Ferry Writing

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Seattle from the Bremerton Ferry

Every Saturday for the last five weeks, I’ve gone to Colman Dock in downtown Seattle and bought a ticket for the Bremerton ferry. Usually, my colleague Avery is there when I arrive, and we chat about department politics and stacks of grading we are, temporarily, ignoring. Seagulls reel and call, tourists snap selfies, and finally the rust-stained ferry, usually the Kitsap or the Hyak, floats between the pylons and into dock. Avery and I trundle behind the other passengers. On board, he peels off to one table, and I take another one a few seats down. He told me the first time that the tables on the right side of the ferry are better for avoiding shafts of sun on the laptop.

We take the Bremerton route because it’s the longest ride – an hour. Arline asks me every time I come home: “Did you see a whale?” But my gaze during that hour is mostly directed down, at my laptop and notes. Hopefully, if a whale were to breach nearby, the captain would come on the loudspeaker and tell me.

Twenty-two years of teaching at the same community college have accustomed me to a yearly rhythm. Fall quarter: teach writing; winter quarter: teach writing; spring quarter: teach writing; summer: write. As soon as grades are turned in, I waste no time getting to my desk for three to four hours of writing every morning. But it has always been hard to write during the school year, although I have managed some. Most notably, in fall 2008, I got up every morning at five and worked for an hour on what would become my second book. But typically, my brain is too focused on email and that student who needs to meet with me and the next committee meeting to do my own creative writing.

So when Avery told me about ferry writing, I thought: what a brilliant idea. A cheap office — $8 round trip – and a defined period of time away from distractions. I had no papers to grade that first weekend, so I joined him. As I opened my laptop and watched the Seattle skyline drift past the window, my heart sped up. Sometimes my brain tells my body to be anxious when it should be happy. Don’t waste it, my galloping heart was telling me. I didn’t waste it. I wrote nonstop to Bremerton, then for another hour in a coffee shop, then back to Seattle. Three full hours of writing. I disembarked as buoyant as if the ferry still floated beneath me.

I can make time for writing during the school year after all. In the weeks since that first ride, I’ve found that the prospect of weekend writing has motivated me to get more of my grading done during the week. I even cleaned the bathroom on a Wednesday once, so I wouldn’t have to do it on Saturday. Those ferry writing hours now feel like sacred time. I’ve written blog posts and, the last three weeks, revised a manuscript. Ferry writing has improved my teaching, too, I think. I’m more relaxed in the classroom, knowing that those three hours are ahead of me. Now I get to be both writer and teacher: whole.

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New Anthology: Memories Flow in Our Veins

Pink rhododendron blossom

About twenty years ago I got a letter from Calyx, a literary journal with pages of amazing writing by women and covers like works of art. The editors liked my story but asked for revisions. I did my best; it wasn’t good enough. Although I was disappointed, the Calyx feedback helped me write a better story, and that story helped me write the next piece and the next, until eventually I had written a novel worthy of publication.

I wish I could go back and tell myself that I would eventually write something even better, an essay that would appear in Calyx in 2012 and, miraculously, in the fortieth anniversary anthology for the journal, which was released last month by one of my favorite presses, Ooligan. Memories Flow in Our Veins: Forty Years of Women’s Writing from Calyx has poems, stories, and essays by such luminaries as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. I feel so honored to be included.

The anthology is a delightful conversation with friends, acquaintances, and admired strangers. I have listened to Donna Miscolta read portions of her story “Strong Girls” in recent readings, and it was a pleasure to re-read the whole story. It’s about wrestling girl twins, about allegiances and betrayals, about how we carry our bodies through the world. (You heard it here first: Donna is writing a novel based on this story.)

Charlotte Watson Sherman’s “Killing Color” was another story I had read before, although so long ago that it was completely new. Like the narrator, I wondered why the stranger, Mavis, had come to the town of Brownville to stare at the old courthouse every day as if willing justice to be done. The ending is satisfyingly mysterious.

I also couldn’t stop reading the story of a woman who leaves a pig’s head on a platter in the refrigerator until her family finally stops taking her for granted. The head in Monique De Varennes’s “Cabeza” reminded me of that decaying rabbit in the 1965 Catherine Deneuve movie, Repulsion, but whereas the rabbit symbolized the Deneuve character’s breakdown, in De Varennes’s story the pig head seems more symbolic of the family’s dysfunction than the woman’s.

Marianne Villanueva’s “The Decedent Is Initially Viewed Unclothed” is one of the most oddly compelling things I’ve read lately. The story begins with descriptions from the autopsy of a “well-developed, mildly obese Filipina female.” The hepatic vein, we learn, is “speckled a rich nutmeg color” and the hands are “atraumatic.” These descriptions launch an elliptically heartbreaking story of a woman’s grief over her sister’s death.

So many great pieces. I think I’m especially drawn these days to work about aging, like LeGuin’s poem about women over fifty and Divakaruni’s memories of her mother braiding her hair.

Last month, I had the honor of reading at a celebration of Calyx and another important literary journal, Sinister Wisdom. I read from my essay, “Ratification,” which describes my experiences growing up during the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment. I only had time to read a few pages, so I joked to the audience at the end that they would have to read the essay to find out whether the ERA passed or not. A girl in the audience turned to her mother, who shook her head: no, it didn’t pass. For that girl, the ERA is ancient history. Her mother, it turned out, was once part of the Calyx editorial collective. How wonderful that the journal continues to inspire, educate, and enthrall a new generation of writers and readers.

It takes a village to make a writer. Thanks, Calyx, for being such an indispensable part of our village.

 

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Love My City

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Photo by Suzanne Bottelli

Last night Seattle residents celebrated, remembered, and waxed poetic over the places we once loved that are now long gone. For me, it was Pizza and Pipes, a restaurant at 85th and Greenwood where organists rocked a huge Wurlitzer organ. Jennifer Munro remembered Harvey’s Tavern, which, it turns out, bought the lacquered wooden tables from Pizza and Pipes when it closed in the late 1980s. So Jennifer and I probably sat at the same table, decades apart. I hope diners are still sitting at those tables in some restaurant in Seattle, living the moments they will sigh over many years from now.

Thanks to Jaimee Garbacik, who invited me to the party. Her project, The Ghosts of Seattle Past, has more surprises in store. Stay tuned.

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New Publication: “Different Love”

Thanks to Mary-Kim Arnold at The Rumpus for publishing this essay, “Different Love,” on queer identity. I wrote it in a fever the summer I turned 50 and married Arline.

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Conjuring Zora

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Fort Pierce, Florida

When loved ones die, we think of them, talk to them, ask their advice out loud and in our dreams. We conjure them, not only because we miss them, but because we need them.

Alice Walker needed writer Zora Neale Hurston, and in the famous essay that appeared in Ms. Magazine in 1975, “Looking for Zora,” Walker imagined her back into existence after much of the world had forgotten. Walker visited Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville, Florida, and found her unmarked grave in Fort Pierce. She ordered a headstone, wrote the essay, and sparked a reappraisal of Hurston’s work. What Walker had needed was an ancestor, a literary ancestor who, as she says in an American Masters documentary, could show her what was possible. Hurston, she says, wrote of black people “as complete, complex, undiminished human beings.” I can imagine how crucial it was for Walker to find Hurston’s work.

Thanks to these efforts, I read Their Eyes Were Watching God in college about seven years later. Ever since, I have retained an image of the opening scene: Janie, whose truest love has just died, saunters back into her former town in overalls, her long black hair “unraveling in the wind like a plume.” And I have remembered Hurston’s unusual story: she left her small-town Florida life for an education at Howard University and Barnard College, worked with Franz Boas, became an anthropologist, and traveled the Caribbean and the South, collecting music and stories. She wasn’t a major influence on my writing, but she was a vision of a daring, literary, independent woman, the kind of person I wanted to be.

So when Arline suggested we visit St. Augustine, Florida, during our winter break, I was eager to make a Zora Neale Hurston pilgrimage. We didn’t make it to Eatonville, her hometown, but we stopped in Jacksonville, where Janie marries Tea Cake in the novel; found the house in St. Augustine where she finished her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road; and took the tour of Fort Pierce that can be taken virtually on the city’s web site.

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Garden of Heavenly Rest, Fort Pierce, Florida

In Fort Pierce, informative kiosks mark places like the library named after Hurston, the school where she taught, and the office of a newspaper for which she wrote. The cemetery has changed greatly since Walker waded there through waist-high weeds to find the grave-sized depression that suggested Hurston’s burial place. Now, two pillars with copper impressions of her face mark the path to the grave. The grass is cropped, the headstones tended. Arline and I stood quietly, trying to imagine the living woman as she might have been. A wreath and dried flowers on the grave testified to her continuing existence in someone’s memory.

The house of a friend of Hurston’s was poignant in a different way. Most of the marked sites on the tour are in modest residential neighborhoods of small, concrete-block houses. This is where Hurston lived, worked, and died, so poor late in life that she had to move to the county “welfare home.” But the friend, white artist A.E. Backus, lived in a large gabled house, and, as we drove east from the other sites toward this last stop on the tour, it was clear we were crossing to the other side of the tracks. Hurston told great stories at his parties, Backus said, and the kiosk in front of his house claims that she “must surely have enjoyed the lively and stimulating atmosphere.”

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House of A.E. Backus, Fort Pierce, Florida

I don’t know much about Backus, a self-taught painter. But I know the street is now named after him and a museum nearby sells his works. What I’ve read online suggests he didn’t die in obscurity and his reputation didn’t have to be revived. I wonder what it was like for Hurston to walk from her tiny concrete-block house to his house and studio near the ocean, where the salt air wafted up the avenue. And walk back home.

Still, Zora Neale Hurston is larger than life now. She has been conjured back into existence for all those who might need her.

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Zora Neale Hurston Library, Fort Pierce, Florida

 

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New Publication: “What to Pack”

Deep into a revision of The Ghosts Who Travel with Me, I wrote a short essay about my struggles with introducing my partner, Arline, and myself as the book opened. The result is “What to Pack,” which has now appeared in Waxwing, a gorgeous journal whose mission is to promote “the tremendous cultural diversity of contemporary American literature, alongside international voices in translation.” My gratitude to editor Erin Stalcup, who made a great suggestion for improving it.

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New Publication: “Testimonial”

Thanks to Jennifer Niesslein at Full Grown People for publishing my essay, “Testimonial.” This online journal is full of great essays about the “sometimes glorious, sometimes messy, stuff that comes with adulthood.”

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