In my writing class, participants are not allowed to ask “Did that really happen?” or “Is that autobiographical?”
The writer may volunteer that something happened or that it happened to the writer. But I have established the rule that a narrative is to be considered fiction unless the writer wants to reveal more about its origin.
My reason is that I want the writer—who may, in some cases, be sharing sensitive material for the first time—to feel safe. The writing is discussed as writing. If the writer wants to discuss his or her real-life experience, that’s okay—but it is a separate issue from our response to the writing on the page.
In my own writing, I often use real incidents. Some happened to me; I observed others; I read about or heard about others. Sometimes these are the strangest stories I have told. I may have made up details to provide a setting or fill in what I didn’t know, and I almost always made up names.
Furthermore, they have become—officially, if it matters—fictional narratives. Based on truth, yes, but not subject to the strictures of journalism.
Besides, you’re not allowed to ask.
AT THE MAYTAG
Mrs. Monroe, don’t be upset
by what you found in Shelby’s laundry.
She did bring it home for you to wash;
she’s still your daughter.
True, she’s a careless girl
and, true, one pair of men’s underwear
would be easier to accept
than three of different sizes.
But think: you raised a girl with a big heart,
whose kindness extends to many.
And not just to love them, Mrs. Monroe,
but to keep them clean and nice.
When Molly let me be her friend, I felt honored. I never had
a lot of friends, just buddies at work, being a fat guy who kept
to myself, but Molly was special. I knew it was mainly that she didn’t
have boyfriends, but she let me take her to concerts and plays.
I could see her relax when the lights went down and no one stared.
She was born with a condition affecting her head. Not her mind, but the way
she looked. I paid for the best doctors in Boston. The bones were malformed
so her nose was crooked; her teeth were very bad and there wasn’t
much of a jaw. Even her eyes were out of kilter. None of this bothered me—
I knew the person underneath—but it bothered Molly.
I made good money, my kind of science in demand for the missiles race
at the time, so I had savings. It took four years—operations, bone grafts,
skin grafts, jaw reconstruction, orthodontia the whole time.
She couldn’t keep a job but it was fine with me to cover her expenses.
Then the years were over, and Molly was beautiful.
She started seeing a crowd I didn’t like, but every week I took her
to dinner, proud of the way she looked and how happy she was, no longer
insecure. I was glad for her when she married and moved away, though she forgot
to leave me her address. I knew I was her past and the past was over.
The good I did for her would be mine to remember.
IN THE GARDEN OF THE SENIOR RESIDENCE
Jean tells how she’d go to pubs and meet
American soldiers—she’d sing the latest songs—
White Cliffs of Dover, Berkeley Square—
teenager in London in the war years, time
of privation, of jokes in the bomb shelter.
She tells us in the fading light,
surrounded by wings of the building.
Every night, after feeding all her younger
brothers and sisters (mother dead, her father
an alcoholic), out she’d go—it was a wonderful time—
“Sing us another one, Jeannie!”—
as well as a terrible time—“The boy you danced with
could be dead the next week,” she says.
We hear a siren beyond the garden wall—
a resident being rushed to the hospital.
An American married Jean, brought her
to Massachusetts; when he beat her, she had
to leave him. A nanny in Boston, raising
other women’s children—when the husband died,
her sons began to visit her.
Tears in her eyes as we speak—
the new director of the residents’ choir
won’t let Jean sing solos, so she’s quit the choir.
“My heart isn’t in it anymore. They all like
my songs—I know the words of all the old songs—
but she doesn’t want me to sing them.”
Sing for us, I ask, sing White Cliffs of Dover.
“Here?” she asks. “Here and now?” Please, I say,
and she sings—her light, clear soprano reminding us
of bright nights when life was waiting
for everyone young to bite huge chunks
and down them with beer
before the sirens wailed.
One day when I was an intern, I came home from the hospital
and my wife was hiding. She had slit the baby’s throat in his crib
and was crouched on the pantry floor off the kitchen.
That night was the first she slept in the asylum. She never slept
anywhere else the 30 years she lived on.
I moved away from my parents and friends and the city I always loved.
I found a house in Gladstone, deep in the woods.
I found a woman to share the house with me
without hope of marriage since, by the laws of the Commonwealth,
you couldn’t divorce a psychotic.
My reputation has been that I’ll treat
anyone, even the deadbeats who never will pay.
It’s because that evening in Brighton
I lost any arrogance I had
about my importance on the Earth.
When I taught English in a small-town high school, one 10th-grade class included three tough girls. Theresa was bright and literate but she hung out with Laura, who was attractive, hard as nails, and totally uninterested in anything I had to say. The third member of the trio, Charlene, had neither Theresa’s intellect nor Laura’s looks. She was actively resentful of any attempt to interest her in books or similar objects of instruction.
None of the three was openly defiant, but their looks of “Why don’t you get lost?” when I tried to suggest the joys of literature or self-expression were discouraging. At the same time, I couldn’t mind their resistance too much, since this was the 1960s and I was engaged in my own rebellion against established notions and directives.
Also in the class was Margie, who always looked sad and defeated. She was overweight, afflicted with acne, and friendless. While the rest of the class merely ignored her, the tough-girl trio made faces to each other on the occasions when Margie dared to speak up in class.
One time I heard Charlene in the corridor telling Margie, “Out of the way, Lard-ass.” I glared at Charlene, and Charlene glared back at me.
In a couple of years of teaching, I’d found ways to get students, even the least motivated, to do some writing. That winter I assigned them in pairs to interview each other in order to write each other’s profile. Since this meant talking to each other instead of listening to me for two or three class periods, they settled down quickly to getting details, as assigned, about families, ambitions, accomplishments, and worries—whatever would make their interviewees interesting to read about.
I had explained that I was matching up the pairs from the class roster, first on the list with the last (Adamic and Woolsey, Atkins and VanDam, and so on). Margie’s and Laura’s last names were somewhere in the middle, so with a little underhanded manipulation, I assigned them to each other. Laura, when she heard whom she’d be working with, smirked, but she liked talking and liked the chance to act like a professional, so she set right to work interviewing the apprehensive Margie.
The day the papers were handed in, I didn’t have a chance to look at them until the evening. I leafed through the pile until I came to Laura’s. It was the clearest, most accomplished work she had ever done.
More importantly, it began: “I used to make fun of Margie but now Ive gotten to know her. Shes had a tugh time of it. Now I won’t make fun of her.”
You could say, if you were cynical, that Laura was pulling her teacher’s strings.
I was, after all, misty-eyed as I read the essay. But Laura wasn’t, as far as I knew, clever enough to do that. And her treatment of Margie’s family background and state of mind showed genuine empathy for her classmate.
The rest of the school year, I sometimes saw the trio letting Margie tag along with them. Margie, who seemed a little more relaxed and confident, would laugh with the others. I didn’t want to know what, or whom, they were laughing about.
COLLEEN BRADSHAW Sticking It to Ralph
Ralph left me for that little tramp Louise.
If we’d a been married, I’d’ve screwed him back
with a divorce. Instead, I got myself
someone young and cute myself. Tiger,
they called him. He was 15, a sweetie,
with a little nose and square shoulders and ready
four times a night at least. Listen:
I borrowed my brother-in-law’s camera
and we shot our own hot video, which I tossed
onto Ralph’s front porch. It scared him,
the idiot—he thought it was a bomb!—
so he called the cops. They arrested me
for corrupting Tiger. Maybe there is or there ain’t
justice in this universe—but I showed
that scumbag Ralph, I showed him
once and for all good.