wrote the death announcement for the catalog, and I was astounded by the overwhelming response we got from the hundreds of customers who sent sympathy cards and letters recounting memories of my mom and how she’d recommended this book or that book, and how these books changed their lives for the better.

I look around now at the Pearl Street Mall, and the blocks to the east and west, and I am saddened to see all the chain stores which have replaced almost all of the independent shops I knew growing up in Boulder. While Borders (thankfully) did not last long on Pearl, and places like The Trident, Boulder Bookstore, Red Letter, and the Beat Book Shop are all still in operation, the world I knew as a child is quickly disappearing and I’m afraid this isn’t just the case with Boulder, but everywhere. Back when my daughter, Story, was still a toddler her preschool did a fundraising gig at Barnes & Nobles, and this is the only reason I went there to buy a book (and this was hard enough). I needed a new copy of To Kill a Mockingbird but when I asked the guy behind one of the numerous service desks, he looked at me blankly and I realized he’d never even heard of this classic; “Hold on,” he said as he desperately sent out an SOS on his walkie-talkie, but I was already walking away.

rabid dog walking away from To Kill a Mockingbird

The Latin root for the word nostalgia (nostos) means “to return home,” and as we all find out sooner or later, to return home is impossible. I realize I’ve gone all over the place with this post but I can’t think of another way to tell this story or make my point. You see, I didn’t just grow up in a mystery bookstore, I grew up in a “Mom & Pop” shop, and what used to be the true icon of the United States before the soulless corporations took over and were somehow granted the same rights as people. So if you appreciated this rant at all, will you all do me a favor? This holiday season, instead of shopping at a chain, go support its independent equivalent instead. I promise you will get far superior service, or at the very least meet someone eccentric, and in turn you will not only be supporting community but restoring the integral values of this nation.

This is what I learned growing up in a mystery bookstore.

woman with crystal ball and skull

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Creative Writing, Uncategorized

paper moon and standing baby

“I was never insane except upon occasion when my heart was touched”–Edgar Allan Poe

On November 30th, 2000, I gave birth to my daughter Story in a shotgun shack on top of Rag Mountain in rural Tennessee. A sliver of white crescent moon hung in the sky like the smile of the otherwise invisible Cheshire cat during the dark periods of the twenty-one hours in which I labored to bring my baby into this world. We were blessed with no snow and clear roads, and anyone who needed to come or leave, could do so easily.

birthing-woodcut-finalcool old midwife picture

I was safe in the hands of my extremely capable midwife, but had I needed transport, I would have gone to the Dolly Parton Birthing Unit in Sevierville; the hospital itself was two hours away: one hour of dirt road, and the rest was back country winding blacktop. When I was about six months along, we met my back-up doctor–a good Christian man with a hologram of his savior hanging around his neck, an advocate of homebirth because baby Jesus was born into a manger. We also paid a visit to the emergency-only Dolly wing of the hospital which was truly lovely as far as institutional birthing goes: hardwood floors and rocking chairs; it had running water and indoor plumbing which we did not, but home is home, and nothing else compares.

the nativity scene I want to use

The trip to the hospital was all about filling out paperwork, and when I put down my parents as the emergency contact, I put down the phone numbers for both their home and their work. I was required to specify the type of business, so I wrote: “The Rue Morgue.” I didn’t think to add “book store.” The receptionist reviewed the papers, and then she looked at me strangely. Carefully, she said: “You are the first patient I’ve ever seen to pick out what morgue she wants.” Unfamiliar with the work of Edgar Allan Poe, she then politely explained what the hospital meant by emergency contact. I tried to explain the name of the bookstore, and my parents’ role as the owners, but I just confused her more because then she asked if I was French.

When I did end up giving birth, I needed all the help I could get from gravity. My uterus tilts back which makes pushing more difficult. I tried squatting on the advice of the midwife. I tried squatting because this is how I’d always envisioned giving birth. I saw myself squatting, pushing, and then pulling the baby from my body all on my own. I not only enjoyed the irony of squatting during birth while simultaneously living on squatted land, but I also wanted to emulate all the women who came before me–these woman who simply squatted down in the fields, pushed their babies out, and resumed work either sowing seeds or reaping the harvest, only now they had a slick newborn suckling at their breast.

Birth stone sculpture

But I was tired and bigger than I’d ever been before. I was a full moon trying to wane. To squat and push, my midwife wanted me flat-footed which is harder than it might sound, and even though I trusted everyone to catch me if I did fall backwards, I felt unbalanced, so we made a makeshift birthing chair instead: my husband sat in a chair while I sat on his lap.

birth chair made from husband

To keep my knees bent close to my body, my friends gathered as many thick books as they could find and stacked them up beneath my feet. Mostly made from dictionaries and other reference books, my substitute stirrups included one hefty anthology of Poe (my mother later confessed this was her favorite detail). As I pushed my daughter into the world, I was supported by a raven knocking at the door and the beating of a tell-tale heart, and it was just another moment in time where life turned into a circle to hold me in its arms for a while.

moon face

This is called, “Coming Full Circle,” and it is the form my stories always seem to follow. It’s not something I do on purpose, but rather, it comes from somewhere within my soul which is not entirely me. It is a spiral within my spirit which spins out to link to the larger collective consciousness; something stirred, it is a milky swirl of cosmic primordial waters–the double helix, the infinite and electric blue umbilicus–it pulsates, and connects, and it continues; it is everyone who has ever been or will be, including who I used to be and who I will become. In my bio, I almost always include the fact I grew up in a bookstore where we worshiped authors and literature instead of deities. Sometimes I include the fact my paternal grandparents are buried in the same cemetery as Phillip K. Dick, and more often than not, I mention my daughter, Story, and how I named her after my passion for listening to stories, and for telling them.

Persephonewhite porcelain pomegranateheart sacrum sculpture

When asked to explain myself spiritually, and why I practice the Old Ways, I will answer: “I believe in the power of metaphor.” A myth like Persephone, and her descent into the underworld, provides a new meaning every time I need one. Once upon a time, I was a young girl who also picked the painful bloom of Narcissus to be swept away into a certain underworld. Later in life, it was Persephone who helped me escape an abusive relationship, and there she was again as I became a mother, and yet again, when I lost my own. Persephone’s story has been told everywhere since the beginning of time, but depending on the culture from which she’s woven, she is known by many names.

Yesterday I sold my first book to Margaret K. McElderry Books, the Young Adult boutique imprint of Simon & Schuster (Summer of 2015), and this event is yet another example of life coming full circle (it’s even cooler that the moon is full tonight): as many of you already know, the concept of my book came from Zilpha Keatley Snyder who was my favorite writer as a child; when I talked to my new editor, Ruta Rimas (isn’t that the coolest editor name?), she was excited to announce that McElderry is currently repackaging all of Zilpha’s books, and just so happens to be working on The Stanley Family series right now from which I specifically reference the ordeals.

Back when my agent was preparing to shop the book, she asked for my bio, and particularly requested that I include my parent’s bookstore. Later, when her assistant asked for the name of the shop, I found myself providing the same information I’d provided to the hospital in Tennessee, only now I was preparing to deliver a very different kind of baby to the world. Of course, this time, I didn’t have to explain the reference to Poe; instead, she wrote back to say: “I hope you’ll write about your childhood someday, and what it was like growing up in a mystery bookstore.”

I’ll admit, she got me thinking. She was inviting me to take a trip around another loop. Another chance to travel full circle. So next time I blog, I will write about my childhood in The Rue Morgue. Who knows, maybe it will turn into something bigger, but for now I leave you with the good news concerning my first book. And for now, I leave you with the image of this goddess as she stands upon this crescent moon. This mother glows because she is illuminated by the life of her shining newborn babe. Like Persephone, she is known by many names, yet she always teaches the same important lesson: to love without condition. The crescent moon represents but one curve of her womb, and this in itself, is another crucial lesson: the crescent is observed when the moon is waxing and when the moon is waning–around and around and around–the crescent is there in darkness, and in fullness.

madonna-and-child-on-a-crescent-moon

“Let us bow to the space of writing, and to the writing to come”–Bhanu Kapil

Full Circle

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Fortune teller, early 1870s
Uncategorized

The Worst Year of My Life

cinderella at the hearth with a lamb

mag·ic·al think·ing (maji-kăl thingking): irrational belief that one can bring about a circumstance or event by thinking about it or wishing for it; normal in preschool children, it also occurs in schizophrenia. Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing © Farlex 2012

Every Wednesday at 4:00 P.M., I go to therapy with my Jungian-based therapist. We drink tea and talk about my life. We drink tea and sometimes I play around in the sand tray, or vent via oil pastels, or I follow her into a guided visualization journey. But mostly, I go there, and we talk about my writing because even if these stories aren’t my story, they are still a part of me. Recently, I was talking about the differences between my two characters Fig and Krystal. Fig is from my first novel, THE CALENDAR OF ORDEALS, and Krystal is from the novel I’m still writing (titled ROADSIDE ALTARS). As I deconstructed their differences, I also realized what they have in common. Fig and Krystal are both dealing with mental illness; furthermore, in both cases, the various “disorders” or “diseases” are often severely questioned for being categorized as such.
typewriter
Krystal’s mother is bipolar and Krystal might be too. Krystal may also have Borderline Personality Disorder, or she may be suffering from survivor’s guilt; before she was born, Krystal absorbed her twin sister in utero, a condition known as Vanishing Twin syndrome. All Krystal has left of her sister is a lump on her left shoulder. This lump contains the remains of Krystal’s twin–tissue, bone, teeth and hair–Krystal’s body is a cemetery, and Krystal might be grieving Sister. And she might be truly haunted by the ghost of her twin. Then again, all of the above might be true.
vanishing twin syndrome ultrasound
Fig’s mother is schizophrenic, and as a result of growing up in her shadow, Fig begins to exhibit symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder at age six. Attempting to gain control, Fig repeats certain rituals again and again: she holds her breath and crosses her fingers in attempt to make things stop or go away, and when this doesn’t work, she literally begins to pick on herself by picking scabs.  When I first wrote THE CALENDAR OF ORDEALS, I’d never heard of “Magical Thinking.” While it was something I did as a child, and still do, I didn’t know it had a name, and I still struggle with the idea it’s considered a disorder. As I discussed Krystal and Fig with my therapist, she asked me if I felt a particular affinity toward any particular mental illness, and I had to really think about it. After all, why does the subject breach my writing all the time?
Magical Thinking
Like Fig, I too created and performed a calendar of ordeals. Like Fig, through magical thinking, I thought by successfully completing the ordeals, my life would change for the better.
Cinderella with her fairy godmother in the pumpkin patch
I was nine when I created my calendar of ordeals. I was in the fourth grade and it was 1985. 1985, or “The Worst Year of My Life.” In retrospect, it probably was not the worst year of my life (my early twenties were pretty interesting)–but I was only nine, and back then, it truly was the worst year I had ever lived. It marked me.
Girl in Donkey skin
When I was nine, Madonna was a material girl and Boulder was flooded with yuppies. At school, I was surrounded by rich kids and their cocaine-snorting parents who drove Porsches and frequented the Virgin Islands; one girl literally got dropped off at our public school in a limo and lived in a mansion on the side of the foothills which looked like an over-sized Taco Bell. Her father once evicted my parents from either a house or a storefront (I can’t remember which) and every time my mother ever drove by his office, we all had to yell, “Hiss-boo!” The parents of the other kids were young and fun, tan and beautiful, and most of all, wealthy and fashionable. My mother was 37 when she had me, and back then, no one had babies that “late”; when she took to me to get haircuts, the stylists always assumed she was my grandmother. Together, my parents ran a mystery bookstore on the west end of Pearl Street between the mountains, the library, and the pedestrian mall. At home, in the back yards of our various rentals, they grew organic sugar snap peas and tomatoes, and instead of fancy foreign sports cars, my mother drove a rusty-puke colored Volvo from the 1960s and my father walked, or rode a bicycle or the bus.
madonna a material girl
Back then, there were no consignment shops, and the thrift stores weren’t brimming with barely worn brand names like they are now. I went to school dressed in hand-me-downs from the late seventies, or clothes bought from Target. Meanwhile, the popular girls all sported ESPRIT clothes and Guess jeans with the little triangles on the butt and tucked their zippered ankles into pair after pair of puffy white Reeboks. In my Cinderella story, I wore scuffed-up Keds bought from Ben Franklin’s for 99 cents. I did not fit in, and those girls were mean; they were in fact cruel, and downright vicious. One time, after being teased on the schoolyard at recess, I went to class to find I could not calm down. I was still crying, and I could not stop. I cried so hard, I peed my pants. The teacher just went on teaching while my classmates snickered and giggled, holding their noses and pointing at me as I sat there, stranded, and surrounded by a sea of my own urine.
Silhouette of Cinderella running
Looking back, I’m not completely sure what I wanted: did I want to fit in? Did I want to be popular and rich? Or did I just want the misery to end? Likely, I wanted all of this.
Cinderella seated at the hearth
Magically thinking, I began to save money. I was going to buy the clothes that would transform me. Rags to riches, I’d be a contemporary Cinderella like the “Molly Ringwald” Cinderella of my era once she turned all Pretty in Pink. I used a Mason jar for a piggy bank, and over time I watched the dollar bills and coins pile higher and higher–in fact, I became  obsessed. A tiny female 20th century scrooge. When I reached my $100 goal (enough to buy one ESPRIT outfit on sale at MD&F) my mother agreed to take me to the indoor mall the next day so I could purchase my ticket out of hell. That night I went to bed content. I went to bed pleased and relieved. I was absolutely convinced that this single outfit would change everything. That night I went to bed and had a dream. That night, I went to bed and had a nightmare. In my nightmare, a fairy tale witch crawled into my bedroom through my window and stole my Mason jar of money. When I awoke, I felt sick with greed. I so much hated the way I’d felt in my dream, I was almost disappointed to find the money still there.
Arthur Rackman - Cinderella (1919) 30
I was a fish out of water in the department store. The overhead fluorescent lights hummed and the cold hard mannequins watched as I checked price tag after price tag, figured tax, and tried not to panic. I bought the only ESPRIT clothes I could afford hoping the label would be enough to save me. I can’t remember what the shirt looked like, but I will never forget the pants even though I only wore them once. Made from denim, the background was a dark blue while the print consisted of bright orange goldfish swimming around inside of squares. They were on sale for a reason, but there was no way I could have known that–nor my mother who was thirty-seven years my senior. I liked them well enough and they were in my budget.
sad little mermaid
I went to school the next day wearing my lucky charms only to be ridiculed more than ever. It didn’t matter that the label was ESPRIT; I was covered in loud, crazy, psychedelic fish–this time, I was wearing the ocean in which I was drowning. I went home, undressed, and put the pants in the bottom dresser drawer to NEVER be worn again.
Cinderella with claws for feet
Realizing that there was more to social climbing than money, or the right clothes, I decided it was high time to give the kids a reason to make fun of me, so I became a witch.
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I watched horror movies, consumed ghost stories, and read every single novel ever written by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. I also read every book on the Occult I could find, and I even got my mom to take me to a Wiccan store in the basement of a building next door to Lolita’s Market where she generously bought me a book of spells. I don’t know what happened to that book, or what it was called, but I do remember being spellbound by the image of a naked woman with a broom between her legs–or rather, the broom stick was formed from the negative space, and the broom itself was the tangled bush of her unruly vagina. I was astonished, shocked and mesmerized. I had a new role model.
Goya witches on broom
At school, I let it be known immediately who I now was. “I am a witch!”
occult ritualwitches in ritual
ouija board
I performed seances on the schoolyard and often went into trances. I talked in tongues and conversed with the dead grandmothers of the other girls (the dead grandmothers always scolded the mean girls for being so mean), and I even made voodoo dolls, only to chicken out; I never actually tried to cause anyone harm. I consulted the Ouija board and my crystal ball which I saved up for and bought from the gem shop next to my parent’s store. I arranged altars in the attic and traipsed the foothills behind my house on full moons gathering medicinal plants for my potions. But most important, like Fig, I created and performed a calendar of ordeals. There were days where I could not eat food and days where I could not drink water. Days where touching purple was forbidden, and days where the same went for anything made from metal. If only I could do this, I’d be happy. If I only I could succeed at these ordeals, then all my worries would vanish. I scared the other kids, and sometimes I scared myself. But the magic worked as much as it didn’t. Before I was a witch, the other kids were in control of hating me, but after, I was the one in control. I gave them all the reasons to hate me they’d never had before.
crystal-ball-gypsy-eye-roll
The summer after the fourth grade, I decided not to be the school freak anymore. I knew I would never be popular, and I didn’t want that anymore. I decided to turn my grades around, to focus on my studies, and make friends with other girls who were like-minded, and I did. I made friends with a violin prodigy and a straight A girl who competitively rode horses. These were girls who didn’t get noticed by the other girls (or boys) and that was better than being teased or bullied. We only got noticed for over-achieving, and the only people who noticed this were our parents and our teachers.
Cinderella in her coach dashing to the ball
But I was still a magical thinker: because I was nine when I was forced to endure the worst year of my life, I decided that all the odd-numbered years of my life were cursed; while the even-numbered years to come would all be good, the odd-numbered ones would be bad. And in a way, it seemed fair. To acquire one good year, I had to sacrifice the same amount of time. It was a balance.
cinderella as book
I am now thirty-seven-years-old, but it won’t be a bad year. You see, 3 and 7 are my two lucky numbers because they are commonly employed in fairy tales. And thirty-seven is how old my mother was when she had me, and thirty-seven is going to be the year I publish my first book. And how do I know this? I know this because I believe in magical thinking. And I also know this because my literary agent emailed yesterday to say THE CALENDAR OF ORDEALS is going to be sent out to the publishers this week and next to be shopped. This novel is another version of the ordeals I tried to pass as a child. This time, I had to write 1500 words a day. This time, I had to submit as many excerpts to literary contests as I could. This time, I had to deal with the constant flow of rejection letters that came in the mail. This time, I had to rewrite and revise and rewrite and revise, and then rewrite and revise once again. But this time, I succeeded. This time I passed each test and ordeal and my sacrifices were rewarded. Now, let’s all hold our breath and cross our fingers for a really big advance.
happily ever after
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Let there be words: another writer writes a blog

alice opens the curtain

I was in the first grade when I discovered daydreaming. I discovered it as I discovered a lot of things–through eavesdropping. I overheard the adults discussing daydreams, and I thought to myself: I’d like to be a daydreamer, so I decided to daydream.

I went to a hippie private school at the time in North Boulder (before North Boulder was “Uptown” or whatever yuppie atrocity the city would like to try to claim). I went to a school called Upland where we raised chickens and made candles and sat in circles holding hands and singing songs about peace and revolution and big rock candy mountains. It was there that I first decided to daydream.

I don’t know why I decided I needed a window, but I did. And I distinctly remember preparing the site of the daydreams as well. The window had a window seat and looked upon a lilac in full bloom. I positioned the pillows just so, arranged my body, looked through the glass, softened my gaze–and I daydreamed.

I remember all of this, and yet, I cannot recall what daydreams I dreamed that day.

peter pan at the nursery window

Gaston Bachelard is another proponent of the daydream and the daydreamer. His phenomenological studies are perhaps some of the most useful tools I’ve discovered as a writer. In his book, THE POETICS OF SPACE: THE CLASSIC LOOK AT HOW WE EXPERIENCE INTIMATE PLACES, Bachelard deconstructs the house, and how spaces such as the attic and the cellar reflect the different spaces of the human psyche.

Of houses and daydreams, Bachelard writes: if I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace. Thought and experience are not the only things that sanction human values. The values that belong to daydreaming mark humanity in its depths. Daydreaming even has the privilege of autovalorization. It derives direct pleasure from its own being. Therefore, the places in which we have experienced daydreaming [like the window seat I prepared in the first grade] reconstitute themselves in a new daydream, and it is because our memories of former dwelling-places are relived as daydreams that these dwelling-places of the past remain in us for all time.

virginia_woolf

Obviously, the daydreamer can daydream anywhere–but just as the thought of daydreaming conjures the memory of my first deliberate daydream, and the space in which it transpired, the space of the daydream is constantly and continually constructing and reconstructing itself within each particular daydreamer. Furthermore, I think Bachelard was onto something when he said, “the house shelters daydreaming,” because it leads me to Virginia Woolf, and her call for women writers to have a room of their own–a room, or space in which to write; a space which serves the writer on many levels:

1. This is a space designated for writing; it is a place of ritual. I write in a bedroom I’ve converted into an office, and I only use the word “office” because I have not yet thought of a better name for this space. Outside my window is a catalpa tree and a view of the foothills. Inside my office, I have my computer, my desk, my reference books, more books, and office supplies. In a very large drawer, I store the hundreds and hundreds of rejection letters I’ve received. I also have a wall reserved on which I keep tacked all my award and publication letters, as well as my most coveted contract with my literary agent at ICM. And in this space, I have an altar–a shrine on which I arrange objects devoted to the creative work I’m doing. For my novel, THE CALENDAR OF ORDEALS, a tiny plastic lamb sits on the stoop of a spirit house with a Matryoshka doll, sticks of dried thistle, and both finger puppets and wooden figures bearing the girl, grandmother and wolf from the fairy tale, “Little Red Riding Hood.” For my other book, ROADSIDE ALTARS, I have a homemade doll I bought off Etsy from a gypsy artist; the doll is really two–a set of conjoined twin sisters, and to accompany them I have a silver Milagros of a leg for traveling, and a match box bearing the Mother Mary. I still need to add an Indian head penny, among other things.

2. This space, like Woolf’s room, shelters not only my daydream–that is to say, my writing, it serves to shelter and protect my intellectual property.

3. This space is the current heart of all the spaces I have ever daydreamed in–past, present and future. It is linked to the window seat at the hippie school when I was six, and to the attic of the house I lived in when I was nine. It is linked to the freight trains I rode as a runaway, and to the Trail of Tears which wandered through the land I squatted in Tennessee. This room is linked to the bath tub where I soak and think after I type novels all morning. And this space is linked to the bedroom across the hall, and the cast iron bed where I sleep, and try to sleep–this bed where the dream of day converges with the dream of night, and creates a tangled nest of intersections both lost and found; this bed is where I first dreamed this blog into being.

Confession: I’ve been trying to think of a theme for a blog for three years now. I’ve been asking myself: what can I blog about that will separate me from every other writer who is blogging? And most importantly, I’ve been asking myself: what can I blog about that will feed my other writing–the real work? And now I know: this space–the space of my blog, is just another architectural addition to my room–the room that is my own, the room within the greater house that serves to shelter and generate my daydreams; hence the title, “Magical Thinking.”

I didn’t know about the so-called mental disorder, Magical Thinking, until after my mother died the summer before last. I learned about Magical Thinking because other writers recommended a book called, A YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, which I have yet to read. The most common themes I explore in my writing are: mental illness, the relationship between mothers and daughters, and fairy tales. The title of my blog not only reflects what I am trying to work out within my writing, but the way in which I generate the work. As a writer, I am a medium. I channel the stories I am told. I untangle daydreams. I tell stories, and stories are full of magic–I cast spells, and spells are nothing more than metaphors.

In farewell for now–for today, I leave you Dorothy. This image marks the very first page of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ. Dorothy is yet another little girl caught inside a daydream. Here she ponders the gray landscape of Kansas (which so happens to be the setting of my novel, THE CALENDAR OF ORDEALS), and from the fabric of the daydream, she is about to weave one of the most beloved lands of all. The Land of Oz. Footnote: The name Oz is another daydream–the daydream of L. Frank Baum; another writer trying to name another something looked around his office, searching, searching, searching–until the brass letters on his filing cabinet caught his eye: A-N and O-Z, and Oz it was to be, forever after.

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