This essay is part of my memoir-in-progress, 318, about my childhood home that the fire department burned down as an exercise. Gratitude to all who have lent support, especially those who read & helped with early drafts; to Nick Flynn for Memoir as Bewilderment; and to Gina Frangello, for publishing this piece.
May we all find our way, as we work our way back up.
I keep many emails in my inbox. I don’t always archive, delete, or (if I’m honest) even read all the messages that arrive there. What’s weird is how often the precise number of messages in my inbox is 318. Maybe I am trying to recreate that place in any way I can, even through my electronic inertia and disarray.
My short story “Your House, Any House. That House” was published in Crooked Houses, a new anthology from Egaeus Press. The story was heavily inspired by the house in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where I grew up, which was burned down by the fire department (as an exercise) when the Village expanded Gaunt Park. (I am also writing a memoir about that house.)
The first printing of Crooked Houses sold out immediately, but the press plans a reprint in January 2021. It’s a great table of contents, and I’m honored to have my story included.
Revising rough paragraphs from the house memoir…realized it was actually a handful of deflated, sad sentences wanting to be a poem so I wrote them into a poem. And right now, I’m in love with the poem.
…revision’s cool heart, still to come, and time, will tell. (But for now it’s fun to fall in love with this unplanned poem.)
Each week, I email the week’s writing goals to my friend Diane. I’m grateful for this practice, because it helps me focus. (Thank you, Diane!) Today I wrote the following, which I thought I’d post here. I’m reframing a couple of things that have been getting in my way as I work on the memoir about my childhood house, 318.
Goals for this week:
1. Remind myself that I’m doing this for me, not for the publisher whose contest I plan to enter in January. The thought of pleasing someone else has become a huge, anxiety-producing barrier (someone I don’t know, someone who may want something very different from what doing, whose wants I cannot anticipate, etc.), so I am reframing thusly: I am doing this for myself. I need to please myself. It’s not an assignment someone else gave me.
2. I keep repeating “I’m lost” in the writing process. When I talk to people, I say, “I’m lost.” It is how I feel, but saying it again and again seems to be self-fulfilling. It doesn’t feel good to say “I’m lost.” I’m tired of saying I’m lost. It’s not a good kind of lost, like when you’re walking around Venice and you have no idea where you are, but you’re on vacation and there’s a gelato place so you get some melon gelato, let’s say, and it’s so delicious, and you walk a little bit more and you end up somewhere you recognize. This writing-a-memoir-lost is NOT like Venice lost. This lost feels kinda bad. So I realized this morning (as I did the morning pages from The Artist’s Way) that maybe I’m not lost, maybe I’m just OPEN. I have never been much of an outliner in my writing—it’s always been messy and organic. In that way, I’ve always been open. So maybe instead of “lost” I will start saying “open.” Being open feels much better than being lost. Being lost describes a struggle. I want to alleviate the struggle, the powerlessness.
I’m trying experiments where I don’t overthink some of the writing I release into the world. Where I don’t polish until it’s as perfect as my ego can make it (perfection is overrated and a lie, anyway.). This (below) is a raw something I wrote recently (some even tonight) and I will soon type it onto handmade paper by Sarah Strong for an exhibit called The Power Of Story, so I thought I’d also put it here.
I am from
1970s Osh Kosh overalls having
too much TV in the afternoon after school
Brady Bunch Courtship of Eddie’s Father, as sad a show as I have ever known.
What else in the afternoon in the house that is no longer there is the driveway even there anymore, I think not.
I am from a fire exercise a house burned down on purpose
it was my house but not really my house because we were renters.
Who did that fire serve, I hope someone, maybe it served my friend whose house burned down later because maybe the firefighters had learned something when they burned down my house.
Did they learn anything.
What did I learn.
Maybe just that stuff needs a place
but if you don’t have a place then
at least keep the stuff keep all the stuff you can from that place
from those days
(and later learn that whether or not you keep one damn thing it doesn’t matter
because stories stick to you better than the shadow to Peter Pan
and don’t need to be reattached by Wendy or anyone else.)
In college drawing class, I learned about negative space. If you look long enough at something, a shape forms around it: the thing where its object isn’t. So I look and look at nothing, pining for the past, wanting to yank back that day when we planted the live Christmas tree in the yard, or that other day when the circus was in the park next door, and my parents collected elephant poop to fertilize our garden. Elephants gone, dung gone too, no remnants now left. I want back so many other days. Memory provides only edges. Pinning decrepit butterflies to velvet, I smell the dust, turn around, look back, and find another disintegrating wing of the few things I can recall. I set out to order it all, by chronology, or theme; I make another list, “things that happened to my body,” such as falling down sixteen steps, such as running through the glass door. Anything that helps me contain the mess. But this story disobeys my desire for dramatic unity. It won’t sit still. Memory doesn’t fix itself close enough to truth, doesn’t allow our trust; the interior record is fuzzy, ephemeral. I call the county office to gather facts.
I’d like to know, for instance, when my house was burned down, when it began its exquisite disappearance.
It’s weird writing something when you don’t know you’re about to write the end of the thing. This might be the end of the ghost story I’m writing. We’ll see. But it seems like the end.
This photograph faded with time, as he told the story to Cricket, as he counted to one hundred, night after night as he himself drifted next to his child, wondering how on earth such a tender thing could continue to survive.