November 26, 2011
I teach creative writing, and while thinking about this self-interview, I recently asked my students what they’re looking for when they visit literary websites. They said, overwhelmingly, that they want information about the writer’s process. Where did the stories come from and how do the writers live and write at the same time? There are eighteen stories in my collection Everyone Remain Calm, all really different, and I thought it would be interesting to share one aspect of the process in writing each story.
Shot to the Lungs and No Breath Left
A few years ago, there was some big case in the news about parents who were seeking revenge for something that had happened to their daughter. The clincher was, she didn’t want them to. I remember talking about the ethical implications of this over and over: what was justice in such a situation? Did her parents have the right to move forward with something she didn’t want? Why didn’t she want revenge? I wrote the word REVENGE on a post-it note, stuck it to the wall above my computer, and tried to imagine a character in this same boat.
Recently, my friend Amanda Delheimer Dimond, a theatre director here in Chicago, made a video with KBH Media in connection with this story, exploring the idea of revenge from many viewpoints. That’s my favorite thing about literature, my favorite thing about story: how different people define similar terms, and how much we can learn about ourselves by just… listening.
I got dumped and it sucked.
I’d just moved into a new apartment and these letters kept showing up in my mailbox adressed to a woman named Michelle. The back of the envelopes were stamped with the very official-sounding This correspondence is from an inmate at the Cook County Corrections Facility. At first, I sent them back marked RETURN TO SENDER. They kept coming. I went to the post office and explanined the situation, but they still came, often twice a week. After several months of this, I brought one inside, put it on the dining room table—still unopened, mind you,—and stared at it. My imagination went sort of crazy. What was in that letter? Who wrote it? Who was Michelle? Most importantly, why me? Why my door of all doors? The Boot was an attempt to answer some of those questions.
Times Are Tough All Over
After my son was born, it was tough. I don’t mean the super-scary kind of post-partem, this was no Brooke Shields Down Came the Rain, but it definitely was something. I wasn’t… myself. So what I did was I started writing down one thing per day that helped me get by: Today I made the bed. Today I walked to the store. Today I built a super-ramp with my kid. As time went on, the things I wrote down got more fictionalized and more ridiculous: Today I sold pee. Today I pocketed free sandwiches at a meeting for Organizing for America. Today I caught all these frogs in the creek behind the house and I kissed all of them and dammit none of them turned into a magic guy in tights who would save me from myself. Somewhere during all of this, the recession hit, and every day I’d read things in the news, all these insane things people were up against, and I’d imagine how they were getting by. How do any of us get by?
After this story was first published, a total stranger emailed me with his own story of getting by. And then, a week later, another. I posed the question on facebook and twitter—How are you getting by?—and got nearly a hundred responses. Reading these had a profound affect on me: It was crazy, but, if you think about it, really really true. Sharing stories can help people laugh, maybe cry a little, and—most importantly—feel altogether less alone amidst the mess. My husband is a digital artist, and he put together a website where people could contribute. What do you think, Nervous Breakdown? How are you all getting by?
For nearly a decade, I’ve worked with a storytelling series here in Chicago called 2nd Story. I can write a hundred novels about what I’ve learned from the writers and performers and directors and musicians and designers and producers within this organization, but, for the sake of brevity, I’ll say this: We were putting together a show at The Hideout with a nine-piece New Orleans brass band, and the director asked if I had any stories. What a thrilling, terrifying challenge! To sit down and think of my words like an instrument within a nine-piece band! And how would the music and story merge and feed off each other? I’ve since written a great deal with and for musicians, but this was one of the first times I really had to wrap my brain around working so collaboratively.
Later, when I was putting Everyone Remain Calm together as a collection, I got a lot of questions about it being a digital publication. What did I, like, think about that? Wasn’t I sad that it wasn’t, like, a book? The rewrite of Professional Development ended up giving me the space to speak to some of those questions, specifically when the narrator says: “I don’t care what you call it or where you shelve it or what it gets printed on, I just want the words, the ideas and stories handed to me like birthday presents. I want to find my own feelings in someone else’s experiences. I want to live lives I couldn’t possibly have lived, exist in a reality that can’t possibly be real—that’s what a story can do.”
One One-Thousand, Two One-Thousand, Three
While I was rewriting this story, I sat in my bathtub one night for five hours. I wanted to see what would happen to my skin if I was submerged for that long.
This happened, and then I wrote about it.
A few years ago, it didn’t snow til right after Christmas, which—in Chicago—is crazy. Everywhere you went, people were talking about why it hadn’t snowed yet. I started thinking about mythology, how stories were used to explain scientific phenomenon: Why does the sun rise in the morning? Some guy named Apollo drags it around with a chariot. The Flood started off, quite simply, as me coming up with a story for why it hadn’t snowed yet.
Do You Want to Have Sex With Alan and Chloe?
A theatre company called Theatre Seven adapted this one as part of a longer piece called Yes This Really Happened To Me. The process was fascinating. My husband and I are both characters in the story; watching an actor portray you is a very strange, very profound sort of meta mind-fuck, like when you’re dreaming and watching yourself in third person. It was also an exercise in trust: giving other artists not only my work, but a piece of my life. I was totally blown away by the production: adaptation, direction, design and performance. Also, the woman who played me was really beautiful. So that was nice.
I Am the Keymaster
I read an article about women who were buying partially-used birth control off craigslist because they couldn’t afford it, either because their insurance didn’t cover it or they didn’t have insurance to begin with. You know that cliché about being so pissed off you see red? I fucking saw red.
I’m still seeing red, actually.
This Teacher Talks Too Fast
This is a hard story for me. It’s about a student of mine who committed suicide. I wrote it for 2nd Story, have performed it countless times for all sorts of audiences, and every time I get to the paragraph that starts, “I tell my students there are words for every emotion and it’s our job as writers to find them,” I almost can’t keep it together. I know, I know, I know I couldn’t save him—his life was so much bigger than my one little class a week—but every time I sit down to teach, he is in my head. I want to do better, for him and because of him.
I Asked the Guy Why Are You So Fly?
I wrote this one for The Dollar Store, this super-awesome performance series where a bunch of writers and actors and musicians are given an item from the dollar store, and then have to come up with something around that item. Mine was a plastic marijuana leaf on a chain. Which made me think of those giant bling necklaces guys used to wear on MTV. Which made me think of the song Funky Cold Medina by Tone Loc that played on the radio during, like… the entire Eighties. So I wrote about speed-dating and ending up with Tone Loc. It was a funny gimmick, but I didn’t just want a gimmick—I wanted a story. At the time, I was in the middle of dating a bunch of people, trying to find The One, that insane all-consuming search for love that’s fueled a thousand stories and books and movies and plays and sitcoms and songs and operas and poems, many of which are heartbreaking, many of which are batshit crazy. Seriously—think of your own dating life for a sec. When I look back on some of the ridiculous situations I ended up in, a date with Tone Loc seems pretty tame.
Greek or Czech or Japanese
I was pregnant and terrified and hungry. My husband and I went for breakfast at a diner down the street, had this weird encounter with another family, and I came home and wrote it verbatim, in one sitting. It was the fastest, easiest, most catharitc thing I’ve written in my life.
Back when I was in grad school in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College, we were exploring the how-to form. I wrote about how to debone a salmon (my dad is a salmon fisherman in Alaska). About a thousand years later, I was looking through some old work and found that how-to, and I got to thinking about how I could still use it. I rewrote the thing with the narrator deboning a man instead of a fish, sliding his ribs out of his body one-by-one til he can’t stand up straight, and then she hands him his bones on a plate and says, “Here, have a spine.” So—there. There’s one scene. And then I had to figure out the rest of the story around it.
I mention this because, so often, I write something that I think isn’t going anywhere, and then later—sometimes years later—I figure out how it can work. So A) save all your shit and B) Look back at it every now and again. You’ll be amazed at what you discover.
Oscar and Veronica
This story is about my friend Jeff and I, and—imagine me saying this next part in my best Game Show Announcer Voice—You can read about next week right here on The Nervous Breakdown!
All So Goddamn Great
Through 2nd Story, I was working with a group of high school theatre students at The Goodman Theatre. We were talking about audience awareness: as writers, if we don’t give all the necessary information, the audience may be confused or feel left out. As an example, I said, “What if I told you that last night, I ran into Lee at the Metro, and it was awful. What would you want to know?” They hammered me with questions: Who was Lee? Had something happened between us? Was Lee a boy or a girl? Was I a lesbian? Did I mean metro like the train or Metro like the rock club? They went on and on, asking all the necessary questions about place, character relationships and interaction, internal point-of-view, all aspects of story that they could then apply to their own work. But in my head, I was answering all their questions about that night at the Metro, and later that night I wrote this story.
For years, I had an old Forties photo of a freak show pinned above my computer; the fat lady, bearded lady, siamese twins, you name it, but for some reason I kept zeroing in on the woman in the bikini with knives stuck through her skin.
Everyone Remain Calm
This is the oldest story in the collection. I wrote it two weeks after September 11, 2001; a student of mine didn’t show up to class and her pschyatrist called in a note saying she was afraid of anthrax and needed more time. There was so much fear then—you could feel it in your pores. It’s all I was thinking about, and one night I googled PHOBIA and found the list of scientific names. Have you seen this list? It’s mind blowing: phobias of stars, moisture, trees, dirt, oxygen, the act of even thinking about love. I stopped on the word Anemophobia. Fear of wind. What would that be like here? In Chicago?
At the time, it was easier to write about the fear of wind than it was the fear of anthrax.