Sunday, August 30, 2015

Brother, Sister, Storytellers

Some of my earliest memories revolve around my sister and I at play. Our stuffed animals served as our proxies, each with a distinct--if not as varied as we may have thought at the time--voice and personality.

With these creatures--monsters, dogs, cats, panda bears, a rabbit, a dinosaur--we told stories. These animals had relationships with one another as dear friends, husbands and wives, the occasional adversaries.

And then we wrote. My first stories were centered on video game characters, including Castlevania’s Simon Belmont, The Mario Brothers, and Link from The Legend of Zelda, before I graduated to stories about princes, princesses, and dragons.

My sister wrote, too, and before long our talents merged on Headlines, a monthly magazine we co-authored and drew pictures for, for an audience of my grandmother. I can’t reliably recall how long we carried on for, but if memory serves it was at least a couple years.

We kept writing.

In the sixth grade, Thanksgiving night, I started my first earnest attempt at a novel, The Prince, which combined many of the elements of my previous fairy tale writings with some newer themes that broached child abuse, an amnesia segment, and my first references toward sex. Clocking in at sixty pages it felt like progress.

I recall when my sister received her first high school writing assignment, which called for a simple essay explicating some part of her childhood. And I remember that she wrote with a fever. I didn’t see the final product until after she’d gotten it back from Mr. Gazitano with a red-ink A+ on the top and comments in each margin lauding how wonderful every part of the assignment was. It was only after earning that level of praise that she shared it with the family and, indeed, it blew me away. A mostly fictitious story of my sister and fictitious friends at pre-school age, at a fictitious daycare center, escaping the nap room for a pursuit I can’t quite recall, only to be thwarted by a child-proof bottle that turned and clicked but never opened for them.

In my eighth grade year I received the assignment to write a descriptive essay, and proceeded to recount the night I got Daisy Flockhart to slow dance with me in the middle school gymnasium, recounting the sweeping chords of Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” the taste of the Altoid I popped in my mouth before I asked her to dance, the shimmering lights that swept the hardwood as couples paired off (lights that didn’t actually exist--this was a public school in upstate NY). I equally beamed with pride and hid my face with embarrassment when Mr. Moon read the excerpts from the essay aloud to the class as an exemplar, revealing all the details I assumed wouldn’t have reached past his desk.

I kept writing.

Writing became a core part of my being--what I did and how I identified; it was a passion and need long before I could objectively say that I did it all that well. But for whatever shortcomings I may have had as a stylist and creative genius, I worked my ass off, drafting no fewer than four novels over the course of four years in high school, in addition to a bevy of trite love poems that ran in the school literary magazine. I majored in English and took creative writing workshops in college, then backdoored my way into classes with the MFA cohort I hadn’t made it into at Syracuse University while I was working there, before moving on to Baltimore where I finally started publishing short fiction and earned an MA in writing from Hopkins.

My sister left writing behind. She had a personal blog for a while and probably did some journaling, but she went on to a college career studying physics and studio art, worked in advertising, and then went back to earn her certification to teach high school science—a career she pursued until a broken system broke her of the will to work with an under-privileged community of students. After a period of four or five years, she left teaching and stayed home.

And it was to my surprise that it came up over a Thanksgiving visit that she had started writing again.

She explained that she had been inspired by Twilight and I gruffly dismissed Stephanie Meyer and anything that could possibly result from her work. And I promptly regretted it.

Fortunately, my sister forgave my initial oafishness, and didn’t let me discourage her. And while she declined to fill me in on her penname so I could follow her work, over holidays to follow, we did go on to have earnest conversations about our creative processes and how the work was coming for each of us. Better yet, she went on to write a number of romance e-books, well received and reasonably well-sold in their field.

Romance e-books--surely my literary circles are cringing at these words. After all, aren’t blatantly commercial literary endeavors the embodiment of what’s wrong in a literary marketplace where serious authors can’t find shelf space and the antithesis of writing as art?

Years ago, I may have answered these questions with a definitive yes. I’m not so quick to that answer nowadays.

After my sister reached the new heights of having one of her novellas nominated for a major award by the Romance Writers of America and had a Library Journal critic place it on the list of best e-book romances of the year, not so different from Mr. Gazitano lauding her 9th grade essay/story, she finally gave in and told me her penname so I could find her writings for myself.

To protect my sister’s privacy and secret identity, I’ll withhold the name of novella, but will say that I read it over the course of a week shortly after she told me where I could find it. And I loved it. Not as a literary masterpiece. Not as a work that would shift paradigms or overtly influence my own craft. But as an entertaining, well-constructed, and well-written work, no less worthy of attention than the more literary volumes I consumed before and after I read it. Just different.

When we talk about writing, my sister tends to demure, the first to point out she’s had no formal training in writing, but rather benefits from a lifetime of reading and a decent instinctual ear for language. But perhaps the most rewarding part of reading her work all these years later came when I read aloud a particularly steamy passage of my sister's work to my girlfriend. In that moment, I was about equal parts proud of my sister’s prose and playing the role of a giggling schoolboy, unable to contain himself over explicit language about genitalia.

I read it aloud, and Heather’s reaction was, “She sounds a lot like you.” Heather went on to point out the carefully fragmented sentences. The word choices. All the little nuances and tics that I take for granted because they come naturally to me.

And it reminded me of the common roots between my sister and I, growing up in the same small, white city, under the same house rules, reading so many of the same books from the same dusty cherry wood bookcases in the living room. How for all of the ways our lives diverged, living in different places under different life circumstances, there was far more sameness beneath the surface of the two of us.

The two of us talking in funny voices then, writing in funny voices now. Creating worlds. Telling stories.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Hopeful Roads Converge

Over the course of my last eight months in Baltimore, I wrote a novel about a man hitchhiking across the country.

I first conceived of the project when one of my summer employees reached Santa Cruz, California from upstate NY by hitching rides from a series strangers, before finally getting stuck in Colorado and buying a bus ticket to get him the rest of the way. He arrived a day later than his contract dictated, but I found it difficult to blame him. After all, as I half-joked to my colleagues, he did have a plan to get to work on time. It’s just that it was a really, really bad plan.

The ideas for my story built upon one another over a period of years. That the protagonist, Jackson, would take the journey to attend his estranged sister’s wedding. That he would stop off to visit an old girlfriend in Chicago. That the novel would compartmentalize based on the characters he met along different legs of the journey--a serviceman turned trucker, a runaway housewife and her son, his ex-girlfriend’s roommate, a lonely widow.

I set to work in earnest shortly after Christmas time, thinking it the perfect project to work on while I awaited word back from graduate programs and contemplated moves to every different corner of the country; also while things got busy at work I had to snatch at scraps of time to string together a few hundred words a day to cobble together a novel.

For each novel I’ve written, I’ve gone through stages, from the brash beginnings of confidence and knowing I was working on a masterpiece, to doldrums of manuscript fatigue and questioning everything about the project, to a period when the finish seemed impossibly far off, to the moment when I was sure I would finish, and that as imperfect as the manuscript might be I would have a draft to show for my effort, and something to come back to and polish, and perhaps one day call finished in earnest.

I reached that late stage of modest certainty around the start of the CTY summer. I arrived in Santa Cruz again, and pulled up the rental minivan to a Safeway. A man in his mid-twenties, scruffy, unbathed, in a black and blue wool-knit parka approached me. I head my earbuds in and couldn’t hear him at first, but assumed he was asking for money, and told him I didn’t have any cash.

“I don’t need money. I need food.”

By an arbitrary code of ethics, I’ve always favored people who ask for food rather than money. And he looked harmless. So I took out my earbuds and listened.

“Me and my girl are on our way to Oregon.” He smiled when he first mentioned his girl his eyes went a little wider when he went on. “She only has a couple months to live and she wants to see everything she can before she goes.”

“What do you want to eat?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Anything.”

I told him I’d pick him up something. I don’t know that believed me, and I wasn’t altogether sure myself as I stepped through the automatic doors. I reviewed the pieces of what the guys had told me. The story was vague enough that it could have all been lies--the biggest hole, perhaps, that his girlfriend was nowhere to be seen. But then I thought of the unlikelihood of the situation. That this bleary eyed, disheveled dreamer would tell me he was looking for sustenance enough to get to Oregon, just as I started my last summer before my own move to Oregon, before my own cross country trip to chase an inexact dream of being a writer and to move in with my until-then long distance girlfriend. A journey both alike and totally divergent from the hitchhiker I was writing about and from the beggar in the parking lot.

The Nature Valley maple walnut bars I settled on were selling at a deal of buy two boxes, get one free. More granola than any one man needed at a time.

I checked out, fumbling between my case of Red Bull, a gallon of water, bananas and the granola bars, all balanced in my arms in compliance with California’s still-new green initiative against giving customers plastic bags. I kept one box of granola bars especially loose, clutched by my fingertips, van keys pinned between my ring finger, pinky, and palm.

The man in the parking lot was hitting up a woman loading a station wagon with her own groceries. She didn’t say a word to him and brushed past, into her car. He didn’t make a move to stop her.

He saw me but didn’t approach. I supposed a lot of people said they’d come back to him and flaked.

So I came to him.

“This box is yours.” I did my best to wave that spare cardboard box toward him.

He took it slowly and studied the front of the box once it was in hands. “Thank you, man.”

I got a better grip on the van keys. “Where are you going in Oregon?”

He shrugged and smiled a little easier then. “I don’t really know, I’ve never been.”

Me neither, I thought. “How long have you been with your girlfriend?”

“That’s the crazy thing. I only met her last week. But she’s the most amazing person.” He swallowed hard. “I love her. She’s dying and it’s so hard, but I love her. She picked me up in Vegas, and all she wants to do is go from place to place and try to make other people happy. She said I could help her.”

How did she make people happy? Was this girl a singer? A motivational speaker? A pot dealer with some especially exquisite herb?

“She’s resting in the car if you want to meet her.”

A rusted out Chevrolet waited, parked alone a couple aisles over. A part of me did want to meet her. Another part of me thought it would ruin my sense of having done a good deed were the car actually empty, and my inner child, still scarred from watching The Silence of the Lambs far too young was still wary of getting clobbered and thrown into the trunk, as thanks for being a good Samaritan.“Let her rest. And tell her I said good look,” I said, and for reasons lost on me now, threw in a “God bless” for good measure.

He reached as if to shake my hand, but seeing my arms were still full and starting to tremble slightly from the awkward distribution of weight, settled for bumping elbows with me instead. I watched him head back to his car where he opened the front passenger door and, at the least, made a show of talking to someone inside.

I retreated to my minivan and hoped for the best.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Old Apartment

To oversimplify, for my generation, there are four kinds of people in their twenties.

There are the adventurers who never stay in one place for too long and whose itineraries for the decade include multiple continents, hostels, and odd jobs.

There’s the group that can’t seem to wait to get into their thirties or forties--the folks who marry straight out of college or sooner and spend the decade to follow on the renovation of their fixer-upper starter home and wearily keeping track of toddlers.

There’s the group that stays or moves back home to save money, take care of someone who needs it, or enjoy mom’s cooking for a few more years.

And then there’s my classification: the apartment dweller. The apartment dweller may incorporate elements of a variety of the other kinds of folks outlined above, and indeed, I like to think the group is characterized by a combination of the independence of moving out on one’s own with the dependence on still having someone else to call to make repairs; the stability of getting a lease (and presumably a job to pay the rent) with the fluidity that comes with paying month-to-month to maintain the option open to move elsewhere without selling off property.

I got my first apartment my senior year of college at Geneseo, living with a friend I’d made freshman year and continued to work with on the college newspaper. I think we actually saw each other more in the newspaper office than at home, such were the schedules we kept, but it was nonetheless fun to have a buddy to wander home with after a Saturday night of debauchery, and co-host for parties. Heck, she even had a boyfriend who I considered one of my closest friends from college, and I got the benefit of seeing him a few times a month, two years after he had graduated.

After college, I moved two hours east to Syracuse where I managed a dorm and lived in a one bedroom apartment, ostensibly converted from what was once two or three dorm rooms’ space. It was the first place where I had ever lived alone for more than a season. I lived there at a point in my life when I wasn’t sure what that should mean and I was limited in what I could really do within a college dorm infrastructure, and thus didn’t do much of anything to make the space my own. Ironically, when my girlfriend at the time moved in with me for my second year, she complained that the place already too much mine, and she felt as though she were fitting her things around the space that I had already made a home. Thus, I suppose neither of us really settled there.

The feeling of impermanence in my Syracuse apartment only intensified when I went back to visit Geneseo. I recall returning to Syracuse after Alumni Weekend, with a terribly backward feeling: that I was driving in the wrong direction. I remembered all the weekend trips to see my girlfriend in Syracuse the year before, and how driving back to college felt like coming home. That as good as those weekend visits were, Geneseo was where I belonged. I got the sensation that my life was in Syracuse was borderline crippling.

I moved to Baltimore. My first apartment fell in a suburb twenty to thirty minutes removed from anything cool, but I had a balcony and central air and only one mouse sighting. The place was nice enough, but its defining factor for me may always be the woman downstairs who took to banging a broomstick when I made too much noise--at first, perhaps justifiably when I assembled furniture and lifted weights. Later, when I so much as paced the floor or had company over and more than one of us laughed at a time.

So I moved to Hampden--a hipper neighborhood, within the Baltimore city limits. I took over the lease and several pieces of furniture from a friend. The place became my own. Not without it’s challenges--an alternately corrupt or disorganized landlord that would cash my rent checks then threaten me with eviction for owing back rent. Mice who kept me from leaving any food unattended, and the cockroaches that surfaced each spring. But just the same, the bedroom came to feel like a natural place for me to rest. The couch became a workplace where I wrote hundreds of thousands of words of fiction, reviews of a cappella shows, and blog entries. In that kitchen, I dabbled with cooking--nothing advanced, but making the subtle transition from cooking college-style to cooking more like an adult bachelor (less Ramen and fewer frozen burritos; more chicken breasts and pasta and salads).

I am a planner. Though I lived in that Hampden apartment for over four and a half years, for about three of them I had a fairly concrete idea of when I would be moving, if not necessarily where (the process of applying to and hearing back from MFA programs is worth a post or two of its own). Thus, I faced the dissonance of living in a space longer than I had anywhere since my childhood home, but just the same knowing it was all ephemeral. That the apartment would never be home.

Just the same, when I started the process of packing--which, if we’re going to be honest, was at least half a process of separating books into the pile I would donate versus the ones I would take with me--I felt a strange sensation, not of regret or sorrow per se, but still a moment when my breath caught in my throat, staring at bare walls and scattered boxes, when I thought this place where I had existed and kept all of my things and come back to workday after workday, after classes, and at the end of every vacation and business trip--that this place would never be mine again.

And in that moment when it was hard, and when I felt soft, I felt at once certain that the place itself was worthwhile. That the old apartment represented an important time in my life and that, to the extent an apartment dweller can have a true home, that one bedroom in Hampden would always be a part of mine.