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.
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.
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.)
I’m happpy to announce that my story, “Rabbit, Cat, Girl” was accepted by Resurrection House for XIII. Here’s something about the anthology XIII from the website: “When Mark Teppo, the founder of Resurrection House, acquired Underland Press, he wanted to start numbering the titles that would be released under the new imprint. Before doing so, he wishes to acknowledge and celebrate What Was and What Will Be. “Thirteen” is the first month of a new yearly cycle, wherein the old skins have been shed and the newborns are still learning to walk. “One” and “Three” make “Four,” which is the number of completion, of coming home, and of realizing the form that has been in process for some time. Nothing is true; everything is possible. And the more things change, the more they stay the same. The thirteenth Tarot card is Death, and he is the symbol of transformation and rebirth.
This is the genesis and root of XIII.”
Ironic, to me, that when I heard the story had been accepted, in a vase in my house we had exactly what I describe in the story they’ll publish: “How lovely the lilies of the valley are, dead, brown-edged, drooping in the vase, the stem-slope curvier than when fresh, somehow more truly themselves, more graceful as they relax, tender bells now browning, baby hats tumbling off.”
Here’s another hint about the story. I’ll let you know when you can read more.
I just read an interesting story about piece of history owned by a psychologist, Dr. Barry Lubetkin, who treats hoarders. From this New York Times article:
“A couple of weeks ago, Dr. Lubetkin was idly trawling the Internet for information on Homer and Langley Collyer, urban hoarders known in the 1930s and ’40s as the Hermits of Harlem.
Elderly scions of an upper-class Manhattan family, the brothers had barricaded themselves in a sanctuary of clutter at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 128th Street.”
Turns out that Dr. Lubetkin owns the face of a clock that his father bought from the Collyers’ estate in 1947. (If you have not heard of the Collyers–and I had not until today–they were Homer and Langley Collyer, who, according to the oracle Wikipedia, “were eventually found dead in the Harlem brownstone where they had lived, surrounded by over 140 tons of collected items that they had amassed over several decades.”)
All this reminds me of a recurring dream. (There are two kinds of people in the world: people who recount their dreams to others, and people who cannot stand it when others recount dreams. If you are from the second category, please stop reading now.) My dream takes place in various settings, but the plot is always the same: I am looking around in a junk shop (or sometimes it’s an antique shop–there is a distinction, in life and in dream logic) and there, for sale, I see the Steiff and Schuco bears and various other toys (most often mohair stuffed animals) from my youth. I always have to buy them back, and it always seems strangely unfair. (And in a weird way, this recurring dream is one of the original germs that started me writing my novel, The Watery Girl.)
In real life, I still have those bears. I used to think I wanted to be buried with them. (I’m not kidding.) Interestingly (to me), lately I’ve been thinking about the difference between collector and hoarder. (There IS a difference, right?) For years now, my bears have been in boxes with the furniture and clothing I collected (and often made) for them when I was a child. Soon, I hope to realize the waking dream I have of setting up a dollhouse for them, so that I can look at them. So that they will haunt my waking as well as my sleep.
(And it’s not a coincidence that I write this post on the day that, at her request, I moved my six-year-old daughter’s dollhouse and all its contents from her room to the attic. She’s not ready to get rid of it yet, but she never plays with it, and wants more space in her room. There is something here. Something about generations, echoes, and ghosts…in finding this article about the clock face, and in my recurring dream plot, and in my writing this post today. Something that I need to mind.)
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.
As you five swell followers might know, I’ve been writing an essay about my childhood home that was burned down in a planned fire exercise when I was sixteen. A rabbit figures in the story. Here are a couple of excerpts.
After their pyrotechnic work was done, house gone, I returned to the remnants, stood on the ashes. Near where the shed had been, I found one of my small wool Steiff rabbits, intact, unscathed. A tiny symbol of the phantom limb of home–does keeping hold of stuff I had before the house disappeared stand in for a home? When I hold that rabbit in my hand, I feel something stable and secure, but that’s too simple.
Then later in the essay:
Now I hold the Steiff rabbit that didn’t burn. I imagine again walking across the charred land, finding the thing, the size of a cotton ball, where our garage had been. How hadn’t I packed it? How hadn’t it been torched? I want to touch, smell, hear, see, consume the moment of finding that rabbit.
So telling truth, I pin that rabbit to a velvet board, and into a new ghost story I shove the cute animal, twist rabbits against type, make them sinister, keep writing. Everything must be lit, and burn, then melt, transmogrify: everything must milk and then feed that famished ghost, memory.
At a fabulous Yellow Springs yard sale this morning, I found two Steiff rabbits, and bought the pair for a mere $7. It was like my recurring dreams of finding pieces of my childhood Steiff collection at antique stores and having to buy them back, but in reverse: this morning they were not my rabbits, and I was awake. Now they are on (the one clean corner of) my desk.
Just more evidence that things keep turning and turning, but won’t let us forget: carbon replaces itself, surprises us, and continues to haunt…
Writing churns things up. That churning is one of the most fantastic things about writing, one of the things I love, but it’s not comfortable. Facing things, really looking at things, staring dumbly at things, that kind of minute and honest reflection, can be difficult and unpleasant. You can also find small treasures there. In working on an essay about stuff (literal stuff, the items that tumble from my closet, the towers of papers and important detritus spanning my surfaces) I realized I actually need to be writing about my phantom limb: my childhood house that’s no longer there. It was burned down in a fire training exercise. I’ve written about it in my novel, immortalized it here and there.
This time I decided to write a short story about the house, about a ghost in the house, about the fire…currently, the stuff of the story is a huge mess, but it’s been satisfying to make. Right now I’m just generating words, ideas, the raw junk that I will attempt to shape into a story. It’s all I want to do, but it’s so untidy, so simultaneously new and ancient. Like my surfaces, it’s cluttered, noisy.