Back in the 70s, when I was a little girl, I spent Fridays and Saturdays at my grandparents’ house. The hours played out the same. Friday nights were cards with my great aunts and uncles, ice cream, lupini beans, pistachios, The Love Boat and Fantasy Island; Saturday mornings were toast and coffee, Bugs Bunny and Speed Buggy. After my shows, my great aunt and I would jump into her Nova and drive a few blocks to the small grocery store around the corner. There, I was allowed to pick out any toy I wanted.
One “toy” choice would influence who I’d become. On one particular Saturday, rather than go for the bag of jacks, plastic yo-yo, or magic slate board, I handed her a small, brown notebook. There was something about the emptiness of it that thrilled me. I kept that notebook hidden in their spare bedroom with a little felt bag filled with wrist watch parts, skeleton keys, and fountain pens my grandfather had collected as a DPW worker decades before. The bag held hours of stories. Yet the notebook remained empty. I felt the words inside me, and the sentences seemed to flow as I carried out dialogue and narrative in my head, but whenever I put pencil to paper, all felt lost.
Perhaps because my father was a history buff, I eventually tried my hand at a story called the American against the Jermans a Gothic-like novel that highlighted (grammar errors aside) my talent drawing stick figure soldiers with feathers in their helmets. It wasn’t until sixth grade that I finally filled the notebook with poetry. Writing poetry got me through those trying middle and high school years, but it wasn’t until college under the tutelage of the writer Leigh Allison Wilson, that I began to understand the power of the short story writer. During this time, I worked summers on the oiling crew for the DOT and a former classmate and coworker was the victim of a tragic work place accident. As a witness to the accident, the emotional and mental angst held tight and fast. I went back to college thinking of nothing else. Leigh Wilson encouraged me to write that story, with fair warning: know that you’re too close to it.
She was right, of course. That story, “The Sound of My Voice,” would be rewritten countless times, eventually winning the Dan Rudy Award for fiction while I was in graduate school. At George Mason University, I had the good fortune of studying fiction with writers Richard Bausch and Susan Richards Shreve. Richard Bausch’s novel Violence taught me how a single experience in a novel can define a character’s life. Susan Shreve’s incredible work and keen eye for detail put me on the road to moving “The Sound of My Voice” from short story to the novel it became, A Knit of Identity. The protagonist’s emergence as a victim of circumstance, the twists and turns of her life as a long-haul trucker in an occupation dominated by men, and her own uncertainty and bias of gender identity discrimination set this story on a trajectory I could never have imagined. And that, is the power of writing.
The 70s and my grandparents’ house are long gone, but the notebook, fountain pens, and skeleton keys are coveted objects in my life, in my home. I live in upstate New York with my partner, Shawn, and our twenty-one-year old daughter, Francie, and I teach in the English and Creative Writing Department at The State University of New York at Oswego. My alma mater.