What follows is a short opening statement I was asked to prepare for a panel titled
“Singular Women, Singular Worlds.” I never made it to Saints and Sinners Literary Conference in New Orleans due to thunderstorms and tornadoes and missing pilots. The panel included Jill Malone, Judith Katz, and Elana Dykewomon – more’s the pity, I didn’t get to hear what they had to say.
What follows is my opening statement.
How I create the worlds of my stories is directly related to the world that created me.
My siblings and I were raised in Chicopee a small town in Western MA. My parents were raised in Chicopee. My son Brian was raised in Chicopee. My first book is set in the town and is loosely based on the broad facts of my early life- Catholicism, illness, squabbling sisters, drugs, sex, family. Some of the characters and events in the novel started out as barely disguised people and incidents from my life but morphed into fiction as I wrote and rewrote draft after draft.
My new novel-in –progress, Fishwives, is also set in a small New England town. I suppose this makes me a regional writer.
I learned how to write by writing and failing to tell the story I was trying to tell, writing more, failing more, trying to fail less with every draft until the characters and story took on a life of their own. But my first book, and every story I write, whatever the setting or theme or characters, is always written with the sensibilities of a small town working class lesbian with a messy illness, a girl with a chip on her shoulder, a woman who made a twenty mile trek to Northampton, MA to become middle-class, because that is who I am.
For me, writing is all about the specifics of discovery. And discovery is about asking questions. For example, in that first book, The Girls Club, there is a scene in a high school girls’ room where the main character Cora Rose is seated on the toilet in a stall and spit on by a girl standing on the toilet seat in the next stall. When I was in high school some nasty girls spit on me in the girls room, so yes I was, to a point, writing what I knew, writing a scene that had actually occurred, but as I wrote the scene the facts and the characters changed. Initially, in this scene stolen from life, it was the main character alone with 4 girls spitting on her. In the novel, over time, 4 girls became one because it was better for the story to conflate them, to sketch one girl and present her more fully, easier to show her vulnerabilities if she was alone, so the writer and reader could see something in her besides spit and meanness.
In life things often happen quickly – then we move on to the next thing. There’s no slo-motion – You get spit on, the bell rings, you wipe it off and go to the next class. In writing you can slow down, if not the scene itself, what you discover in the scene, you can question every action, every motive, every emotional reaction.
As a small town writer, I attempt to examine where I am – try to go deep if not wide. As a girl with a chip on my shoulder questions of place often push my class buttons. In life and in writing, I think it is brave to move away from known places – or to look at it from another perspective, places where you are known. I also think it is brave to stay.
My next novel is about old lesbians behaving badly. Not a stretch for me. The setting is small town MA. The characters are working class, becoming poorer as they grow older. I’ll try to ask them hard questions. I am very interested in powerful old people. These characters are opinionated. They are poor, but not powerless or cute or sexless. One of them has a frayed corset. I have lots of questions about that. I have lots of questions about how they polish the chips on their shoulders – how they keep their humanity and power intact. I have lots of questions about how they stay so close to home and remain radical as they age. Of course these questions will change, and, I hope, get better as I fail and try again to answer them.
PS The irony of being the panalist who did not make it out of the airport does not escape me.
- Gleaning nuts- a prose poem about aging
- A Call for Flash Fiction
- In life and in writing it is brave to move away from known places and places where you are known. I also think it is brave to stay.
- It’s good to cry in your mother’s arms – or the arms of anyone who loves you
- Happy (Belated) Poetry Month