#WhosWho

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Last week I finished a memoir by Reyna Grande entitled A Dream Called Home. Grande is a naturalized U.S. citizen who journeyed as a child from Mexico to join her parents in Los Angeles, only to discover that her parents and her siblings weren’t too keen to have her there. A Dream Called Home picks up where the memoir of her childhood (The Distance Between Us) leaves off, when Grande finishes community college courses and leaves Los Angeles for her next university adventure at the University of California in Santa Cruz. Grande, who feels far from polished and lonely with no family support, journeys to find her “writing family” in both her remaining years in college and after she graduates and returns to Los Angeles to start her career as a writer.

I picked up Grande’s memoir in the bookstore recently because I could relate to her isolation; I’m not an immigrant in the traditional sense of the word, but I’ve always felt like an outsider (and a burden) in my own family. In the memoir Grande writes of how she finds her family in a world of writers; for years I have been trying to find a family of readers in the city of San Diego, and with the help of my therapist and my community of beloved book stores I finally grounded myself in that “reader family” last year. Now to find the writer family, which, when I thanked Reyna for her inspiring memoir on Twitter, she reminded me was still somewhere out there:

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When I was a kid one my favorite books was a little-known novel of Beverly Cleary’s called Dear Mr. Henshaw. The book follows the story of the son of divorced parents who writes to his favorite author in hopes of connecting with him in Henshaw’s writing and taking that writing to save himself from his situation as a latchkey kid. I thrilled at the idea that writers could save their readers through the back and forth of letters; later, when I was in college, I wore out my VHS tape of the movie Shadowlands, where the fictionalized account of the romance between Joy Gresham and C.S. Lewis depicts more literary redemption.

That romanticized redemption served only as a foothold, though. I found out soon enough through my professors in college that many who love to read aspire to write, and many who aspire and actually succeed at writing for publication love to read. Beginning in college, when writers would have author events on campus, or after college when I would go to author events at bookstores and theaters, I found my question that I loved to ask every author and/or author panel:

What do you love to read?

I’m surprised how often authors are surprised by this question, but even though it surprises them it often delights them, too. They spill the beans, both in titles and authors and in relaxing a little…suddenly the room isn’t full of disciples beaming at a messiah but it is instead a room full of a family of readers. Authors have transformed for me as a group with that question as well; even though I am still star-struck about meeting someone who has written a book (even better, written it WELL), I feel like their readership of other authors makes them human, and as human as I am.

Twitter, for all of its dumpster fires, is still the best place for me to interact with authors, outside of the author events. Since I also write book reviews (and my book reviews are written to point out book strengths and not beat up on the traditional nit-picking aspects) I often reference the author and/or book in my review posts, and sometimes that creates dialogue. Other readers and reviewers that I follow on Twitter may recommend a book in a post, and I’ll read their recommendation and follow the author. Am I still asking the question on Twitter? Not so much…most of the authors have done interviews for the promotion of their books and I can get that information from those interviews (particularly The New York Times “By the Book” series or most Guardian interviews). But also in following their feeds I see which writers render them star-struck, and I read those writers, too, and suddenly I’m recognizing more and more writers on the book store or library shelves, and my reading family gets bigger.

Hopefully, someday, they will be my writing family, too.

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#FamilyMatter

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My mother used to take her crops to the local farmer’s market in the summer and early fall, beginning in 1985 and for the last time in 2001.  She took fresh cut floral bouquets, vegetables, and eggs.  We had an odd collection of any of these items; my mother loved flowers she wasn’t supposed to be able to raise in northwest Ohio, like birds of paradise, and she loved fruit she wasn’t supposed to be able to raise, like pineapple, and she loved chickens no one else had seen except maybe in zoos.  Her standard chicken was a Barred Rock, a chicken of medium size and black and white feathers, the zebra of the chicken world, and a chicken that by standard seemed to stay with a brown egg. She would occasionally get a collection of zanier birds if we had a good year, and those chickens were the Noah’s ark of the chicken world: two Bantys (itty bitty birds), two Brahmas (big Clydesdale chickens), Rhode Island Reds (flame-colored, by name), and, my favorite (even though as a rule I hated raising chickens) Ameraucanas and Auracanas, which possessed no combs and laid green and blue eggs. Of all of the weird breeds, the Auracanas would spend multiple seasons with us, so even if we had Barred Rocks the next year we would still have green eggs.  My brother and I were the only kids in school who grew up eating green eggs and ham.

At farmer’s market my mother would get the questions about the weird choices, but most of the questions were about the eggs, and particularly from kids.  “How come your eggs look so weird?” they’d ask.  They were used to the white eggs in the grocery store, not these brown and green oddballs.

“Because they taste better,” my mother said with a laugh. I stuck with that for the eggs, although her pineapple, when we finally got to taste it, tasted like wood (that’s what happens when you raise a pineapple in a greenhouse).

I wonder, now, if those weird choices are where I come from.

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I was an odd kid; I loved to read and write.  The read part wasn’t so odd, but the write part was; I would fill my Big Chief tablet, a newspaper-print paper with wide lines, with bad rhymes from about seven years old on.  A couple of birthdays in a row I received journals, the kind that are about the size of a deck of index cards, the kind that have a cartoon on the binding (Hello Kitty, Garfield), the kind that had a lock on the side.  They were cute but overly fancy; I put life events in them, but not the dumb poetry.  The dumb poetry stayed in cheap paper of Big Chief or in steno notepads (two poems to a page next to each other like a bride and groom line-up with that red divider down the middle). I didn’t get a choice on instrument; I had either Papermate or Bic pens, and I had to know what I wanted to write, because we didn’t have the money for buying me stuff all the time, you know.

Writing isn’t practical on a farm.  It also wasn’t practical in the school that I went to; there was an initial hope that I would play basketball because I was the tallest kid in my class until the fifth grade, and then the hope that I would go to Juilliard because my father was a huge fan of classical music and I took up the flute.  There was no mention of me writing as a grown-up.  People would ask what I wanted to do at that stage and I made my dad happy with a flute answer or told them I wanted to be a teacher.

Still, I scribbled. In my entire childhood and adolescence I think my father asked me about the writing once, and that wasn’t much of a question: “You realize you won’t make it as a writer until you’re dead,” he said.  “That’s what always happens.”

My brother didn’t care for reading much, so there was no mention of my writing from him. My mother loved the way I sang, so I think she was hoping I’d be a singer. My aunt had a dream once that I would dance ballet, but that was an overnight weird thing and not an aspiration of hers. My other aunt wrote children’s stories, so maybe that’s the lineage. My mother loved children’s literature, so I think Dr. Seuss may have got me going on the poetry, but does that cement things with so much competing input around me?

I’m saying this…if homework was done and my brother didn’t want to play a board game and the flute was practiced and I had four minutes to myself before we had to bring in some crop or do some chore, then I would pick up a pen.  Was it a nervous tic? Has it always been that? This writing thing is a bodily function for me, not just a fun hobby like collecting stamps…but is that function inherited from someone in my ancestry?

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Some clues:

  • My mother could have raised standard fruits and vegetables and flowers and chickens with white eggs. My mother could have cooked standard dishes with her standard crops. Instead my mother raised weird crops and then made odd, exotic dishes with them…and I’ll eat pretty much anything based on that creative upbringing;
  • My father loved to tell stories;
  • My father wrote his memoirs when I was in college. I don’t know if it was because I was going to college and writing in off time, but he took a few months and picked up an accounting ledger the size of a standard Moleskine and wrote his memoirs (I’ve read them);
  • When my mother died we found steno notebooks of her own in dresser drawers of my bedroom.

But…

  • My mother has only read my written work twice if you don’t count letters home. Once was a poem I wrote in high school, in which she gave me the best feedback I have ever received for learning to write coherently and avoid the fancy: “It must be good, because I don’t get it.” (I have strived to write for her ever since.) The second time was a Women’s History paper that I wrote for college, about a female community leader, and I chose my mother. She said that piece was too much about her but was accurate, and flattering; I was just grateful to finally hear her story instead my father’s stories that filled my childhood;
  • My father has only read one of my pieces (again, besides letters), and that was a piece he commissioned. We had a problem intersection next to our farm that had blind spots and caused car accidents on average of about once a month. He asked me to write to the county government to make the intersection a four-way stop. I wrote the letter. They made the corner a four-way stop. My father never read anything else I wrote;
  • To my knowledge, my brother and sister-in-law haven’t read my writing.

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In December I was downsized from my job in call center leadership, and since that day I have been submitting resumes and holding phone interviews for continuing work in call center leadership. I’ve been in call centers for 25 years now…about 20 years less than I have been writing.  When the call center applications and interviews are done for the day, then I find myself drifting into search terms on the job boards that don’t fit the practical, like finishing my grocery shopping and then strolling into Tiffany’s, “just looking.” Except I apply to those fanciful jobs, too, the ones I’m not “qualified” for, the ones that would make me happier than call center work, the ones that I have been hammering away at for nearly 40 years.

The writing ones.

I apply anyway.

I currently have an unpaid gig of writing book reviews, which is still great even if it’s unpaid.  Free books and then tell us what you think of these books, and I get to pick the books. I tell my family where the reviews are. I couldn’t tell you if they’ve read them, let alone if they can find them relatable or any good.

Late last week my brother texted me, asked me how the job search was going.  I talked about all of the call center interviews.

“How about finding something you like, that makes you happy?”

I stared at my phone. Okay.

I texted back about applying to writing gigs, too, even if I didn’t hear responses.  I joked that I occasionally played the lottery, too, and if that ever panned out I would get to write and/or teach all I wanted.

For a few minutes, while my phone screen was bubbling those three dots back and forth with him typing, I thought there might be that bridge, that belief that I belong in his gene pool, the connection that I wasn’t the odd duck in the family scribbling, that I was a good egg…

“You know,” he wrote back, “have you thought about food service? I know you like food, you like to cook…”

Never can tell, I wrote back, trying my best to keep my normal and sensible brother from feeling uncomfortable.

40 years of being the odd duck continues.

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I was thinking about my place in my family after that conversation (as I have during similar hits and misses), and then was thinking about my place again when I received my latest review book, the memoir by Dani Shapiro entitled Inheritance. I am a huge fan of Shapiro; my favorite book of hers is her writing memoir Still Writing, which is what she responds with when her non-writing/reading family and friends ask her what she’s up to.  Still writing.

Without giving away too much about her latest memoir I’ll just say this: Shapiro tells the story about taking a genetic test on Ancestry.com and finds out that her parents have some explaining to do…except they have both been dead for years. Shapiro writes about her self-doubt growing up, of trying to find herself in the mirror late at night in the bathroom by staring into her reflection, and getting all kinds of slack for years because she didn’t “look Jewish” in her Jewish family.  I can’t relate to the memoir in a physical sense; I look very much like my father, my mother, and my brother.

However, I very much relate to not being able to relate to the family I was born into.

The ties are so thread-thin, the odds of me being born a writer so incredibly small, and then the odds that writing would be beat out of me by environmental factors alone so incredibly high.  Why do I keep writing? Why do I love writing this much? Why did this acute passion miss everyone else in my gene pool so completely?

My father used to joke, “You were adopted…and then they brought you back.”

I took yesterday and read the Shapiro memoir, cover to cover, in one day. It was the best experience I had been lucky enough to be a part of in a while, just reading that book, forgetting all else, forgetting and yet forgiving my own isolation in the face of what I was dealt.  I do not feel cursed as a writer. It’s okay that I don’t feel cursed to love writing and books.

“You’re still you,” Shapiro says her reflection in the opening pages of her memoir.

Still me. Still writing.