MA Writing, 19 October 2009

Write a short description of an object you remember from childhood. Write about it from a child's point of view, then write from an adult's point of view.

She is a rag doll. She has a quilted dress on, and yarn for hair, an embroidered face, red, red lips, and puffy arms that end in quilted fingers, fused together. She has no legs, because she is a double-sided doll. If you turn her over, there is another doll beneath, with a different dress. One dress covers the other doll's face and arms, so that when it's turned over it's a completely different doll. One side of the doll is white, and the other side is black. The white doll has a calico dress, sewn crazy-quilt style, with frills and ruffles on the sleeves and hem. The black doll has a red dress with taffeta trim , like a dancer. The white doll has golden yarn for hair, in a plait, and the black doll has black hair, somehow curled into ringlets, with red bows. My grandmother must have made this doll.

There is always a dance where she lives. I know this, because her skirts are wide and when I twirl her around, they fly straight out, like a ballerina. It's OK to twirl her by her hair, because she's only a doll. My brother threatens to twirl me by my hair sometimes, but I know he is only joking, because he is a friendly monster except when he tickles me or knocks all the toys off my closet shelf. I like her because she has a secret. Her secret is when you turn her over she changes into a beautiful black dancer and goes out at night with all the fairytales. The white doll has to stay in the kitchen and be gracious to guests and say please and thank you, but the black doll is allowed to stay up late. Sometimes I say they are day doll and night doll, but my dad says I shouldn't say that because everybody has a day and a night. Sometimes they are the same person, dressing up for something special or just doing the ironing. They cannot make their dresses because they do not have fingers. My mother does not make my dresses because she doesn't like to sew. Their names change depending on what we are playing. She used to belong to my sister, but my sister is too old for dolls now and has a boyfriend. They put blades of grass in their cigarettes on the front porch, and I go inside and tell my mother they are smoking grass. This causes a big fight and my sister calls me a brat and doesn't speak to me for a whole hour. My mother worries about the dresses and gets my bigmama to mend them when she comes to visit. Once when my bigmama came to visit on the bus a snake got out of the cage and she jumped on the table when she found out. I like snakes. I like holding them and feeling them coil around my arms. I don't like bathing snakes because they get musk all over you and it's gross. Nobody else I know has snakes in their houses. My dad has snakes because he likes showing them to boy scouts. I like being a boy scout because girl scouts just bake and once my tentmate brought hairspray on a camping trip and it rained all in our tent and she didn't know why I was mad. I make the black doll a snake dancer like with a cobra and she twirls on top of our snake cage, but daddy says she scares the snakes. I dress day doll up with my grandmother's crocheted doilies for shawls and hats, and she wears lace every day, but night doll would rather dance. They sometimes talk to one another, but they are so different it's hard for them to understand each other. Maybe they speak different languages. Day doll speaks English and night doll speaks pig Latin. My father and my aunt Glenda speak pig Latin to one another sometimes. It drives my mother crazy. Everybody laughs at me when I tell them my grandmother is called bigmama. They think she must be fat, but she isn't: she's skinny and has a garden and keeps worms and goes fishing. But she is still afraid of snakes. She makes quilts and dips snuff and has a sewing machine that you work with your feet. She broke her hip and had to stay at our house for a month, and my mom made my dad put the snakes in the back yard. There was a fight about that, too. I like when my bigmama comes to visit because she makes apple dumplings and smells like pipe tobacco even though she doesn't smoke a pipe. She likes when I show her my doll, but she likes it better when I sing.

I found the doll lying on the patio and it made me want to scream. Mama took weeks making that doll: everything had to be just so, each side had a colour scheme, the embroidery on the face had to be just right. When she gave it to Sandra, it had a special shelf and got put away with all the other toys every night, but Gwen just dumps things everywhere. I shudder to think what sort of housekeeper she'll be. It's my fault, of course: I haven't done enough to make her responsible. I don't look in her room when she goes to school; it's scary in there. Awful, the way she leaves things lying around. Sometimes she doesn't even brush her hair. And she sleeps with the dog. What do you do with a kid like that? A kid who throws a handmade rag doll up in the air and just leaves it to get rained on out in the back yard? You can't reason with her. But you can't say anything bad about her or criticise her: she'll cry and then there's the fight with Gerald, because she can do no wrong. He and the other two argue day and night, but Gwen could say the sky was red and her father would just nod and smile at what a lovely colour the sky would be if it were red. And now she wants piano lessons. There is just no point to that. Thank God she can type, is all I can say.
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Last night's MA Class Writing

Assignment: retell a story with which you're very familiar from the point of view of someone who is not critical to the action in the story: an outsider's or off-camera view.

I remember how the moon hung low in the sky, because I was watching from the porch swing. When the clouds rolled in, I picked up my stick and went down toward town. I just wanted to see him. I caught a glimpse as he rounded the corner: not at home, not going to be home, not him.

You know that feeling, when you nearly get caught doing something you shouldn't ought to do, the stomach-fall? That's how I felt when he turned round like he was checking to see if somebody was following him. I kept back because, damn me, I loved to watch him walk.

That's when I heard the gunshot. I could have run back into town like everybody else would be doing, to se what happened. But he didn't turn round, so I kept following. My mama says I have an unhealthy mind. I'd rather watch folks than get to know them, but what she don't know is I know them better than anybody. I knew him better than anybody. His footsteps sounded different than other folks'. Sometimes I'd sit near him at the bar, and I'd get to know his breathing, too. And every Saturday night, when his best friend went down to Charlotte to race cars, he left his house at half past eight to walk toward town.

You got to wonder how folks miss what's going on right under their noses, I swear. Every Saturday night, he'd walk to his best friend's house and make love to his best friend's wife. I know that's what they did.

I never liked that woman. Her daddy acted like he owned half the county, when really he only owned half of Boone. Rich folks got this idea everybody does what they want. And she was pretty, and tall, and slender. And she put peanut butter on my chair once in the high school cafeteria, and everybody laughed at me.

That's why I didn't tell. Because why should he live and love her instead of me, in the dark, with her husband gone off for the night? I heard the gunshot. I saw him go into her house, and I saw him take off his jacket before she closed the curtains.

Now, I follow her on Saturday nights, when she walks up to his grave, beautiful and mourning in her long black veil. I have to keep myself from laughing at the spectacle she makes of herself. Nobody knows. Nobody sees. Nobody knows but me.

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3AM Epiphany: Exercise 1: The Reclusive I

Sometimes I think she's not really listening. It isn't in her face: she appears to be fully engaged wherever she is. It's part of her charm, that almost prescient focus on those closest to her. It's as if she takes them in, internalises their traits and needs, and then, knowing it all, she just coasts for a while.

Yesterday, she brought home leeks. She coked them with olive oil and dill, then spritzed half a lemon over them and let them be while she made the rest of the dinner. She doesn't like leeks. Halfway through supper, the phone rang, a friend who needed to talk. "Mary," she said. "Put down the phone and just come over over. We're having dinner; there's enough for you. And there are leeks."

Mary stayed half the night, pouring out her heart over those leeks, then coffee, then half a pint of ice cream that seemed to appear as if by magic. How does she know? Mary felt better, because she knew how to get her to leave that empty house and drive the five miles to us. Mary did it for the leeks, but she—she just knew Mary needed to be here.

The amount of care she puts into things seems minimal: she put the leeks aside and made dinner for the family. The leeks weren't magical, but somehow she knew Mary, who cannot resist leeks, would need her yesterday.

In music, there is a state the well-practiced player reached. It's called "effortless mastery." That's how it works with her. People just open up. Despite the hope she inspires in others, she herself views the world with the keen cynicism of the seasoned observer and the fatalism that seems to accompany that deep knowledge of the human condition. She skims the gossip, watches interactions briefly, and makes deductions about everyone in her life. It's a gift.

Sometimes she is wrong, of course; nobody can be right about everything. She thinks, for example, that people don't like her really, that they're interested in what she can do for them and not who she is. And the truth is, most people don't seem to know her well enough to anticipate even her most basic reactions. Her feelings get hurt easily, for example. She spends a lot of time going over imaginary interactions that never turn out in real life the way she imagines they will be. Those keen powers of observation go blurry when she looks inward.

Maybe that outward empathy is just a smoke screen, some twisted interpretation of the golden rule where others never do unto her as she has done to them. It's hard to tell.

After Mary left last night, she cried in the kitchen for an hour. "That ungrateful bitch," she muttered. "Does it ever occur to her that I have feelings too? She's been here since seven o'clock, and it's nearly midnight."

"Probably not," I said. "Do you ever let on that you have feelings? Nobody will know if you don't tell them. You're always giving so much of your self, they don't notice what you need."

She glared, cursed, and went outside to dump the leftover leeks in the compost bin. "I can't stand the smell," she said. "They smell like Mary."

She stayed awake until it was too late for any human being to wait up for her. There'll be a row in the morning, again. And when Mary sends some flowers over, as she does every time this happens, they'll go into the compost, too.

Imagine, being married to somebody like that.

Desert Rabbit

It doesn't always start the same way. My storyteller weaves me through characters the way I weave through spurious details when I'm rambling.

Sometimes, it just starts.
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The Girl on the Green Line

Once upon a time, I worked at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I lived a ways away from the city, in Lowell, and I took the commuter rail into North Station, then took the T from there to Harvard Square. Taking the T to and from North Station to and from Harvard Square involved switching from either the green or orange line to the red line and back again.

On the way home from Harvard Square, it's a coin-toss whether or not you want to transfer to the orange line or the green line in order to get to North Station.

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Remembering Roger Whiddon

My first full time job was as a paste-up artist at the Augusta Chronicle newspaper in Augusta, Georgia. I was eighteen, nineteen, and I worked from 5pm-2am. It was not a bad job. There's no such thing as a paste-up artist anymore, I don't think. I think they do it all with computer. I enjoyed the work, though, the cutting of articles into the newspaper, the blue pens, the editing I got to do, working at night.

I don't remember very many people from that job. I remember my friend Becky, someone I've known since junior high school, a beautiful lesbian woman whose name I can't remember who smoked while she worked and made me stare. There was Patricia, who had a harelip and was so sweet and funny. And there were newspapermen. There was the floor supervisor, whose name I don't remember. He was vulgar. There was the night editor, who was grumpy about the hours and positive he was much better than the rest of us. There were various interns and side editors in and out of the place.

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Vignette: Shadows Of Self

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who longed to be a dancer. Day after day, she practised pirouettes in the back garden and begged her parents for dancing lessons.

"No, no," they said. "You must learn to do your maths. One day, when you are older, you may go to a dance."

Only one night, she had a dream. In her dream, mummy came to her and said, "I want you to be a dancer, but daddy does not. So we are going to take you to dance school while he is at work during the day, and then one day we will surprise him with your dancing, and he will be so proud of you. You will grow up to be a dancer, and your daddy and I will come to all your performances."

It was a beautiful dream, a lovely dream, but when she woke up in the morning and asked her parents about dancing lessons again, they reminded her that she had maths to do and besides that, there was a new bus route running from their house to the park-- didn't she want to try it out on Saturday? Wouldn't that be fun?

Weeks and months and years went by, and the little girl grew up to be an accountant who watched dancing on television. Only one night, she had a dream. In her dream, a little girl came to her and said, "You were a dancer once. Be a dancer again." The little girl showed her a series of photographs and films of herself, dancing her way through school and beyond, dancing her way into a little modern dance company she started herself, getting an OBE from the Prince because she'd taught so many little girls to dance. Her parents were in the audience until the day they died, clapping like mad.

It was a beautiful dream, a lovely dream, and when she woke up in the morning, she rang the community centre across the park. That evening, she rode her bicycle to the community centre and walked in to her first ballet class.

"I'm so proud of you," said the little girl in her head. "I always knew you would grow up to be a dancer."
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