Not as scary as A Thief in the Night

Earlier this week I finished reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir, The Chronology of Water.  Normally I don’t feel compelled to own a book—I’m usually content with borrowing a copy from a friend or the library, but this is one I want to buy.  As Sugar at The Rumpus would say, Lidia writes with humility and surrender, with resilience and faith, in other words she “writes like a motherfucker.”  Lidia’s story is interesting, heartbreaking at times and filled with drama, but it’s her writing that pulls me in—her ability to cut right to the point, her ability to turn the story of a life into a piece of artwork.  I want to own her book so I can refer to it when I need some inspiration—which is often.

I was telling my daughter about this book.  She’s sixteen and her love of books kicked in later than many of her friends, but to my immense satisfaction she’s now an avid reader.  Two summer’s ago she was hooked by The Hunger Games series.  Now she’s reading The Virgin Suicides. When I was telling her about The Chronology of Water (don’t worry—I left out the sexy parts) I made a comment that my life has been too boring to ever write a memoir as interesting as Lidia Yuknovich’s.  She told me that from what she’s heard of my childhood, I have plenty of material.

It’s true I suppose.  My parents divorced when I was very young, which meant that I had to deal with stepparents and the dichotomy of being raised in two separate households.  And there’s the whole religion business.  My daughter has been to church only a few times in her life but I spent a good portion of my childhood in Sunday school, sitting through sermons and crying at the altar—pleading for forgiveness for the sins I’d committed.  (And aren’t all elementary-aged children terrible sinners?)  It’s true that living in a non-stop Pentecostal fear-fest certainly makes for some interesting stories.

Most of the hours spent at church—the First Assemblies of God Church on 4th and Grand Avenue in Grand Junction, Colorado, to be specific—blur together.  I couldn’t tell you the specifics of any one sermon.  The church itself though, with its long white-tiled hallway, its labyrinth of classrooms, its red carpeted sanctuary and its dimly lit balcony will forever be associated with a whole host of mixed up emotions in my memory.

One of the things I do remember—with horrifying distinction—from the church of my childhood, is a movie that was made in the early 1970s called A Thief in the Night.  It was the story of a woman who had been left behind after the rapture.  She realized early on that although she was a good person she’d made a terrible mistake by not taking Jesus Christ as her personal savior.   Without taking the time to tell you the entire plot line, (I’d need to refresh my own memory,) I can say in all honesty that nothing in my life has scared me as much as that movie.   I’m talking nightmare, wet the bed kind of fear.  I’m talking crying and screaming upon coming home to an empty house kind of fear.  One scene depicted a child being sent away to a guillotine. (Not everyone is as fortunate as I am to have an actual video of the scene that traumatized me for years to come.  To understand my terror please see the attached YouTube video.) Other scenes involved torture and executioners.

     Ironically, at the time they showed those films during the evening services, I wasn’t allowed to go to movies because they were “against our religion.” Somehow though, the church officials thought it was okay to show A Thief in the Night to children.  The graphic, disturbing images were justified because they would hopefully lead to conversions.  And let me tell you, the altars were busy on those nights.   Jesus became the personal savior of many a kid after those showings.  It was a strange combination of Jesus loves you unconditionally and if you do not accept him as your personal savior you will burn in hell. 

This is how I was raised.  It was the backdrop to all of the other mixed up stuff that was going on with my two-part family and my adolescent body.   I guess my daughter is right. I do have a few stories to tell.  So does everyone.

As much as I wish I could remember more specific details of my childhood, most of my memories come in the form of emotions.  The last time I visited the 4th and Grand church was for my father’s funeral.  My emotions were already out of whack before I walked through the doors, but being back inside that building, seeing so many of my relatives that I hadn’t seen in years, being around the Jesus lingo again, using the same bathroom I used to retreat into as a kid when the pressure of the place became too much—it all reminded me of how I felt throughout the majority of my childhood.  Inadequate.  Small.  Fearful.

So, as usual, (forgive me) all of this comes back to writing.  When I applied to the MFA program over a year ago I chose fiction as my genre to study.  But I’m questioning that choice lately.   When I sit down at my computer it’s the true stories I want to tell—they seem easier to come by because my memory and my experience limit where I can go.   But I believe in fiction.  I believe that some truths are best expressed when we’re forced to step outside of our own lives.  It’s just that when I sit down to write fiction I feel inadequate, small, fearful all over again.  It’s not as fear-inducing as A Thief in the Night—nothing is as terrifying as that, but it’s scary just the same.  The good news is that if I got over my fear of the rapture I can get over my fear of writing fiction.  It takes practice though—a lot of it—and faith in the process.  I may not know where I’m going with a story, but worst-case scenario is that I have to scrap an idea or start over.  That’s not nearly as bad as thinking you’ll be sent to hell if you screw up.

Reveling in the mess

view from home
Moon above the pushki meadow by Dean Sundmark

I rolled into town last night after attending a twelve day creative writing residency. Today I’m wandering around my home taking note of what has changed and what has stayed the same while I’ve been away.

My nemesis plant, locally known as cow parsnip or pushki, the one that left me with burns all over my arms a few days before I left, has grown nearly three feet taller in my absence and is now in its full flowering stage. Looking out my window and seeing how it’s taken over the paths that lead to the chicken coop, the yurt and the garden, overwhelms me. I wish I could take a machete and start hacking away at it, make everything orderly again, but since I have such a strong reaction to the plant’s juices it’s best if I just leave it alone, surrender to its tenacity, maybe even find a way to admire its steadfast ability to reclaim more of the yard each year.

Trying to process all of the conversations, classes, insights and emotions from the residency has me feeling a bit overwhelmed as well. So much happened in such a short amount of time that making sense of it all isn’t an option. Yet I find myself wanting to write something that sums it all up, lines it all out and puts it in tidy, manageable rows.

When I look back on my experience of the residency and the notes that I took over the course of the twelve days, I can see that I was all over the place. I had moments of feeling confident in my writing, followed by languishing self-doubt. The sense of community that comes from being surrounded by like-minded people was palpable at times; so was the stabbing loneliness that I felt at night in my dorm room. At times I was moved to tears. On one occasion I struggled to contain my anger and ultimately ended up leaving part way through a reading.

I’ve always been of the mind that writing is a means for making order out of chaos and I still believe that to be true. But now I’m questioning that tendency within myself to always be looking for a straight way out of a jumbled up world. As a writer I might need to spend more time reveling in the mess. I might need to write all over the place, let the words and ideas take me places that feel overgrown and too big to manage.

It takes courage to dig into questions for which there may be no answers. I might emerge with nothing more than a bunch of burns and bruises. But I feel like being a part of this MFA program is giving me the freedom to go there for a little while. I might not have anything marketable at the end of my three years, but along the way I’ll learn to push myself further than I thought possible.

Creativity seems impossible without a certain amount of surrender. I’m wanting to use these few years to let my writing grow into something bigger than I’ve allowed it to be thus far. I’m wanting to resist the urge to hack it down into tidy little cubes. I’m wanting to get lost in the dishevel. Hopefully in my digging I’ll find what needs to be found. Hopefully it will be good.

What’s it all about?

For the past several weeks I’ve been working diligently on my application for graduate school, and just yesterday I delivered it to the post office.  I decided quite a long time ago that I wanted to get an MFA in creative writing but I needed to take care of a few things before I could go through with applying.  Most importantly, I needed to wait until the timing was right for my family.  And on the more technical side, I needed to finish my bachelor’s degree, which was unfortunately a little more complicated than it should have been.

Now I have earned the elusive psychology degree (they tell me the actual diploma is in the mail) and I can pursue the MFA.  Although I’ve been writing for quite a while, I believe this next step, assuming I get accepted, will allow me to really immerse myself into a writing community and grow, something I’ve been craving for a long time.  And as far as my family goes, well to them I feel infinitely grateful.  They have supported me in every possible way, from listening to me fret over having to take statistics to not taking it personally when I’ve had to lock myself away for several hours at a time.

One of the requirements for the application was to write an essay with an explanation of why I write.  Since I’m about to invest a tremendous amount of time and my family’s resources into writing over the next few years it’s good to consider just why I’m doing it.  Every time I ponder that difficult question though, I seem to come up with a different answer, and each answer feels a little vague.

Sometimes writing feels like a very selfish act.  After all, it’s time consuming.   And time spent with my notebook or computer is time that’s not spent on tasks that are also important, like working at my job that helps pay the bills, or cleaning the house, or sometimes spending time with my family.  In fact there are times when there are about a million things I feel like I should be doing instead of writing.  And what makes me think I could possibly contribute anything of importance in a world where there is so much information out there, in a time when we already have to filter through so much junk in order to find something meaningful?

Answering the question of why I write could easily make me lose heart.  But last June, at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, Nancy Lord in her closing talk gave some advice that has helped me when I start feeling guilty for spending so much time on writing.   She said to think of writing not as something selfish but as a gift to give.  She said, “The time you put into writing is not self-indulgence, not navel-gazing; you will write something to share with others, even a small number of others, even one other person, that will present a fresh idea, brighten someone’s day, help create empathy, be simply beautiful.  The time needed to create such a gift needs no defense.”

I’m not using Nancy’s words of wisdom as an excuse to neglect my family or all of my responsibilities, but I am using them to give myself permission to prioritize writing.  I can only hope the things I write, or the gifts I give, reach people in some way.  Each piece of writing has the potential to connect me with someone else, and ultimately, at least for me, that’s what it’s all about.

Full disclosure

I learned a couple of years ago in a memoir writing class that it’s good to put some time and distance between certain incidents in your life and when you attempt to write about them.  My instructor said that you would get a sense when you started writing as to whether or not you’re ready.  I’m thinking that twelve years is enough, and I can finally write about the time I got arrested.

I’ve told the story dozens of times, each time laughing at the ridiculousness of the whole event, but something has stopped me every time I’ve attempted to write about it; probably because it was humiliating.  Putting it down on paper just makes me remember how awful it felt to see the neighbors drive by as I was handcuffed on the side of the road, how stunned I felt as I sat in the cold, barred-off back seat of the trooper’s cruiser and how angry I felt when my name appeared in the local newspaper’s police blotter the following week.

I hadn’t thought about the incident for quite a while, but it came back to me recently when I watched the video of a reporter getting detained by the security guards hired by a certain Alaskan politician.   The two young security men in the video  were trying to keep other members of the press from talking to the hand-cuffed reporter.  Their buzz-cuts and their determination to look official reminded me of the trooper, (I like to call him BabyTrooper as he looked like he was about nineteen years old) that decided to cuff me on the side of the road all those years ago.

Before I go any further I should reassure everyone that I am not a criminal.  Really I’m not. And I wasn’t at the time of my arrest.  I was a stay-at-home mom trying to finish up my Bachelor’s degree.  I volunteered in my son’s kindergarten class.  I took my three year old to play group and I looked after the neighbor kids on a fairly regular basis.  For fun I was learning how to knit and how to make awesome homemade bread.  And no, I wasn’t one of those moms that lived an “after hours” life of partying and carousing around town.  My evenings were spent doing things like reading and watching movies.

It all happened because I didn’t deal with a fix-it ticket.  Two years before my arrest I had been pulled over when I was driving home from Soldotna because a headlight was out on my Subaru.  I got the light fixed within a few days, but I failed to take it back to the Alaska State Troopers office to have them check it off as having been repaired.  And for that oversight they put a warrant out for my arrest.  Little did I know that the next time I would be pulled over for a minor traffic violation (yes, another headlight out on the same Subaru) I would end up getting hauled down to the station until my husband could pay the $40.00 to bail me out.  (And before you start to imagine me behind bars please know that it didn’t go that far, thankfully.)

Now, I understand the importance of headlights.  I realize they are significant safety features on cars.  And believe me, I’m quick to get broken headlights fixed these days.  But honestly, is not dealing with a fix-it ticket an arrest-able offense?  Apparently it is.  I do believe that BabyTrooper could have handled it differently though.  Perhaps he could have asked me to follow him to the station, or at the very least he could have let me ride in his car without the handcuffs.  But I think he got a little charge out of humiliating the hell out of me.  And I blame him for the split-second of panic I still feel whenever a trooper drives past.

I’ve learned a lot from this incident and I hope in my writing about it I can pass on some of my hard-earned insights.  First of all, if you own a Subaru that was manufactured anytime between 1983 and 1995 just know you’re going to go through a lot of headlights.  It might be a good idea to keep a few spares at home.  And, should you get pulled over for having a headlight out, don’t forget the very crucial step of driving it over to the police station so they can officially make note of its repair.

Also, it’s a good idea to have an open mind when reading the local police blotter.  When the Homer News and the Homer Tribune reported my particular crime to the general public they didn’t explain that it was all over a minor traffic violation.  They left out the part about how the trooper, fresh out of trooper school, was trained to follow protocol but had not an inkling of common sense.  All it said was:  Teresa Sundmark, 29, arrested for outstanding warrant.   Which leads to the most important lesson I learned from the whole getting arrested event; sometimes, even though you’re a law-abiding citizen and all around good person, people will treat you otherwise, and at such times it’s helpful to hold your head high and not let the bullies and the uninformed make you feel bad.  And if they do, just tell the story lots of times and laugh about it a lot.  Then, when enough time has passed write it all down and hope that you can finally put the whole thing behind you.

Halfway through summer

Somewhere in the early days of this blog I think I wrote something about trying to post something at least twice a week.  In retrospect it may have been a little too lofty a goal.  I seem to be doing well to get something out twice a month at this point.

There is always the hope that somewhere in my future I will find more time for writing and reading.  Realistically the six to seven months of winter we get here could work to my advantage.   During the long season I go to bed early and therefore find it relatively easy to get up at 5:30am and take advantage of a quiet house.   Summer in Alaska is a different story.  There is this climate-imposed pressure to fit as much into three months as others in a more southern locale could spread out over as many as six to eight months.   The garden needs tending, firewood needs stacking.  There are fish to catch, berries to pick and recreation to be had, all in addition to the regular household chores and my job.    I’ve heard people talk about “lazy summer days” but honestly I haven’t experienced many of them in the 18 years I’ve lived here.   Perhaps we’re programmed to keep moving until darkness settles in, which this time of year is around midnight. It’s a rather manic existence and I can sustain it for a while, but just lately I’ve reached the part of the summer where my concentration is low and my attention span is short.

Lately I’ve been craving some serious couch time.  The other day I found myself fantasizing about catching a summer cold that would force (allow?) me to sit still for a while with my books and my laptop.  When my reading and writing habits become mucked up in the long daylight portion of summer, I feel a little out of balance.  A sort of literary mania comes over me.  The problem is compounded by the fact that I work in a library.

It starts with me checking out more books and magazines than I could ever possibly find the time to read.  Then, when I start feeling bad about taking so many items out of circulation for the public use I begin digging through the book donation boxes in the back room.   My stack keeps getting higher and in my attempt to make up for all the years I spent reading Glamour magazine and listening to 80’s pop music when I should have been reading the classics I start having thoughts like, “How can I possibly be a good writer if I’ve never read Moby Dick, or anything by Steinbeck?  I must remedy this situation right now.”   The guilt I inflict upon myself is emotionally exhausting and by the time I actually have time to sit down on my couch with my oversized stack, (usually around 11:30 pm) I’m overwhelmed by the choices.   I do a lot of page flipping and a little reading (remember the short attention span I mentioned earlier) before I find myself too tired to think straight.  Then I fall into a hard sleep for about six hours.

Coherence returns, for a while at least, after a good sleep, so that’s when I try to write, even if it only amounts to a page or two in my notebook.   Some would say that journaling is a waste of time but I find that it’s a valuable tool for helping me keep my wits intact.   A while back it led me to a most obvious solution to my reading and writing problem of late:  short stories.  I’m working on a short story of my own, and what better way to learn the workings of the genre than to read a bunch of them?    And beautifully, I can manage complete works of fiction that are only 5-12 pages long, even during this crazy time of year when daylight lasts much longer than my brain’s ability to stay fully engaged.

And as for this blog, I still aspire to post more often, and maybe even liven it up with pictures once in a while.    In the meantime I’ll do what I can, and continue to enjoy the process.  I think I’ll also try to slow down a little and savor some of what summer has to offer.

Thanks everyone for reading.  I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your support!

The Low Down on the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference (so far)…

The Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference is underway, and I’m feeling lucky that such an event happens right here in my home town.  World class authors come here, to me, making it just so easy (and affordable) to learn from them.  I get in my car, drive about fifteen miles, make myself comfortable in the conference room at Land’s End Resort, and people like Michael Cunningham, Dinty Moore, Bill Roorbach, Peggy Shumaker, Sherry Simpson, Nancy Lord and Rich Chiappone (to name just a few) offer workshops, answers to writing questions and expert advice.   It’s pretty cool.

Although I’ve been dabbling in writing for several years, I’m a newbie to the writing world.   The KBWC is a good way to get a sampling of what it’s all about.  Jennifer Pooley, a senior editor from HarperCollins imprint William Morrow is here, as is agent April Eberhardt.  It’s been nice to meet both of these very approachable women because they remind me that agents and editors are real people; something I’m guessing that most of you already knew.

Here are a few morsels I’ve gleaned from the offerings so far:

  • I use the word “I” way to much in my writing and I think I’m going to have to start looking for alternative ways to talk about myself so as to not bore the poor readers or sound like a narcissist.
  • Bill Roorbach says to call writing “work” and not “writing,” because the guilt-ridden side of us won’t let us skip out on work and it’s easy to decline social engagements when you say, “Sorry, I have to work.”
  • Dinty Moore’s workshop on miniature nonfiction validated my love for keeping things short and gave me some great ideas for future projects.
  • Michael Cunningham says it’s important to stay engaged with a piece of writing by visiting it every day, even if you don’t have much time.  He also says to “write smarter than you are.”
  • Listening to Peggy Shumaker read from her new book, “Gnawed Bones” reminded me that I love poetry, especially when it’s as accessible and beautiful as hers.
  • And Bill Roorbach says that gardening is writing.  I love that.

A Break

My last blog post was on April 22nd, two days after the oil platform Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.  At that point I was writing one or two essays a week for the History of Psychology class I was taking, and that particular blog post was a way for me to escape the pressures of my class for a couple of hours. I noticed the headline about the oil platform sinking and eleven crewmen missing on that day as I was researching school lunches but honestly my mind was on other things and I didn’t give it much thought.

I took a break from journaling and blogging late in the semester in order to finish the term paper for my class. And in my attempt to stay focused on the task at hand I didn’t pay much attention to the news, but on May 6th, the day I submitted my final project, I heard that the oil leak in the Gulf was spewing close to 25,000 barrels a day, a much bigger number than the 1000 barrels it had been estimated at in the beginning.  The burden of a semester’s worth of deadlines was gone and I could finally think about the trip to Colorado I was leaving for the next day, but that number, twenty-five thousand, stayed with me.

My sister and I flew out of Anchorage on Saturday, May 8th.   The route took us over Prince William Sound where twenty-one years before, the Exxon Valdez spilled 257,000 barrels of crude oil.   When that spill occurred I was three years out of high school, at a time in my life when keeping up with current events was the last thing on my mind.  But I had this dream of moving to Alaska and I watched the spill unfold on television with a heavy heart.  What I didn’t understand at the time was that the images of oiled sea birds and otters were only a small part of the story; the lost livelihoods, the damaged ecosystems, the profound hopelessness experienced by those affected, those are the stories that aren’t as easy to cover in a headline, or with a picture.

I spent my first day in Colorado, Mother’s Day, at my step-mom’s house.  Three of my five sisters were there along with four nieces and a nephew.  She prepared for us a delicious meal of shrimp scampi and just before we sat down to dinner we checked CNN and found out that BP’s first attempt to cap the spewing oil with a containment dome the day before had failed.  If I’ve done my math right, the Deepwater Horizon had already surpassed the Exxon Valdez in the number of barrels of oil leaked by Mother’s Day.  But unlike an oil tanker with a finite capacity, nobody knows how much oil can escape from a hole that is drilled 18,000 feet into the ocean floor.   Nobody knows how many fishing families will be put out of business, or how the Gulf of Mexico’s sustainable shrimp industry will fare, but it doesn’t look promising.

I didn’t follow the news much for the next ten days or so.  I knew the oil was still flowing into the ocean but thinking about it couldn’t change a thing, so I went about enjoying my time with my mom and my sisters.   It’s a powerless feeling to care about something and really not be able to do anything tangible to remedy the situation.

I returned from Colorado a little over three weeks ago.  Since then I’ve resumed my normal life, which is mellower in the summertime.   With the kids out of school I’m able to sleep a little later, and the extra daylight after I get off of work allows me to get outside and work in the garden in the evenings.  The peas and beets are beginning to sprout already, and potatoes and carrots will soon follow.  So far all of the green vegetables that we transplanted seem to be surviving, so maybe this will be a good gardening year.  Hopefully by the time I’m harvesting vegetables this fall the technology to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico will have been found and put into use.

I still check the headlines every day to see if there is any good news at all in the Gulf of Mexico.   I haven’t heard any yet and it’s been about fifty days since the initial explosion.  It’s a sobering thing to know that we can cause so much harm; that the advantages of our technology can at times be outweighed by the damage it can unleash.  I feel it’s a problem that must be recognized and considered with each advance that is made, but out of self-preservation I can’t let myself get overwhelmed by things that go so far beyond my own control.  I can’t stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico but I can tend my garden, my family and my soul.  I can get back to writing and I guess that’s better than doing nothing.