That We Are Here

It did, but the novel is a much more complicated art form structurally. Memoir is episodic—a looser construct than a bona fide novel. You start with an interesting voice; the rest follows. For a real novelist, the fiction provides a mask that permits honesty. For me, a novel became an excuse to make myself look better—my stand-in did volunteer work at the nursing home and knew differential calculus in the sixth grade. And my mother wasn’t my sloppy, turpentine- and vodka-redolent mother, but the complete opposite—a ballerina, very prim.

I also didn’t want to have to deal with the familial complications. My mother was still alive, my sister was a prudent Houston businesswoman. The memories were painful for them. — Mary Karr in her interview with The Paris Review on The Liar’s Club — when asked if it was true that her book, The Liars’ Club, began as a novel.


We’d been talking as you do with someone whose call you haven’t returned — I was feverishly trying to remember what it was I supposed to have called her about — and she was talking on and I was hearing her with the muffled distance that comes with inattention. Tell her.  Tell her.  Tell her. The voice in my head is always more insistent than the one coming out of my mouth.  I had texted the information to my brother — we’d bandied it back and forth between one another — I’d had a blog, I explained.  

No answer.

A place I’d been writing for a number of years — at first a place I went to for community and support when I was trying to conceive Z — but it became a place where I wrote, basically about my life.  I didn’t it publish on anything that I wouldn’t have submitted to a literary magazine, I wrote.

And I think he texted back at that point that he agreed with my husband that private is private;  I told him that this was, in some ways, a matter of business. The business of literature these days — the platform through which you might possible convince someone that your book is worth publishing.  I went on like that.  He said he could see my point.

I did say that I’m much more aware right this moment about what stories are mine to tell and what aren’t.  We left it at that, and that with everything going on currently I’d, of course, dropped the ball on Thanksgiving plans.  When my mother-in-law called yesterday I had to ask her when it was “next week” she cried.  I am not prepared for the current of holiday that sweeps me along at this time of year — and so when I’d called to tell my mother that we would indeed be home for Thanksgiving she informed me that she’d already planned a Thanksgiving for Saturday because she hadn’t heard from me and assumed we’d be up north.  After she told me she’d be happy to come if I were making a turkey we were about to get off the phone and I wondered if she could hear it in my voice — that tone of hers that I know withholds something.  I have always known.  When she called me In Missoula — I feel like it was the new year even — the millenium — and I was in my old apartment on Front Street — the one a stone’s throw from the river — with a big bay window and porches front and back — old pantries and warped hardwood floors.  That was the apartment where I would talk with Jill and another woman — ten years older than me at least — they would sit on the back porch while Jill created elaborate rock gardens and the other woman smoked — she had long dark hair, thick black eyeliner, and collarbones that made her seem fragile.  I never knew what their stories were, not really, not enough.  I wish I’d asked.  I was living there alone after the New Year when my mother called and from the moment I answered the phone I knew, just knew, it was something. This was the same tone that preceded all of the bits and pieces of our life together, of her life, of my grandmother’s, my grandfather … any one of the family stories that filled the hours of my childhood — let me tell you something I haven’t told you yet… That night she asked me if I was sitting down because she’d been diagnosed with cancer.

I moved home that spring and left a place that was my heart’s home — you’ve probably heard me say it before a thousand times — that I fell in love with Missoula like a lover — but like one who didn’t treat me well — I was bottom-of-the-barrel poor, putting jobs together piecemeal and damned if I was going to go back to waitressing after all of that.  In my mind sometimes there’s some other me out West still — some me who had a better sense of the world and what she was worth — whose belief in scarcity hadn’t sent her, in some ways, homing back in on the most familiar place of all.  Other writers I know have gone on to big house publishers — one even has an adventure type show on cable.  I went to a writing conference in Santa Fe when I was teaching at the Community College — I packed up an essay I was working on — thrilled because C.Michael Curtis — who’d been at the Atlantic (and might’ve still been there at the time) was going to be heading my workshop — and he’d sent me a personal rejection letter once when I was in grad school on one of my short stories.  I still had it in my binder of rejections. The workshop was a  horror.  I mortified myself by bursting into tears, and not small ones, when he savaged the work.  I mean it was significant enough that it was mentioned in line at the buffet while I grabbed a croissant next to Natalie Goldberg who said something to the effect “oh, you’re the one who cried” — and … anyway.  When I told C.Michael that I had an MFA from Montana he’d said, in a surprised tone I might add, “Oh, we get a lot of great writing from there” — my essay clearly not representative.

Why am I telling you this?  Coming out of the chrysalis of my anonymous blog is terrifying, I guess — because I first came to blogging to repair a terrible writer’s block. In 2006 or so I went to Squaw Valley and when Al Young asked me why I was there I said because I’d put my short stories in a drawer and I didn’t want to forget that I meant to be a writer — and call myself a comp teacher for the rest of my life. (God bless you Composition Teachers — please don’t take that the wrong way — I just didn’t have it in me.) 

“Well,” I said “ummm… remember when you said I could write anything”  

She paused and sort of half-laughed “yeah” 

And I told her. That I’d had an anonymous blog, and the reasons why I was beginning another one, non-anonymously “I told you all those years ago when you went to college” she said “you have carte blanche” she paused “as long as you don’t make me look like a monster.”

We talked a little more and she told me how she was planning a trip to Florida to meet her half brother. “Don’t you remember I told you about this” she asked and I said yes but then realized it was all new to me. She went on about where she might stay — all along that coast of Oleander — and she told me how she had told her friend the story, and then she paused, “and about Daytona” — and by Daytona she means fleeing there when she was 23 and pregnant and terrified, lying to her parents, meeting my father, losing the baby — and her friend asked her if she had told me all of this.  How scared she must have been.  How alone she must have felt. “Then heading up here to Minneapolis when you were so young and I knew no one.”

I listened to her and marveled at the question — as if I hadn’t been raised on these stories as if they were my mother’s milk.

“It is amazing” my mother said “that we are here.”



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