On writing territories and heart maps.

It is Writer’s Wednesday, but it is also Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent in the Catholic Church. It is customary for Catholics to repent, to abstain on Fridays, and to give something up. This Lent, I am giving up social media, endeavoring to not waste so much time scrolling through Facebook and Instagram while simultaneously tanking my mental health. I will only share blog updates and that’s it: I won’t even check to see if my posts have been liked or shared or retweeted.

I’m looking forward to being “emptied out” because I am anxious to be filled with better things, like joy and creativity. At the start of the Creative Writing course I teach, I have my students create a “Heart Map.” By placing people and places and events and memories within their hearts, students are thereby better able to decide what they can and cannot write about according to their own rules. It also helps them better determine where their inspiration comes from. Typically, I do not join in on the activity because my rules for my writing are pretty straight forward: the only thing off limits in my writing is my immediate family, especially my twin sister. At the writing conference I attended in New York City about two years ago, I ended up writing about my sister and he struggle with addiction in some detail. Those in my small group who commented on the piece liked it very much, and encouraged me to write about it. The leader of my group, Shanna McNair, actually told me “it was time” to write about my sister. I’m doubtful, still unsure. My last blog post featured a very short story based off a prompt that featured the bit of dialogue, “Mom, you’ve really gotta stop dragging me into the middle of things” (or something like that). My original idea was to write about my relationship with my twin sister, and how that has affected every other relationship in my life, particularly the relationship I have with our mother.

But I chickened out at the last minute; I couldn’t bring myself to write about it. There’s still so much anger and shame, and I’m not entirely sure if that story is mine to share. Ownership comes into question because I would be writing about real people and experiences based in fact. It’s delicate and I know Nora Ephron famously said that “everything is copy,” but I don’t think I’m quite there yet.

Does that mean I’m not a real writer? I’ve been plagued by insecurities for a long time now (not being published a second time can have that effect on writers, I’m sure) and I’m looking forward to purging that negative, toxic thinking from me and getting back to basics.

I must say that Chuck Palahniuk’s book Consider This is a real help; highly recommended.

P.S. – I read two Bridget Jones novels in as many days. And I’ve been bingeing the 1995 BBC adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice.” I’m worried I’m using the passive voice again and writing in a British accent. Oops.

On mediocrity … especially in thinking of titles.

So I’ve neglected this blog for two weeks. I wish, I really, really wish I could tell you it was because I’ve been furiously working on a new novel or that it was because I’ve been off having all sorts of romantic adventures that I will fill you in on. Sadly, neither one of those excuses presented as valid, interesting reasons is true. We started a new semester at school on Wednesday, February 6th and ever since then, I’ve been pretty much consumed by work. That coincided with a last-minute visit from my sister and her four kids, so I was swamped with family and work obligations. I haven’t written anything, haven’t been taking care of myself or my house. I’ve barely been reading. To be honest, I haven’t been doing anything to inspire my writing life or my Bohemian endeavors. I’ve been mediocre, limping through the daily rat race.

It sounds overdramatic, but that’s the only way I know to make things interesting.

Anyway, here’s a short story I wrote based on the following prompt:

 

“Mom, you’ve got to stop dragging me into the middle of things.”

The glass of chilled white wine was sweating in front of me. I hadn’t had a sip. I wanted to walk outside and have a cigarette, but I couldn’t leave Mom alone at the table. And she’s a smoker too, so I couldn’t go without her. She’d be pissed. I had to just sit there in nearly unbearable silence and take it.

“You’re not going to say anything?”

I blinked. “About what? About being a child of divorce at 31?”

Mom rolled her eyes. “Don’t be dramatic.”

I laughed even though nothing was funny. “I think taking me for lunch to tell me you and Dad are splitting up is dramatic.”

“What? You wanted me to tell you over the phone? Should I have texted you?” Mom rolled her eyes again and shifted away from me in her seat. She took a long swallow from her chilled glass.

I rubbed my eyes. “What do you want? For me to go to pieces? For me to ask why when I don’t want to know why?”

Mom still wouldn’t look at me. She wrapped her arms around herself and just sat there, breathing. I finally started drinking my wine. I took a long, slow, deliberate swallow so I wouldn’t have to say anything. I couldn’t think of anything to say anyway.

“I want you to talk to your sisters for me.”

I choked on my pinot grigio.  “What?”

“Please. I can’t -”

“Mom, you’ve really gotta stop dragging me into the middle of things.”

“I’m not-”

“Yes, yes you are! That’s exactly what you’re doing! That’s what you’ve been doing my whole life!”

Mom looked like I’d slapped her. I was disappointed when she didn’t grab her face and turn away. She didn’t say anything, so I kept going. “When Cora was sleeping with Mr. Slattery, you told me to tell her that you knew and that she needed to stop because it was shameful to have a slut in the family.”

“I never said that,” she lied. Mom started blinking rapidly.

“Okay. When Timmy was hiding the empty vodka bottles in his closet and the maid found them, you sent her to me. I found the rehab, I packed his bags, but you dropped him off at the airport.”

Mom shook her head. “When I left my therapist’s office and I couldn’t breathe because I was crying so hard, I called you. I didn’t want to drive because I couldn’t see the road for all the tears in my eyes and I wanted to talk to you, to hear your voice, so I called you.” I crossed my arms over my chest and leaned back in the chair, away from her. “What did you do?” She looked away, shook her head once, quickly. I asked my question again. “What did you do?”

The complete silence that followed let me know I had been talking too loud. The complete silence meant that conversation had stopped, forks had stopped moving, and that everyone was listening. I leaned closer to Mom and lowered my voice. “You didn’t answer. You never called me back.” I was speaking through a clenched jaw. I was gripping the edge of the table so hard my fingertips were white. “You need to call your daughters and you need to tell them. Your divorce from Dad has nothing to do with me.”

Mom cleared her throat. She reached up and delicately brushed the single strand of pearls hanging around her neck. “I just thought-”

“What if they ask me why, Mom? What if they have questions?”

Mom paled. She looked away from me. Her face turned red.  “I guess I didn’t think at all.” She swallowed hard. “I’m sorry.”

It was the first time my mother had apologized to me for anything. Naturally, I felt inexplicably and incredibly guilty. “I’m sorry, Mom. I should-”

“No, no, you’re right,” she said.

I wasn’t sure what it meant that we rarely let each other finish our sentences.

Sheepishly, I stabbed at my salad with a fork. When I looked back up at my mother, she was crying silently.

It was the first time I had ever seen my mother cry. I watched the tears roll down her delicately powdered cheeks, leaving sparse but unmistakable inky black trails from the mascara she always applied in generous layers. Her hair was moussed, blow dried and then sprayed so it wouldn’t move, not even in a hurricane. She was wearing a smart looking pantsuit with a ribbed turtleneck, all in safe, neutral colors. And she was crying.

I didn’t say anything.