Going Home

This fall I am returning to my hometown for a visit. I haven’t been there in well over a decade. This decision feels more like a biological imperative, as if not returning would be unwise, even risky. Maybe all I need to do is make contact with the ground I grew up on.

Not that  I should be living there—I wouldn’t even be welcome. Your hometown is your birthright; when you leave it, you break a promise. Never again will you have free access. While you were gone, countless changes occurred and because you weren’t there, the changes are not a part of you. The town managed fine in your absence and now you are nothing but a tourist.

I left Burlington Vermont right after college, eager for the anonymity waiting for me anywhere else. Fame, romance—who knew what might happen? At the very least, I wanted hints of danger, some mischief to call my own. I knew I would make mistakes, suffer a few bruises, and I was ready for them. I don’t remember giving my hometown any last looks from the bus window. I don’t recall the sadness, only the exhilaration.

Over time, I did find some of what I was after. Several of my decisions were unwise and I will not tell you that I don’t regret them. What does feel absolutely right is the place I now call home. Most of us, by chance or choice, wind up living in a place we like. Our hometown is in our genes, but the town we choose is the town we belong in. For any number of reasons, the conditions suit us and we take root.

My mother’s life resonated with her environment, molecules in her body corresponding with molecules in the flora and fauna around her. In the womb, I too resonated with her world and when I was born this world became mine. I was a new resident, instantly accepted and approved. I had unconditional love from the ground up.

Which is why returning for a visit—especially after so many years—isn’t easy. I know that nearly everything will be unfamiliar, that the houses will be smaller, the roads shorter; that  buildings and trees and fields will be missing altogether; that the dirt path I traveled to the beach will exist only in my mind. I will not be able to find my way around and the more places I go the more puzzled I’ll become, and as I move through this town I’ve lost, bits of my youth will keep skirting away: golden birch woods, painted lake turtles, long rows of icicles shining in the sun; the taste of the tiny strawberries that grew beside the railroad tracks; the leopard frogs that jumped ahead of me when I walked through tall wet grass; the clean cotton smell of my boyfriend’s shirt collar; the hay loft we found one day, the dust motes floating in its wan light.

These things happened to me. From here, I can see them clearly, can remember each path and tree, can smell the lilacs and the wet fall leaves. When I revisit my hometown, I’m not sure I was ever there at all.

2007 A.D.

When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD the sight of that monstrous mushroom cloud bewildered the citizens of Pompeii. For weeks there had been small quakes and tremors, which were common for the area, and people had gone about their business without much concern. Not until the sky began raining pumice did people take notice.

Too weak to run, the old and sick were buried in their homes. The rest of the townsfolk stumbled in the dark over rising mounds of fiery pumice, blankets tied to their heads. No one knew where to go. Those in houses ran into the streets; those in the streets took cover in buildings; people in boats rowed madly for shore; people on the shore sprang into boats.

Some railed at the gods, others begged for mercy. Exhausted and choking, many gave up and took shelter where they could: slaves and bureaucrats, dogs and dowagers, all crouched together in their last hours on earth. Some managed to reach the city walls and even beyond, and as the falling debris began to let up they must have thought the worst was over.

It wasn’t. The mushroom cloud finally collapsed, sending six surges of ash and searing gases down the mountain. The first surge vaporized the flesh of every living thing in Herculaneum, the fourth surge decimated the people of Pompeii: those who were fleeing, those who were hiding, those who had already suffocated.

In the weeks and months after the eruption, many tunnels were dug into the ruined city. Robbers and treasure hunters risked their lives to take what they could: bronze, lead and marble; tools and trinkets, anything of value. By the time they were excavated centuries later, some of the grandest homes were found empty, their frescoed walls scarred with holes.

In 2007 the US housing market collapsed. Like the eruption of Vesuvius, the destruction  was swift and incomprehensible. There were stages, warnings, but these were largely ignored. The market had faltered before and no lasting harm had come of it. A wily few understood what was happening and stole away in time. The masses were trampled.

Officials issued ominous threats. Our financial institutions were “too big to fail.” For our own good, we had to make a sacrifice, we had to appease them. We did and they weren’t. Our banks turned their backs on us.

For Sale signs are still popping up, in neighborhoods both modest and posh. Formerly desirable developments are now pocked with weeds and stagnant swimming pools. Forced from their homes, crazed citizens are stealing their own countertops, hardware and fixtures before trashing the houses they once loved. Who could have predicted it? Homes selling for a dollar. Cities filing for bankruptcy. Disparate relatives elbowing under one roof. People with six-figure incomes fleeing in the middle of the night.

We are living on precarious turf. There is no telling what stage we are in, how many more surges we can expect. We no longer trust what we are told. We move cautiously, using our own instincts. We give thanks for what we still have.

In Naples, Italy three million people live on the edge of a volcano. They know the danger, they can see it out their windows. How many times a day do they cast their wary eyes on a mountain that might be their undoing?

For the three hundred million people in this country, life is not so different.

Great Examples

When I was in college I spent two semesters in a creating writing seminar. We had been selected for this course based on our writing samples. I must have shown a little promise, at least to the professor, though you wouldn’t have thought so had you listened in on one of our sessions.

To be fair, nearly everyone in that class was criticized, and savagely—that is the way of writing seminars. You compose a poem or story, read it aloud to a pack of students and one by one they savage it. This toughening process is supposed to be good for you, in the long run. Only a couple students emerge unscathed. I think of these seminars as being identical in universities around the world. There is one gifted poet sure to achieve stardom immediately after graduation; there is another student who has lots of rough talent but seems to care less (this is the one the professor has a crush on); there is a person who writes painstakingly adequate prose; there is a girl who cries.

Did I learn from this class? A couple things. I clearly remember two comments made by the teacher after I read a poem about the sea (comments that elicited much laughter, by the way). In this poem I compared an eel to a phallus, using three examples of the likeness, and the teacher remarked, wryly, that I had “done that poor eel to death.” Which was true. In the same awful poem, I wrote that a sea urchin was “swaying, and praying” for a fish to swim past and the professor put his arms on the table and cradled his head in them and said, “Never ever ever make a sea urchin pray.” Which was also true. I deserved what I got that day.

Aside from those lessons, I’m not sure I took anything away from that class but scars. I actually wound up majoring in English Literature because I was afraid of the math requisites for my preferred interest: marine biology. In retrospect, I am certain that this writing seminar was more brutal than any math course. Creative writing classes taken in college are especially harrowing as kindness is not a foremost concern in our callow youth.

The question has been bandied about: Do creative writing classes really teach people how to write? To a degree, yes. Seeing where we have failed can be very helpful. What can’t be taught is the knowing, the writer’s ear, the certainty one feels when a phrase is exactly right.

I am a better writer now than I was in college, an evolution I attribute mainly to continued effort and constant reading. I read authors whose skills take my breath away. When we read, we learn. All those great examples sink in over time. Which is how life works on every level.

If You Haven’t Read These

I love the short story form, the distillation it demands. Poised between poems and novels, short fiction offers the best of both: precision on the one side, intrigue on the other. While the quality of writing in literary short fiction often surpasses the prose found in novels, most folks prefer the latter. “Why?” I’ve asked them, and invariably they tell me that short stories leave them feeling short-changed. Unsatisfied.

Here are some of my favorite collections, stories that will stay with you long after reading. Satisfaction guaranteed.

REASONS TO LIVE by Amy Hempel  −  Starling and poignant

DANCING GIRLS by Margaret Atwood  −  An adroit sampling by a long-admired author

BABE IN PARADISE by Marisa Silver  −  Great characters, fresh insights

DO NOT DENY ME by Jean Thompson  −  A stunning collection by an awesomely talented writer

ANOTHER MARVELOUS THING by Laurie Colwin  −  Tales of adultery, perfectly rendered

BIRDS OF AMERICA by Lorrie Moore  −  A delicious blend of wit and wisdom

IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT by Helen Simpson  −  Wicked fun

IT’S BEGINNING TO HURT by James Lasdun  −  Elegant and entertaining

NOTHING RIGHT by Antonya Nelson  −  Simply superb

CLOSE RANGE: WYOMING STORIES by Annie Proulx  −  Innovative and powerful

And speaking of brevity here are two short novels you absolutely must read:

TURTLE DIARY by Russell Hoban  −  An exquisite story of two social misfits with a common goal

A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY by J.L. Carr  −  Gentle, evocative writing


In Our Own Time

“It’s too early for most things and too late for almost nothing.”

Is that a great quote, or what? I don’t know who first uttered those words, but each time I bring them to mind I am filled with fresh resolve.

We’re all brought up on a time table, expected to accomplish certain things at certain ages: walking at twelve months; talking by the age of two; driver’s license at sixteen; high school diploma at seventeen. The more time that passes before these hurdles are cleared, the higher they seem to become.

Writing, a chosen pursuit, carries no such expectations. Some authors, canny enough to make a living off their words, must mind their contracts and calendars. For the rest of us, writing is a labor of love and we proceed in our own time, rewarded or not.

Unfettered by demand for my words, I still worry now and then that I haven’t written enough of them. I consider the prodigious outputs of Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike, or the early success of Michael Chabon, or the sheer brilliance of Yann Martel, and I feel like a hopeless straggler.

Fortunately this wasteful brooding passes quickly. Life gives me a nudge and I am back where I belong. I remember the story I’ve started and there is nothing to do but pick up my pen and continue working. There are millions of writers in this world and there is room for every one of us. No one can write this story but me.

Relaxing into Writing

I used to log onto various online writing sites with a username I thought wonderfully apt: wordchaser. That term epitomized the writing process for me, a sometimes rewarding and always frustrating hunt for the best words. There were no shortcuts, scant rewards, certainly no room for fun.

Over time, my thoughts on writing began to change. While the process will always be a challenge, I’ve come to realize that it needn’t be an adversarial arrangement. I can actually relax a bit, loosen the reins. The words I want are out there and if I am patient and attentive, I can coax them in, if not now, then soon. I can even rise from my chair and do something else, and while I am sleeping or eating or vacuuming, the words arrive on their own. I go back to my desk and the sentence I had rewritten a hundred times is suddenly, strangely, there.

The well is always filling. I can trust it. I can look up from the page and enjoy another view, and no harm will come to the story. There will be more words and more stories.

Oh, I still hunt now and then, but these days I do more word charming than chasing.