Birth of a Family, Birth of a Book

The Little Monster
The Little Monster, 2008

Thanksgiving , 2008: less than three months since the Little Monster became our son at age six.

That autumn, the Man I Married worked several afternoons and evenings a week, leaving me home alone for nine-hour stretches with a boy who would spit at me, try to kick me, and shout, “I’m going kill you, fɥ¢kin’ bitch!” Locking bedroom doorknobs were not permitted in foster homes, so MIM rigged me a small noose: not for me (though there were nights where it tempted me like the HOV lane in a traffic jam) or the monster, but to rope the Little Monster’s bedroom door shut lest things get too out of hand. I never used the noose, but simply having it to caress like rosary beads reassured me enough to keep a lid on things.

MIM and I had deep, hacking, lingering coughs, which we ignored, and miraculously, weirdly, hid from the Little Monster: If we had a cough, LM had a cough. If MIM had a hangnail, LM had a hangnail. If I had a yeast infection, LM had a yeast infection. Thus, we most assuredly did not have coughs. Just some dust in the air.

I flung the liquor cabinet open once the Little Monster finally wore himself out and passed out in his little bed, mouth foaming like Old Yeller. We had sworn off booze when we became parents, but swiftly amended that to “no self-medicating until after the child’s asleep.” Gin and Sudoku got me through my first fall as a mother. Fall as in autumn, fall as in Scarlett tumbling down a grand staircase: take your pick.

All led up to the worst Thanksgiving in-law visit in recorded history, punctuated with lines that live on in family lore, like MIM’s, “You promised you’d bake that boy a fɥ¢king pie, so bake him a fɥ¢king pie!” The 85-pound dog urinated throughout the house while the first two numerals of 9-1-1 were dialed and suitcases were packed, with a dramatic Thanksgiving morning exit, after the one-person pie was baked before dawn.

That same Thanksgiving week, I met for the first time with my new writing group.

A new writing group? In the midst of this chaos? What the hell was I thinking?

How on earth could I join a writing group at a time like this?

More to the point: how could I not?

Like that noose, I needed a tether to my writing self. Otherwise, that leaking ship, which pulled against its mooring ropes with the outgoing tide of motherhood, was going to break loose and drift off, and the result would be catastrophic: I would become a bully container ship mowing down pretty sloops in the darkness of my dissatisfaction. Just having the writing group might keep me anchored to some semblance of myself, my goals, my purpose. A monthly meeting and pages to read would be a lifeline, ultimately keeping me true to myself, and sane, and would enable me to be a buoy and not a torpedo to my family.

Call-NoWordforWelcome.inddBut naturally I vacillated about Wendy Call’s offer to join her group. Was I out of my mind? There could have been no worse timing. But I couldn’t ask Wendy for a rain-check on the invitation, because if I gave these women a chance to come to their senses, they would surely rescind the invite before letting me in. I would give one meeting a try.

Wendy remains high on my list of writers and human beings I most respect and admire; through her daily life and her writing, she commits to making this planet a better place. Then there’s me: many days, I can’t even manage to get my banana peel into the compost instead of the garbage (which is perhaps why Wendy left the group not long after).

Hedgebrook reading. Allison Green looks on across an interesting display table.

I had briefly met a couple of the other three writers: all serious, published authors who had largely met through Hedgebrook Women’s Writing Retreat. I had participated in a Hedgebrook reading at an adult toy store with one of the women.

I attended with the AA philosophy of my brother The Agitator in mind: Say nothing for the first three meetings. Just listen.

At the meeting, one of the writers, whom I’d never met and who didn’t know my history or the topic of much of my writing, announced her pregnancy.

I thought, “You gotta be super-duper-pooper-scooper kidding me. What are the penguin-poop-in-a-coal-mine chances?”

Any honest infertile woman will cop to a less-than-excited feeling when another beaming, glowing woman announces her pregnancy. The world thinks we of the uncooperative uteruses will be joyous for another woman’s good fortune, that we will appreciate better than anybody the beautiful moment, because we grasp how precious it is. But, really, it’s more like being kindergarteners on the playground, when the brat who had the best home-lunch gets the only swing. The first impulse is to push them off into the dirt and steal the swing for ourselves. But we are adults and don’t desire to steal babies (okay, maybe just a little bit), so we smile and say Congratulations, which we sincerely mean. It’s not that we don’t want them to have it, but that we want two swings.

Now, of course, when a woman announces her pregnancy, I think, “Good fɥ¢king luck. Hats off to you, sister.”

Not that I begrudged the writer her pregnancy, but that my writing group atoll would now become something else.

I thought about throwing in the towel. A minor chord now punctuated the major key of the writing group for me. With that tenor set at my first meeting, I’d surely be a masochist to keep going amidst the current state of my mothering life. Still, the pregnant woman was a serious writer, and foremost in her mind was the goal to forge ahead on her novel despite this new turn of events. I admired that. Still do.

I chucked my plan to submit to the group my essay about how I accidentally attended a support group for parents of stillborn children. That would be under the category of a Not Nice thing to do to a pregnant woman, serious writer or no. Wendy wholeheartedly agreed when she read the essay later. She also suggested I tone down the blood-sausage metaphors.

Allison Green, 2014
Allison Green, 2014

And something else happened: another woman submitted new material with a preamble that I recall went something like this: “Here are some short things I started writing over the summer. I’m not sure what they are. Just snippets I’ve been playing around with. It’s different from anything I’ve written before. I wanted to try writing with no expectations. I’m open to any feedback.”

She had a working title for these “things”: Trout Frying in America.

BrautiganI was hooked.

I don’t recall giving her any meaningful feedback, but that my words to her took on the shape of little pompoms: This material excites me. Keep going. I have a feeling in the pit of my stomach when I read this, a feeling that must be not unlike what the pregnant writer is feeling.

Her book referenced some dead fart named Richard Brautigan and his book, Trout Fishing in America. I’d never heard of him or it. I bought a copy. As if I had time to read! Much less read literature by mustachioed white men in odd hats who were perhaps quite rightly in danger of being forgotten. I had other, more pressing books to read, which made good coasters for my martini glasses:

Ninja Moves to Avoid Being Kicked by your Enraged Child!:
Maneuvers for Endomorphs in their Forties

When Your Child Plays Dead on the Playground, Don’t Get Right Up!:
Learning to Embrace Small Moments of Peace

Sticking Your Head in the Electric Oven:
Calming, Zero-Calorie Visualization Exercises

Pitbull Mothering:
Snarling Staffordshire Terriers are Good Moms, Too!

But I somehow found the time, and energy, and semblance of my former self to read Brautigan’s book. I was weirdly charmed by it, despite its misogynistic moments and disgusting sex with a nameless woman surrounded by dead fish in a hot springs. During a recent major book purge, it’s one of the books I kept, as Allison Green had also kept her copy since she was a teenager, which set her to ruminating about it.

Allison Green bookI also continued to find the time and energy to attend the writing group and to read Allison’s draft pages as she created her literary, road-trip homage and exploration of Brautigan, baby boomers, bra-burning stances, and Boise. Over the next year or two, the group read her pages, she reworked them, and they became a book, which we read again, chapter by chapter.

As Allison’s loose pages were shaped into a cohesive whole, so too did my family life settle into a semblance of stability.

Not long after I first met my writing group, one of our social workers requested to see my journal about the Little Monster. I couldn’t say why I started writing those pages. I don’t keep a journal, and in the midst of chaos, taking the time to type out even a single sentence—about things I’d just as soon forget, preferably with the help of an eight-olive martini—often felt onerous and the last thing I wanted to do; I grabbed a pen instead of a hatchet to get the hell out of this burning house. I had no idea what those snippets were going to become: They were just some things I felt compelled to write down.

When one of our social workers read those pages, she finally understood that this family was a five-alarm fire and got us the proper fire extinguishers, which, in our case, was the ladder truck.

mayonnaise 002
Back cover of my copy of Trout Fishing in America

When Allison’s book was finished, I read the whole thing yet again, in one fell swoop, rather than in unsatisfying, writing group chunks. I got the king salmon instead of goldfish snacks. “I’m meeting Allison to discuss her book,” I told MIM one night, which he rightly interpreted as, “I’m getting out of the fɥ¢king house to drink with Allison at the Oddfellows Tavern. Don’t wait up for me.”

My recollection is that my feedback to Allison was similar to my feedback in the autumn of 2008:

This book excites me. I love it. I’m impressed and inspired that you kept going. I have a feeling in the pit of my stomach when I read this. It’s ready.

I believe I made a paltry suggestion about mayonnaise.

Allison’s book, now titled The Ghosts Who Travel with Me: a Literary Pilgrimage through Brautigan’s America, will be published by Ooligan Press and in bookstores this spring.

I could not be more proud of this beautiful, bouncing book and more excited to see its entrance into the world.

Donna MiscoltaWendy Call’s book was finished before I joined the group and was published not long after. As was Donna Miscolta’s (my dad read it twice, he liked it so much). Both books have won awards. Both authors are well into subsequent books, and Donna also has a short story collection.

Superstar Alma Garcia has her own Wikipedia page. She continued to plug away at her novel during an exhausting pregnancy, premature birth, and subsequent difficult entry into motherhood, never faltering in her Clydesdale march to finish. Talk about focus. Her book draft—a big baby!—is now finished. As is Allison’s subsequent project.

My book is not.

Although the Little Monster, now the Little Monkey, cannot even remember a time when he swore, kicked, or spit (though I sure as hell can). He was never sent to the principal’s office last school year and made it to the V.P’s office only three times. He is my Pulitzer.

We take our successes where we can.

I wrote and published a few short things. Hey, somebody has to make the appetizers. I also generated a lot of words. The time for these things will come.

But my decision to remain true to myself—to keep a toe dipped in the spermy, sulfurous hot springs of literary creation despite every reason not to—contributed to our family’s survival.

(from left) Alma Garcia, Allison Green, Donna Miscolta, Jennifer D. Munro, 2011. Like Grendel’s mother, our group remains nameless.

MIM and I adopted the Little Monkey around the time that Allison finished her book and started sending it out into the world. Every member of my writing group attended the adoption party. Donna got to meet my parents, her biggest fans.

Allison’s book, in my mind, is part of the braid that held everything together.

The monsters retreated to a brackish tarn, where they dream of blood sausage and mayonnaise. The only swing is too rickety for their great weight, and they watch it sway in the breeze of moving pens.

(from left) Donna Miscolta, Jennifer D. Munro, Brautigan as Yellow Hair, Waverly Fitzgerald, Allison Green, Seattle Slew, 2014

2 thoughts on “Birth of a Family, Birth of a Book

  1. […] I’ve only taught a handful of classes about writing. I’m not a teacher by profession or proclivity. I’ll soon begin my twenty-eighth year as a project manager for a local government agency, full time except for a few months after my second daughter was born. So whenever I’ve accepted an invitation or responded to an opportunity to teach a class or give a lecture, it has meant a detour from the hour or two each evening I try to spend working on writing fiction in order to do my homework on a craft topic. My own education as a writer has been a series of extension classes, workshops, and conferences, as well as the writing group I’ve had the privilege to belong to for the last ten years. For more about my writing group, read Jennifer D. Munro’s recent blog post. […]

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