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.

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