NONFICTION


I’m Melting: Thoughts on Reading Your Work in Public

By Jillian Avalon

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           I am not a nervous speaker. I believe it was Seinfeld who said that most funeral guests would prefer to be in the casket rather than give the eulogy. However, I never experienced the paralyzing fear of public speaking so many people suffer, as anyone who knows me will testify.

           I was a performative child, as most children begin and many children outgrow. I danced, sang, acted, and spoke without fear of my audience, no matter the size, age, or setting, and I could not identify with professional performers who admitted to vomiting before every show. What was there to fear?

           It took me twenty-six years to experience stage fright. I signed up for a Friday reading slot at my MFA residency. I selected a reading I felt good about, and I practiced it meticulously. Muscle memory is essential to a good performance, no matter how good or bad the material, and I was determined to have this piece ingrained. Friday, I resolved, would be nothing.

           The symptoms began before breakfast: muscle tightness, stomach flipping, occasional trembling whenever I thought about the reading. I started second-guessing my selection. Was it the right tone? Had I picked a section that was a poor representation of the voice of my character? Was it well-written at all? I waded through my work for the day, increasingly worried that I had made a mistake, either in my selection or in signing up to read at all. I imagined that horrible smattering of polite applause, which sounds suspiciously like normal applause, but with a measured, muted quality that signaled no one actually liked the performance.


"Three minutes of my life did not feel like three minutes. I was still shaking when I sat. I took deep breaths, rubbed the sweat from my hands on my lap, listened and applauded the other readers. My stomach wouldn’t settle."

The half hour before I was to read, I was well past anxious. I felt carsick. My hands were shaking. My too-empty stomach flipped and squirmed. I could see where the sweat from my hands smudged the pages I was to read.

           My friend told me it would be fine, and I knew she was right.

           “It would be fine,” I told myself. I would go into auto-pilot, read my piece as I’d practiced. I would not die if I got polite applause. But it felt suspiciously like death.

           My hands still shook when I took the podium. I worried my voice would sound as queasy as I felt. In the winter, the teacher who had worked on my piece wasn’t present, but he was in the summer. And worse than simply being present, he is one of those listeners whose body language telegraphs listening and draws the eye. I looked up the first time at the audience, as trained, and I saw him leaning forward, and I felt dizzy.

           Three minutes of my life did not feel like three minutes. I was still shaking when I sat. I took deep breaths, rubbed the sweat from my hands on my lap, listened and applauded the other readers. My stomach wouldn’t settle. I told myself it would pass by the end of dinner. A bit of a boost to the blood sugar, some time for the adrenaline drop to level out. It would be fine. Some people would say they liked it and I would feel better.

           The food did not settle my stomach. The trembling didn’t stop. I did get compliments, but it mysteriously made things worse. Each compliment from a professor made the nerves spike on the scale again, and I admitted to one that I still felt a mess when I left dinner early and hurried back to our meeting place for the next event.

           She assured me this was normal. She said reading is her least favorite part of the program. Coming in the previous summer, I would not have understood her, but walking beside her with my stomach doing incomprehensible acrobatics and my fingers vibrating like a plucked guitar string, I knew exactly what she meant. I paced alone for half an hour, and even then my nerves only settled to the levels from breakfast.

           It wasn’t all bad, though. I got good feedback on the section, and I slept better that night than any other during the week. And I was left with an important question to mull over. Why was reading my words so different from every other performance I’d done in my life?

           At first, I thought it was something about the stage. In dance and theatre, I usually had bright lights blocking the audience from view. But this wasn’t always true, and almost no musical performance I’d done had this benefit. I certainly had never had a public speaking engagement where I couldn’t see faces.

           Then I thought about content. With dancing, acting, singing, playing, I am taking content created by someone else and sharing it with the world. I am a vessel for someone else’s expression. If it doesn’t go well, I perform something else and move on.

           But my writing is mine. It is what matters most. If ithe reading doesn’t go well, if people don’t like it, it isn’t a matter of performing something else tomorrow. Those words are a bit of my soul, which I’ve spent years forming and crafting and imagining.

           I'm still not a nervous speaker. I'd still rather give the eulogy than lay in the casket. And I'd still describe myself as performative. I wouldn't stop forcing myself to read, because I think it is good for me. But I have resigned myself to a life of hours of before-and-after agony on a reading day, and I do not imagine it will go away. In fact, I am fairly certain this is one of those things that only gets worse with practice.


Jillian Avalon is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

A STORY IN PARTS


Love’s Last Breath - Part I

By C. A. Cooke

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How can I consider love again?

The carnation in Robert’s hand shook as he waited for the train to stop. His mind buzzed - fear and excitement warring over his attention. After Candice, he had sworn never to put himself on a string again. He spent eleven years being yanked on one, and even after the divorce, he came running whenever Candice beckoned. Promises of reconciliation eventually turned to ash in his ears, and Candice cut him loose.

           Robert thought he was done with women, done with dating, and done with love. But then, Lizzy. She popped into his life like a firework, showing up as a random challenger online in the Scrabble boards and chatting idly with him as she laid down triple word scores. There was something about her, something different. He sought her out whenever he was online, feeling lost when he couldn’t find her name.

           After months of chatting on the Scrabble boards he had built up the courage to ask her to dinner. Nothing fancy. Lord knew he couldn’t afford fancy after the divorce. But the diner on Grand had great food for cheap, and who doesn’t like pie?

           Lizzy’s initial hesitancy worried him. He was no Brad Pitt after all, unless Brad was beefing up for a role as the Cookie Monster: Robert wasn’t fat so much as padded and covered in the fine fur bestowed unto him by his Mediterranean ancestry. Lizzy acquiesced, however, and set a date. She insisted they meet today on the train and wouldn’t answer when Robert queried as to why. The only thing she would tell him was that she had a “prior engagement”.

           They hadn’t exchanged pictures, either. Lizzy was old school, and Robert was too shy to send anything more than a vague description of himself. Candace had ever been so aware of his faults, and eleven years of listening to itemized lists of them made it difficult to see anything else. Lizzy laughed when he told her this, typing, “Nobody’s perfect, Roberto.”

           Roberto. Lizzy’s pet name for him. He loved it. It made him swell with the Italian pride so characteristic of his father’s side of the family. Papa died before Candace left him, but Robert had a feeling he would have liked Lizzy. She was funny and wise. She was always ready with a quip and good advice whenever Robert was down.


"Robert checked the hands of every woman that came in. The flash of red of the matching carnation should be easy to spot, regardless of the frenzy."

The train slowed, inertia rocking everyone in the car forward. Robert adjusted his weight like the city pro he was. He hadn’t needed to grab a hand rail in twenty years. Like many metro travelers, his calves were his best feature. The train slid into the station, the tinny automated voice announcing the street. Robert’s pulse quickened, and he rubbed his sweaty palms on his slacks.

           The surge of end-of-day commuters crashed against one another like opposing armies on a battlefield. Those egressing the train pushed forward with all the grit and determination of Patton’s Third Army pushing into Bastogne. The group on the platform washed around them, elbowing and shoving them aside to gain entrance to the carriages. The exchange had all the order and grace of an explosion.

           Robert checked the hands of every woman that came in. The flash of red of the matching carnation should be easy to spot, regardless of the frenzy. Once his eye caught a crimson splotch, and his heart leapt. Its owner, a petite blonde in a navy business suit, stopped and scanned the seats. She moved away moments later, and Robert saw she held not a flower, but a small, gaily wrapped package. He continued to scan the crowd, his panic rising with this heartbeat. He wondered if he had gotten the wrong day or the wrong train. He didn’t want to consider that Lizzy might stand him up. They were soul-mates.

           The crowd settled down and the doors slid closed. The familiar weight of acceleration accompanied the familiar weight of disappointment. She hadn’t come. She’d reconsidered or, perhaps, just forgot.

           “That’s me,” he muttered. “Mr. Forgettable.”

           “Excuse me, young man,” a voice said from beside him. He looked up.

           Gliding around the other riders was a woman in her seventies. She wore black slacks and a tie-died tank-top, over which she had draped a sheer floral-patterned wide scarf, which flowed around her like water as she walked. Her gray-white hair was styled in a textured bob which made her look as though she had just wandered in from a day at the beach.

           “Excuse me,” she said again. “Are you Robert?”

           Robert blinked and nodded.

           “I am,” he said. “But who are—”

           His eyes caught the flash of red in her hands and his mouth went dry.

           “Roberto!” Lizzy said, and threw herself at him, arms open.


C. A. Cooke is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. Visit his website at http://cacooke.com

POETRY


Hush

By Krista Graham

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If I don’t say it out loud it’s not real
So I won’t speak it
Just fold it like a quilt and hide it
In a chest
My chest
I close the lid

Be Still

I open and let in the light
Retrieve the quilt
Unfold it tenderly lay it on my shoulders and
Feel its weight
My weight
I sit under it awhile

Weep

I let the warmth of it melt what is frozen
And in the thawing I feel
More than nothing then something then everything
And there are tears
My tears
I let myself rain


Krista Graham is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. Visit her website at www.peninmyhand.com.

BOOKS


Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

Review by Justin Taylor, Mountainview Faculty

This past school year, I used an anthology in a few of my writing classes that I had never used before. It was The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, and to be honest with you, I was not persuaded of its efficacy as a teaching tool. The selections are refreshingly offbeat, and the sheer range of the thing (1700s-2000s) is something, but the book contains a lot of typos, formatting mistakes, and errors of fact (particularly in the biographical notes for the included writers) that left me constantly second-guessing my primary course text, which is the one thing a teacher doesn’t want to have to worry about. Oates/Oxford should have hired a proofreader and a fact-checker, or, if they did, they should have fired them. Oh well.

     Still, there were some stories that I encountered for the first time in The Oxford Book that not only yielded fruitful classroom discussions and creative responses, but stuck with me after the school year ended. One such story is “Fleur” by Louise Erdrich, about a woman reputed to be a witch, and the supernatural revenge she may (or may not) have taken on a group of men who violated her. The story, which is less than ten pages long, is masterful in the way it handles point of view, as well as in the way it balances candor and subtlety. It left me eager to read more Erdrich, so I picked up Love Medicine, her debut novel, first published in 1984 (then revised and expanded in 1993, and again in 2009).

     Love Medicine takes place over roughly half a century on (and off) an Ojibwe Reservation in North Dakota. A family tree included in the front matter lays out five generations of Kashpaws, Morrisseys, Nanapushs, and Lamartines, many of whom will get to narrate one or more chapters at some point in the sprawling saga. On the family tree, a legend explains that different symbols are used to distinguish “traditional Ojibwe marriage,” “sexual affair or liaison,” and “Catholic marriage,” as well as “children born from any of the above unions” from “adopted children.” Such scale might overwhelm some readers before they’ve even begun, but don’t be scared off! The novel, for all its technical daring (leaps forward and backward in time, characters phasing in and out of primary-protagonist status) is remarkably lucid and emotionally potent. It’ll have you hooked within five pages, and in full-on binge-mode within fifty.

     I loved it so much I forced myself to slow down around the three-quarters mark, because I wasn’t ready for it to be over yet. Happily, it turned out that this was a needless precaution, because Erdrich has written several more novels set in the same community, including the Pulitzer finalist The Plague of Doves, the National Book Award-winning The Round House, and a novel called Four Souls that, as far as I know, hasn’t won anything but which caught my eye because its protagonist is Fleur Pillager, i.e. the title character of the story that first introduced me to Erdrich’s work, so I’m going to read it as soon as I find a copy. (Fleur appears in Love Medicine too, but only briefly.) 

     Philip Roth called Love Medicine “a masterpiece, written with spellbinding authenticity” and Toni Morrison rightly noted that its "beauty...saves us from being completely devastated by its power.” To these accolades I only wish to add a brief teacherly note. Love Medicine is recommended for one and all, but it will prove especially useful for students exploring that gray and intimidating borderland between the novel, the “linked collection” and the “novel-in-stories.” I’ve seen Love Medicine described as all three of these things, but Erdrich herself seems to regard it as a novel, while at the same time regarding its component parts as stories rather than as chapters. (The title story of The Red Convertible, her Collected Stories, is a chapter from this novel.) This makes sense if you think about it, given how many books she’s written about these people and this place: are not the novels themselves mere chapters in some larger book? In any case, if you’re looking for a model, Love Medicine is among the best you’ll find, because it will give you permission not to follow anyone else’s, but rather to build your own.


Justin Taylor is a Mountainview MFA faculty member, as well as the author of Flings, The Gospel of Anarchy, and Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever.

NONFICTION


Me and Morgan Freeman

by W. Leander

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             I was eight years old when my grandfather, a kindly, sports-loving, retired police officer, died—in the same manner he had lived his entire life. Quietly. He died from lung cancer. He died at night.

              It was summer, and I was staying with them, he and Grandma, out there in their little house at the tail-end of a dead-end street in lifeless Independence, Missouri, where I spent my summer vacations during those early years.

              I know I was there when he passed away. Because I am told I was. Just as I am told that on the night he died, when the paramedics arrived—with their stretchers and squawking radios and forbidding flashing lights—I cried as I stood under the shadow of the hallway, in my Fruit-of-the-Loom underwear and dirty tube socks, whispering to any adults who passed near me: Where is Grandpa going and when is he coming back?

              I can’t, however, remember anything from that night. Not the paramedics. Not the stretcher. Not the tears. No, my memory of that time is as hazy and tenuous as summer itself. No day stands out.

              This is what I remember: tubes. Thin, clear tubes attached to bags; bags filled with liquid—buttermilk-looking liquid that replaced his food, bright pink liquid you needed gloves to handle, clear liquid that smelled like aspirin. The tubes snaked down from these bags, first into blinking, burping machines—the various serious-looking apparatuses that kept him alive once he came home from the hospital that last time—and then into Grandpa, who stayed confined in bed, not the bed he shared with Grandma for thirty-plus years, but the new hospital bed, which took up space in the dining room, positioned in such a way that he could still see the TV comfortably.  

              I remember that hospital bed, with its heavy rubber wheels and thin blue mattress. It had chrome bars that could be raised on either side and locked into place with an ominous click, along with a hand crank used to elevate both ends. I remember the gauze; the oxygen tank; the large plastic cup, always nearby and always filled with ice water because he was so constantly thirsty; and how no one could ever make noise during the day, because he was either sleeping or trying to sleep—the pain not always kept at bay by medication. Plus, I can recall the sharp smell of urine, which hung in the heavy, stale air that entire final summer, at first from the commode, placed as it was in the living room, right next to the TV, then later due to the urine bag that hung and drooped off one side of his bed. 

              What I can’t remember, no matter how I try, is his face. Grandpa’s face. What it looked like. Its creases. Its blemishes. Its moles. Instead, in my head is a runny image of a face. Nothing is in focus. Just a brown blur with a crop of grey hair and the same nondescript, haunted, hollowed-out eyes that could be found on the face of any elderly black man who had spent the majority of his life in the South.


"I don’t have the beginning to this scene, no idea why we are sitting across from each other, so delighted as we are, rocking out with imaginary instruments."

And that’s it. That’s all I can remember about my grandfather, not his love of catfish and Royals baseball, not his fondness for toy models of classic cars. Nor can I recall any time spent with him before the cancer robbed him of so much.  I can’t remember any fishing trips or any trips to the park. Can’t remember a time when he chased me in the yard with false teeth rattling in his hand. These moments, if they ever existed, are gone.  Erased from my memory. All except for one.

              It is one simple scene, years before. The two of us. Alone. Grandma out running errands, no one else in the house, and Grandpa is babysitting. However, in my faulty memory, Grandpa is played by Morgan Freeman.

              We are in the living room. I am on Grandma’s plastic covered sofa; Grandpa is seated across from me in the easy chair. Between us on the coffee table are three discarded Jell-O Pudding Pop wrappers. I’ve eaten all three and am thinking about asking for a fourth, the benefit of Grandma being gone. We are both rocking, side-to-side, grinning at each other while playing air-guitar.  We are mirror images, the two of us.  I am either copying him or he is copying me. I don’t have the beginning to this scene, no idea why we are sitting across from each other, so delighted as we are, rocking out with imaginary instruments. There is no audio. I can’t hear my grandfather’s voice.

              I see me—him—sitting there in my striped tee-shirt and missing front teeth, grinning goofily at my grandfather; so nakedly happy and uninhibited and trusting that I am sure I have never smiled like that since.

              I look at my younger self and wonder what is going through his head. How much does he know about the world around him and his place in it?  I don’t know. Will never know. I can’t remember, can’t fit myself inside such a small frame. He is a mystery to me.  Just as I am to him. Forty years, for him, is an eternity, an inscrutable span of time.

              And he is right.

              We are strangers, he and I—separated by an impenetrable wall of years and experience. Our cells aren’t even the same now. His body, still coated with baby fat under tulip-soft skin, is free from the scars long since faded on my scraped and rusted self. We hardly look related. Still, I feel paternal and protective of my little me. I shudder for him. I want to reach out and shield him from the years ahead. From what comes next.

              Remember this, I want to tell him. Remember this moment. This man. Your first father figure. You will have so few. Remember his loving, healthy face. His aged patchwork of wrinkled, brown skin. His scratchy cheeks.  His sorrowful, smiling eyes.

              Remember him for me.

              But I am too distant. And it is much too late. They are ghosts now. The both of them.

              So, I must content myself to watching these two strangers from afar, watch as they beam at one another. Laughing and strumming to music only they can hear.


W. Leander is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.