Thursday, February 12, 2009

Mysterious Life of the Heart III. Some remarks I made.

Here are some remarks I made on Tuesday at a faculty presentation on "Blue Velvis," which appears this month in The Mysterious Life of the Heart.

The first books I remember reading are volumes of The World Book Encyclopedia. They were red and blue with gold lettering, and, besides one thick book on carpentry, they were the only books in our house. They were very official-looking.

World Book comforted me then and for many years afterwards. I took the volumes with me when I married, carried them with me Ohio. I only let them go ten years ago just before we were to move to the country. I set them on the curb and the a sanitation worker carried them away. I still miss those books. When I think of them now, I am reminded that order can be brought to the world. I remember that order not inherent in us but something we make.

The first writing I remember being excited about was a collection of short stories by Guy de Maupassant. My older brother found the book somewhere and gave it to me. Its cover was lime green. It was a very thick book. I couldn’t imagine anybody being able to write such a big book. I figured that was likely the only thing Maupassant did in his life, just write, write, write.

I was about twelve years old when I began reading Maupassant’s stories. The stories couldn’t have been more different from the calm, sensible entries in World Book. Maupassant’s stories were really wild. They were about love and death but mostly death, I remember. Bodies moldering the grave! Burning corpses! The book was so outrageous! I came to the conclusion it was pornographic and hid it under my bed.

What Maupassant showed me was I wasn’t the only person to feel terror of death. That was pretty comforting to a twelve year old who thought the cedar chest in her bedroom turned into a coffin at night. That cedar chest is in my house now; I’m no longer afraid of it, but there are other terrors I have from time to time. What Maupassant’s book continues to teach me that what is terrifying in life must be shared. Stories can help us to deal with what most frightens us.

I’m surprised I became a writer. I was going to be an artist. Like Leonardo DaVinci, I was going to draw and paint portraits. Even in the rural South, we had art classes, so “Artist” was something I knew a person could “be.” But we were never taught to write stories or poems, so I didn’t know a writer was something I could “be.”

Later, after I’d taken a creative writing class in college, I thought, “Okay, so maybe a writer is something I can be.” But for a long time, I didn’t think a woman’s experience was worth telling. Most of the stories I’d read in college were about men.

My novel (The Secret of Hurricanes, 2002) was my first work about a woman’s experience. Writing that book changed how I thought about my work. It wasn’t just that I learned a woman’s story was worth telling. I learned that I enjoy showing how characters adapt to change.

“Blue Velvis” is one of five stories that came to be written in my family bathtub. It’s about Nora Walker who has just had a hysterectomy. This subject certainly shows how far I’d come in my thinking about the importance of telling women’s stories. Have you ever thought about how few stories there are about hysterectomy? Not many. I found a few, but I thought the message of them was terrible. They seemed to say a woman was nothing without her womb. She couldn’t be a real woman without that thing inside of her.

I didn’t like that message. I thought it was time somebody wrote some better stories about the topic. In my stories, the woman wouldn’t be a sad victim of fate. She wouldn’t be considered useless. She’d fall, but at some point, she’d suit up and go into battle. Her terror would be real. I’d give dignity to her experience.

Nora really feels dead. She feels she’s lost her identity. She feels like an impersonator in her own life. That’s where the stories begin. By the fifth story, she recovers. It’s a really hard battle, but she prevails, finally.

I gave Nora a hapless boyfriend who loves her and wants to help. But he fails because no one can take our life-journeys for us. By the fifth story, Nora has an awakening. You might say a sudden awakening. But an awakening only seems sudden. It only seems that one moment you’re blind and then, inexplicably, the scales fall from your eyes and you can see, really see. Really, Nora’s realization is slow, and it is spread out over five stories.

I think this is pretty true to life. An awakening doesn’t happen as a result of one person, one event. It’s a synthesis of experience. It gets mixed with temperament and emotion. Sometimes it results in joy, but the outcome could just as well be anger, violence or tears.

These days, I still read and scribble a few things while soaking in my bathtub. But so far I haven’t repeated the experience of writing whole stories there. I wrote the Nora Walker stories in notebooks wrinkled as a result of getting wet. Sometimes I’d write all night, re-warming the water when necessary. Once, I dropped one of the notebooks in the water and rushed to my computer to get the words down before the inked words bled to nothingness on the page. I didn’t even wait to wrap myself in a towel.

Why the family bathtub? I might say that nakedness had something to do with it. But then all writers come to the page naked in one way or another. A willingness to be vulnerable is characteristic of fiction writers. It had to be something more, or something else.

The only reason I can think of is that I needed a womb in which to write. The bathtub was my womb. I must have sensed that a womb would be the only place to write stories about a woman who had lost hers. The bathtub would somehow make me spiritually and intellectually capable to write what I needed to write. This is only a guess, but it’s my best guess.

“Blue Velvis” has sailed off into the world and even made me some money. It won me an Ohio Arts Council grant. It was published in The Sun Magazine. It will appear this month in a new anthology published by The Sun. I can only conclude that people must find something in it that’s true to human experience. I think, maybe, like Nora, we’ve all been scared of change. We’ve all felt like we were strangers to ourselves. I think, maybe, like Lenny, we’ve wanted to help someone we love and found ourselves unable to do that. When we love someone, we want to be able to fix their problems. We feel helpless when we can’t do that.


Light and Voices said...

Your writing is so clear and concise. I was surprised to learn that you write in a bathtub and even dropped manuscript in the water and then rushing naked to the computer to grab words before they disappeared. What a dedicated writer you are. You are an amazing woman!

ggw07 said...

Thank you for sharing this- Beautiful Theresa!You fill the soul- Gretchen



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Northwest Ohio, United States
"I was no better than dust, yet you cannot replace me. . . Take the soft dust in your hand--does it stir: does it sing? Has it lips and a heart? Does it open its eyes to the sun? Does it run, does it dream, does it burn with a secret, or tremble In terror of death? Or ache with tremendous decisions?. . ." --Conrad Aiken


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From the First Chapter

The Secret of Hurricanes : That article in the Waterville Scout said it was Shake- spearean, all that fatalism that guides the Kennedys' lives. The likelihood of untimely death. Recently, another one died in his prime, John-John in an airplane. Not long before that, Bobby's boy. While playing football at high speeds on snow skis. Those Kennedys take some crazy chances. I prefer my own easy ways. Which isn't to say my life hasn't been Shake-spearean. By the time I was sixteen, my life was like the darkened stage at the end of Hamlet or Macbeth. All littered with corpses and treachery.

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