I really enjoyed Jessica Anthony
's posts about where story ideas come from and the importance of play. I work with a lot of fiction writers and it's fun to speculate on all those personalities living within the writer. I've never told them, but they twitch a lot. Even the most stable among them who practice yoga and drink hemp milk, or have been married for thirty years and mulch their roses. I write nonfiction, so my words come from my work, editing and teaching writers, sky watching and sunsets, and the always-present undertow of memory.
In the past few years I've taught a workshop called "Writing a Book That Makes a Difference," the title a rip-off of the terrific book by Philip Gerard. In this workshop I purloin some of Gerard's idea, but mostly I offer my own about how writers need to write from their passions, fears, concerns; the things that wake them at 3 a.m. Most writers need to write about things that haunt or hurt — if your writing is a cakewalk of one-liners and sweet characters or essays about strawberries and blessings, you're going to bomb. Now that's not to say that writing cannot be comedic or focus on happier issues. But good writing comes from truth and shadows; the blood, pain, the unanswerable questions of human existence, the lonely parts in all of us.
I always wrote as a kid — mostly poetry and short stories, so writing feels natural to me, despite the fact that I was raised to be a coward. This upbringing in yellow belliedness began in a small town (population about 10,000) in northern Wisconsin. Picture shoulder-high snow drifts in winter and a residual case of frostbite.
Many influences led to a chicken-shit approach to life — one I fight nearly every day and if I never fought it, I would never have written books, six now published. Because, while I'm not a snowboarding, mountain-peak-summiting, rock-climbing, wind-surfing daredevil so prevalent in the Northwest; if you think that writing is for wimps, you're sooooo wrong.
I was raised in a female-dominated family, although on the outside, that's not how things looked. My maternal grandfather died when I was six, my mother had six sisters, and their only brother died as a toddler. The sisters were beauties of Irish-French-Native-American-German heritage and had the best legs in town. They married young, had children, and varying degrees of successful marriages.
But for all their beauty and sass and wise-cracking panache, my mother, her mother, and her sisters were plagued with fears of things that were pretty much benign. As in water, swimming, driving, rodents, bugs, bats, bears, travel, a forest, darkness and nighttime, being alone in a house at night, not to mention growing old and losing their looks. These days most of these fears would be called irrational, but back then, they formed a sisterhood of cowardliness as if it were the most normal thing in the world.
Here's an incident that has always stood out in memory. I was visiting my grandmother's on an early summer evening. I know it was early summer because the June bugs, a large beetle with metallic green wings, were batting against the screen door. This meant my grandmother would sweep their dead husks off the porch in the morning. They hatched in early summer and since their carcasses crunched underfoot they have always reminded me of kidney beans. I have never cooked with kidney beans. Never.
So anyway, picture a summer's night soft with fireflies flickering and June bugs thudding against the screen door and dusk falling. My aunts were in the kitchen seated around the grey Formica table and the front door opened. A large moth, called a miller, whisked indoors towards the kitchen light. You're wondering what a miller is? The wings of all moths are covered with fine scales that easily rub off. These scales reminded people of the dusty flour that covered a miller's clothing. They have a 1.5 to 2-inch wing span. With its fluttery appearance, the women jumped up shrieking and cringing in such horror it was as if a Grizzly had just burst into their midst. One of the men in the adjoining room, doubtless watching a ball game, rushed in to kill the marauder. I can remember so clearly their onslaught of terror and panic and even though I was probably in first grade, knew this was seriously weird behavior.
At any family gathering the women gathered with their bantering and jokes and reports of calamities and near misses — bats that landed in the chimney, mice sneaking into the cellar, so terrorizing that they took to their beds, the treacherous icy roads that brought on the shakes for days afterward, the things that went bump in the dark. Oddly, for all these tales, the women took up a lot of room in the world, with their cigarette smoke and secret laughter and winks. They cleaned a lot and tended kids and teased their hair into strawy updos. They sent their nieces to the store for their Winstons and tampons and cream of mushroom soup and hair spray instead of walking the four blocks. And they were brave in the ways that traditionally women are forced to be brave — keeping families functioning and caring for everyone.
But this irrational fear thing might have something to do with my grandmother's agoraphobia. Sometime in the 1940s my grandfather, a Clark Gable look-alike, left his wife and daughters and went off to build the Alaska Highway. And Grandma didn't set foot out the door while he was gone for about three years. She sent her daughters out into the world and her second oldest always shopped for her dresses. She went out a bit when I was a girl, but not a lot, and in my recollections she's perched on the arm of her couch peeking out the Venetian blinds at the comings and goings of her oddball neighbors or in her kitchen rocking chair, humming away.
Back to the ever-simmering drama of childhood; a must for a budding writer. Adding to a coward-in-training family was the fact that our small town was teeming with perverts, peeping Toms, underwear-stealing deviants; a sort of Bermuda Triangle of one-man freak shows and huge families who looked like they came straight from The Grapes of Wrath. Only years later did I put labels to what I had witnessed or heard whispered about: incest, inbreeding, child abuse, pedophilia, and exhibitionism. As in the old man a few blocks away who was always giving girls candy and dimes. This was the age when kids told grown-ups nothing, so he talked girls into dropping their pants or bathing with him or touching him. (Just for clarification, I didn't take part because I think he preferred easier, younger prey.)
While these whack jobs existed throughout the region, my grandmother's neighborhood, called the Sixth Ward, was a hotbed of freaks. Her house was backed by railroad tracks and within a few blocks' radius were rundown boarding houses, at least a half-dozen taverns, along with businesses and stores. The transients, delinquent boys, and boarding-house tenants seemed destined to grow up to lead criminal motorcycle gangs. No wonder Grandma was always peering from behind the blinds, because there was plenty to see.
As in Bonnie, the woman who lived across the street and lived and slept with two brothers (one who was busted for stealing my aunt's underwear from her clothesline), and had children by each of them. This family spent their evenings at the corner tavern while their neglected children hung around outside, filthy diapers drooping, faces dirty and smeared with snot, and looking hungry, chapped, and miserable. It was years before the town intervened and the children were taken into protective custody. Bonnie looked like Olive Oyl with bad teeth and greased-back hair that she cut herself and oh, delicious scandal, she didn't wear underwear. The brothers, who were indistinguishable, lurched down the street like Boris Karloff on a bender and had faces that looked like an explosion had taken place amid their pocked, misshapen, and bloated features.
Then there was the dry goods store owner on the opposite corner from the tavern, old man Schendel, who was always creeping around the store trying to spy on girls if you tried on clothes there. And his cranky wife who was visibly nervous when girls were in the store.
Let's not forget the bullying Walker brothers, who were sent to reform school for raping a five-year-old and, when they were released, were meaner then ever and you crossed the street to avoid them. Ditto for the skating rink, because they'd smack you on your ass faster than you could blink. Back then, kids were snake-poison mean, and you knew it, and it wasn't always safe to walk home from school.
I need to mention the incident when three young men, in their late teens or early 20s, snatched me from my grandmother's backyard, where I was playing dress-up with a tribe of cousins, and tried carrying me off to a deserted barn before I wiggled away and escaped to report them to the adults who were partying on a Sunday afternoon. Caused an in-house tornado as we stumbled into the house asking what the F-word meant. For the record, they were arrested. So you can see, I survived my girlhood by paying attention — awareness also being the key to good writing — and deciding that moths weren't dangerous, but grown-ups were.
If you're getting the impression that my grandmother lived in a crappy neighborhood, you'd be right. But hanging out in her neighborhood was a huge part of our childhood since the graceful Wisconsin River that winds for hundreds of miles through the state was a few blocks away, as was the fire department on Main Street. At the fire station each December, Santa sat in a throne carved from snow and handed out bags of candy and each November, behind the station, a skating rink was created and maintained by the town. We were kids who skated every day in winter in the below-freezing temperatures and swam every day in the river or a creek until the dog days of August. And Grandma's house, also midway between our house and school, was smack in the middle of our fun and horrors.
Tied to this, since I was three I had nightmares of such grandiose scope and texture (not helped by watching The Wizard of Oz and those freakin flying monkeys at a tender age) and when I slept at my grandmother's house, all that could be heard was the ticking of her wind-up alarm clock and my grandmother tossing in her bed in the next room, sleepless perhaps because of her (realistic) fear that her next-door neighbor was peeping in her windows. So I'd lie there twisting in the hot sheets (windows were shut tight on suffocating hot summer nights against interlopers) and listening to the clock tick and the metal springs protesting under her weight.
Surrounded by five siblings and cousins, aunts and uncles, few quiet types in the group, where secrets and heartbreaks simmered but no bland emotions seemed to exist — fury, outrage, and raucous laughter made frequent appearances. And drama seemed normal what with a grandfather keeling over of a heart attack, and kids drowning in the river, and my aunt's fiancé dying on New Year's Eve in a car crash when he was only eighteen. In a town seething with tragedies and poverty and undertow, well, I had to turn to books and writing. After all, I knew more about vulnerability — the basis for storytelling — than most kids.