Last night I read my poetry master’s thesis in my childhood bedroom on a Zoom call. The walls of my room are painted like the rainforest from third grade when I obsessed over jungles and canopies. In the background, my cohort and professors could probably make out the blue sky painted on the ceiling of the room and the closet in the background that still houses old dresses, short-shorts, and cosplay costumes from high school.
I haven’t lived at my parents’ house consistently for over six years. Part of that distance has to do with coming out as a queer transgender person. I have returned after my housemates and I were unable to make rent in our New York apartment due to COVID19 closures and uncertainty of future employment.
The juxtaposition between my childhood bedroom, a place where I grappled for the first part of my life with gender, sexuality, and mental health, and the achievement of finishing an MFA as a queer trans poet, is, ironically, something I could see myself having written into a poem months ago before any of this began.
In my poetry, I often turn to the surreal, the fantastical, the paranormal, and the absurd to make sense of the fulcrums of my life and my place in society as a queer person. The deeper we wade into the pandemic and into the increasingly disturbing and violent American landscape, the weirder and weirder I have found my poetry becoming. Usually, before the pandemic, I would take notes to write poems daily but I have found myself waking up and leaning into whatever images are stalking my thoughts. I find comfort in my strangeness because the worlds that warp and distort time feel more real and true than the present.
This past week I have been reading a collection of poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky, who I admittedly only stumbled upon because there’s a Frank O’Hara poem I love titled by his name. In his poems, I find the threads of my own tilting away from realism in order to grapple with injustice. There is a sad humor to his speakers similar to O’Hara’s. In, “An Extraordinary Adventure Which Befell Vladimir Mayakovsky in a Summer Cottage,” he writes:
And beyond that village yawned a hole, into that hole- and not just maybe – the sun for certain always rolled, slowly, surely, daily. At morn to flood the world again the sun rose up- and ruddied it. Day after day it happened this way, till I got fed up with it.
And one day I let out such a shout, that everything grew pale, point-blank at the sun I yelled: “Get out! Enough of loafing there in hell!”
This moment in the poem sticks with me because the idea the sun could retreat into a hole and then the speaker’s anger and address to the sun tells us something I think is incommunicable without turning away from “reality.” The earnestness of the speaker and the futility of yelling at the sun is much like how I feel right now. The bends in perception capture what we are experiencing as humans who also implicated and interpolated in complex systems of oppression in a time of great loss, grief, and injustice.
The speaker shouting “Get out!” embodies how I have been experiencing time. I forget what day it is. An afternoon takes eons and then a week is totally gone. The speaker wants the persistent cycles to stop and even chastises the sun for his role in this.
I wish I had more time to find endings. Instead, I have been brought back to a physical place full many of my ghosts.
In the absurd and surreal I find my contradictions survive together. There is healing in letting the worlds of my poems unravel in ways the physical word doesn’t allow for. I’ll leave you with the last lines of a poem I wrote today:
i hope the sky is eventually mauve. i hope the stone melts to magma & the mountains finally get to experience a real transformation. i too turned to liquid & cooled in the stream. pillow over my head. the sun is blinking or winking who can know which?
Today we are pleased to feature poet Jessica Mehta as our Authors Talk series contributor. Mehta talks about her poem “Bars and Planets” and how her writing is connected to her childhood and family history. Mehta mentions in her talk “everything I write stems from my perspective and my lens of growing up in an abusive household, in a household full of substance abuse, as a Native American woman, as someone who has seen these very specific traumas,” which provides a “marker” of her work.
Jessica Mehta’s poem appears in Issue 21 of Superstition Review.
On a Sunday in late sleety March, 1984 my clan was celebrating Grandmother’s seventieth anniversary. We lived in Zaporozhye, a failed industrial giant in the south-east of Ukraine. There was a deluge of toasts, vodka, champagne, red caviar and homemade poems.
The toasts and the poems were all pompous nonsense, the caviar too salty. My cousin Shurik and I were exiled to the nursery because we had crawled under the dinner table, moving the white linen cloth dangerously while taking off the guests’ shoes. We were ordered to occupy ourselves with quiet games until they called us in for tea and cake. In the nursery, Shurik and I had exhausted both classic Scrabble and table football; then the less Orthodox, self-invented “Beat the Lazy Fool” and “Husband and Wife Are Looking for a Treasure under the Bed.” Still, there was no news of the dessert, and we were getting bored yet again. So I took a sketch book and some felt tips and drew a jagged oval in the middle of the page.
I told Shurik, “This is the Island of Poovia in the Souporific Ocean.”
“Is it mine?” Shurik asked. “Only half of it, but you are President,” I said, generously giving the younger sibling priority and ascribing myself the post of the Chancellor.
While the President was draining the blue felt tip to color the Souporific Ocean, the Chancellor distributed the remaining political power on Poovia among the members of the family. We knew no one else who we could command to fulfill state duties and practice the pronunciation of their new names, far too convoluted even for Ukrainian tongues.
The two remaining hours before the dessert passed unnoticed, and then we were finally gorging ourselves on the delicious Napoleon cake and seeping Krasnodar tea. Our parents, laughing and cursing, were stumbling on the new names that I had printed on paper slips: Myrrn Kyldynysyvj, Minister of Defense; Ryitta Brbukhovva, State Secretary – just to mention the easiest ones. Only for Grandmother, a retired piano teacher, had we made a magnanimous exception. She got an easy, mellow name of Marrám Lalá and the cushy post of the Minister of Culture.
Thus, in 1984, behind the Iron Curtain, we suddenly had a whole island to ourselves, and believe me, it was a most tropical one. Tangerines that we could only eat on the New Year’s Eve in real life, were served to the President first thing every morning. Many a felt tip was spent depicting the President’s palace, beaches, palm groves, and on designing the gorgeous Chancellor’s dresses.
Truth to say, the rest of the government didn’t do anything at all besides asking us, from time to time, “And are you still playing that game, what’s its name… Peevia?”
The only goal of Poovian politics was fostering a huge, harmless and humorous cult of the President’s personality – oh that girl who had had an operation to engrave his name on her ventricle; oh that funny fat man who had stolen the President’s night pot.
For Shurik, the main sense of Poovia was its two football teams sponsored by the competing electronic corporations, the Chancellor’s Melon and the President’s Cucumber. Each of the footballers had his own personality: the Melon goalkeeper, for instance, was so slow that a crow made a nest on his head during the final match. Needless to say, the Cucumber won more often.
For me, the beauty of Poovia was in creating a new language. I compiled a dictionary of Poovarian, about two hundred splendid words – verbs, nouns, adjectives, idioms that existed, I could swear, in no other language (for example, to compliment a beautiful woman, one would have to say, “What bald teeth you have!”) The grammar of Poovarian resembled Russian, with a tinge, as I discovered only not long ago, of French and Turkish. I wrote the National Poovarian Anthem, some songs for pop-stars, and many articles for the quality newspapers and tabloids – all that at the expense of homework.
With the help of a primitive cassette recorder, we broadcast important balls and receptions. We interviewed the President, the Chancellor and, occasionally, the increasingly senile and hence the least microphone-shy Marrám Lalá.
Poovia thrived for three years, five cassettes and fifteen sketch books. Then Shurik and I were blown away from the island, estranged from each other by puberty.
Children’s life in the Soviet Union was not so awful as to need radical distractions. We had our share of fun: music lessons, table tennis, and we both attended a good school with in-depth English instruction. Eating tangerines once a year in no way meant that we starved. Living in communal flats or tower blocks did not make us claustrophobic. For us, tales about Lenin as a little boy did not sound like brainwashing and a children’s military parade at the primary school was as normal as ABC. In 1984, we did not feel trapped in an anti-utopia.
Now I see Poovia as a nursery presentiment of emigration: a dress rehearsal a decade in advance; an intuition, naïve but not entirely wrong, of western life as we perceived it later. For me, it was also a dress rehearsal of writing, in a language not my own.
Shurik and I still remember each other’s birthdays. “Are your teeth still bald?” he always asks me instead of congratulating.
Little did we know then that Shurik would become one of the first high school graduates in the ex-USSR to go to study abroad, first in Switzerland, then in England, and end up working in a renowned London bank. The floor of his living-room is the size of a football field and wears a snow-white carpet.
I was very happy to escape the 1990s chaos and corruption of the post-Soviet Ukraine – nothing would ever change and I didn’t feel responsible for improving things at the cost of my personal goals. I entered the period of a decade-long denial of my motherland, busy building a new life from scratch. Leipzig, Germany became my new home. To my parents, my carpetless living-room seems the size of a tennis court. When they visit me, I tell them that when we go to Cyprus in March, ripe tangerines fall down from the trees, and no one cares to pick them.
It was in 2014 that Ukraine pulled me back into its courageous, fiery orbit of the Maidan and the War of Independence with its terrible toll. I scarcely believed my ears and eyes when the world news uttered the name of Donetsk, my alma mater city in the east, and its adjacent towns, and showed those tranquil, drowsy places in fire and chaos. I could do little about it, apart from feeling acute empathy and shame. The only thing that made up for my denial was translating wonderful, inimitable contemporary Ukrainian poetry into English for publication in American and British literary magazines and anthologies.
Last year, I broke my self-imposed moratorium and flew to Kiev. I met my old college mates who’d had to flee the war-afflicted territories where they had enjoyed well-established lives. The airplane was landing, and I looked down from the window in impatient, torn anticipation. The blue Dnieper River sparkled in the light of the setting sun and in its middle, it wasn’t the ancient capital of Kiev I saw. It was my Island of Poovia that stretched under the plane wings in all its 1984 splendor.
Today we are pleased to feature author Julie Marie Wade as our Authors Talk series contributor. In her podcast, Julie discusses the influence of Bernard Cooper’s Truth Serum on her work, like “Where I’m From” and The Regulars. She explains how Cooper’s memoir made her feel more comfortable exploring different essay lengths. In particular, she was inspired by Cooper’s essay, “Where to Begin,” which Julie describes as “really profound to [her] in its compression and how well it establishes what you can expect in the larger volume.”
Julie also reveals the driving force of “trying to figure out what it meant to come from a particular kind of world, where in [her] family being a regular person (synonymous with normal) was the goal.” Julie concludes by reading her essay aloud to contextualize these insights.
Congratulations to SR Contributor Kathleen McCormick on her first novel, Dodging Satan: My Irish/Italian, Sometimes Awesome, But Mostly Creepy, Childhood (Sand Hill Review Press). It is currently available for purchase on Kindle, and will be released in paperback later this month.
The book is a feminist coming of age story of Catholic Bridget Flaherty set in the ’60s. It’s a fun—and readers so far have said— moving read. Annie Lanzillotto (L is for Lion) has written: “In scenes from laugh-out-loud Catholic brainwashing of children, to heart-wrenching domestic violence, to riveting teenage excursions toward sex, Bridget navigates gender in both domestic and celestial hierarchies…. Frightening and glorious relationships exist between phosphorous and holiness, virgins and bicycles, crucifixes and spices, exorcism and mascara.” Josephine Hendin (Heart Breakers: Women and Violence in Contemporary Culture and Literature) says that Dodging Satan “outdoes Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood in its wit, intelligence and irresistible mixture of realism and charm. It is simply a joy to read.”
For more of Kathleen’s work, visit her website and read her short essay in Issue 12.
“The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds.”
—Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
“What a tension of childhoods there must be, held in reserve at the bottom our being, for a poet’s image to make us suddenly relive our memories, reimagining our images by starting from well assembled words.”
—Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie
I went camping recently in the Mokulumne Wilderness, 8200 feet up in a remote region of Northern California. I had last been there with my three daughters and a boy who was fond of the eldest. He was the first of his kind, the first boy, to be invited on a family trip. His name was Magellan, which elicited no end to the commentary from friends and acquaintances. You let a boy named Magellan near your girls? But Sophie and Magellan were twelve, going steady, so to speak, banned by his parents from even the small gesture of hand-holding, and he was sweet with her, not-holding her hand as she climbed granite boulders six feet high and roasting marshmallows expressly for her as she lazed about in a camp chair by the trickle of late July snowmelt.
As the night grew frosty beneath the stars he began to tell us stories about growing up in Alaska. His father had taken him backpacking several times in the Alaskan wilds. His earliest memory of this was when he was about seven years old. “We didn’t take blankets, so when we got cold, we lay on the ground and covered ourselves really deep with leaves” he told us, with a mixture of apology and pride and embarrassment. He went on to say that he and his father also took very little food, eating what they found for sustenance. What they ate, exactly, he left vague and unspecific. “Sometimes we ate berries if the bears hadn’t gotten there first,” he said. This wasn’t a romanticized account; he was clearly grateful to be in the presence of such amenities as a campfire and not-dogs, to be “roughing it” with four girls who were more suited to the comforts of home.
I spent a good deal of that night imagining his seven-year-old self Christopher McCandlessing his way through the tundra, plucking berries of unknown origin, and I fed him the fare of a farmhand for the rest of the trip, trying to fatten him, I suppose, like a little Hansel. I’ve revisited his stories a number of times since, trying to crawl into his childhood for a while to see how it must have worked. What was the wilderness like to him, in that small body of his? How did its skies look from the spot where only his eyes showed through the autumn foliage, lying awake next to a father who was philosophically opposed to comfort, curled up in a pile of dry leaves? It is not unimaginable, of course; his experience was neither more memorable nor more terrible than the childhoods of Frank McCourt, or Jeanette Winterson, or the countless other orphans and refugees and neglected offspring who have given us their narratives as testimony to the infinitude of ways children can be both deeply vulnerable and deeply resilient. Even poetry seems to have developed a preference for the ‘true,’ the factual—the eyewitness testimony, the documentary footage—in place of the imagined. It is interesting to think about the impulses behind the ascendance of memoir in both prose and poetry, the prevalence of attempts to climb into someone else’s childhood, or back into one’s own, perhaps as a way of learning empathy, especially in an era that simultaneously whines about a lack of such emotion and demands it with a fervor that borders on militancy. Depicting childhood as a largely terrifying enterprise is common. The impulse seems to be to create empathy, and perhaps change, out of the recognition of suffering and grief.
But the imaginative landscape of the non-terrifying childhood, the sort of childhood that is shaped more by curiosity and exploration than by the kind of trauma and abuse that forces one to adopt a defensive posture, is also worth dwelling in. “Childhood is the well of being,” writes Bachelard, in his confounding, intriguing book The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos. Richard Linklater’s film “Boyhood” does this amazingly well, and watching it with a large audience recently I was intrigued by the reactions to some of the scenes. We are so inured to injury and emergency, both as narrative devices and as existential certainties, that we forget, or else cannot believe, that most of the time life eases on without fanfare or tragedy. At one point in the film the girlfriend of the main character, Mason, passes him the cell phone while he is driving. She wants to show him a photo of a cute furry animal. Everyone in the theatre audibly sucked in their breath; a few people even murmured, “Oh God!” We were prepared for the Accident Narrative, the sudden swerve from the road, the sound of next scene’s ventilator capturing their breath. Earlier in the film Mason’s (second) stepfather, with a can of beer in his hand, volleys with him when he is late for curfew, and we brace ourselves for the Abuse Narrative. Indeed, we have already seen the child at the mercy of one beastly stepfather—it isn’t as if the film pretends such things don’t happen— so it is all too natural to expect more. We wait for the sound of his head to be knocked on the doorframe, and when we don’t hear it, the audible sound of breathing begins again in the theatre. As an audience, we seem most comfortable with the grand mess, the traumatic, than with the ordinary, with actual life.
Much contemporary writing about childhood takes the form of memoir, and sadly, much of it feels like instructions for disaster, apocryphal childhoods that give us the bleakest views of the most painful experiences imaginable. This affords many of us perspective; the toils and griefs we face (my students refer to some of these as “first-world problems,” an expression that seems surprisingly apt) so often pale in comparison to the significant maelstroms known intimately by so many on a daily basis. I grew up in a home and during an era where the barometer of perspective for one’s ailments and sufferings was The Train—the one Train that stood in for what was really many trains, the trains that carried Jews from their homes and lives to the concentration camps. Like many Jewish children of the post-war era, I was instructed in Holocaust studies at a very young age, and learned that nearly any amount of suffering could be endured so long as you were not on the train. (My therapist since tells me that this isn’t a very effective strategy for rearing the young). It’s an interesting way to create endurance and self-reliance in a human being, though. On the other hand it can also be, and often is, a false crust whose main function is to disqualify any sorrow or grief that cannot measure up to the death camps.
When I was taking courses in Waldorf Education, our teacher training taught us to do “child study,” where we would envision a child in their natural “habitat” at night before sleeping, to try to understand their struggles in the classroom in the context of their lives. For a traditional Waldorf teacher, this involves lighting a candle and imagining the child surrounded by light in their home, as they are sleeping, and holding them in your thoughts for a few moments each night. Despite some of the more religious connotations of such experiences (Waldorf schools are founded on anthroposophy, and anthroposophy is described as the study of the soul) it is an amazing way to hear a child, to see a child, to go back into your own childhood, even, into the imagined and lived experiences of the self. I have even taken to doing this on occasion for my college students, whom I learn far less about than third-graders. The practice of noticing them, of being in their worlds, feels critical to the possibility of teaching them anything of magnitude.
Understanding someone’s childhood truly is entering a sort of portal to the lived experience, the locket of individuality. Poetry and film and literature do this for us. We get depth and perspective about our own lives and origins, transcending nostalgia with a kind of inherited memory. But so often we privilege the discourse of anxiety and awfulness over that of pleasure and hope and imagination, memorializing terror and trauma rather than imagining the inverse. This is a sensible reflection of our times in many ways, but privileging what is “true” over what can be imagined may be a miscalculation with grave implications for the poetic imagination. If we cannot envision anything other than what we have, it may seem we have no choice but to accept it, and as a result we actually can become inured to the pain of others. “We must admit there will be music despite everything,” Jack Gilbert tells us in his poem “A Brief for the Defense,”a beautiful piece that demands that the reader hear laughter even “in the terrible streets of Calcutta.” It makes me think of the moment in My Dinner with Andre where theater director Andre Gregory says to the playwright Wallace Shawn,
How does it affect them (an audience) to see a play that shows that our world is full of nothing but shocking sexual events and violence and terror? Does that help to wake up a sleeping audience? You see, I don’t think so, because I think it’s very likely that the picture of the world you are showing them in a play is exactly the picture of the world that they have already…so the play simply tells them that their impression of the world is correct, that there’s absolutely no way out, there’s nothing they can do. They end up feeling passive and impotent.
This is an argument I never quite stop having with myself, as a writer who works with, writes about, and sometimes writes for children. I do think that it is critical that contemporary writing stretch beyond the lived experience of memoir, and even beyond the ordinary experience of “Boyhood.” It is, for example, through the poetic prose of Joyce that his ordinary childhood is exalted in Portrait of the Artist. And often, the imagined lives of children are both instructive and important for writers and readers. Some of the most memorable childhoods are literary childhoods, lived by imagined children who live at the whims of their creators, imparting experiences and sensitivities that exalt childhood itself. Characters like Fern, in Charlotte’s Web, invoke a child’s ability to spend day after day in a farmyard, depicting the child’s relationship to a world that adults can’t often manage to see. Similarly, the worlds of slightly older books such as The Cricket in Times Square, with a cast of Manhattanite mammals living adjacent to a family’s newsstand, the young Mario privy to their world in ways that can potentially invite even the most cynical residents of New York (myself included, in the days when I used to live there) to revisit the crannies and alcoves of the tunnels with both curiosity and a kind of modest wonder, the sort of wonder that tells us that sometimes our impression of the world is potentially alterable. Many narratives describe the oddly seductive lives of orphans, who move through the world without the wisdom or love of parents and who, thrown thusly back on their own resources, often seem to find treasures the universe hides from others. Some are truly orphaned (the orphans of Narnia, to take one obvious example). Some are self-imagined orphans (for example, in E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler). Some are more ambiguously orphaned: think of Pippi Longstocking, in Astrid Lindgren’s stories, whose father exists, but as a pirate in the South Seas, king of a cannibal tribe. The orphans instruct us in worldliness, resourcefulness, thrift, thievery, and lonesomeness: qualities essential for both children and writers living lives scalloped by fear or promise and who are forced to inhabit the terrain in between.
Wes Anderson’s film Moonrise Kingdom depicts both a true orphan (Sam) and a self-imagined one (Suzy). Sam has lived much of his life in foster homes, while Suzy at least in part aims to evade the bleakness that keeps Bill Murray and Frances McDermott awake at night in their separate beds, idealizing life without a family. “I love you, but you don’t know what you are talking about,” Sam tells Suzy, when she romanticizes his parentless life. He’s right, but so is Suzy: there is something magical about the idea of a childhood uncontaminated by the presence of adult surveillance, a surveillance that so often seems mostly intended to quell their (our) anxieties and to force the spontaneities of innocence into their (our) more rigid conceptual schemes. Some have argued against Anderson’s contrivances, against the almost candied atmosphere of the film. But do we have less to learn about the reverie of childhood from Moonrise Kingdom than from sober and strictly factual accounts? In many ways I believe Anderson has touched the essence of childhood. It is an imagined childhood that is in some ways privileged and idealized, with its lush settings, loving adults, art, music, and the overall sense of a trustworthy, benign universe—but I am unconvinced it is less worthy of attention or any less serious than less idealized accounts that insist on placing children in the underbelly of reality.
“I just imagined that I was a sleeping prince,” Magellan told us by the campfire, as he spoke of his sleeps in the wilderness. “Or someone who had to pretend that they were dead, because the bones of dead people are usually really cold.” Only a child thinks like that, in images that are both wholly metaphoric and entirely literal all at once. “It seems we only languish during maturity in order to tell the dreams of our childhood, and they vanish from our memory before we were able to learn their language,” writes Thoreau. Writing about childhood is trying to learn that language before it vanishes altogether from the conscious ear. It is the revelation of a tender and secret universe, one that teaches a child how to be a child, and reminds a reader how to hear and to see it, wearing those fresh and stinging eyes to look out at these strange lands.
I saw an uprooted tree on the bank of the Tappahanock River in Virginia once. It was enormous. The underside of its body was a mass of knobs, big as newborns. It was dense with tubers fizzling out into great hairy clumps. There were nodules and sinuous roots re-entering the body of the tree at every juncture from which they did not originate. All of it dripped with mud and sand, an obscenity of growth.
When I saw it, I thought, this is what writing looks like in me.
Writing is, I confess, at the root of everything. It enters at every juncture, and leaves in every exhalation. It is connected to my meals, my health, my intelligence, my sex, my spirit. This is, of course, vaguely dangerous and out of balance. But it is also true.
When I was a child I read. Books were not about comfort or forgetting. They were about going everywhere, with everyone, seeing everything, feeling everything. Some nights I faked an upset stomach so that I could lie on the carpet of the bathroom and finish a library book for the third time before it had to be returned the next day. Other nights I hung halfway off my bed, book at the end of my outstretched arms, catching the triangle of hall light for just one more sentence, just one more paragraph, just one more hour. I was ravenous. I grew to understand the way stories unfolded, and when they did so, an essential flesh and bone piece of me was satisfied. Through reading, I learned my earliest method of sorting out existence. I learned how it was in the world with loss, success, curiosity, beauty, grief, love, sorrow. I learned what it was to be human, and what that meant in connection with the larger human world.
If reading led me to my first understanding of humanity, writing broadened this education. Where once I merely imagined the hearts and bones of other people, the act of writing allows me to inhabit them entirely. I eat and drink them, birth them and kill them. Evidence of humanity’s brilliance and degradation is what I seek when I write. I never cease in my desire to know more intimately the ways of women and men, and I never cease to be nourished by them. Through writing I make sense of their history and hope.
I do this because I believe that literature represents a collective human sigh, an exhalation of existence. Stories, all stories of the world, the ones we live by and the ones we write, repeat themselves in infinite variations, both seamless and eternally interrupted by change. I crave this exchange of stories, the infinite variety of them. It is in their expression that I find myself most deeply alive and interested. The infinity of what it is to be human and what it is to be a writer never ceases to beckon me.
Writing has made me complicated, like that knobbed mass of roots I saw on the riverbank. What drives me to live is buried under the soil of the known world. Like those huge roots, I am pulling for something far deeper, something unmapped. I am pressing the fingers of my yearning into the mysterious regions of existence which are unknown. Where the source of our divinity, our essence, waits to be recognized again and again.
Since writing is clearly my religion, I created some devotionals for daily attention to this reverent act.
Turn yourself into an archetypal character of the kind you feel most aligned with today: witch, queen, prince, monster, god, mythical figure, etc. Write a line that this character always repeats. (for example: Monsters never eat hair!) Now write an internal monologue for this character where they name what is bothering them right now.
Answer the following for you or a character you have created: Where does truth reside? In your brain? Heart? Describe where you hold truth. To whom do you lie? To whom do you always speak the truth? Is truth possible in memory? Is the opposite of a lie always a truth? Are there absolute truths?
Devotional for Others:
Write a set of instructions for how a reader should read your work. Have a variety of suggestions. Perhaps hint at the content they’ll find, or what they might learn.
Write an etiological tale that explains the existence of rain, fire, ocean, human murder, redemption, the color of the sky, psychology, domesticated pets, or sin.
Write a paragraph of text. Now add at least five footnotes that give additional information or add to the plot, character development, or theme of the story.
Name four things you want to write about, but believe that you shouldn’t. Name the “editors” who block this writing or any reasons why you will not write of these particular things.
In the photo, Jeff and I are busy fighting the bad guys, even if I don’t quite know who they are. This is 1989 or so, in my backyard on Breconshire Drive. It’s fall (note the naked trees in the background), and while the photo appears to depict me as a little grown-up (complete with backpack flung confidently over my shoulder), one oft-overlooked detail in the photo immediately returns me to child form.
It’s the shoes—me trapped in my Velcro, while Jeff’s in laces. This, of course, was humiliating for me, and while I quickly rectified the problem by practicing bunny ears on every pair of shoes in the house, this picture forever served as proof of the difference between us: he who could double-knot while I couldn’t manage a single; he who could catch the bad guys while I didn’t know what a bad guy was.
The outtakes from “Breconshire Drive” are far longer than the essay itself. For instance, the final draft makes no mention of our days spent gathering crawdads in empty bread bags down by the creek. Nor does it detail the rash of burglaries that overtook our neighborhood one summer, how our golf-club-wielding fathers were not all-powerful after all. Instead, what remains is an essay on a friendship boiled back to basics, a single memory serving as the touchstone for other memories that might emerge. On its own, my nostalgia-induced work on a walk shared between friends hardly deserves the space it was graciously given. But it’s my hope that my essay on “a walk shared between friends” is actually an essay about a walk shared between friends who are soon to realize the troubling truth of mortality—that even at the age of 7, our walks were coming to a close, that my strides were too short to meet Jeff in his new home in Michigan.
Let me be clear: I don’t expect readers to feel sorry for the 7-year-old version of me. After all, losing a best friend is what being 7 is all about. Jeff and I had watched enough crawdads die in our bread bags to know that even people with good intentions sometimes hurt things that didn’t deserve it.
Sure, I was devastated, but mostly because the world seemed suddenly disinterested in adjusting its plans on my behalf. I could slam my bedroom door as much as I wanted, but it wouldn’t keep Jeff’s family’s U-Haul from backing into his drive. And even after he left, I learned that I couldn’t ride my bike back and forth along his stretch of sidewalk long enough to remove the “Sold” sign from his front yard. In short, I was shocked less about Jeff’s leaving than the world’s failure to retract its cruel fate. I was 7, and while I felt I’d previously proven myself as an all-powerful being (after all, no one else in my school had won back-to-back blue ribbons in the plant show), the world seemed just as unimpressed by my powers as it had our golf club wielding fathers’.
Kill my umbrella tree, I begged to a God I’d never met. Just promise me you’ll blow up Michigan, too.
He didn’t. My umbrella tree died anyway.
Years later, Michigan remains intact, my water can gathers dust, and the most tangible piece of our friendship that remains is the photograph described above, the one of me looking dumb in my Velcro shoes. Though perhaps the worst part isn’t the Velcro, but that I—the Velcro-shoed boy—seemed certain that eventually we’d get those bad guys, even if the bad guys weren’t guys at all, but a place beyond Breconshire Drive.
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