Order of the Good Write

That Magic Feeling When the Words Flow. A Blog by Debi Rotmil


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This American Life: The House on Loon Lake

the house on loon lake

With Netflix’s “Stranger Things” being the most popular television bingefest around, I found this story, originally aired on ‘This American Life’ back in 2001, to be quite timely.

“The House on Loon Lake” is the very real story of how a group of boys back in the 1970’s stumbled upon an abandoned house in Freedom, New Hampshire. What they found inside was a veritable time capsule of untouched items and artifacts of a family who seemed to have disappeared.

Adam Beckman, tells the story of how, at the age of 12, he and his friends went on a mission to find out what happened to the family that vanished.

For storytellers and writers, it’s a wonderful one hour tale filled with mystery, sadness and a twist at the end that tells more about the state of family, rather than revealing a predictable and unsavory crime.

Adam’s Mother

“The abandonment. The abandonment is melancholy. In a way, it’s worse than throwing away, much worse. I can understand one family being obliged to flee or run or abandon, but that nobody else cared. That it was so overwhelmingly abandoned by everybody, that nobody had cared to solve something, to resolve something. That was very offensive to me. It was like leaving a corpse. You don’t leave a corpse. And that’s a little bit the feeling that I had. That here was a carcass, the carcass of a house, of a life, of a private, and nobody cared to pick it up and give it a proper burial.

I thought that it was important that somebody should care. That somehow, somebody was leaning over these words, reading them, unfolding these letters that somebody had bothered to write. It really didn’t matter that it was an eleven-year-old boy who cared. Objects have lives. They are witness to things. And these objects were like that. So I was, in a way, glad that you were listening.”

Listen here:

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/199/house-on-loon-lake

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The Voices Told Her So

patricemolinardphoto

Photo by Patrice Molinard

August 28th, 1965

Ana looked at her son’s white denim pants and wanted the grass and the blood to go away. No matter what the television commercials told her, no matter how many magazines advertised the wonders of laundry detergent, the grass stains created by a violent fall to the ground and the blood that came at the hands of other boys who didn’t understand her son’s pain made her freeze with anger.

The voices screamed in her head. They told her she couldn’t erase the hatred. They told her his anger was her fault. The voices shouted that his biological father was right to leave her for another woman, that he was  right to replace the clothes in her closet with the wardrobe of another woman’s.

The voices told her that being a single mother with a career and fulfilling her dreams of a store filled with her own fashion was selfish.

“Look at your son!”  The female voice said. “He hates you for not being there for him, back when you spent your days in a working in a store. He hates you for putting your dreams before him. He hates you for leaving Havana. He hates you for bringing him into a world where everyone hates him for his accent”.

The voices crowded her head. She told them to shut up, but they wouldn’t. The grass stains and the blood glared at her.

Then she heard the words, “Gasoline will take out those stains.”

It was a voice with a melodious tone, as if she heard it on the radio in between songs.  All the other voices stopped, letting this voice say it out loud, again and again. “Gasoline will take out those stains.” It grew louder and softer, as if the voice was teasing her. Then it became a jingle, sounding like the the Texaco commercials on the radio.

The black hole. The nothingness after an explosion. The silent black screen in between commercials. The gasket was blown, the fuse destroyed. After that moment, she was unaware of what she was doing.

She threw her daughters diapers into the machine. She threw back her son’s soiled wet jeans into the lid of the washing machine. The previous load filled with her husband’s shirts were turning and drying in the dryer. The hissing sound of the pilot light flame beneath the machine sounded off.

She thought of the plantains she had so longed to make, but the local store did not have plantains to buy. She longed for the soft, sweet corn flavor of a tamale in a banana leaf, and Arros Con Pollo, papaya shakes and Cuban steak sandwiches, pork marinaded in vinegar and garlic. He mouth watered for the kitchen of her childhood, the cool tiles on a hot day where she’s lay her head down. Her mother’s kosher work space, but her mother often turned a blind eye to tradition.

But now there’s  Rice a Roni and Julia Child recipes. She learned how to make ‘Chicken a la King’ from the Ladies Home Journal. She tried her hand at Cherry Rouss and Baked Alaska. Her new husband was delighted. They were made to perfection, but they weren’t as good a the caramel flan she made with dozens of eggs, condensed milk and burned sugar.

She didn’t remember going to the garage. She couldn’t recall the moment she saw the canister of gasoline her husband had bought earlier in the day to fuel the lawn mower for his afternoon of yard work. Her nose didn’t smell the acrid, dreamy smell of Sunoco’s premium regular as  she poured it on the stubborn grass marks and those pesky blood stains.

Anita had things to do. She had to wax the kitchen floor. She had to feed the baby. She had to wash the dirty grimy jeans off the knees of her growing son who was getting dirtier and smellier every day as hormones created a miniature version of the man she married when she was eighteen, whose face was ripped off of every old family photo, who name was erased from records and family mementos.  Anita had to erase the dirt because that’s what commercials said. That’s what the Readers Digest said.

She didn’t remember the moment the gas touched the white jeans. The dryer flashed the pilot flame as the gas touched the fabric. There was a quick roar and everything went white.

She wondered where the baby was.

In her cradle.

She wondered where her son was.

With the neighbors.

Her brother was with her husband, in a car following the ambulance.  Her sister in law took her own children and left the house, bound for Bay Ridge after the trucks left.

It ended there. The white jeans and the stains didn’t matter. Hospitals and skins graphs, insurance coverage and lives blown apart and put back together again all in the name of love.

And so it began. Life within the aftermath.

 


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The Writer’s View & Everyone Else: Two Sides To A Story

twowaystreet

When I was at the AWP conference last week, I attended a panel entitled “The Ethics of the Artist: Writing About Family in Essay and Memoir. The panel of authors comprised of top authors of memoir: Alice Eve Cohen, Julie Metz, Aspen Matis, and Honor Moore, moderated by Laura Cronk of The New School.

Alice Eve Cohen, author of “What I Thought I Knew: A Memoir”  answered a question posed to the entire panel by Ms. Cronk.  The question was – who do family members of a memoir deal with being part of an experience reiterated through the filter and subjective view of the author. What about their side of the story? How about what they perceived? Ms. Cohen said this (and I’m paraphrasing):

“You know, my husband and daughter (who are very much part of this memoir) told me before coming here that they were going to set up a panel of family members featured in best selling memoirs over on the other side of the convention center hallway at the same time I’m scheduled on this panel and call it “The Family of the Best Selling Memoirists: Our Side of the Story”.

Perception. If a story you write belongs to you, then what does it mean for the people who are part of your story?  What was their concept of the experiences at hand?  Would the story be a drastically different one if they told it?

There are two sides to the coin of personal auto-biographical storytelling. There’s your side, the one of the writer telling the succession of events either through linear or non-linear telling, and the view of those on the other side.

When I think of this two way concept of literature or memorization, I often think of the 1986 New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox  World Series outcome.

mets 86 win ws

As a Mets fan, the 1986 post season was a miraculous roller coaster ride of deadly lows and euphoric highs. They overcame losses with luck and good timing to win improbably time and again. When you thought they were done. They weren’t. Especially during the World Series when in game six that ball drifted between Bruckner’s legs and Mookie Wilson helped propel the Mets to a win. They went on to game 7 and took the whole thing.

As a Boston Reds Sox fan, 1986 was just another historical disappointment in a long time history of no championship wins. For them, our celebration was their classic and profound loss, another kick in the gut. The video would play out again and again in Red Sox history as a moment of lost opportunity, a low, disgusting point, a potential win that was so heartlessly and devastatingly taken away from them – again. It was cruel.

redsoxloss

While we celebrated for thirty years, Red Sox fans mourned until 2004 when they finally won the World Series. While we were on the right side of history, with photos of the celebration hanging on the walls of Shea and Citifield, Sox fans wrestled with the torturous pain and vast disappointment. While replays of that moment were and are played on the Diamondvision in Flushing, Red Sox fans had to re-live the loss in their minds while family members who never lived to see the Sox win a World Series, passed away.

I was on the right side of history. My Red Sox fan friends were on the wrong side. We each came away with two different tellings of that World Series, two different feelings, two different views of what that one story and outcome of events meant to us.

In 2004, I paid it back and rooted for the Red Sox to win the whole thing. And they did with a repeat in 2007, while my Mets sank into mediocrity and a longer off season vacation.

Two sides of a story produced two different stories.

The one thing that was discussed by the authors at AWP was how to deal with the reaction of those who are part of the story and have their side to tell. Some family members in their book were horrified or indifferent to the publishing of these books. One family member wrote a book to David Remnick of ‘The New Yorker’ pleading with him to not publish an excerpt from her book “The Bishop’s Daughter”, to which Remnick went ahead and published it anyway. Honor is estranged from that brother, along with other siblings who took offense to her telling the story of their father.

It was mentioned strongly, that as long as you write your truth and represent those in your history with compassion – not hate, you will honor their side with grace, especially if you’ve brought the other members of the story in on what you’re writing. Let them have their say, but stay strong in your veracity. They are free to write their side any time. In fact, what an interesting thing for readers to read: Two sides of a story!

Always be brave in telling your story. Even though there are two sides to every one of them, it’s our right to show our fairness and our strength in the telling.

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Autobiography of a Resume

resumejumble

When you think of it, your resume is the outline of your autobiography. Each job you’ve held over the years contains a story of where you’ve been, what you did and where you were going.

Think of where you were living during a particular job. Who did you know? Whom were your dating? Did you get married and have children during that particular stint?  Who were the people you encountered every day? What were the mistakes made and the lessons earned? What personalities did you encounter? Were they toxic? Inspirational? Life changing?

Years of experience listed on a piece of paper used to define who you are to a perspective employer packs a bunch of stories between margins. It’s the outline of life that shows them if you’re made for the job, perfect for the role, and will lend all that wonderful experience, skill and story into their culture to nourish a whole new outlook on their world.

This applies to any life path, whether writer, artist or office worker – we all have accomplishments we list on paper to share, to prove to others we have what it takes. It’s our calling card.

So, next time you’re scouring your brain for a writing prompt about your life, take a look at your resume. You’re life story is laid out before you.