Guest Post, Eileen Cunniffe: Interior Spaces

Eileen CunniffeBang.

Bang, bang, bang.

Another shelf pried loose.

Bang, bang, bang, bang.

Nails bent and hammered into the wood. Another careful trip around the narrow landing, down the stairs, through the front door, down the driveway. Another long plank deposited beside the telephone pole. Back up the stairs.

Bang, bang, bang.

It felt good to be swinging a hammer, good to be working my body, giving my mind a rest. I felt busy, productive. And oddly satisfied to be breaking things down, splintering wood and dismantling the dark-stained desk, the uneven shelves, the flimsy cabinets. Out with the old.

I knew my next-door neighbors would be curious about the growing heap of lumber near the curb. Good. Maybe that would keep long-retired, well-intentioned George from asking about my job search or commenting on how much I seemed to enjoy spending time on my porch.

A few months earlier, I’d given myself permission to take the summer off after leaving a company where I’d worked for 18 years. I knew I had to get serious about finding a new job. But first, I had to face up to the 11×14-foot disaster area that was my home office. I’d intended to remodel that room when I’d moved in four years earlier, but somehow the project never made it to the top of my home-improvement list. Now, before I pushed myself back out into the world, I had to take that room apart and put it back together again. At the outset, I didn’t appreciate how much the room makeover had to do with the process of reinventing myself and—at long last—carving out the space for my writing life to begin in earnest. And not just the physical space.

When I’d first seen the house, I’d fallen for the built-in bookshelves in the living room.  A ready-made office in one of the four small bedrooms—with a built-in desk in one corner and floor-to-ceiling shelves on three walls—seemed too good to be true. But now, lopsided stacks of books, boxes of photographs and seemingly every scrap of paper I’d amassed in nearly half a century of living had overtaken the office.

I’d started clearing out the room in July, when it was too hot for the demolition work. I’d dragged countless boxes and bags across the small upstairs hallway, covering virtually every inch of available floor space in two other rooms.

In July, I still half-believed I could salvage the built-ins with a fresh coat of paint, maybe some new trim. I soon discovered that like every other project in my 1923 house, there were no quick fixes. Once I’d begun, it was like pulling at a loose thread on a sweater—the entire room began to unravel. Empty, the shelves sagged and tilted. Exposed, the plaster walls had hairline fractures and deep gouges. And cleared of debris, the homemade desk from another era was an ergonomic nightmare for a computer.

And that’s just what was going on in the room; in my head, things were tilting and unraveling, too, exposing damaged surfaces and occasionally giving me nightmares.

By August, it was clear I’d have to demolish the built-ins and invest in new furniture.

By September, renovating the room—as exhausting as it was physically—had become the easy part of the project.

Bang.

Bang, bang, bang.

It had been a long, hot summer, as evidenced by my sweat-soaked clothes, my damp hair, and the blazing sun that beat down on my freckled arms with every trip I made down the driveway with an armful of broken-up furniture.

All summer I’d been working out in my head—or trying to—who I wanted to be at the end of my mid-life respite from work. I’d been reading books and attending “outplacement” classes funded by my former employer. I was almost certain I wanted to find my next job in the nonprofit sector, although I hadn’t entirely ruled out starting a freelance writing business. I had a pretty good idea of what I didn’t want to do next—virtually anything I had done up to that point.  In August, I attended a nonfiction writing conference, although I felt like an imposter identifying myself as an actual writer; never mind that my summer of discontent had been punctuated with happy fits of writing, and I knew whatever I did next would have to allow for that to continue.

Still, I had more questions than answers about what my next chapter would look like. Until that September, it never occurred to me that some of the answers might be hiding under all that clutter from my office, or what I’d come to think of as The Museum of Me.

I dismantled the built-ins little by little. Early on each of my demolition mornings—before it got too hot in my un-air-conditioned house—I’d start with quiet tasks. I’d unscrew hinges or use a crowbar to coax strips of lumber and particleboard away from the floor and the interior walls of the cabinets below the desk. I’d tape  paint swatches to the yellowed walls or browse online for new, functional furniture. Then, once it was a respectable hour to start making noise, I’d let the hammer ring out against the wood, working as long as I could.

Then I’d shower, slip into clean shorts and a fresh t-shirt, and grab a pile of artifacts from one of the other rooms. I’d plunk myself down on the bare hardwood floor in the middle of the mess I was both making and unmaking. I’d wedge open a dusty box, a creaky binder or a long-forgotten journal—and there I’d stay for an hour, maybe three, right in the middle of some earlier version of myself.

Sometimes I felt guilty about all the time I was spending sorting through my archives. I should be writing, I’d think, as I flipped through speeches I’d written for other people, pictures of long-lost friends, copies of invoices from my days as a freelance medical editor. I should be looking for a job, I’d worry, as I sifted through airline ticket stubs, old performance reviews, or notes a younger me had made in the margins of her books. I should be getting out of the house more, I’d chide myself, as I reread papers I’d written in graduate school, flipped through postcards I’d collected while traveling, thumbed through the high-school and college yearbooks I’d helped to edit.

Yet day after day I stayed there, deciding what to keep, what to toss, what to shred; sometimes the shredding was practical (old pay stubs), other times cathartic (old boyfriends). Some items I kept to remind me of who or where I didn’t want to be anymore—a box of crayons from an absurd management meeting near the end of my corporate tenure. Some I saved because they made me laugh—a photograph of me and two co-workers in our 1980s business attire, on roller skates (it’s a long story); or because they made me cry—letters, obituaries cut from the newspaper; or because they helped me remember who I’d been—old business cards; or who I’d meant to be—scraps of poems I’d started, newsletter articles I’d written, words that had my name attached to them.

Bang.

Bang, bang, bang.

All those exposed surfaces to spackle and sand. All the possibilities contained in a can paint. All the October days spent dragging newly delivered furniture pieces up the stairs and around the narrow landing to make a new desk, new bookshelves, new file cabinets. Some assembly required. All the nails driven into four freshly painted walls to hang photographs and artwork carefully curated from my collections—or purchased for my new space—to surround me, remind me, inspire me. All the talismans artfully arranged to keep me true to myself until I found my way back into the world again; and again, after that.

If anyone had asked about all the hammering—say my neighbor George—I would have said I was up to my eyeballs in yet another home-improvement project. Only I knew what had really been going on up there, under all that paper, over all that splintered wood and plaster dust.

Guest Blog Post, Jerry Eckert: Land As Character

jerryeckertFrom Thoreau’s glacial puddle to Muir’s tectonic Sierras to Annie Dillard’s little creek, nature writers have sought for over 200 years to bring landscape into their essays with all the power of real characters. Arguably, with his landscape-laden Desert Solitaire, Ed Abbey launched modern nature writing. Those of us today who would write of nature, especially in the West, still have a vast supply of natural wonders and beauty around us to bring into our work. How can landscape become a character? Let’s ask what makes for memorable human characters.

First, more than cardboard cutouts, characters have texture and depth, and a good author will turn to several senses to capture these finer points. Sharp vision is always useful. But nature reaches us, often vividly, through touch, smell, sound, even taste in ways that humans cannot. Imagine caressing an alligator bark juniper with your eyes closed. Listen to how wind songs differ sliding through junipers vs. pines. Did you know Ponderosa pines are unique? Their bark smells like vanilla.

Second, great characters are alive, vibrant, never still. And so with Nature. Behind the pretty scenery, nature teems with dynamics for an author’s use. Nothing is static. Evolution is a work in progress, rending, rebuilding, creating wholly new forms from the shards. Even the lowly lichen, neither plant nor animal, sits there seemingly immobile on its granite boulder, quietly dissolving its host.

Characters have moods. To give Nature moods is anthropomorphic. But the experience of  Nature creates moods in others, in other characters, in the reader. The trauma and threat of violent storms are the easy parts. More challenging to the writer are Nature’s softer tones, the quiet promise of morning dew in Spring, the foreboding of a temperature shift in the breeze. As with humans, subtle mood changes wrought by Nature can run deep with meaning.

Characters interact with each other. Dominance, dependence, synergy, all abound in the intricately woven fabric of the natural world. The easy ones for the writer are the least interesting, when some natural element forces an altered path, a behavioral change in another character. The blizzard that drives a ship off course, a canyon that redirects the wanderer. More important are those bits of landscape that bring fundamental moral or intellectual change in a character. A mountain standing there, infusing strength into a quailing man, a bee alight on a columbine suggesting with fragile beauty the depth of our dependence on wilderness, the Milky Way blazing in darkest sky, telling us how infinitesimally small and insignificant we really are.

If we write the land into our essays as character, and the character that land interacts with most deeply is the reader, then we will have truly created art.

Do you have a recent story that might be enriched if you brought in the natural world?

Guest Post, Gregory J. Wolos: Dear Story

Gregory WolosDear Story—

It’s over between us. We knew it would come to this, and the news that you’ve been accepted by a new lover is a bittersweet reminder of what we once meant to each other.

It’s with an effort, Story, that I remember our first days together: you showed up at the back doorstep of my awareness—naked, untamed, willful—dangerous! You entered my life as a vague notion, a possibility. How could I resist falling passionately and obsessively in love? For weeks I could think of nothing else but you. Friends knew—they saw it in my inwardly turned eyes, my inattention to their conversation. “Not again,” they warned, shaking their heads. They know me to be a destructive lover.

And they were right—I followed my old patterns. It wasn’t enough to cherish you as you came to me—I had to try to change you. I insisted that you look a certain way: with fierce demagoguery I controlled your language; you spent time only where I allowed; only those individuals I chose for you were permitted inside your paragraphs. Worst of all, nearly every time we met I questioned your size. Trim down, I commanded, tighten up—what will others think? Yes, my lost love, I confess, how you appeared to others was always a priority—when they appraised you, what would they be thinking of me?

Can you believe that I was only searching for your heart? Can you believe the paradox of my love—my efforts to improve you were intended to prepare you to be loved by someone else.

Then, Story, you were nearly done. How old the new looks in retrospect. The truth is, in our last moments together, even as I straightened your seams, swept your hair from your eyes, and corrected with a finger wag the last imperfection of your speech, I was already forgetting you! “Finished” is a cruel word, dear Story. I sent you away, and you didn’t object. I forgot about you, until your new lover wrote: “Is Story available? We love her and want to feature her in our pages.” And without a moment’s pause I’ve given you up. It’s a formality—our end was born in our beginning.

It will be months before I see you again, Story. Our names will be paired, but you’ll no longer belong to me. My eyes will scan your glittering new font and narrow, justified columns, but I won’t read you. I’ll have archived your heart. Acquaintances will quote you to me, and I’ll look at them, confused. “Who?” I’ll ask. “What?”

I’ll be listening for the backdoor laughter of a new lover.

So, Story, adieu—forgive my fickleness—even the brief flirtation I’ve shared with this letter has cooled. It’s all part of the game.

Your Author,
Gregory J. Wolos

Guest Post, Courtney Mauk: On the Value of Nosiness

Sometimes on the subway my husband and I play a game. We choose a person and silently take in the details, from the obvious physical characteristics to the more subtle indicators of who this person is and what type of life he or she might lead (Is that a wedding ring? What’s the title of the book he’s reading, and is he really reading it? Why does she keep checking her watch? Look how she’s noticing her reflection in the window). We assemble narratives, which we share with each other later on, using the observed details to explain and defend until we combine our efforts into one story of a stranger we will most likely never see again. Some might call us nosy, but I prefer to think of us as curious. Either way, my husband and I are shameless. At restaurants we eavesdrop. One of us will catch a juicy tidbit at the next table and widen our eyes, and whatever conversation we were having will stop as we both lean forward and listen.

I have been a people-watcher all my life, and my home, New York City, is the perfect place to indulge. People are endlessly fascinating with their complexities and contradictions, their histories and quirks. But what really pulls me in is the raw humanness we all share—that mash-up of love, uncertainty, fear, and want swirling around just below the surface. We are more alike than we are different, yet these common vulnerabilities are the ones we guard most carefully, ashamed and afraid of the judgment of others, or even ourselves. When we let those vulnerabilities slip through—that is a moment of beauty.

If asked why I write, I could give many answers: compulsion; the joy of words; the freedom in creation; a desire to leave a mark, however small, on the world. But, really, I write for the same reason I read, and the same reason I people-watch: to learn about others and try to get at that common, messy human core. My novel, Spark, addresses subjects that have interested me for a long time; I’ve written elsewhere about my initial inspiration and the research involved. But the actual act of putting pen to paper began with one character, the narrator, Andrea. Her name came to me on a walk one afternoon and with it a feeling of anguish; I understood that she was a woman fighting to gain control and losing badly, although I didn’t know why yet. I wrote her name down in my notebook and began listing everything about her. From there, the relationships then the themes of the book revealed themselves to me.

Almost all my fiction begins this way, with one character coming up to me out of the ether. As I write, I feel that character pulling me along, as if the story is already there, the character impatient for me to uncover it. I’m sure my people-watching has helped, the details filed away in my subconscious for later use.

In my writing I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to bring out that messy human core as completely, or with as much clarity, as I would like, but it gives me something to strive for. And in the process, I find myself feeling more connected to those beautiful strangers on the subway.

Interview with Jocelyn Cullity

Jocelyn Cullity has published short fiction, creative nonfiction, documentary film and scholarship; she’s currently completing her first novel, set in 1857 India. Cullity teaches creative writing at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and also in the low-residency BFA program at Goddard College in Vermont.

Superstition Review: Your piece “Mutiny” takes place in India, and you’ve also co-written an analytical essay on female representation in Indian popular culture, specifically as perpetuated in media such as MTV India. What about India would you say inspires your writing?

Jocelyn Cullity: My British family on my mother’s side lived in India for five generations. The stories told to me by my mother and my great-aunts were more about India than anywhere else.

One of the most violent events in Indian history began in 1857 when Indian citizens revolted against the variety of injustices occurring during British rule. My ancestor, Ellen Huxham, was one of the women held hostage during a five-month siege in Lucknow during the “mutiny,” and she kept a diary during that time. When I was about 12, I transcribed her diary, and this event in particular stayed with me.

SR: Have you travelled to India and if so, were you inspired to write about it afterwards, or did you travel there because it inspired you?

JC: I have had the opportunity to visit India several times. I love India and I have gone when I can. I’ve gone to write, for research, but also just to visit family and friends. It was sometime after my last trip that I wrote the short story “Mutiny” as a part of my dissertation collection at Florida State University, and after that I began working on the novel.

SR: “Mutiny” begins, “India. May 24th, 1857.” What do you think it does for a story to have a concrete setting?

JC: Janet Burroway (the writer, teacher, and one of my mentors) has written that setting means more to writers than anything else. I do think that setting is everything, and that to establish an immediate concrete image of location in the reader’s mind is useful and most often necessary. When one is writing about a different country and a different century it’s crucial to establish time and place in the reader’s mind as soon as one can.

SR: There is an element of the supernatural in “Mutiny” that contrasts with the almost sparse narration. How did you envision your narrator when you began writing “Mutiny” and was this contrast your intention from the beginning, or did it develop after the fact?

JC: I don’t think I thought about this sort of contrast. The dead husband suddenly appeared in the doorway, and I wrote him down. To his wife, he is as real as the siege around her. However, I’m fascinated by the existence of supernatural elements in the short story, over the form’s history, so, as I think about it now, it doesn’t surprise me that the ghost character showed up.

SR: “Mutiny” is an excerpt from your forthcoming novel of the same name. How does it feel to see your work and your efforts coming together into a tangible form?

JC: I started the story “Mutiny” very tentatively. I had the feeling I should explore the character of Eva before embarking on a larger project; she is one of several important characters I’d been thinking of for the novel. Now it feels utterly inevitable to be writing the book. I’m almost finished and it is gratifying to see what I hope is coming together.

I should say that the title that I used for the short story — “Mutiny” – is used with a good dose of irony. The “mutiny of 1857” is still a phrase used by some; some others call it “India’s First War of Independence.” I have used the word “Mutiny” as a working title for the novel but I’m not completely sure yet if that’s what it will be called. I hope to decide that in the next months.

 

Worldwide Day of Occupation: Phoenix

Last Saturday was the Worldwide Day of Occupation, when protests of all sizes occurred in 1500 cities and 82 countries across the globe. Ten thousand people marched in the streets of Madrid. It’s estimated that 20,000 showed up to flood Times Square. And at the height of the protest here in Phoenix, between 1-2 thousand of us came to show our support at Cesar Chavez Plaza downtown.

Since the protests began on Wall Street one month ago, there has been a certain amount of criticism aimed at the people involved. One common charge is that the protestors are just bored college kids who protest for the sake of protesting. What I saw at Occupy Phoenix couldn’t have been further from that accusation. There were plenty of young people airing their frustrations over the lack of opportunity many of us will face once we graduate college. But there were also entire families whose small children proudly waved American flags as we marched as a group towards Martha T. Hance Park. There were a surprising number of older Americans airing the same grievances as the youth, including a stooped elderly couple that made sure to be in the front row of one of the impromptu assemblies at Cesar Chavez Plaza. The husband wore a hearing aide, so the wife made sure to wave his hand in support for him whenever a speaker expressed frustration that our system has failed us, the 99%.

Another criticism has been that the message is too muddled to make a difference. But I disagree. One message was loud and clear: we need peaceful action to show the world we’re listening, that the power must remain in the hands of the people. The myriad of problems the world faces is too large and diverse to fit on a protest sign. But the message that the interests of the many must take precedence over the interests of the few is one that unites the world, from Hong Kong to London to New York to Phoenix.

This weekend made me think about why art of all kinds is so crucial to civilization. Writers and artists are responsible for interpreting our surroundings, encapsulating the world in which we exist in a poem, or a story, or a painting. We make art to communicate and share ideas with the people of today, and to make our voices heard to the people of tomorrow. We are living in turbulent, fascinating times. I can hardly wait to see what art arises out of our struggles.

To see a list of writers who support the Occupy movement, including Dorianne Laux, whose work will be published in Issue 8 of Superstition Review, visit http://occupywriters.com/