Who Am I, Anyway?

I’ve been ruminating on identity a lot lately.

Me.

Me.

At the San Francisco Writers Conference this past weekend, there were so many opportunities to tell someone who I was—in ten seconds or less. The first time someone asked “And what do you write?” I botched my answer, stumbling with some “Ums” and “wells” and “kind-ofs.” Then, I agonized over how I would introduce myself at my panel on revision on the second day, the one I was doing with two experienced editors in a room I suspected would be packed (it was). In my notebook I nervously jotted down phrases like “I write about the darkness in everyday experience” and “I write about the light and the dark of being a woman” and other horrendous, lofty mouthfuls I absolutely could not see myself pulling off in public.

Then one of the other editors from the panel, who is also a new friend and a lovely person with whom I’d just had a delicious lunch in Chinatown, said: “Just say it all—you’re a poet, you also write personal narrative, you write about your experiences with anxiety, motherhood, and infertility, and then mention your memoir.” Wow—that was easier. And when it came time to introduce myself at the panel, I said exactly that, switching the pronouns, and was amazed at how easily it rolled off the tongue and how comfortable I felt not stumbling with some catchy catch phrase. Later, two people came up to me to tell me they couldn’t wait for my memoir to get published, that it just sounded wonderful. Isn’t that nice?

And, perhaps because I wasn’t saddled to a catch phrase all weekend, I was able to let go and be a poet for a few days, too, speaking on a couple of poetry panels, workshopping, and reading at the Friday night poetry reading. A poem that’s been just sitting in my computer for two years was enthusiastically received—a poetry press editor insisted that I send her my manuscript, provided that poem is in it.

So I came away from the conference feeling pretty good.

At one stage, in the lobby of the hotel, a group of women somehow converged—we’re all mothers, and we all live relatively close to one another in the same town, and there was talk of us getting together to write or commiserate or workshop. A trading of email addresses and a “where do your kids go to school?”s. And somehow, in that moment, my identity shifted from “writer” to “mom who writes.”

“How old are your kids?” one asked another.

“Ten and eight. You?”

“Seven and five. You?”

Then it was my turn: “Six,” I said. “Just six.”

And while I felt a part of this, because we all know what it’s like to try to pull off a writing career when you’re also raising children, because we’ve all given birth and nursed and been up all night losing our minds with exhaustion, I felt again that other identity of which I’ve been so conscious in recent years: that I’m the mother of an only child. If you don’t have kids, you might think, what’s the difference? Either you’re a mom, or you’re not. But I tell you, it’s different, really; having one kid means when you have a playdate your house is still pretty manageably noisy, and your plane ticket bills are cheaper. And two bedrooms don’t feel cramped at all, and it’s not too hard to get a babysitter.

But it also means smarting when, at a babysitting co-op meeting, someone says casually, “Oh, it’s so crazy once you have your second!” and every woman in the room except you groans and nods in some kind of humble brag, lamenting and loving their full, full, and more full lives. This happened recently, and I sat there feeling utterly apart because I couldn’t say whether it’s crazy when you have two. Because I have not been able to have two. Because I may never know.

But while this was so hard for so many years, this feeling of wanting something I couldn’t have, lately I’ve been wondering if I really wanted it as badly as I thought I did. I’ve been wondering if maybe my life is just perfect as it is.

“God, it’s so nice to have adult conversations for a change,” one of the moms at the conference said, and I thought, but I have adult conversations all the time. My life is very manageable with one kid who’s in school or childcare 36 hours a week or more; I see friends, I work, and I spend many hours alone, writing. Besides, conversations with L have rarely been a chore. Maybe this is something about my kid, or my parenting, or something else, but I have realized lately how, when I’ve been so busy wanting something else, my nice life has been here all along with me.

And again, it’s kind of like writing. At a recent meeting of my Creative Women’s Cocktail Hour, my friend Ascha had us choose lines from a book of poetry and write them on an envelope. Then we shared the lines.

IMG_2811Mine—”like someone trying to walk through a fire,” “What I would do with the rest of my life,” and “your old soft body fallen against me”—all from The Gold Cell, by Sharon Olds—seemed to speak to how you have this relationship with something and it lasts your whole life. My writing and I, we’re like old lovers; we fight, we make up, we get on with it, we fight, we make up. We walk through fire together, and we’ll be together forever. And this is a comforting thought, because when my writing and I are not connecting, it doesn’t mean we’re breaking up; it’s all just part of the journey.

And I guess that’s a bit like parenting, too, like me parenting my one beautiful child: his young soft body fallen against me, for the rest of my life.

Like walking through a fire.

—-

Sharon Olds’s poem “After 37 Years My Mother Apologizes for my Childhood”

**Nota Bene! Susie will be reading on Friday, 2/26 at the Madness Radio Book Launch! With Bonfire Madigan, Will Hall, Jacks McNamara, Mandala Project, book contributors and more…1017 Ashmount St, Oakland, California 7pm. Hope to see you!** 

Making a Big Mess of Things

This morning, meditating on the back deck, I noticed California’s subtle signs of fall. As a New England transplant who grew up with dramatic fall weather and the trees in flames, the signs here are a little too subtle for me, but today was pretty good: a gorgeous late sunrise (we all piled into L’s bed to watch it through his windows at 7:15), walnut-tree leaves littering the deck, crisp air, and that slightly maudlin fall light that seems to strike diagonally. This weekend I’m planning to spend a lot of time in the woods, watching fall, clearing my head.

Image046

Fall’s diagonal light

Last night at my writing group I asked a few veteran fiction writers how to approach writing a novel. When I wrote my memoir, the plot was laid out in front of me; I didn’t have the blessing or the curse of having to make things up. (Sometimes, I wish I had, since many traditional publishers have been calling the story “too quiet.” What can I say? That’s my life. Quiet.) Given all this freedom, I have no idea what to do with it. I have 100 pages from last year’s NaNoWriMo, and then about 25 of a “new draft.” I have my main plot points. But deciding what happens in between—what should go on in, say, chapter 2—is beyond me. I stare at the laptop, longing for someone to tell me what to write.

Of course, I suppose the character could do that. In this terrific podcast, writer Elizabeth Gilbert talks about having a conversation with your book, and while I haven’t quite done that yet, I’m open to the idea that my main character, Hilly, could somehow tell me what’s next. Is that ludicrous? Yes, and no. Maybe I’m just not listening right.

But anyway, back to the writing group. We talked about writing exercises and introducing conflict and what the characters want and pushing myself to be more outrageous and maybe losing a major thread that’s not interesting me after all. But mainly what I took away from the conversation was to just make a big mess of things, for now. You can’t know what a character will do until you’ve written her, and then written her some more, and then written her some more. And maybe none of those scenes will make it into the book, but maybe they will. And maybe, as I write, keeping notes, starting new files, disorganizing everything and trying new things and then sticking it all back together again, I’ll learn what’s supposed to happen, what’s important to me, what’s important to Hilly and her friend V.

Making a mess terrifies me. As you know from posts like this, in my old age, much to the shock of my parents and brothers, I’m sure, I have actually become a hyper-organized individual. One of the beautiful things about writing, for eight years, a memoir with the plot laid out for me, was that I spent much of that time tinkering. Polishing. Moving things around. It felt joyful and straightforward (or maybe I’m misremembering all the hours I spent pulling my hair out, freaking out—probably). There is nothing straightforward about writing a novel, not when I’m in what we might call the ideation phase. Not when I have so little time to actually write these days. And especially not when I’m hoping against hope to finish this book before another decade has passed.

Nonetheless, I am resolved to try: to see what happens, to make a mess, to not know what’s coming next. Maybe there’s a metaphor here? (There always is.)

And, lest I leave you on that dubious note, here’s an old poem about fall.

OCTOBER

It’s raining colored paper.

No, birds—cardinals, orioles, and canaries,

swooping, dipping towards the hard surface

of the road, then gone. It’s the cornfields

have turned to paper, and a pumpkin

spills its guts on a front stoop.

A boy discovers it and starts to cry.

Who would do such a thing,

bring down the jagged grin, hard, on the steps?

Something in him falters.

He imagines his house on fire: water boiling

in the goldfish bowl, floating, weightless fish.

He thinks about God and Judas

and seventeen-year locusts, how they ruin things,

wringing his hands, worrying his fingernails

to splinters. He stares out at the fields,

counts minutes till schooltime, his breath

a neat circle on the window,

because it’s cold this October, already—

and there in the road is the flock of leaves,

swooping, dipping into the hard surface,

then gone. They touch down, and then they’re gone.

The cornfields have turned to paper,

and behind them the sky.

© Susie Meserve. This poem originally appeared in Indiana Review, Fall, 2001

Plug: California Prose Directory

I got an advance copy of the California Prose Directory 2013: New Writing from the Golden State, edited by my pal Charles McLeod. It’s a solid red brick of a library of California’s finest essays and short stories. To quote the back of the book, here are some of the gems you’ll find within: “A Vacaville rodeo. Hollywood quid pro quo. A verbal altercation at a Buddhist retreat. Nearly starving to death in the farmlands of Clovis. The Santa Anas blowing fire through the SoCal foothills.” (There’s quite a bit more, too.)

California Prose Directory amidst California poppies

California Prose Directory amidst California poppies

I’m just starting to read it, and so far, it’s a nice slice of life in the Golden State. It reminds me how, whatever you feel about California, you can’t deny the diversity of experience in a body of land as large as this one. Vacaville and Hollywood, for example, are worlds apart, despite being in the same state. I enjoyed the first short story in the book, “You Are Not Here” by Andrew Foster Altschul, which is set in San Francisco, in neighborhoods and on bus routes with which I’m intimately familiar, because I used to live there.

The Directory features writing by well-known and emerging writers alike, including Stephen Elliott, Vanessa Hua, Jasmin Darznik, Tom Molanphy, Erica Olsen, and Anthony Seidman.

Locals, please note that several writers from the anthology will be reading this coming Sunday, May 19, at 5:00 p.m. at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco (on 24th street near Folsom).

Summer Reading Redux: Recommendations?

Last June I posted a list of summer reads, and I thought I’d do the same this year. Looking back, I realize I did okay with my list; I read Wild, All the Pretty Horses, Operating Instructions, and Look at Me, but not necessarily all during the summer, and I ended up bailing on the New Yorker entirely (I finally let my subscription lapse).

What I hoped, readers, was to hear from you. What’s on your summer reading list, or what have you read recently and loved? My acupuncturist got me inspired to read some Jhumpa Lahiri; The California Prose Directory 2013 is on my nightstand now (and I’ll be plugging it next week), and I hope to finally tackle The Big House. I’ve also been pondering going through a Murakami phase. But other than that, I’m a wide-open book (ha!).

What do you recommend? I’ll compile a list, to be posted by summer vacation time. You’ll have to take care of your own beach umbrella and sunscreen.

Resilience

I went to a wonderful workshop over the weekend. It had nothing to do with writing, besides the fact that we journaled twice. It was, cue the didgeridoo and the candles, a workshop about getting over birth trauma. At one point we were asked to think of a power that we have. Some women chose capability, or strength; I chose resilience.

Ducks on a frozen pond, Vigelands Park, Oslo, Norway

Ducks on a frozen pond, Vigelands Park, Oslo, Norway

I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I chose resilience because in the context of my son’s birth the prevailing feeling is one of having bounced back, robustly, from the most difficult experience of my life. For a minute, after I chose “resilience,” I second-guessed myself: am I resilient? Really? And decided that yes, I was, and am.

When I gave birth to L things got very dark and very scary very quickly, but by the time I was being sewn up I was joking with the doctor about “the husband stitch” (I know, it’s sick) and the next day, bruised and exhausted, I was nonetheless myself again.

I’ve been thinking about resilience in a writer’s context, too. Don’t kid yourselves, people: this work can be really thankless. You can work at something for years and never get it published. You can feel amazingly accomplished one day, and the next, you suck. But if, like me, you choose to have faith in the process, you get back on the horse and keep writing, even when you’re incredibly discouraged. You choose resilience.

Last week I emailed a writer friend I hadn’t seen in a while. Sadly, she told me that she’s not doing very well. “I’m enraged with myself that I have been writing for ten years with very little to show for it,” she said. I had one of those moments when I thought, okay, I can relate; but I can’t get too far into this discussion or I will start to take that on myself. I just can’t count the years. I mean, I do, all the time; but really, it’s counterproductive. Sometimes I wonder whether my family and friends think I’ll never amount to anything, because I haven’t yet, right? And I have to gently tell that voice to shut up.

Maybe, in another ten years, if I’m still chipping away at a memoir and playing with poetry and trying to publish a couple of short stories–and none of it is going well–I will throw in the towel and go get a degree in art therapy or social work. But for now, I’m choosing to bounce back.

Check out Karen McHeggs’s latest over on popcorn, Establishing a Writing Habit. It’s a good reminder that the most important thing–in life, really!–is just showing up.

Sharon Olds

Last week was a rollercoaster, for many of us, I’m sure. The bombings in Boston, where I grew up, were a scary and melancholy backdrop to a host of personal stresses: taxes, two last-minute freelance jobs, papers to grade, and our car starting to overheat on the Bay Bridge at midnight (not to mention the next day’s $500 repair). Needless to say, I just didn’t find the time or the energy to sit down and write.

And so it’s a little late that I address the recent Pulitzer Prize winners. The only one whose work I’m familiar with at all is poet Sharon Olds, who took away the poetry prize. I haven’t read fiction writer Adam Johnson or non-fiction writer Gilbert King, though both men’s books look really fascinating. (Is it just me–random question–or is a lot of the fiction that’s popular these days historical fiction?)

Anyway, Sharon Olds. Her work is what we poets call “confessional,” meaning no subject is off the table. Olds writes exuberantly about sex and her husband’s body and her children’s bodies and her own breasts and all kinds of other subjects many of us find taboo; she writes about her daughter losing her virginity and her abuse as a child and a miscarriage in the toilet. She can be, I think, for many people, a little cringe-worthy.

But she’s an incredibly accomplished poet (after all, she just won the Pulitzer), prolific and unflinching. I don’t yet have her prize winner, Stag’s Leap, but on my shelf, conveniently, sits her 1983 book The Dead and the Living. Here is a beautiful poem from that collection called “Grandmother Love Poem.” Just in time for the last week of National Poetry Month.

Grandmother Love Poem

Late in her life, when we fell in love,

I’d take her out from the nursing home

for a chaser and two bourbons. She’d crack

a joke sharp as a tin lid

hot from the teeth of the can-opener,

and cackle her crack-corn laugh. Next to her

wit, she prided herself on her hair,

snowy and abundant. She would lift it up

at the nape of the neck, there in the bar,

and under the white, under the salt-and-

pepper, she’d show me her true color,

the color it was when she was a bride:

like her sex in the smoky light she would show me

the pure black.

© Sharon Olds

Losing Ourselves

I thought it was really interesting that two blog posts today were about the immersive (I think I just made up a word) world of fiction. The Living Notebook writes about Absorption today, about fiction that “brings us further into [a] dream, overwhelming our senses until the dream seems real.”

And over on popcorn, Karen McHegg discusses books that “create a world different from the one [she] lives in.” You can read about those books here.

It made me think: which books have most absorbed me in recent years? My first thought was Emma Donoghue’s brilliant novel Room. I also felt immersed in the strange world of Karen Russel’s Swamplandia and the more-real-yet-also-quite-strange one of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder.

Which books have absorbed you lately? Head on over to popcorn and tell Karen McHegg.

And me? Today I’m immersed in three-year-old land. L. had a touch of pinkeye, and I knew I’d get the stink eye if I sent him to school.

Onward,

Susie

Identity Politics

As I mentioned last week, a short story of mine is in this fiction contest and I’d be so pleased if you’d read it. If you like it, you can click “recommend.”

Interestingly, several people have commented to me on the fact that the narrator of the story is a guy. My father in law, for example, told me I had guys all wrong.

“How so?” I asked.

“You know that part where he does all that stuff he doesn’t want to do, all so he can get the girl?”

“Yesss,” I said, hesitant (I don’t entirely see Steve’s motives that way).

“Well, we don’t really act like that.”

(Later he told me he was just giving me a hard time.)

And my friend An Honest Mom told me she thought it was very “brave” to write in a guy’s voice, that it surprised her.

Is it naive that the identity of my narrator—him being a man, me being a woman—never even occurred to me? This has really gotten me thinking.

That story was an example of one that just kind of happened. It was based on a few real-life events; my husband’s stepmom had just died of cancer more quickly than any of us expected her to. I am from Boston, and a few of the Boston references were real. And I was reading Buddhism at the time. And I just love any story, song, or poem about a breakup, because it may be the one human experience we can all relate to: being dumped, or dumping, and the grief and conflict that go with it.

So yeah, I wrote from a guy’s perspective. Who knew?

I have only had three takers for Faith. Come on, people! Free book!

Happy Monday,

Susie

Vote for Me! (Or, the Shameless Self-Promotion Plug)

Well. Last week as I was frantically packing for a loooong Thanksgiving drive to Southern California I also managed to submit a short story to Medium’s Fiction Writing Contest. The story is called Shunyata. And I really hope you’ll read it. Then, if you like it, I hope you’ll vote for it. The system is a little tricky, but basically, you read; then you click “recommend.” Here is where it gets tricky. Once you hit recommend, you’re then asked to sign in to your Twitter account. I know–I didn’t have a Twitter account either. As far as I can tell, there’s no way around this but to get one. And then you can vote! (And if you want to follow me on Twitter, I’m @SusieMeserve.)

Here’s a teaser.

On the first Monday of last June my girlfriend Carrie’s mom got diagnosed with end-stage breast cancer and was dead the following Tuesday. It was one of those reverse miracles, an absolute mind-fuck. Me and Carrie flew to her parents’ house in Cleveland for the funeral. It was the first time I’d met her dad. I never met her mom. We didn’t really do parents so much.

“Steven,” Mr. Weathers said to me. “It’s good you’ve come.” I towered over him. Carrie said, “Oh, Dad,” and embraced him. I stood there patting the back of her leather jacket like an idiot, because I didn’t know what else to do.

I had known Carrie for what seemed like forever—two years, by then—but, it turned out, wasn’t, because you don’t really know someone until you’ve seen the photos their parents keep of them around the house. There was Carrie, on the piano, on the mantelpiece, in her dad’s study: blonde, blue-eyed, full-lipped, high cheekboned, a little pudgy. There she was in her band uniform. There she was in fake pearls and a pink taffeta dress at junior prom, smiling behind unfamiliar lipstick, like a little girl playing dress-up. There she was in her parents’ bedroom in a crackled photo with Tommy, her brother who died in a car accident when she was a senior in high school. When pressed, Carrie would say his death was probably what made her stop being a good girl, start smoking, start doing drugs, start wearing leather and motorcycle boots to class. The house in Cleveland suggested wealth and togetherness and wholesome family values, not my Carrie: cocktail waitress, smoker, heavy drinker—into taking long drives and suggesting we stop and fuck on the hood of my car.

Which, as far as I could remember, I had never refused.

And here is a photo of a Thanksgiving table, Southern California style. I hope everyone had a lovely day–I am grateful for many things, and for you, readers.