Guest Post, Kelly Morris: Writing While Not Writing

Kelly Morris Bio PhotoLike most writers, I was an avid reader as a child. Even though I couldn’t tell you the name of most of my college professors, I can easily summon a mental picture of my elementary school librarian, Mrs. Blair. To this day when I read a story set in a library, even a decidedly grown-up story about librarians such as Aimee Bender’s Quiet Please, I still summon a mental picture of my elementary school library. (But not Mrs. Blair because that just feels wrong. If you’ve read the Bender story, you’ll understand why.)

I have a very clear memory of Mrs. Blair telling me once that when former students dropped by to visit and she asked them what they were reading, they often looked at her blankly and said, “I don’t have time to read for fun” or even “I don’t read anymore.”

Didn’t have time to read? Didn’t read at all? Did these former students also not have time to breathe or eat? I remember vowing that I would never be like those other students, that if Mrs. Blair asked me what I was reading in a year or two or three, I would always have an answer.

Memory is a tricky thing, though.

I think the writer equivalent to this question is “What are you working on?” Much like my younger self was horrified at the thought of not reading, there was a time I couldn’t imagine not writing every day. I thought this before I went back to school for an MFA, I thought this all through my program, I even thought this for a few years after I left school. I knew that writing kept me sane and made me a kinder mom/partner/friend, and I was thankful that I always found the time for it, that I always had an answer to “What are you working on?”

Of course we all know how this kind of story ends – it ends with someone admitting they have not written in awhile.

Even though when I look back on my childhood and young adulthood I always remember having time or finding time to read, I know this couldn’t possibly have been true all the time. Times in high school and in college, for example, when I needed to prioritize studying for finals or reading for class. But these memories of not reading don’t have the same emotional pull as my eleven-year-old self learning that some people didn’t read at all once they left elementary school.

In some ways I know this is all part of the writing process, the ebb and flow of it. We can’t always be in a manic creative phase, or even a steady creative phase. Of course, there are days I am comforted by this thought, and days I am not. A friend recently reminded me there are ways to write without writing, to do without doing, if you want to get Taoist about it. You can look through your old submissions, you can analyze the beginnings of stories that never went anywhere, you can re-read short stories you admire (and ones you don’t), you can write outside your genre, turning scenes from a story into a screenplay or a poem into a work of flash fiction, and you can show up in front of your computer and stare blankly at it and spend an entire morning adding, and then deleting, a comma.

When I look back on my writing life, I wonder if I’ll mostly remember the times I was inspired to write, when I diligently sat down to work because I wanted to, because I needed to. I suppose I’ll have to wait to find out what my memory decides to do with those times when writing temporarily moved from the driver’s seat to the backseat.

Guest Post, Anthony Varallo: Homage to the School Book Fair

book fairDo you remember your school’s book fair? Ours was held in the library, the tables transformed into merchandise displays, books facing out from cardboard stands shaped like Snoopy’s doghouse or Clifford’s gigantic bowl, books grouped by series, recognizable in an instant, the red and white Choose Your Own Adventure logo; the Garfield books arranged like long, squat bricks; Hardy Boys books a blue sky, Nancy Drew a field of yellow. Pricey hardback picture books, too, that always included, year after faithful year, Green Eggs and Ham and Where the Wild Things Are, even though this was elementary school, Dr. Seuss long since replaced by Gary Paulsen. Looking at the picture books a crime punishable by lunchroom teasing.

We would visit the fair as a class, our teachers instructing us that we had a few minutes to browse and make our choices, but not to bend the books, which seemed contradictory instructions. You couldn’t really make your choice without bending the book, at least a little.  We handled Garfield At Large and The Mystery of Chimney Rock and You’ll Flip, Charlie Brown as if they were the First Folio. We checked prices, added up sums, estimated how much money we could wheedle from our parents. But it’s for books, Mom. You’re always saying how important reading is, right? Everyone else is getting at least twice that much.  

It was strange to see the school library—the last word in free stuff—become a place of commerce. Two book fair representatives sat at the checkout desk, the place where our librarian, Mrs. Dougherty, usually stamped our copies of Baseball’s Greatest Plays or Shark Attack! weeks before we lost them on the bus, the representatives wearing nametags, oddly overdressed, a black cash box atop the desk, a key turned inside its lock. We weren’t used to buying things at school, and we certainly weren’t used to the library being a place where everyone wanted to go.  If the library got too noisy, Mrs. Dougherty would sometimes punish us by making us put our heads down and turning off the lights. After school, the library doubled as a detention center. It was thrilling to think about buying books at the library, as exciting as it would have been if McDonalds took over our cafeteria and served up Big Macs and fries.

Later, we’d return to the book fair, sometimes with parents or grandparents (and parents’ wallets and grandparents’ wallets) in tow. Look, we’d say, and pretend we’d just discovered a book we’d been bending all week, its contents nearly memorized, its cost already factored into our asking price. Can we get it? Our parents would regard the book skeptically. This? they’d say. Isn’t this a little young for you? Then they’d reach for a mass-market paperback, Where the Red Fern Grows or Call It Courage or Johnny Tremain, and say, How about one of these instead?  And, since we’d anticipated them suggesting something exactly like that, and since we’d already factored the price into our plan, we’d say, Sure, we can get one of those, too.

Nowadays, I am that parent at my children’s school book fair. I’m the one who tries to steer them away from books about puppies solving mysteries in France (note adorable beret-wearing pooch on cover), or TV show tie-ins, or the umpteen bazillion books about video games, video games, and more video games. Still, my children want these, and I want them to want books, and I’ve never been good at not spending money on books, so to the register we go, where all the other parents are waiting in line with their children and their children’s stacks of mostly terrible books. We parents give each other a look, as easy to read as any of these slim volumes: wish we could have gotten these on Amazon instead.

Guest Post, Maria Hummel: My First Librarian

Mrs. Blackwell’s face was wide, like a butterfly, but her eyes were small and slightly unkind. The flat planes of her cheeks began and ended with their blueness and ire. I didn’t like meeting Mrs. Blackwell’s gaze, so whenever I went to the school library, I avoided her and kept her in my peripheral vision.

Mrs. Blackwell always dressed in navy pant-suits and sat at a broad desk in the center of the room. The desk was barren except for a binder or two, but this was the era before personal computers, so every desk was like this. A place to sit. A place to type or tabulate. If you had nothing to type or tabulate—and if you were a woman, especially if you were a woman—its emptiness yawned in front of you. Perched there, Mrs. Blackwell reminded me of a captain on a stalled ship, grimly eying the horizon.

At some point between Creation and the year I entered kindergarten, Mrs. Blackwell had catalogued the known world into Units. The Units sat in folders on a shelf, labeled in her clear hand: “Ants,” “Fish,” “Amphibians,” “Metric Measurements.” The Units never changed and they had an inviolable order. If you came to the library you were supposed to study the Units, which meant taking down the next folder in succession and bringing it to Mrs. Blackwell, who would supply you with a worksheet and film strip to watch. The film strips held the answers to the questions on your worksheet. For example, studying “Ants,” one of the first Units, you might click to a slide that showed a glistening red insect and announced, “Ants have a head, thorax, and abdomen.” Then you would fill in the corresponding blank on the worksheet that asked about the three body parts of the ant. Head, thorax, abdomen.

It was rote learning at its finest. And those film strips—how to describe them to today’s children, whose gentlest touch onscreen can kindle fireworks, pies, and flying birds! The films curled like snakes and snapped at your hands as you fed them into the machines. Their images were cracked. Their voices droned. They emitted an urgent bing, indicating a new slide, that to this day could startle me rigidly awake.

Horses I must have dozed off a lot, because I never made it past the lower rungs of evolution. All I wanted to study was Horses, but first I had to progress through thirty or more Units devoted to Bees, Fish, Amphibians, Reptiles, and Weather. I remember hungrily asking about the Unit on equines and being shown where the tan folder stood, so high on the shelf it would have given me a nosebleed to climb to it. I remember Mrs. Blackwell’s short white finger, her expression of vindictive triumph.

Mrs. Blackwell didn’t hate me personally. She hated the whole messy, snotty, careless lot of us who trooped through her room and ruined her tidy system of knowledge. In her fifties, Mrs. Blackwell was from the last generation of American women who felt compelled to choose jobs in schools or hospitals if they worked outside the home. She was a blip in history—a female caught in the lingering shackles of gender expectation. Sometimes I wonder if she envied us little girls daydreaming our way through the same Units as the boys, almost as likely to be doctors or lawyers or engineers as they. But I prefer to think she didn’t believe such transformations were possible, and this was what made her so inflexible with all the kids at our lower-middle class school. Ants. Fish. Humble creatures that crawled and swam should not be preempted by gallopers.

One day I strayed to a section of chapter books just beyond the kindergarten shelves and was flipping my way through an illustrated copy of Mutiny on the Bounty when I had a sudden and strong urge to pee. I froze. I wasn’t quite sure where the bathroom was and I didn’t want Mrs. Blackwell to take me. So I stood there, staring at an ink drawing of defiant sailors wrapping their officers in chains until the urine poured from me in giant splashes. When the flow stopped, I moved away from the wet spot in the carpet, and hid, staring at the word MUTINY, until some gentle parent-volunteer came and found me.

Oh, Maria, come here,” she said. I took her hand, sodden and relieved, and left the dark stain behind, a gift and a debt to my first librarian.

I never got to Horses with Mrs. Blackwell because a few years later my family moved to the country, where I encountered in wild profusion the insects and little critters of her Units. Robins and grosbeaks appeared in March and April. Trout flickered in the brook’s green pools in June.

Our barn also housed a real equine: a quarter horse. King was nineteen and his owner paid us a small monthly fee to board him. His red-brown height and musky scent filled his stall in winter; in spring he haunted the corners of his paddock and ripped up clover with mildewed incisors. Whenever I rode him, King shied from down-hills and charged the up-hills, sometimes tossing me off.

I had seen the bitter, impersonal dislike in King’s eyes once before, and recognized it. So did my parents. They blamed his sullenness on his long succession of absentee owners. I was told that if someone like me had really loved and raised King as an individual, he would be a different horse. Sometimes, walking the fields to the barn to do my chores, I imagined those lost autumns and springs, nursing a rickety colt, tossing the first harness over his head, my pockets stuffed with carrots. Other times I watched the bees collecting pollen from the cornflowers, and the ants digging their tunnels beneath, and it seemed to me like the world and life could possess a beautiful logic.

But when King’s owner offered to sell him to us cheap, I led the refusal to buy him. Won’t it end up costing too much? I said.

In truth, I didn’t especially like rising early to chip the ice from King’s water bucket, or grooming his mud-crusted coat. I preferred lying in my soft bed, reading my books from the library.