• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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When the Smallest of Dreams Won’t Come True

I stopped writing poetry the day after I graduated from my MFA program. Cold. Literally never wrote another poem. I still don’t quite understand how something that mattered so much to me evaporated. I started working in publishing and I was quickly fascinated by the world of books, editing, etc. and I wanted to be a part of it. I still went to poetry readings, bought poetry books, for a while I even sent my poems out to literary magazines. I think I saw a path for me as an editor that I didn’t see as a poet. I took the road more travelled.

What road did you take?

11 Responses

  1. My road started in a jungle, wound through streets and classrooms, and the dark woods of a bad marriage. There were adventures, monsters, and few fellow travelers. Lost…couldn’t find my ass with a map and compass.

    The road got easier, load lighter, feet tougher, view better. I found my stride, wrote regularly for fifteen years, and a hurricane took what ability I had to sea, where it mingles with contaminants in the Gulf of Mexico.

    Now Lola and I quarantine near the water, where the road has led me. I was on that water yesterday, watching the clouds close a sunny day, drifting, feeling it.

    The jungle taught that any path is risky, and you don’t know how long you’ll walk it, but you must.

    Soldier, student, cop, teacher, business owner, columnist, sailor. Mostly, though, father, half-decent husband ( once), decent and mostly contented guy.

  2. My poetry slowed (understatement) while I wrestled with the nonfiction manuscript. When it returned, it was different. I was different.

    One of my friends recently said that for poets all writing is editing. I’m still mulling that.

  3. “What road did you take?”

    The low road, seeking the heights therein. The promise unfolding before me when I was sixteen, of all that could have been, all that I was to have been, by the time I reached nineteen had vanished the way a dream evaporates from the mind of a sleeper coming awake. The one thing that remained was the needful desire to write, and with it, the desire to write that which was worthy of being read.

    Took me a long time to get there. I don’t have any writing degree (writing degree less than zero?), my undergraduate degree being in philosophy. I pursued that course of studies on the belief that it would, in some way, make me a better writer. Maybe it did, though not obviously and not quickly.

    I will tell you a story, since telling stories is what I do and is what I have done since I was a boy. It was thirty years ago this week. I had written a novel. There was only one major house in NYC at that time that would any longer consider unagented novels coming in over the transom, and that was Alfred A. Knopf. I mailed a copy of the book to Knopf in early April. Yes, mailed. This was long before e-submissions, you know. A month later, I got a phone call from a fellow named Rick, said he was an editorial assistant at Knopf. Yes, a phone call. No e-mail yet, you know. Rick said he was reading my book. He said it was the first thing he had pulled out of the slush pile that wasn’t a piece of garbage. The book’s epigraph was a Latin phrase and he asked me what it meant. I told him. I didn’t tell him that I had pulled it out of the back of a dictionary while searching for some suitable epigraph. He asked me to send him my two best short stories. I told him I didn’t think I had two best short stories; that in fact, I felt I had hit the wall in my writing and couldn’t figure out how to put on the page what I wanted to be there. He said send them anyway, and so I did.

    A few days later, Rick called again. He said, You’re not ready to be a published novelist, but my boss teaches a private master’s class in fiction writing here in New York City. It’s expensive, but if you’re interested, you’re invited to attend. His name is Gordon, and here’s his number.

    I was certainly interested. I had barely heard of this Gordon guy and didn’t know he was called Captain Fiction by some of the literati, but I could recognize opportunity’s knock when it was banging on the door. So I called Gordon and we talked. He told me to call Christine, one of his writers and students, for a reference, so I did that, too. The class was starting in the fall. Would I go? Yes.

    I took that road and it changed my life, though I still haven’t had a novel published. But I came away from the experience with the tools I needed to create of myself a better writer and a better artist. Why did Gordon take me on? He never explicitly said, though he has generally said that a major thing he looked for in writers wanting to study with him was their desire. I certainly had that. Still have it.

    Oh, and I took notes. In the class? I took notes. If you’re ever interested — say you have a long weekend with absolutely nothing else to read, everything on telly is a bore, the house is ship-shape, you can’t go anywhere because you’re needing to shelter in place — you can take a look. They’re on-line, these notes, and I’ll even post a link, if that’s not too rude (or even if it is):
    https://www.tetmancallis.com/the-gordon-lish-notes-2/

  4. Oh man, it wasn’t even a road, but a danggone bushwhack through a forest. On the positive side, I’ve seen some things I’d have never otherwise seen, learned a lot and smiled often. On the negative side, I’ve starved, made little money and chosen not to always listen to those who maybe I should have listened to. No regrets and no change in the weather, still writing and enjoying the little victories whenever they come along.

    And I do hope you write another poem — words you’ve written, passages, images and sentences, have flown, soared and left traces for all of us to see.

  5. funny, I always think what you write here is poetry. maybe not at your grad-school level but it’s definitely more than prose.

    the path I took was the one of most resistance. no stone left unturned. no excavation too deep or dirty. I’m still doing it. still. there is a dead body somewhere in me. I’ve got the evidence, I’ve dusted for fingerprints, the blood’s on the walls, but I haven’t got the body. it’s a real whodunit in here. and I’d rather die than leave a puzzle unsolved.

  6. once, i was an artist with fair amount of talent, i think. i turned down a full scholarship at Emily Carr College of Art because i didn’t think my folks would approve and cast me out, that’s how indoctrinated i was by family.*

    instead, i worked as a nurse and that was manageable except the part that you’re entirely replaceable and no one calls you by your name, only nurse. “nurse!” cried Tom. his eyes were dry, unblinking. “i need my medication!”

    in an epic economic downturn, i quit nursing and stayed home with my kids. started writing. when i returned to uni a few years later, i studied non-profit management part-time, which seemed a combo of care and business, and that was okay.

    when my friend Chris was diagnosed with ALS he asked, “i’ve got 2 years to live. what would you do if you had 2 years to live?”

    “finish this book of short stories.”

    it was a sign. i quit the non-profit management degree and threw myself into the writing, and that book of short stories was eventually published by an indy press.

    these days, i’m stuck in the weeds of a novel and it’s hard work, but i’ll keep going. persistence? stupidity? don’t answer that.

    rea

    *this was true

  7. I took a gap year before it was called a gap year. I went West, where cowboys rose at 6am, still drunk, to swig whiskey, before setting out to wrangle the horses, and where the Northern Lights shimmered across the unfathomably huge sky. I took care of the ranch hand’s three kids, learning about 80-hour weeks before I was even 18. I liked beer for the first time in my life. I learned to two-step and I owned my first pair of boots and on my one day off, I took a horse out into the farthest corners of the ranch and watched the elk graze on the hillsides. I kept going, as far as the land would allow me, before the Pacific swallowed it up. I found a job at a ski resort and I volunteered at a wild bird shelter and I rose at 4 in the morning, so I could scrape the snow from my car and get to work by 5:30. I snowboarded on my days off and I went to house parties with a ski cap on my head and I fell for all the hippies. When my parents came to collect me at the end of my year, they had to drag me, kicking and screaming, all the way back to Georgia. I got a degree in journalism. I used it for a few years but there was something else out there; I just couldn’t put my finger on it. I flew to Barcelona and learned to teach English as a foreign language. I stalked the city from corner to corner, committing every street, every storefront, every plaza to memory. I learned to speak the language and I longed to marry a dark-eyed, brooding, gravel-voiced Catalan, so that we could rage together against the Madrid machine, and live in a drafty corner flat with a wrought-iron balcony and tall ceilings and hand-painted tile floors, and go to our favorite bakery on Sundays to buy his mom’s favorite pastries to take to her house in the country. Instead, I fell in love with my best friend and bought more boots and grew skinny— frightfully so. I cut my own hair. I developed a chronic cough. I grew strange. I traded the city grid for a small island in the Caribbean, where I spent the better part of a year opening a hotel for my sister. By the second year, the thick, salty breeze had softened my edges; I had curves again and dark, tanned skin and my blond highlights from childhood came back. I dropped my Castilian lisp. I ate mango for breakfast. I danced the night away under the swaying palms. I fell in love with another best friend and a sailor at the same time. I ended up with neither. I returned to Georgia and got a dog. We drove around together for a year, going again as far as the land would allow me, before the Pacific swallowed it up. I got a job at a sandwich shop but the hours were terrible, so I got a different job taking care of a family’s kids again. I wrote a novel but I hated it. I fell in love with yet another best friend. My dad died. I dated three men at once, determined to find a good one. I did and it was through him that I finally figured myself out: I liked women, too. I thought: I should maybe date a woman finally. I set out to find one and two weeks later, I met my now-wife. Immediately, my life felt shabby. I realized that I needed to earn more than just rent and grocery money. I wanted to take her places, show her things, buy her scarves and books and a ring. She said yes and we moved in together. We got married and I learned bookkeeping. One thing led to another and I got a 9-to-5 job with a salary and benefits and company swag. We bought a house. I was finally all grown up. Then the company where I was working got acquired by a larger company and my job got phased out on the same day that my governor declared a state of emergency, due to the coronavirus. A few weeks later, my wife got laid off, too. That brings us to now, 4:01am PST. I’ve been stirred awake by a rare bout of insomnia. I’m known to sleep through earthquakes, to fall into a deep slumber within five minutes of lying down, to have eight blissful hours of restful shuteye every single night. I’ll admit: I didn’t try to fight this one. I didn’t even count backwards from 100 a single time. I just got up dutifully, dressing in the dark and shuffling out to the kitchen to put the kettle on for tea. Alright, Dysfunction, I’ll let you have this one— but just this once. Tomorrow (or is it tonight?) it’s back to normal.

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