I did make the switch back into fiction after more than a year away. (I wrote a memoir. See previous post on switching from nonfiction to fiction.) It wasn’t easy. I squirmed a lot. Then again, I always squirm a lot when I start writing—even if it’s only been a few days away from a writing project. Ultimately, I did succeed in penning four new short stories this past semester. Not bad, considering the 900 or so papers I graded while teaching 15 credits at the college level. Then again, not great, considering I’d like writing to take more of my time then say, watching TV or even reading. Neither of which was true, I’m afraid.
How did I make the switch back into fiction? By reading a lot. And writing a lot.
Yup. I know, I know, such sage and unforeseen advice. But it really was that simple.
And that hard.
The thing is, with the writing, I had to be willing to turn up every day and write crap. And LOTS and LOTS of it poured forth before my first story took off. BUT when it finally did arrive, the Muses rewarded me: I wrote the first 10 pages faster than I’d ever done before—and the last five pages of the story came pretty quickly too. I think, in all honesty, writing fiction again was just a matter of showing up and putting some words on a page UNTIL IT CAME. Whatever IT is.
Not really. Anyway. It was a busy semester. (Hence no posts.) I liked the money. I liked the teaching. But, now, I’m looking for part-time work. I’m an adjunct, and I didn’t get enough classes to pay my bills this spring. Wait. I’m sick of thinking about that. SO LET’S NOT.
What I’m thinking about instead is Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women, a collection of autobiographical short stories. I’m on about p. 100, and I think it lives up to the hype so far. Her stories are disturbing in all the right ways. I love the brutal honesty. The intensity of the narrator. The collection has been compared to Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, but I think that’s an unfair comparison. Because, right now, I’m saying Berlin’s is the better of the two books.
Johnson’s characters never felt real to me whereas Berlin’s do. They disturb me and make me feel alive in the fictional moment, whether the narrator is getting an abortion or just talking to a blind man on the bus.
Lucia Berlin, smoking hot.
For example, in the story “Emergency Room Notebook, 1977” the narrator, an emergency room nurse, notes:
“There are ‘good’ suicides. ‘Good reasons’ many times like terminal illness, pain. But I’m more impressed with good technique. Bullets through the brain, properly slashed wrists, decent barbiturates. Such people, even if they don’t succeed, seem to emanate a peace, a strength, which may have come from having made a thoughtful decision.”
The passage is what prompted me to write this blog post in the first place. Two years ago, paramedics dubbed my father’s suicide pitch-perfect: “Bullet to heart, no exit wound. He musta been good shot.”
It hurt my half-brother (who was there when Dad died) to hear those words. I mean, my father was still lying on the ground when they popped out of some dude’s mouth. But months after Dad’s suicide, while talking to my half-brother on the phone, he happened to mention that Dad looked peaceful after he was dead. At rest. It made him happy-ish to think Dad wasn’t suffering anymore.
So was it a thoughtful decision on my father’s part? Perhaps.
Art imitating life imitating art … and so it goes.