“I Come From a Family With a Lot of Dead People.”
Montpelier, VT, July 23, 2004
Thank you, Carolyn……
I’m honored to be asked to speak here, in a place that has meant so much to me and my work, and I want to say thank you for this opportunity. I hope I can share something that feels valuable, and like it lasts beyond the few minutes we have together today.
This invitation, along with a major move — I have just moved from Maryland (my home of the past 30 years) to Georgia — has prompted me to do some digging. I have spaded up a garden bed of memories. It’s hard to leave the place where I have put down such deep roots. But the soil around those roots has been loosening its hold on me during the past four years as major changes have plowed through my life: My first books were published. I am no longer married. I turned fifty. My youngest child is headed for college this fall. I am no longer a member of the PTA, or the church, or much else, it seems. I have been thinking about where I belong. I have decided I miss home.
I am a southern writer, I suppose. Many of my stories are set in the American South – I was born in Alabama and raised up summers in Mississippi, where I listened to katydids call from the pines while aunts and uncles told family stories on the porch on summer evenings, where I plunked an old upright piano in the unlocked Methodist church and learned to play just about every hymn in the Methodist hymnal, and where I made myself sandwiches of mayonnaise and Mrs. B’s potato chips, took them to the town cemetery, and had picnics with kinfolks I’d never met, imagining what their lives must have been like, having only old photographs to know them by.
Summers meant Mississippi, but I lived all over the globe growing up — I traveled the world as an Air Force child, a Dove in a family full of steadfast Hawks. I was the rebel, the black sheep, I suppose… and sometimes I felt like the enemy.
And, even though I often felt suffocated growing up inside this controlling nuclear family, I also dreaded being separated from it – there was a strange feeling of safety in that regimented life. I loved the routine, I loved my family, and I discovered that I would pay almost any price to be loved in return, to belong.
But I never understood or respected the rules well enough, so I ended up instead (still on that quest to be loved and belong) having two children by the time I was 21 and unceremoniously leaving my very Southern, very military family. I left the South just as my parents were retiring there.
And yet I did come home, I did visit, we did make our peace over the years, and today it feels right to go home to a physical southern place – Atlanta – where the folks on the public address system say, “”Y’all, this Targit will be closin’ in thirty minutes… so come OWN to the register with your purchases” and where every restaurant I’ve eaten in (and that’s a lot of restaurants in this past month of unpacking) serves grits, black-eyed peas, and collards. I love being home.
But I wouldn’t have moved back south if I hadn’t been pushed by the events of my life, and I wouldn’t have written the novel that I have just finished for Harcourt and that will be published next spring if I had not finally accepted my life on its own terms.
I want to tell you a personal story. I’m scared to tell it, but I want to. I was told never to reveal your personal story to folks you don’t know, so I’m going to dub you all kin and call you all family. As I dug through boxes this week, unpacking and sorting and organizing, cleaning, the words of a good friend came to me. She always said, “Life is lived in the opposites, Debbie: birth death, day night, hot cold, up down, winter summer, sweet sour.” I have tried to remember this as I’ve written my stories. The unity of opposites Adam Rapp called it in a lecture here a few semesters ago.
In June I had packed the belongings of a lifetime – I had moved into the house in Maryland when I was 25 years old – fully half my life had been lived there. Now, one husband, four children, countless family pets later, I played god with the Legos, the child’s rocking chair, quilts so worn they were shredding in my hands, a sofa so old the padding sifted onto the wooden floor, my desk chair, literally falling apart and held together with duct tape – and more. Of that particular list, only the Legos made the cut and came with me – an entire packing box full of Legos. I brought the wooden spoon my mother used to stir iced tea. It is worn black with the swirlings of millions of tea leaves. I brought Sandy, our 12-year-old golden retriever mutt. I brought Gus, the cat. (We had to sedate him to get him in the car, and still he moaned pitifully through the entire ride from Maryland to Georgia.) I left behind most of the trappings of my old life and lived for three weeks on an air mattress using overturned boxes for tables.
As I entered a new world of my own making in Atlanta, I unpacked boxes of books, mementos, manuscripts, rejection letters, kitchen utensils, teaching materials, sheets and pillows, photographs – a life! – I was struck by the moments they brought back to me, by my memories of those moments and how these memories have changed over the years… how the meanings I assign to these memories has changed with time and perception.
Moments, Memory, and Meaning. I think I write using these three words as keys into story. I don’t start with a character, or a situation, or a setting. I start with a moment in time that I infuse with memory (which is sometimes clouded, sometimes clear, sometimes changing), and to which I assign Meaning.
So. Moments, Memory, Meaning.
When I moved I left a teaching job at Towson University in Baltimore – my first “real job.” I’d always come through the back door to get a job – this is why freelance writing appealed to me so much… I’d been busy raising children when people my age were in college, but I knew I wanted to tell stories – I wanted to write – but what did I have to say? And how did I SAY it? I haunted used book stores and libraries and read every book I could get my hands on about writing, and slowly began my career as a writer in my early thirties, writing for free at first, buoyed by publication on the OpEd page or in a small magazine, eventually landing regular paying assignments. I had four children now and I loved words so much that I’d ask my children’s teachers each fall if I could do something writing related for my volunteer activity – and did.
For many years. I learned a lot about how to teach writing by teaching it and now – in 2003 — I had an MFA in writing and a “real job” to go along with it, teaching, “Writing Techniques for Teachers,” ECED 422, a requirement for graduation in the early childhood education dept. at Towson.
I taught this grammar intensive course using children’s literature. I read out loud each week to my students and asked them to mine a memory from each story – for instance, we all wrote poems based on Eloise Greenfield’s HONEY I LOVE. We wrote stories about our young lives using Cynthia Rylant’s WHEN I WAS YOUNG IN THE MOUNTAINS for a frame.
I had never taught a college class before and I was alternately exhilarated and petrified. And, I was newly in the business of making a living solely on my own, so I felt the added weight of trying to figure out just how this making-a-living thing worked.
I read everything I could get my hands on about teaching. What I believed already about teaching – what I had seen, over and over again in working with young children and their stories — was that we all had stories to tell and that we wanted desperately to tell them. In fact, I have come to believe this it is one of the most fundamental human needs – sharing our stories.
I believe that words are power, and that peace will come to us all when we agree to listen — to really listen — to each other’s stories. To listen compassionately – what must it have been like for you? To listen intently: tell me more. This of course supposes we all would be willing to honestly and compassionately tell our own stories – to spill all the messy glory in whatever way story would come to us – in dance, song, color, words. I believe that this is what art is for – it’s what creation does for us. Martha Graham once said, “Dance is just discovery, discovery, discovery!” I believe this is true about all art. This is why we are drawn to it so – there is an energy – a life force — that infuses the dance, the song, the canvas, the tongue, the page, the story – you.
In my reading about education I stumbled across Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and I added it to my stewpot of ideas about teaching – I put together a simple, makeshift version that suited me and I called the list I offered up “The 5 basic human needs” and I told my students that every wonderful story satisfied at least one of these needs well, and – if they were to look closely enough – they’d see that most great stories intuitively incorporated all of these needs. We began to look for books that spoke to all these needs:
1. To love and be loved.
2. To be safe (physically, emotionally, spiritually)
3. To belong
4. To achieve (to do – to have a purpose)
5. To know
Take any great children’s book that touches you on some deep level and see if it doesn’t address each of these needs in some fundamental way. It can be fiction, non-fiction, biography, science fiction, fantasy, poetry – we are always telling our stories, and they are OUR personal stories. Even in fiction, we infuse our stories with our own hearts, our own struggles – it’s a selfish act in a way, but it isn’t – it is an act of understanding of self and others.
This week as I unpacked boxes and came across these teaching materials from Towson, I thought – for the hundredth – thousandth – time about how, four years ago, the bottom of my world fell out – talk about basic human needs! — and I really didn’t think I was going to make it to tomorrow and I had little interest in the future unless it was the future I wanted.
But I must have had some sort of survival instinct, some sort of conviction that there just might be a future. I was on the cusp of the birth of my first book – FREEDOM SUMMER, which was published by Simon & Schuster in January, 2001, in the same week that I first came to Vermont College. My first novel, LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER, five years in the making with a wonderful editor at Harcourt Brace, would be published that April. I had sold a picture book, ONE WIDE SKY, to Harcourt, and it was waiting for just the right illustrator. It was published in 2003. And then there was HANG THE MOON. HANG THE MOON was my new novel. I had written a third of it and had sold it to Harcourt the previous September as a partial novel. I had thought to work on HANG THE MOON with my editor Liz, while I learned in Vermont more about story structure and experimented with poetry, picture books, easy readers, and even a slew of biographies I wanted to write.
I was embarking on a grand adventure in January 2001, coming to Vermont to get my MFA. But two weeks before my scheduled departure I became a suddenly single parent and the adventure changed. There was no actual death, although an actual death would have been easier, I think. It would have been cleaner, a pure grief. The moment is forever crystalized in my mind. The words “soulmate” and “Internet” were used.
My heart… broke.
A well-meaning but misguided friend who wanted to keep my spirits up kept brightly using the words “movie of the week!” as one revelation followed another and I had to come to terms – within weeks — with an entirely different definition of myself, my family, and my future.
I also had to make a living, and quick, and yet, I did not give up school. I was 47 years old and had waited long enough… Instead I began a journey — an incredible journey – that would take me spiraling down the rabbit hole of those basic human needs and would teach me, ultimately, how to be a better writer.
HANG THE MOON became the only piece of writing I worked on while I was a student at Vermont College. The book was under contract and I needed to focus on it, to finish it, to see it to publication. I worked hard but the story wouldn’t come. The harder I worked, the more confused I became about the story’s direction. I couldn’t focus. I produced pages, chapters, sections, critical essays, a creative thesis – I wrote… I had strong support and wonderful encouragement from my advisors, but I knew the story wasn’t right – it wasn’t coming from the same place that FREEDOM SUMMER, RUBY, and ONE WIDE SKY had come from, for one thing…
Moment, Memory, Meaning.
HANG THE MOON is an historical novel. It takes place in 1966 Mississippi. But what moment was I trying to distill? What memory did I want to evoke? What meaning was I trying to extract, to mine, to touch? I had no clue. And that scared me.
To write FREEDOM SUMMER, I had taken the injustice I felt growing up and had thrown those moments of frustration — rage! — into a memory from my childhood in 1964 Mississippi. I had given that memory meaning in writing FREEDOM SUMMER. It was MY story, as much as it was a story about two boys who are best friends and want to go swimming at the town pool together the day it opens to “everybody under the sun, no matter what color.”
[Reading from FS] and John Henry’s line “I want to do everything you can do!”
Yes, it was MY story.
In LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER I tapped into the beloved memories of growing up summers in Mississippi with a cast of characters who adored me. I think those childhood years in Mississippi met those basic human needs to belong, to be loved, to feel safe, and more – the world felt ordered, to me, in Mississippi, amidst the parched peanuts and the “bless your hearts!” and the aunts who served me stale coconut cake and warm root beer in their parlor. In LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER I turned them into chickens! I wrote a hymn to those moments, wrapped in warm memories, infused with the deepest meaning I could touch – those days meant everything to me. They saved my sanity. They defined me as a writer.
ONE WIDE SKY is an evocation of the natural world, which I love. It’s a picture book – 88 words – a story told in rhymed couplets that I wrote after I studied – literally pulled apart — Molly Bang’s wonderful TEN NINE EIGHT. I picked one moment – the summer days I spent with my children outside in our back yard all day, all night, and I wrote from those memories with great joy, as that is the meaning of those days to me. I wanted to touch that meaning… for that is what writers do, I think.
We interpret those moments, those memories, those meanings. We make connections with that unity of opposites, connections with ourselves, with others, with this world, the next… we speak to those five basic human needs as we do this – we use them for a framework, in a way, telling story, interpreting our own experiences and offering them up in story.
When I came to Vermont with HANG THE MOON I could no longer do this. I couldn’t touch the moment I wanted to touch anymore – I couldn’t even name it. I couldn’t tell Norma or Carolyn or Marion or any of my wonderful workshop leaders or fellow students – or even my editor Liz! — what that memory was, and I seemed to have lost all meaning.
All my energies were going into survival and I knew, perhaps before anyone else knew (or maybe they knew but were too kind to tell me so), that the story was going to have to wait. But I wanted to stay in school so I tried. I churned out packet after packet, hoping for a breakthrough. I have the most eloquent, most supportive, most instructive letters from my advisors during that time and not one of them said, “You may as well hang it up, you’re writing drivel,” although that’s how I felt. I got a draft of HANG THE MOON finished, and then I wrote another. But the story didn’t come together well and finally, as I graduated from Vermont in January 2003, I put HANG THE MOON away. I didn’t tell Liz I was doing this – it was a mental putting-away — but she knew I was struggling.
Friends knew, too, of course, and friends held me up. Friends come bearing gifts in a time of crisis, and the most important one is their presence. “It is what it is,” said my Quaker friend Norma. “You will come clear. Proceed as the way opens.”
I did not want to hear this.
My Buddhist friend Jackie said, “Pleasure and pain are opposite sides of the same stick. Stop grasping and wanting, and let it be what it is. It will change soon enough. All is impermanent. You can rest in the impermanence if you try.”
I didn’t like these responses but I thought about them. They didn’t ease my pain or my frustration or my anger. But they did begin to work on me as I began to work on building a new life. It would be three years before I began seriously writing again. I spent those three years traveling, hardly knowing my name sometimes, much less what city I was in each morning. FREEDOM SUMMER and RUBY got wonderful critical attention and found readers and this was such balm to my soul!
I found myself working in schools, speaking at conferences, teaching in several places, and trying to stay on my feet financially and emotionally. I spent 46 days last year in schools. That’s a record I hope not to repeat, but you know what? I am glad for each of those days. I am grateful for them. I learned so much. I began teaching personal narrative writing to fourth graders in schools across the country, and this is where I learned about children’s moments, their memories, and their meaning, in story after story where they unburdened their hearts and told about how much they wanted to be loved, to be safe, to have a purpose, to belong, to understand their lives and their world. I met these children’s teachers, I met librarians, booksellers, human beings who told me their stories. I was so lucky. All this travel, all these stories – each of these hearts! — has changed me as a human being and they each inform my writing.
Out of my own misery rose purpose, belonging, love, safety of a sort, and an understanding that this was my life, my job, my heart. Each moment of this past four years was important and I needed to honor it. However, there was no time to distill a memory with meaning and turn it into a story. My contract for HANG THE MOON languished on my editor’s desk and I felt guilty, but I didn’t know how to finish the book. Finally I had to come clean with Liz. “I can’t do it,” I said to her. “You need to get off the road,” said Liz, “and believe that you have this story in you.”
“It’s not there right now,” I said. “And I will get off the road as soon as I can.”
“Well,” said Liz. “Write something short. Begin again. A short novel. A chapter book. Try. You are forgetting that you are a writer. What CAN you write, right now?”
“You don’t understand!” I said. “It’s all I can do to get to the end of each day! I’m IT! I am responsible for everything! The dog, the cat, the teenagers, the bills, the house, the grass, the future – and my own nervous breakdown — all of it!”
“Think about it,” said Liz.
I thought about it.
And, at about that time, my mother began to die.
As I watched her struggle with chemo and radiation, wasting away in front of my eyes, as I came back home to Mississippi and struggled alongside her, as I watched my father crumble at the thought of losing his wife of fifty two years, as I thought about my own life — losing a 25-year marriage, losing my children to their growing up, losing my youth to old age, losing my writing to my inability to make own self safe in the world, to find a place to belong, to be loved, and have a purpose…
As I watched each season go by that HANG THE MOON wasn’t finished, wasn’t published, and as the fragility of life came home to me…
I began writing again. Liz’s question haunted me: “Well, what CAN you write?” My mind drifted to Mississippi, to the landscape of my heart, and as I sat at my computer on May 3rd last year and thought of all this loss loss loss, I wrote this sentence. “I come from a family with a lot of dead people.” When I looked up many hours later, I had written three chapters of a new story. I sent them to Liz with a note: “This is what I can write.” She sent me back two words: “Keep going.”
Soon I had five chapters. Six. Seven. I began sending the pages to Liz who began to cheer me on.
I had begun to mine the most painful moments of my life – my entire life – in memories which had, some years later, been tempered by time and experience so that their meaning was clearer to me now. My heart could incorporate both sides of the stick, now, too — pleasure and pain, light and dark, hot and cold, sunshine and rain, death and birth – –
Loss was gain, too. Look at all I had gained in this past four years particularly. I had finally come to terms with my life, had come clearer, had surrendered to what was, began to create what was to be, and now, here came a little girl named… Comfort. Comfort Snowberger, age 10, who lives above the funeral home in Snapfinger, Mississippi with her brother Tidings, her sister Merry, other wacky relatives, and her best friend, Declaration.
I immediately recognized Comfort when she walked onto the page. I recognized her longing, her joy, her heart. And… guess what I did: I let her heart break. I let her wallow in her pain. I let her try, fail, and try again. Then I let her triumph.
I wrote through my fiftieth birthday in May, through my mother’s death in June, my father’s death in September, the final divorce decree in October, the decision to move to Atlanta in the spring, and my daughter’s graduation from high school this past June, just a month ago.
I wrote in airports, hotel rooms, waiting rooms. I wrote in bed, I wrote at my desk, I wrote at the kitchen table. I got off the road for two months and took a leap of faith that I would be held up, that I could finish a novel, that I could make my ends meet, that I was still a writer. I wrote.
Here is some of what I wrote. I was singing a hymn to myself now, and a hymn to all those children who told me their stories, to all those human beings who shared their lives with me and to all the tragedy and triumph of life:
[Read Chapter One]
In February, with the first draft almost complete, I answered the phone to Marc Aronson’s voice saying, “I’m calling you on behalf of the PEN American Center in New York to tell you that your story, ‘Untitled Novel’, has won for you the 2004 PEN/Phyllis Reynolds Naylor Working Writer Fellowship.”
I could not find my voice. But I sure could feel my heart. Liz had submitted to PEN these brand new pages of a brand new story in a brand new life, because she had thought them worthy, and now others said they were worthy, too. I was so grateful.
So… I went out and bought a black spandex dress. I went to New York in May to accept this award and I wore that dress. And – I finished my novel. The award had inspired me – I would finish, I would! Someone thought it was worth reading!
I revised as I packed boxes to move. I read through the copy edited manuscript as I waited for my furniture to arrive. I wrote my story.
And I tell you all this – why? Not because I want to say, “Look at me!” but because I want you to look at yourselves.
When I first came to Vermont I was still in shock, I could hardly speak, let alone focus or socialize. I called my friend Cindy from a pay phone when I was supposed to be attending a lecture, and I wailed on the phone to her. “I can’t do it. I’m going to quit and come home. I can’t possibly concentrate. I can’t learn anything. My life is a shambles…” and on and on.
Cindy listened calmly and then she said, in that listen-to-me voice I knew so well, “Debbie: Go back and sit in that room [this room] and look around you carefully. You don’t know these people yet, but someone in that room has just lost a husband, a wife, a child, a parent, a job. Someone has just been diagnosed with cancer. Someone is a cancer survivor… and on and on. We are all wounded. It’s not what has happened to you that is your story. It’s what you DO with what happens to you. You are no different from any other human being in that room – And you CAN do this. Hang up this phone and go to work.”
I did. And so do you, whatever your story. Risk telling your story. One semester while I was a student in Vermont, Laura Kvasnosky gave a lecture on creativity and said, “You have all made great sacrifices to be here…” Yes. I think of that line from time to time and about how sacrifice is something that seems to go hand in hand with art, with “discovery, discovery, discovery.”
What did I discover in the past four years?
1. It’s important to learn to wait. Sometimes you just have to wait.
2. Stop grasping and wanting. Listen, pay attention, be a witness to your life, acknowledge your heart. Be willing to live in the questions, amidst the impermanence surrounding you, where you must constantly recreate your safety.
3. Ask for help. “Family is a circle of friends who love you.” I will never be able to repay family and friends who held me up and family here in Vermont who taught me so much — not only about story, but about life. As I wrote Comfort’s story, I heard their voices in all the workshops I had attended, in all the letters I had received from advisors, in all the late night conversations with classmates…
4. Remember that life is lived in the opposites, constantly interweaving between pleasure and pain, in a never-ending dance of the unknown. I am still living in the unknown: I want to finish HANG THE MOON – can I do it? I don’t know. I hope I can.
I live in Atlanta now. I hope I can learn to negotiate a new city, a new home… a new love. I hope I can remember what I have learned. I hope I can be a good friend.
And one last thought that comes to me as I think about the road ahead: There is no safety, really. There is only an impermanence within which we can find ways to ground ourselves and live.
There is no safety.
There is only the agony — and the beauty – of
And there is the memory of this moment. There is the meaning we assign to that memory. It imprints itself upon our hearts. And, over time, our lives – and our stories – are defined by the way our hearts wrap themselves around these moments – all these moments — and love them for the gifts they bring us.
Thank you very much.