8.15.2017: They carried it with them.
Fifteen years ago yesterday, on August 9, 2002, my mother, Sylvia McNair, died in the very early hours of the morning. This photo is one that my dear friend the novelist Eric Charles May had enlarged and framed for me after that loss. We are in the Hilton Hotel, drinking with our buddies after a Columbia College Chicago Fiction Writing Department Story Week event. The picture must have been taken in 2000. She was not yet sick (or rather, that is what we believed at the time.)
I never thought I looked like my mother. I thought I look like my dad. I do. But clearly, evidently, proof right here, I look like my mother as well.
I have given her my first finished, at the time not yet published, short story post MFA to read (later placed as the incendiary first story of my collection, The Temple of Air.) We are talking about stories in The New Yorker for some reason. She says: “New Yorker stories are slice of life stories. Your stories are like New Yorker stories.” Well, well. I’ll take that! She goes on: “I never really liked New Yorker stories.” Oh.
Another time we are working on a travel piece together. It is about a trip we took on a river boat along the St. Lawrence River. “You write the opening. You are a better writer than I am.”
That last day before her last night, she had been in a sort of sleeping coma for part of a week. She woke up and I sat close to her on the hospital bed we had rented for her living room so she could look out her wide French doors over her plant-filled balcony to the tall, tall trees in the courtyard of her building. She was tired, exhausted from trying to stay alive when it was hard to breathe, when she could no longer stand, when food would not stay down. She was ready for whatever would come next. “I’m proud of you,” she said. “Me, too,” I said. “Me too, you too.”
“You write down a few sentences in your journal and sigh. This exhalation is not exhaustion but anticipation at the prospect of a wonderful tale exposing a notion that you still only partly understand.” ~ Walter Mosley, source: “Writers on Writing,” New York Times
“And so go ahead and try following them across the stark, windswept pastures and fields of white moose and deer and coyote, and just see how long before you’re completely turned around out there where the spirit world is everywhere alive.” – Jack Driscoll, “That Story,” The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot
“If it sounds like writing … rewrite it.” -Elmore Leonard
As a full-time college teacher, I find that the summer is usually the time when I can deeply immerse myself in my writing projects. This year, though, I have taken on the role of Summer Director of MFA Programs in Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago, which means that I have to spend more days a week at the office than I prefer. I could write there, I suppose, between emails and meetings, and I have. A little. But I am more the sort of writer who wants to be in my own (or a designated) writing space, away from the work distractions, feeling uninterrupted and, well, a little self-righteous as I clack away at my keyboard when others are out swimming, vacationing, sun-soaking.
So the new writing, or rather, new rewriting (because damnit! I am on draft ten or so of this damn novel, and this one has to be the one!) has been coming in dribs and drabs, filling the small gaps between freelance assignments and workshop teaching and book promotion stuff (have I told you I have new book coming out? September, this year, book party details coming soon: And These are The Good Times: A Chicago gal riffs on death, sex, life, dancing, writing, wonder, loneliness, place, family, faith, coffee, and the FBI (among other things)) and, because I haven’t enough to distract me from finishing this damn novel, moving.
That, my friends, the moving part, has been the biggest distraction of all. You try squeezing into a one bedroom with killer views of Lake Michigan, but not even enough wall space to lean all of your bookcases against–from a sprawling two bedroom flat with a sunroom and deck and leafy views and a storage space bigger than the kitchen of the new place. A whole lot of muttering under my breath: “Do I love it? Do I need it? Do I use it?” and a small fortune spent on big black garbage bags and file boxes to haul away (thank god for charity shops, friends, family, Craig’s List, and neighbors who literally stood on the sidewalk waiting for us to take out the trash so they could go through it) the things we decided No, No, and No.
But here we are, two weeks in the new pad with the killer view, eight weeks after we decided we were going to make the move, two months of sorting, sorting, sorting, replacing, replacing, replacing, arranging, arranging, arranging, and we are happy, happy, happy.
And almost done.
And the writing? In two weeks I am back on my regular school contract; in two months I will be thrown into new book mode.
I better get going.