Wandering for Writers

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At dusk, several weeks ago, my family and I went on a picnic at the majestic Treman State Park. It is important to go to places at the wrong times, I think. 

My husband and I have been the only people on a volcano at high noon, and my family were once alone in a crumbling pyramid. One winter, long ago, I wandered through the ruins at Ephesus so unobserved I could have stolen a statue. It’s hard to get the imaginative jolt that comes from a place when it is packed with people, but when it was just us, as evening thickened, everything sparked. The wall of colored stones felt like messages from another realm. The dark gaps in the shale presented as entryways. The deep pools looked bottomless. 

Yesterday, we returned to Treman in a rainstorm. Just Coco and I. Coco likes the rain, and I had a hat, so we forged past the sheltering hikers until we were by ourselves in the dark, wet woods.  There’s something totally magnificent about this place. Much of the trail work was done during the WPA in the 1930s, but because of the moisture, and the way the soft shale crumbles, the stonework looks centuries old. 

The path is twisty and changes grade frequently, so you are always coming around a corner to something unexpected. On this visit, the journey was auditory, the dripping of the rain, the rustle of branches, the rush of the stream. Above you are precariously perched trees, hanging onto the cliff face by their toes. There’s a little sense of danger from the plummeting heights and narrow paths.

I already have a story from it, though maybe it’s one which will stay in the mulling realm and never see the page. Coco announced that she was going to put a waterfall in the narrative she’s been writing through pandemic. Not all experiences become writing, but certain conditions help. Quiet, movement, solitude, being somehow out of season.

“Robert H. Treman State Park is an area of wild beauty, with the rugged gorge called Enfield Glen as its scenic highlight. Winding trails follow the gorge past 12 waterfalls, including the 115-foot Lucifer Falls, to where visitors can see a mile-and-a-half down the wooded gorge as it winds its way to the lower park.“–https://parks.ny.gov/parks/135/details.aspx

Everything Should Have a Party

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The thunder clouds moved away and darkness fell over the drive-in theater. It seemed to me that the cars didn’t stop rolling in.

I saw friends from every part of my life. It was the middle of a pandemic, and it was a party. I got to thank people who’d helped me along the way. My friend Bob said all the perfect things about The Likely World, including that it is sad. I read from the funny part, though and told an embarrassing story about a teenaged crush I had/stalker situation I may have perpetrated. Kevin Colton captured one of the perfect moments of happiness of my adult life on film. 

I was surrounded by some of the most brilliant, creative, sparkly people I knew. And I thought, why don’t we do this for everyone’s accomplishments? Each academic book, each dance choreographed, each time someone does something brave, each pretty design, we should throw a party. 

Parties are hard right now, of course. Practically impossible. But I hope you’ll let me throw you one when this is all over, or at least attend to celebrate the amazing things you’ve done. Let’s dance, too. I miss dancing.

This week, if you have a moment, would you kindly drop a review on Amazon, and on Goodreads? You don’t have to have bought from the giant to leave a review, and these venues are important to getting the word out.  And if you are reading, post a selfie, or a quote you like, and tell your friends.  With my deepest gratitude, 


Today’s the Day!

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Folks–it is a scary and wonderful thing to put a book into the world, and every reader who reads this book does me an honor. I’m so grateful to each of you who has chosen to give your attention to The Likely World.

I can’t wait to hear what you think.  A book is inert until it reacts with its audience.  My fondest wish is that a reader somewhere will make something strange and unanticipated with The Likely World.

Mary Gaitskill calls it “bizarre and beautiful.”

In Vanity Fair, Lysley Tenorio calls it “unlike anything I’ve ever read.”

Chang-rae Lee says it’s ‘groovy, badass smart and totally trippy.”

And you?

xoxoxo Melanie

Real Life, Part II

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When I first started writing The Likely World, I thought of it as a ‘speculative memoir.’  There are lots of words that already exist for novels which ghost into non-fiction in interesting ways: roman-a-clefauto-fiction, and the humble autobiographical novel, but none of these words exactly described what I was trying to do which was to marry the speculative engine—‘what if’—to the creative process of memoir.

If you’ve ever tried to write about your own life, you know interesting things start to happen. You dig into a memory space in your mind, and over hours, days, details you thought you had forgotten surface. It’s like a cross between a neurological experiment and a research practice, and it’s cool to find yourself unearthing a memory you didn’t know you had.

I often tell people I’m a professional liar (this is probably subconsciously stolen from a line from a David Lehman poem I teach to my students, “Operation Memory”: ‘All my friends had jobs/As professional liars.”) What I mean is, I’m just an inveterate fiction writer. When I was doing story slams, where the rules are that you have to tell the truth for five minutes, I. Just. Couldn’t. 

Same in the book. And I wasn’t really trying that hard. I’d mine a memory, and then I would…speculate.What if it had been different? Who should I put in this scene instead of the person who was there? I’d wander off wildly. Then, when I sat down again, I would pull myself back to the memories. Why? I got nothing for you, except that novel writing is definitely a pathological condition, and maybe I was trying to keep some rooted relationship to myself. Naw, that’s a lie. I really don’t know why I did it.

Chapter four in the novel is the second chapter which deals with the narrator’s life at sixteen. She’s called Mellie. Wink. Wink. Subtle, huh?  I put her in an apartment where I actually lived with my mom. It was in a nice neighborhood, but it had bugs. In real life, I’m pretty proud of the way my mom made choices, on limited funds, when I was small. We sacrificed maybe having a nicer place so we could be in a safer and more convenient neighborhood. It turns out my mom was right to make this decision. Your zip code is one of the most reliable socio-economic indicators of future success. I also don’t have any shame about having been poor. Again, kind of proud that we scrabbled, and made it out, even if it might have been hard at the time. 

So there the scene is, in a real setting, and in pops this alternate-reality mother. If you know my mom, for example, you know she is a terrific hostess. That among her other qualities is a warmth which makes her guests feel welcome. That she is—or was before that jerk Corona came to town—most herself with a table full of great food and happy company. The mom in the scene is nervous around a guest, anxious about serving frozen fish sticks. And she’s a kind of mystic who reads past lives. Yeah, sure, my mom had a tarot phase in the seventies, but that’s like saying she had a polo shirt in the 80s or owned a tech stock in the nineties. So why did I put this imaginary woman in the apartment?

One thing about the character is that she bears some resemblance to the first fictional mother in the first story I published. This woman was also a mystic, and also a bit at sea. So, I guess I might think of her as an archetype.  Why she haunts my writing is a question for the therapist, I suppose. But, the point is, where a memoirist is bound to the things as they happened, the fiction writer plays in an infinite field. Anyone can appear, at any time, in any place. For me, this infinity is necessary to what I want to say, the lie that gets me through to the next scene. 

In the end, I abandoned the term ‘speculative memoir’ because I think it describes how I wrote, but probably not what I wrote. Still, a part of the label remains important to how I consider this book. I do hope readers will be sparked to think about the interplay between imaginative- and reality-based material, and how they operate differently, and sometimes collaboratively to make a whole.

There’s a small passage I did write with my real-life mom in mind, and it comes towards the end of part II, after Mellie has experienced a scarring trauma which will drive her motivation for the rest of the novel.  It’s not much of a spoiler, so I’ll end this post with the passage:

“For an instant, my mom is as tall as the Statue of Liberty; she is marking safe harbor for me. Mothers: what is missed in all your psychology is also their super powers to heal, is how a mother’s love is a port after a shipwreck. Sails tattered, mast split, it’s where you drift when all the instruments fail.”

The Likely World

Real Life, Part I

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There is a moment in reading something terrific where we lock in.  One minute, we are people holding books, and the next we are transported. This phenomenon, the forgetting of the self, is what I’m in it for. 

How does it happen? There’s an idea out there that this particular magic occurs when the prose is tethered to reality. A writer channels her life, and the words gain power. There’s something to this idea. I’m reading now Nina Renata Aron’s spectacular memoir, Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls (how’s that for a title, right?). In it she writes: “Every few days, I’d clean our bathroom, wiping with Lysol-drenched paper towels the delicate spray of dried blood that lay over most surfaces and reminded me of the spatter of colored dye on the outside of a jaw-breaker, the first layer that makes a white paste in your mouth as you suck it away.”  Stunning, yeah? And I do believe Aron could not have written this line had she not cleaned blood or eaten a jaw breaker.

But we find passages of such stark detail in works that are not based on personal lived experience as well. In, for example, Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, the author writes: “The beating room had a bloody mattress and a naked pillow that was covered instead by the overlapping from all the mouths that had bit into it.  Also: the gigantic industrial fan was the source of the roaring, the sound that traveled all over campus, farther than physics allowed.”

(sorry that blood is the theme here—I’m picking out vivid moments, and blood is vivid.)

Whitehead’s book is about an abusive boys’ reformatory school in Florida which is a fictionalized version of a real school, but which Whitehead certainly did not attend.  I want to go back to what I said about Aron, and to her words.  Although I’m sure she’s eaten a jaw breaker, and cleaned blood, that doesn’t mean that the jaw-breaker image occurred to her while she was doing it, or every time. Writing, even memoir, is not documentary in the way that a film or a newspaper article is. And even if works draw on lived experience, the alchemy of how that lived experience makes it to the page is unpredictable, unquantifiable.  The magic, that way words can transport you, happens because of words, that Aron chose to put the jawbreaker image there, with its suggestion of innocence, but also violence (jawbreakers are a pretty violent candy, yeah?) that’s how the magic happens. And, for sure, Whitehead did his research and collected details, but then he made them language. He chose ‘naked’ to describe the pillow, with its suggestion of vulnerability which also speaks of the boys’ vulnerability. Experience filters into work, but not directly, and always through the medium of language. In my next post, I’m going to talk about some unexpected ways that my real experience filtered into The Likely World and some ways it deviated from reality.