Thursday, June 15, 2006

You're Not Writing

When I was in the third grade, I had a demanding crazy teacher whose last name changed almost every year (she got married a lot, got mad, went back to her maiden name, and got married again to another unwitting victim -- she was Mrs. Goodwin that year. Her daughter was my age, a beautiful large girl who never ever seemed to make a mistake. Mrs. Goodwin seemed mystified by my ability to remember things without taking notes -- you're not writing, she'd say, until she figured out that I didn't need to and because I was always out of Big Chief paper and didn't want to go through the humiliating process of borrowing from someone else, listening to them sigh as they ripped off a page for me and my lame promises to repay them the very next day.

Eventually, she had me grading quizzes for her instead of listening to the lesson although I'd overhear her say things like, If you're not a neat person, you should never be allowed loose-leaf paper. I'd let my daughter use it, but never my son. Her son attended college somewhere in the north and at the end of the year hanged himself with his belt from the rafters of his dorm room. Because I was small and silent, I could listen to adult conversations about the topic without being noticed and learned the sad meager details of his end, the note that he had apparently started and ripped up without finishing. I could imagine him in his last hours, not able to explain anything and giving up and saw him as my spiritual brother, the boy who couldn't stay neat enough to deserve loose-leaf paper. Despite my mother's attempts at making me look beautiful, I tended toward an unkempt haggard appearance, still in recovery from my second stomach ulcer. At the end of the year, Mrs. Goodwin paid me a compliment, a rarity from someone like her, even in the best of times. She said, You're the smartest girl in the room and me looking up from the stack of papers I was stapling for her, giving her a half-smile, the kind that employees reserve for a demanding boss who, even after the job was done, would linger because she had no other place to go.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"Writing is fine therapy for people who are perpetually scared of nameless threats as I am most of the time -- for jittery people." William Styron

Border Passing

1 shot of tequila (silver)
1 shot of triplesec
2 shots of lime juice

Serve ice-cold in a martini glass. Garnish with olives.

Benedictions and Maledictions

First appearing in Chicago Quarterly Review:

How to Own and Operate A Haunted House

Start with nothing and build from there.
It won’t take much to bring someone
around – a few masks, a small piece
of rope. Tell everyone what they are
feeling is something else, make sure
to forget what you actually used to create
the effects so that you won’t be tempted
to tell the truth about a peeled grape
masquerading as an eye. Silence becomes
whatever you fear. Use it when they
don’t expect and watch as people touch
each other without meaning to and scream
in knowing expectation of the next horror
they must face before the inevitable exit.


Anonymous said...

Dear Michelle, Perhaps you, your lovely friend Cheri and I could go out for a friendly drink some time. Of course we'd each pay for our own.--Yours, George Costanza

Anonymous said...

Back to the Carver story with the bass pond. Michelle you missed it (Robin too). The pond is not a "Sophoclean symbol," as robin says. The pond is Sophoclean in its DEPTH. The symbolic meaning of the bass pond predates Sophocles by many, many centuries. Question: what is the symbolic meaning of the bass pond in Carver's greatest short story--"The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off."

Cindy said...

Of course you were the smartest girl in the room! Adorable! Today, you're the smartest woman in the room! It goes without saying that this also makes you the smartest *person* in the room.


Michelle's Spell said...

To Mr. Anonymous Rants,
I'm not sure that the pond is a symbol of ANYTHING. Carver didn't think that way according to the limited biographical material we have access to(writers don't intentionally use symbols -- at least the good ones don't -- they happen organically), and I'm not sure I'm smart enough to get it if it is. A pond is doing enough in a story if it's merely existing as a pond. Radical notion, I know! If anyone else wants to address the question, go for it. I do like the story, but it's not my favorite of his. In answer to Paul, the story with the ear is called "Vitamins," a story I adore and highly recommend.

robin said...

I got the distinction yesterday. I just didn't care to debate it any further. I fell into that trap in Ole Ugis' class a few years back--a place I'd rather not return to. Symbol,schmymbol, it can mean whatever you want it to mean. :)-R

robin said...

I agree with you, Michelle, good, deep writing comes about "organically," through the author's life experience. Sounds like Mr. Anonymous Rants needs to dig a little in his own backyard.

Anonymous said...

Check out the sun(fertility)symbolism in ole Ernie's The Sun Also Rises. VERY intentional. Love your symbolism of the marked face in "The Difference Between Sex and Rough Sex," Michelle. Even if the symbol was unintentional, it was still a flash of brilliance. So there.

Anonymous said...

For Carver's epitome of symbolism see his second greatest story,"Cathedral." Intentionally symbolic. It's somehing that Anne Sexton missed in her poetic analysis of the Van Gogh painting. The spire touches heaven.

robin said...

We're soooo impressed by your intelligence....please tell us more...!

Anonymous said...

Just throw money

John said...

Dear Michelle,

Re: the first comment of today. I'm sure every woman wants to have a Dutch-style drink with a Seinfeld character. And the nutty professor, well, I'm guessing he's had many many years to ponder the Cliffs Notes, probably more years than you've been alive.

Cheers to you and yours.

JR's Thumbprints said...

Trying to write a short story with symbols in mind doesn't work; it has to happen naturally, if not by accident. However, my pond is very symbolic. --Jim

Paul said...

AH, my CQ.,
I like your smile and your style. rock on, C2!

Wichita-Lineman said...

I'll have to agree with symbolic meanings happening by accident. This goes with writing and film. Half the shit discussed in lit classes is pretty much ones perspective of a story passed down several generations.

Many critics have brought up the use of "symbolism" in Hitchcock's films, to which he replied: "If I spent that much time thinking about my scripts (in responce to symbolism)it would have taken me 20 years to make one film" (or something along those lines anyway, don't have the interview available)

Tom said...


I too have a better than average memory. My father worried that someday I would write a book about his antics as a father. One thing I could not get my memory to work on was Math. Damn, Math was frustrating. Thanks for the visit. I left you a great comment there.


robin said...

This is ironic. The teacher that told me I was smart was Pinka. Of course, he didn't say it to my face; he worked my ass off, debated every symbolic thing I threw at him, and even hacked up one of my "A" papers, just so I could "go deeper" with it, after I told him that I'd always wanted to be a writer. When I left his class, I was changed. Where I had doubted myself before, I now KNEW that I was an intelligent, capable woman and that I had writing potential. Never mind the fact that I was an emotional trainwreck waiting to happen. That's where you came in, Michelle, to pick up the pieces. Thanks for helping me put myself back together. :) Love, R

Anonymous said...

"...with symbols in mind..."--the Evangelists did pretty well with the parables of Jesus.

robin said...

Was I the victim of my social & emotional milieu or the agent of my own destruction?

Anonymous said...

Try to remember.

robin said...

Even though our surroundings can be very influential, I believe everyone makes their choices. Most of the time we're unconscious, though. I remember the choice I made, when my intuition told me to drop his class the very first week. I allowed another student to talk me into staying. So, when advice & inner guidance conflict, inner guidance is the way to go.

Anonymous said...

What happens if you have an erroneous conscience?

robin said...

You learn from it.