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On Writing…

No one has ever asked me why I write. They’ve asked how I get published, and how much I get paid, but never why I am a writer.
Now my friend Jacqui Morton has asked me, and I’m happy to share my answers – as part of the Writing Process Blog Tour. More on that later.
This is Jacqui. She is one of the few people I trust to read my work before I send it out for publication. She and I met in graduate school, but our relationship has been largely electronic: I send her my work, she sends me hers, and we check in with each other by email a few times a week. She’s a great mom, and her writing is emotional, tender, sincere and true. As a nonfiction writer, I can’t think of any compliment greater than that.
You can read her responses to the Writing Process Blog Tour here.
And here are my answers:

1. What are you working on?
Well, I recently wrote one essay about getting remarried and another essay about Betty Crocker and the grandmother I never knew, but my primary focus these days is a memoir about the years following a very painful divorce. I’m on my second draft, going through revision, which is seriously a lot of fucking work.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?
I write nonfiction and memoir, and while I don’t think my writing is particularly different from most nonfiction and memoir, my work explores the way we remember things – or forget things, if that’s the case. I write a lot about being a parent, particularly my experience as a single parent. My daughter, who is almost eight years old, is an intuitive, creative child who challenges me to see things differently. It isn’t unusual for my essays to find parallels between my daughter’s experiences and my own.

3. Why do you write what you write?
I write in order to understand. Whenever a topic or problem is burning a hole into my brain, only two things help me find perspective: yoga and writing. Yoga costs money but writing is free (and sometimes it pays!)
Somehow, rendering my thoughts to the page helps me understand whatever I am grappling with. Maybe it’s deciding whether to get remarried. Maybe it’s figuring out my compulsion to throw things away. Maybe it’s handling disappointment when my daughter doesn’t want to hold my hand anymore. Writing is the best way I know to make sense of life.

4.How does your writing process work?

When I write, I write obsessively.
I will write madly for a few days or a few weeks, and then not at all. When I have an essay in progress, I’ll jump out of bed in the middle of the night to write down the perfect sentence. I write wherever I can, on whatever I find. I write on bank statements, envelopes, Starbucks receipts. I once took notes on a fish stick coupon.
I also write all my first drafts with a pencil and paper. No computers. Writing on paper helps me feel closer to the material. Maybe that’s old-fashioned, but it feels more intimate that way. Once, when I needed to write a section of memoir where the narrator was scared, I sat on my bed in complete darkness, writing by pencil onto a piece of paper I could not even see. It worked: that particular section of story is pretty creepy.
From there, I type my work into the computer, and then obsess over every little word and every little sentence for weeks, or months – sometimes years. There is one essay on my desktop that is three years in the making. I’m not sure if I’m done with it yet. Maybe. There’s a good follow-up question: How does a writer know when she is really, truly done?

Here’s how the Writing Process Blog Tour works. Now that I’ve answered these questions, I’m supposed to tag two writer friends. I’ve chosen two fiction writers whose work is unfamiliar because I want to know how their process is different from my own.
One is Lorinda Toledo. You can find her blog here.
The other is my friend, Rachael Warecki. You can find her Facebook page here.

#YesAllWomen

When I was sixteen years old, my boyfriend attempted suicide because I had just broken up with him. He cut both of his wrists, then started walking toward my house because he wanted me to watch him die. A few miles in, he knocked on someone’s front door and asked for help.
I know these details because a few days after it happened I bumped into that someone in the supermarket where I worked at the time. She saw the nametag pinned to my vest and recalled the scene: how he was covered in blood, how pale his skin had become, how he was very, very scared.
I have never written about this. Nor have I spoken about it much. That night and the weeks that followed were tremendously difficult. I felt terrified and guilty, even though I hadn’t done anything wrong.
He got to the hospital in time and survived, thankfully. I assume he also got some counseling. I probably should have gone to counseling too, because my relationships after that point were more submissive than they should have been. Instead of choosing a partner, I accepted the fate of having been chosen. If a guy liked me and wanted me as his girlfriend, I acquiesced. And I didn’t break up with anyone when I should have, for fear they would hurt themselves or might try to punish me.
His suicide attempt, and the complicated feelings associated with it, come back to me as I read news reports of the shootings in Isla Vista, Calif. – specifically how the shooter blamed his killing spree on a young lady who rejected him when they were in grade school.
I don’t want to write his name here because he doesn’t deserve the notoriety. And I don’t want to write hers because she doesn’t deserve the blame. She didn’t do anything wrong. Ten years old or 22, we’re allowed to choose who our friends and boyfriends will be. None of us belongs to anyone.
Too often we read about men using violence to punish women. In April, a 16-year-old boy fatally stabbed a girl who declined his invitation to the prom at a high school in Connecticut. In New Hampshire, a 31-year-old man is on trial for murder for allegedly choking and raping a college student who rejected his sexual advances. That kind of misogynistic thinking is present every time a woman reconciles with her abuser, every time a perpetrator uses “she was asking for it” as a defense, every time someone makes a joke about domestic violence.
Men are not entitled to take what they want. Nor are they entitled to punish women who don’t go along with their desires. I hate to think that any of this will happen to my daughter one day, but the odds are certainly against her. One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Every two minutes, a woman is sexually assaulted in this country. And there’s no telling how frequently a woman is shamed or blamed or threatened, because we don’t talk about those instances. Talking about them is scary.
Since the shootings, women all over the world have been sharing stories about the pervasiveness of sexism, misogyny, harassment and threats on social media. I’ve read many of those #YesAllWomen declarations, some of which came from my friends, with both horror and relief: horror that gender-related violence is so rampant in our society and relief that our sisterhood of support is so substantial.
I didn’t write a #YesAllWomen post, but I will now. It’s for that young lady in Isla Vista, and it goes like this:

Because it’s not your fault. #YesAllWomen

Sometimes I wonder what I was thinking about back when I was pregnant. Did I know what I was in for? Did I, really, know what being a mother would entail? I knew it would be difficult, but I had no idea that it would be this difficult. I understood it was a 24-7 job, but I didn’t understand how those hours and days could sometimes feel like an eternity, other times feel like the blink of an eye.
As a mother, you must be prepared to be everything, and anything, to your child. You are the chauffeur, the chef, and the cleaning lady. You are the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy. You are the social director, the personal assistant, the professional organizer. The nutritionist. The laundry service. The fortune teller and the boo-boo fixer.
(No wonder you’re tired.)
My daughter is seven years old, and I don’t remember what life was like before her. I remember the things I did, like skiing, sleeping late, reading a novel on the couch without interruption. But I don’t remember what it was like to live without the knowledge of her, of knowing that I would see her at the beginning and end of every day, and hear her talk about dragons and robots and everything else she finds fascinating. The idea of a world without Angie is, now, impossible to fathom.
She and I have been through a lot in our seven years. We struggled through the challenges of breastfeeding and weaning, the disappointments of divorce, the difficulties of single motherhood, the excitement of moving across the country, the frustrations of her temper, and the surprising joys of remarriage to the man who is now her stepfather.
The next seven years will bring new challenges, and I don’t presume to know what any of those will be. How could I know? That’s the mysterious beauty of motherhood. Just when you think you are beginning to understand, you realize that you understand absolutely nothing.
If you’re reading this and you are a mother, let me wish you a happy Mother’s Day. Let me also say that you are not just a mother. You are everything. You are the beginning and the end. You are the sun, the moon and the stars. The light and the truth. The questions and the answers.
You are the world.
mom flowers

Broken

Today I’m wearing the palm tree earrings that James bought for me in Santa Barbara on my first-ever trip to California after my divorce was finalized.
In the gift shop, one earring had a piece of mother-of-pearl missing from its palm branch. It was broken. But that only made me want it more. Something bad had happened to that earring, but it was still shining.
I figured, nobody else is going to come along to this gift shop by the beach and love that earring more than I do. So I told James that was the one I wanted. He didn’t ask any questions.
Almost four years later, I wear these earrings all the time. They remind me that sometimes things are more beautiful when they are broken.

Feb. 13, 2014

I used to be that mom who helped her kid make homemade cards and baked snazzy treats for classroom Valentine’s Day parties. But now I’m the mom who says screw it, springs for two boxes of store-bought cards with Spiderman tattoos, and figures that will probably make the kids happier anyway.
I no longer live in a Pinterest world. This is my liberation.
Once, while my two-year-old daughter napped, I made three dozen “spiders” with Ritz cracker bodies, peanut butter bellies and pretzel stick legs for a moms-club Halloween party. As snazzy snacks go, these were the snazziest. They were pure Pinterest fabulosity.
And let me tell you this: those moms were thoroughly impressed, for ten, maybe eleven, seconds. Then they moved on to the next treat on the snack table: caramel apples with sprinkles, prepped and wrapped by the bakery down the street, then purchase by a mom who had already learned the value of her time and sanity.
Just this past Christmas, I attempted another Pinterest fiasco, this time in the form of jumbo marshmallows melted ever-so-slightly in a warm oven, then formed into snowman lollipops. The first batch stuck to the pan. The second batch stuck to the parchment paper I put down to protect the pan. The third batch, mmm, the third batch stuck to our fingers as my daughter and I ate our failures. Life is too short for Pinterest perfection.
I don’t remember what we made, if anything, in place of those snowman lollipops. What I do remember is the story about a Viking and his tiny, troublesome dragon, which my daughter and I read under the covers right before bedtime. I remember the difference between sedimentary and igneous rock, which she explained to me as I helped her study for next Tuesday’s science test. And I remember the slow rise and fall of her belly as she fell asleep, my right arm wrapped around her warm body.
Beat that, Pinterest.

Love Always Comes Around

The following ran on Role Reboot, an online magazine, on Dec. 31, 2013.

Five years ago, I sat at my computer on a snowy winter evening and scrolled through the Craigslist personal ads, wondering who in their right mind would be interested in me: a 34-year-old divorcee with a 2-year-old daughter, no job, and no money of her own. After 12 years of marriage, I was about to move with my child out of our family home, out of our blue-shingled safe haven, and into a future that seemed to offer nothing but sadness and uncertainty.

I thought—no, actually, I knew—no one would want me. I was old, broke, and boring. My body was nothing like it had been in my 20’s, the last time I was single. I had given up my career and a huge chunk of my life to raise a daughter. Meanwhile, the person I trusted the most had betrayed and discarded me like yesterday’s trash. I felt worthless.

I’m not sure what I expected to find on those message boards. Another single dad, who felt as abandoned and bewildered as I did? A man who had been hurt like me, who could show me the way through my grief? Or someone who would, in all my ugly pain and disgrace, make me feel beautiful again, if even for one night?

In the blue glow of the computer screen, I scrolled those ads all night, entranced by anxiety, sorrow, and confusion that only got worse with each passing hour. I felt so deeply damaged and so thoroughly distrustful that I wondered if I might ever feel whole again.

What I learned pretty quickly in those weeks and months following the end of my marriage was that many men would want me, but they would want me for the wrong reasons. They needed a mother—for their own children or, in some cases, for themselves. They needed someone to show off at parties, or someone who would drop everything to accommodate their sexual wishes. Some of them knew what they wanted, and why they wanted it. Most had no idea.

There were awkward conversations, bad dates, and a few breakups that only reminded me of the devastating end of my marriage. Over time, I cared less about who wanted me, or whether anyone found me attractive. I was too busy raising a toddler, paying the bills, and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. Eventually, I found a job, started writing again, and studied for the graduate school entrance exam. Working and studying made me feel strong, and that strength made me feel capable.

Little by little, I got my self back. Actually, no. That’s not true at all. This is true: Little by little, I found a self that I never knew existed.

It is only on nights like tonight, when I look back on that desperate evening in front of the computer screen, that I understand the despair of the moment. I was looking out at the world through a broken heart, and I wanted to know that I was still worthy of love, that I was valuable, and that someone wonderful and kind was out there waiting for me.

I wanted to find some reason, any reason, to be hopeful.

Tonight, I’m sitting at my computer again. It isn’t snowing, though the weatherman has predicted rain. My daughter, now 7 years old, is asleep in the next room. I am 39. I have a career and a savings account. I publish stories about the pain of divorce and the struggles of motherhood. And tomorrow, I am getting married.

By the time you read this, I will have exchanged vows with my partner outside in the sunshine on a winter afternoon, my smiling daughter by my side. I will have raised a glass of champagne on a balcony full of my friends for a toast to my new family. I will have said a silent prayer of gratitude for how far life has taken me, for the hope I had in my heart even on the darkest of nights, and for the astonishing truth that the worst day of my life, in time, became the best.

The man who will be my husband doesn’t need a mother, or arm candy. He doesn’t actually need anything, and he has never once asked me to be whole, though his absolute acceptance does make me feel that I am. We knew each other a long time ago, back in high school, but neither of us would have been ready for the other until now. We each had some difficulties to live through, and to learn from, to prepare us for this moment, this moment when our true selves could stand side by side.

What I know now is that we are all, every one of us, valuable. We are all worthy of love. It may not come from the people we expected it to come from. It may not be found in the places we expected to find it. It may not even come when we think we need it the most. But it always comes, right when it should. And sometimes it stays.

Keep aiming…

keep aiming

It Takes Two Kinds of Seeing

This post originally appeared on Bleed, a literary blog by Jaded Ibis Press

By Wendy Fontaine

I’m sitting on a lawn chair on the front porch of a rented cabin near Livermore Falls, Maine, feet up and mug of coffee in hand. The sun is beaming through the trees, and loons are calling to one another across Parker Pond. The air is already moist and warm, and it’s not even nine o’clock yet. I came to this place not only to vacation with my six-year-old daughter, Angela, who is still snoozing in the cabin loft, but also to write scenes for the memoir I’ve been working on for the past three years. This is my hometown, the place where I was raised, and I returned to this woodsy, working-class corner of the world to capture details that, to me, seem critical to the narrative: the smell of morning dew on pine needles, the sound of chickadees singing, the chill of evening air on bare forearms.It is never easy to come back here. My whole life, I have tried to stay out of Livermore Falls, for reasons that waver between resentment and despair. My relationship with this town is complicated, as I supposed most relationships are.Setting is one of the basic elements of storytelling. It defines the location and time in which an event or series of events take place. Details about setting might include the weather, the landscape, and the language of the residents. What do the locals eat? What do they wear? Where do they go on Saturday nights? Specifics enrich the narrative by providing clues to the reader about where and how the characters live their lives.
In her essay, “Place in Fiction,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eudora Welty compares the notion of place in a novel to a multi-dimensional nightlight, one that illuminates a scene from the front differently than it illuminates from the sides. Taken together, the scenes create a more textured, more complete picture of place that conveys the full range of feelings and experiences of the characters.
“Place in fiction is the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting, and therefore credible, gathering spot of all that has been felt, is about to be experienced, in the novel’s progress,” she wrote. “Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable as art, if it took up its character and plot and happened somewhere else.
“Place,” she continued, “is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of ’What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?’”
Welty writes about fiction, but I think the same principals apply for creative nonfiction. Now matter the genre, a writer must capture the essence of a setting in order to bring that place to life on the page. That means knowing how the moonlight shines on a pond on a summer’s night in Maine, how long and lonely a winter evening feels, and what a relief it is to see the first daffodils push through the ground come spring. Just as the writer experiences place, so does the reader.
And that is partly why I have come back to Livermore Falls, a place that I have never particularly liked to be. After living in California for three years, I have forgotten what kinds of flowers and trees grow here in July, what birds visit the feeders, what the morning sun feels like on my shoulders, and how my daughter sounds when she’s dancing in the sprinklers in the front yard.
As a teen, I never quite understood where I fit in here. I wasn’t one of the cool kids, the pretty girls or the jocks. I didn’t have a boyfriend or a car. Instead, I got decent grades, played second-string basketball and bagged groceries at the local supermarket. On the outside I must have seemed happy and somewhat outgoing, but inside I was struggling to understand who I was and where I belonged.
I could barely wait to leave town. After graduation, I moved two hours north to the University of Maine to study journalism, then got married and moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where I got my first job at a daily newspaper. I interviewed city officials, celebrities, people who had strange jobs or strange experiences. The work and the city were exciting; both made me feel important, like I had finally found a purpose.
Twelve years later, after my marriage failed, I returned to Livermore Falls. Angela and I rented an apartment, and I found a part-time job at the same supermarket, this time counting pills in the pharmacy for slightly more than minimum wage.
It was an emotional time for the both of us as we grappled with the new reality of our lives. Angela, age two, went to daycare for the first time in her life, while I attended divorce proceedings, juggled work and motherhood, and wrestled with the most important questions a woman can ask herself: who am I, where do I belong, and what do I want to do with the rest of my life?
Livermore Falls was a safe haven when I needed one, but it soon began to feel limiting. There were very few jobs, and very few places to go for fun or social connection. Just over 1,500 people live in Livermore Falls, and most of them keep to themselves. Some of my relatives were supportive, and some weren’t. I love my family, but there are times when we simply don’t understand each other.
After two years, Angela and I moved three thousand miles to Los Angeles, where I started graduate school to work toward my master’s degree in creative writing, thanks to a full scholarship from the Gannett Foundation, an organization that helps journalists.
During a seminar at Antioch University Los Angeles, where I am a student in the teacher certification program, author John Corey Whaley talked about the importance of setting in narrative. His novel, Where Things Come Back, takes place in fictional Lily, Arkansas, which could easily be Livermore Falls or any small town where young adults struggle to reconcile complicated feelings about where they grew up.
The setting, Whaley said, contains the backbone of the story’s conflict or struggle. It informs the nature of the characters’ relationships to one another, and shows the reader the characters’ fears, aspirations and desires.
“You have to hold the reader’s hand and say ‘This is what a small town does to you when you feel like you shouldn’t be there,’” he said.
The key, and the trick, to capturing the complexity of a place is the same as capturing the complexity of the story’s hero or its villain: the author must work to find the good and the bad, what she loves as well as what she scorns, the admirable and the detestable. To do so is to bring the setting alive, to give it personality, which will, in turn, give the story universality. The reader will feel as though the story took place in their town, on their street, or perhaps in their own backyard.
In the three years since we left Livermore Falls, Angela and I have returned several times to visit, but none of our previous sojourns felt quite like this one. This time around, we are renting a small cabin on a pond just outside of town. We are swimming, fishing, hiking and kayaking. We pick wild blueberries and watch thunderstorms roll over the pond at night. In the morning, we wake to the songs of loons. In the evening, we have campfires and make s’mores that stick to our fingers.
A few days ago, Angela and I took Gramma to the gazebo in the middle of town, down by the river, to listen to a four-piece band perform cover songs and a few originals.
For my book, I took notes about the concert, listing the titles of the songs they played, noticing the birch trees in the park, and watching my daughter tap her pink sandals on the green grass beneath her lawn chair. The dozen or so people in the audience all seemed to be friends, and they waved hello and squeezed each others’ shoulders as the band switched from one Eagles song to another.
When I was here as a newly single mom, I took Angela to the gazebo concerts on our evening walks, simply for the company. Back then, the performances felt sad to me. Somehow they reminded me of everything I didn’t have: companionship, serenity, acceptance. This time, though, being there felt peaceful.
Every few days, I drive into town for groceries and see the empty storefronts and the broken sidewalks. I see the weeds growing up through the train tracks. I even see our old apartment, which, according my cousin, now belongs to another single mother. But I also notice the soft blue sky, deep-green hills that seem to go on forever, and family members who, misunderstandings aside, are happy to see us.
This visit is unlike those that have come before, probably for a variety of reasons. I’m here on my own terms, with the struggles of adolescence and divorce behind me. My life is more stable, more positive, and my daughter is older and more independent. I have a master’s degree, a job as a professor waiting for me in the fall, and a better sense of who I am and where I came from. For all these reasons, I can experience Livermore Falls differently now. I am more willing, and better equipped, to see the good and the bad of this place where I am from, knowing that it takes both kinds of seeing to make a complete picture.

December 5, 2013

I crawled into the bubble bath with my daughter tonight, just like I used to do when she was two years old. She usually grumbles when I tell her it’s time to get into the tub. She’s always in the middle of something, be right there, just one more minute of TV, Mom pleeeeease. Now that she’s seven, there are more exciting things to do than linger in the tub.
Not tonight, though. No, no. Tonight she ripped off her clothes and skipped to the bathroom, where the windows were already made steamy by the warm, welcoming water. The bubbles reached the porcelain edge, then dripped down to the floor like marshmallows melting over hot chocolate
I got in first, then her. She sat down on my lap like I was a big naked recliner. She leaned back as though my chest were her pillow.
We lay like that for quite some time. She forgot about that TV show, and I forgot about the to-do list that seems to only grow larger and more impossible. Our skin got pink and puckered while we lingered, pretending she was still two, pretending the world outside that bathroom door wasn’t waiting for us to emerge, pretending life would continue this slowly and sweetly forever.

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