Tuesday, March 16, 2010

On Running and Writing

Every single time I go out running, I think of Joyce Carol Oates. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing. I met her briefly when she came to Brockport as our visiting writer; she seemed grouchy and reticent to engage in any kind of small talk, but she did mention how many of her novels are composed in her head as she runs, and that she actually envisions scenes and then revises problematic scenes as she runs. "Ideally,” she writes, “the runner who's a writer is running through the land- and cityscapes of her fiction, like a ghost in a real setting.”

I head out, crossing first over the Erie Canal bridge, then zigzagging through a neighborhood of modest ranch houses before swinging past the public library and back up Main. I listen to my ipod; without it, I can’t run very far, if at all. The fact is in real life I don’t like listening to music very much and find even classical music grating. I have neither hip nor sophisticated musical taste: Meatloaf, Donna Summer, Ethel Merman, polka, Ricky Martin. I’m a little embarrassed to admit I’ll sometimes skip forward to hear Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t’ Start the Fire” when I really need motivation.

Unlike Oates, however, when I run I’m usually trying (desperately) to run away from my writing. I run in order to not think. “Little Machine, Little Machine,” I chant to myself in my head, which is the only way I can keep myself going. The fact is, it’s very difficult for me to run for several reasons: 1) I have a bad lower back, 2) I don’t like to sweat, 3) I hate the look and feel of athletic wear, 4) I hate to exercise in public, 5) I have a hard time shutting off my mind.
But because I live so much inside my head, I have to make a concerted effort to remember that I have a body and to use it.

But there’s something that happens when I run: I get ideas. Yes, sometimes it’s an idea for a great new way to cook pork tenderloin. Or sometimes it’s an idea for a cool outfit I might put together the next day for teaching. But more often than not, it’s an idea for a story, an essay, an opening image. Most often it’s induced by the senses, and imbued with memory. I can’t, for example, run along the Erie Canal without thinking of my grandparents’ cabin on Lake Minnewawa and the way the sunlight twinkled off the waves, the way my grandpa would scale and filet sunfish in the backyard, dropping their tiny gray guts into an ice cream pail full of water, the way my sister and I drank root beer on the dock, read Seventeen magazine, slathered ourselves with Coppertone and had to keep moving, plank by plank, to follow the sun.

On weekends, when I run past college rentals with students playing beer pong in the yard, wearing bikini tops and shorts, holding up signs that say, “YOU HONK – WE DRINK,” I can’t help but think of those Friday afternoons in Minneapolis when we all threw money into the beer kitty for a case of Pfeiffer’s, played quarters at the dining room table for hours, then went screaming down the street to Blondie’s Bar where we danced on the table in our tie-dyed t-shirts.

“Little Machine,” I chant, “Little Machine.”

I could've never predicted I’d end up here in this tiny town on the Erie Canal, the great, gray glacial plains of Lake Ontario to the north, the deep black Elba onion fields to the south. Yet it’s been a fertile place for my imagination to grow. My novella, “Freeze,” is the first fictional piece that truly grew out of this region. You can’t drive past the Kodak tower for almost a decade and not have it worm its way in. You can’t run past tall, eerie Victorian houses and not imagine lives lived inside. You can’t walk over huge slate sidewalks, spun out of place by old gnarled tree roots, and not feel the power of history beneath them. My town is called a village—something I used to find very amusing and “quaint” when I first moved here twelve years ago. Now, I understand what that means.

“Little Machine,” I chant. “Little Machine.”

I run past my friends’ houses and wonder what they’re doing, if they’re happy, what they worry about at night before they fall asleep. I run past our babysitter’s house and hope she isn’t still suffering from insomnia. I run past Jill’s Antiques and think I should go buy those Pyrex bowls before someone else does. I run past the house that just burned and wonder what was lost—a pressed corsage? a valentine in a grandmother’s cursive? I run past my friend’s apartment complex and wonder if he’s on the treadmill or cooking salmon on his George Foreman grill.

When I reach home, I’m shot, utterly. But full, too, of freshly oxygenated thoughts.

“Running! If there's any activity happier, more exhilarating, more nourishing to the imagination, I can't think of what it might be. In running,” Oates writes, “the mind flees with the body, the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain, in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms.”

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Short Stories & Telephones

One thing that’s important to me as a fiction writer is a certain inclusion in terms of character. I much prefer stories told by those not often granted a voice. Growing up in a trailer court, my family didn’t have a telephone. The reason was purely financial: we couldn’t afford one. I remember my bedroom windows faced the graveyard and a dead-end road. There was a loneliness that pervaded my days, and I spent a great deal of time either looking out at the gravestones or reading. Looking back, I can see how this lack of a telephone influenced me as a writer. Without a phone, I wasn’t heard or heard from. We were all, I remember thinking, essentially silenced. Instead, I read and filled my head with other voices, but that need, that pressing need, for all of us to be heard, to be recognized by the larger world, stayed with me.

As the late Frank O'Connor wrote of the short story: “…the modern short story is a genre that deals with members of ‘submerged population groups,’ excluded by one means or another from living in the certainties of civilization-- people of a minority, outsiders, marginalists, for whom society provides no place or means of self-respect.”

Many of my characters in my book, Super America, reflect this:

•a postal carrier injured by a pit bull on her route

•an elementary school lunch lady

•a gay hairdresser

•the ATV driving, gun-toting “hillbillies” who disrupt a quiet suburban subdivision

•a pregnant college student waitress

Having grown up in a family in which both parents floated from one menial job to another, I almost always end up focusing on issues of class in my fiction. Also, I’m intrigued by the way education (especially advanced degrees) can create isolation, alienation, and even resentment. In my book’s title story, “Super America,” Theo, a theatre major, is picked up by his ne’er-do-well father for spring break. On the drive home, the father says, “Don’t talk college. That was my one rule about you going off to the Cities like that. Don’t be an ass. You got to talk normal. You gotta stay who you are.”

Fiction, particularly short fiction, has always been a means for me to work out the tension and alienation of class. I think short fiction works so well for this because, as
Frank O’Connor also says: “What makes the short story a distinct literary form is ‘its intense awareness of human loneliness.’” I try to teach this elusive idea every semester in my writing workshops, it seems, but how do you train students to pour human loneliness into a short story? How do you get student writers to even accept and acknowledge human loneliness?

Writing about her own work, Eudora Welty once said, "What I do in writing of any character is to try to enter into the mind, heart, and skin of a human being who is not myself. Whether this happens to be a man or a woman, old or young, with skin black or white, the primary challenge lies in making the jump itself."

I want to make that jump; I want to amplify silent voices.

There’s a woman in my hometown in Minnesota who shows up at all the grand openings and ribbon cutting ceremonies with her 110 camera. She’s tall and willowy with stringy gray hair. She wears old-fashioned blouses and skirts with white anklets and brown lace-up shoes. She snaps millions of pictures, then takes the film cartridges to Rexall Drug for developing. She lives alone. She wears bandannas tied under her chin. She keeps a folded hankie squeezed into her hand at all times.

There’s a man in Brockport we call “The Security Guard.” He looks a lot like Charles Manson, follows all the postal carriers around town, and pretends to talk into a fake walkie-talkie. He thinks he’s protecting us all. He’s crazy, yes;
he salutes every car that passes; he has gold chevrons sewn to the sleeves of his dirty jacket; occasionally, he jumps on his bike and hurries away in a panic as if someone's chasing him. Sometimes I watch him pacing with his walkie-talkie in front of my house and wish so badly I could hear what's going on in his head.

The telephone is ringing.