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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Remember From Whence You Came

“…the writer is the instrument of a mysterious gift—like a hollow bone through which it passes, as the late Lakota Medicine Elder, Fool’s Crow, would say. Or it’s as in Coleridge, ‘the royal Harper, to whom I have so often submitted myself as the many-stringed instrument for his fire-tipt fingers to traverse’; or in Plato, ‘that which follows God best and is likest to him lifts the head of the charioteer into the outer world.’”

-- Douglas Unger, “On Inspiration: Thomas Wolfe, Jorge Luis Borges, & Raymond Carver.” The Writer’s Chronicle. Volume 42 Number 2.

I don’t feel quite real these days since I was told I won the fall Orlando Short Fiction Prize from A Room of Her Own Foundation. I have been doing the proverbial pinching. Recognition: do I deserve it? Why did it come to me? Is my work truly worthy?

A chastising voice chimes in: How dare you, modern woman, doubt thyself? Look what thou hast wrought! It’s absolutely divine!

The pendulum swing from self-deprecation to arrogance; a correcting mechanism in history and in hearts. I see this swing in me, a woman born in 1968, still finding herself in 2009.

The Japanese maple outside my window is fiery with the end days of fall, shaking leaves stained blood-red orange. The wind wrestles with tree limbs, and everything outdoors tremors, save the deep layer of damp leaves, sodden with three days of rain. When the house shudders, the wind surges through me, too. I am that hollow bone.

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. John 3:8

Suddenly, I remember where I came from. It isn’t me who did this.

It was my parents. They surrounded me with books and museums and good conversation. They surrounded me with love. My mom read a draft and then gave advice about ratting hair and July flowers.

It was my sister. She delighted in our word play and laughed in spite of herself at the thousand bizarre nicknames I invented for her. At 10, I demanded she spell “simultaneously” when we played school; at 13; I told her we had a “plethora of toast”; at 15, not to “usurp the sink.” We were partners making up stories and magazines and Christmas plays. Today she produces plays, and together we still talk literature and theater and film.

It was my English teachers: Donna Dunckel, who let my play become the class project, and Angela Connor, who challenged me with Macbeth and Mockingbird, who shepherded my obsessive leadership of the school paper.

It was my college fiction professor, Ehud Havazelet. He told me when my stories paled, dodged, and dragged, and he made the whole process of critique and revision funny. It was John L'Heureux, my advisor, who told me to give my writing time and let it find it's "moral vision." That it was okay to not have one yet, and that honestly, my writing wasn't ready for advanced fiction writing courses back in 1990. How precious and rare is such honesty.

It was my writing group members: those I used to meet with in 1994 San Francisco; then the group I shared with Delia and Mary Michaels; Peaceniks David and Nancy and Bob and Cornelia and Courtney; and now Marcia, Beverly, Susan, Laurie, Katie, and Carol, who search for sacred moments to write and celebrate what we create. My sisters (and you know your full name) heard a snippet about my character Ronalda and how she got her handle. Bob is my blogger partner in crime and Nancy, my cheerleader via email, and I'm thankful to them about the ongoing conversations about writing and submitting.

It was Chip and Nancy, my college buds whose honest and supportive critique of my novel in progress has kept me at it and believing I’ll wrest a living thing from stone eventually.

It was Doris Betts. She saw the “forward momentum” in my novel and told me to keep going, yet not to race to the finish either. She created a writers' haven that summer at Peace College (Elizabeth Daniels Squire Residency), sponsored by the North Carolina Writers' Network, and left us thrilled to be alive and writing.

It was Greg Hawks, who heard the very first draft of the story, a tentative tale not sure of its reason for being, just a lot of characters barely colliding. He advised me on the early days of punk rock. He gave me space to shut my office door and write, write, write. He doesn’t care if there are tumbleweeds of cat hair or cold burners sans dinner; he’s got his own art to make, and he gets why I go underground.

It was Ruth Moose. She edited the story and helped me find the crisis and plumb the characters’ backgrounds. She handed me the title right out of my own prose.

It is Hope Clark's weekly encouragements to press on and her listing of contests and opportunities. Don't stop, she counsels. Keep at it. Believe. Persist.

It was women I know whose lives have not been easy, whose dreams cooled over twenty, thirty, forty years, while others’ burgeoned; who washed the clothes and scrambled the eggs and bought the clothes so their boys and men could “do their thing.”

I know I’m forgetting someone in the proverbial village that grew this child.

And then, the Spirit, that which surges through me soft as breath and strong as wind. I didn’t make me, and I’m not responsible for love of words, desire to revise, and dreams of speaking truth. I am energy, and I am soul after the body crumbles and the dust dissipates. Try to put a label on That and Who and What made me and now What I am. Divine indeed.

It’s not all about me, and thank God for that.