The Art of Retaliation

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When I was in elementary school, I got picked on by a kid one grade below me. This happened on the playground, more than once, threatening to become a pattern. I was a shy child, and obedient and nice—all things that don’t mix well together when one has to stand up to being bullied. I am guessing my parents coached me on how to speak back to this kid, but I can’t remember what I tried to say or managed to do, only that it didn’t work. The picking continued.

If you could see a photo of my family at the time—the 1970s—my father would be wearing a long-sleeved navy blue shirt with embroidery stitched on the front. He’d have a thick mustache and hair that wasn’t technically long but long enough to be considered shaggy. If you could smell this photo, you might catch a whiff of the incense he started burning that decade, the same decade in which he began meditating, a practice that calmed everything about him. In the photo, he definitely has the air of peace and love to his attire and look. And that was him. He was and still is a man who believes in kindness toward all, equality for every man and woman, and justice. The justice part was probably why he made the decision he did, with regard to my being picked on. That, and the fact that he loved his two daughters more than he loved a lot of other things in life. And the fact that he’d probably plain and simple had enough.

He taught me to curl my hand into a fist. Then he taught me to strike back. He did this by letting me practice hitting him. I can’t imagine that I was strong enough—being a shy and soft six- or seven-year-old—to really hurt him, but he took the risk that I might just get good at it. Obviously, we practiced in his free time. My father worked a decent number of hours, and I’m sure he was tired and that teaching his daughter to punch wasn’t high on the list of his leisurely activities. But he did it anyway.

I suppose my father has spent a good portion of his parenting on teaching me how to defend myself—against disappointment, disrespect, heartbreak, and sadness. It’s a bit harder to teach someone how to change one’s thinking, how to calm the mind, how to trust the gut, but my father has helped me with all those things, though I am not a quick learner, and I am stubborn, just as he is. Sometimes I think how much easier it probably was for him to just teach me how to punch. One good jab and it can change everything. It did for me on that playground. I don’t remember actually hitting the kid the next time he picked on me, only that I did, and that he left me alone for the rest of that school year and the ones that followed. I stopped being scared of recess. 

For the record, I never did get good at it (that was my one and only jab), but I didn’t need to be good: I only needed to prove to that kid, and myself, that I was capable of striking back.

I can thank my dad for that.

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Little Miss Perfect and the List of Pros and Cons

Years ago, when not much time had passed since I’d been booted off the marriage bus, I started dating a man who was smart, laid-back, funny. This would have gone on the “pro” half of the pros and cons list I made when trying to figure out whether I should keep dating him. Also, tons of fun. He could make a party come to life. That probably went on the pros list, too. Thoughtful. Good-hearted. Affectionate.

But of course, there was a reason I was making a pros and cons list—because there were cons: temperamental, at times, for one. But I’m only going to list that one because it isn’t fair for me to list a bunch of things about him when I was not exactly Miss Perfect. I would guess, had he been making a pros and cons list, my cons might have been: selfish, careless, too sensitive. And those would have been fair. Also: kind of a drag. I was pretty unhappy at the time in general, and this man never made me feel badly about it. He never said, “Cheer up, crazy lady.” Instead he watched movies with me, made me dinner. 

See? More pros.

When we had fun, we had immense fun, but when we weren't having fun, we were arguing. There seemed to be no in-between. Our arguments consumed a lot of time, more and more as the weeks marched on. I remember being at work and our having an argument on the phone, and his driving over to my workplace so we could argue in the parking lot. That was fun. I was often caught off-guard by our arguments, not understanding how they got started, why he was angry. I didn’t like arguing—which perhaps you could say is one of my cons, still. I like peace, and I will go to great lengths sometimes to keep it, and this might or might not have contributed to my being booted off the marriage bus. But I digress. The point is no matter how hard I tried, my efforts didn’t stop the arguments from happening with the man I was dating.

Which is why, one day, I sat down at my desk and wrote out a pros and cons list. Making a pros and cons list about whether you should be dating someone is perhaps, maybe, possibly a teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy clue that it’s time to get out. But I wasn’t good at clues or listening to my gut or any of those foolish things. I had a list! And I am guessing the list had more pros than cons—or I wanted it to have more pros than cons, or I was just too scared of losing one more thing in my life, or the thought of breaking it off just made me even more unhappy—because we kept on, not that much longer, but long enough, and I am sorry about that to this day because he didn't deserve that.

The point is—well, you’ll get to the point if you keep on reading, and hopefully you’ll get to it sooner than I did, which was an amount of time one could classify as “dense.”

Last spring, I was offered a publishing contract for my memoir. I felt overjoyed and on a high for all of ten minutes when I started to get this nagging feeling, enough that I decided to take some time and think about it. I happened to be about to undergo some major medical “stuff,” and I chalked up the nagging feeling I had to feeling overwhelmed with the medical stuff. I thought if I could get that behind me, and heal fully, I could think properly. A few days after the surgery, as I was recuperating and still not home, I remember taking out a piece of paper and making a pros and cons list. I knew even then I was trying to talk myself into saying yes, when I knew all along I should say no. Not that the publisher wasn’t and isn’t the right fit for many authors: it just wasn’t the right fit for me. And I was afraid of losing it, afraid another one might never come along. 

I withdrew the memoir anyway. I had decided the manuscript needed an overhaul, so I put all my energy and focus on that in the months that followed before sending it out again.

Last fall, I was offered a contract with a publisher, Platypus Press. I made a list of questions to ask them, but I knew even then, as I was making the list, that there was nothing that they could answer that could change the feeling I had inside, which was a calm, peaceful, sure-of-itself yes.

The Going and Goodbye is available for pre-order, in paperback and on Kindle. Platypus Press is offering an exclusive giveaway to those who purchase the paperback version during its pre-order period: you will receive a short story of mine via email after your order is placed. “The Snowstorm,” (Zone 3) follows Flavia and Seymour as they navigate the turbulent horizon of their relationship. (You can read more about the making of that story here if you missed it.) The Going and Goodbye will be released June 30, 2017.

A Little Bit of Truth Mixed with a Few Good Lies

A few years ago, when I was still studying in my MFA program, I had a fiction professor I admired immensely. She was smart, sassy, hilarious (and beautiful, to boot), and she had red hair and wore leather pants. She was and is one of those people who can pull off anything, and if I were to get stuck in an elevator with someone, she’d be on the list of those with whom I’d choose to get stuck. (I might even jam up the elevator just so I could get stuck.) It goes without saying, though I’ll say it: she was a fabulous writer. She struck me as fearless. I chose to study with her specifically—I wanted someone who was going to push me in my writing, and who wouldn’t hold back, but would do it kindly. She lived up to my expectations.

This professor started each class with prompts from real life. She asked us to write about our photographs, our memories, our fears. The best fictional stories, she said, often originated from our own lives. But, she cautioned, exaggerate what really happened, and the characters, their qualities and personalities.

I never forgot that advice.

There were two stories from my life that I really wanted to write as nonfiction, but I couldn’t remember enough about the details to render them well. I could remember what happened, but only some of the dialogue, not enough to make the nececessary story building blocks: scenes. At least not enough to make honest ones. I’m a stickler for truth in memoir. I don’t write down dialogue in my nonfiction stories unless I actually remember what someone said and how they said it (at least according to my memory, which I recognize could be flawed, but at least it is what I remember and I’m not making it up. I don’t buy into the theory that, “Well, he probably said that,” or “This is the way he talked in general.” If I didn’t write down what was said at the time—thank goodness I used to be an avid journal-keeper—or I don’t remember it, then it doesn’t go into my nonfiction story in quotation marks and that’s that.)

My fiction professor gave me hope. I could write these two stories from my life as fiction—start from the truth and change up the characters, change their histories, even change up what happened if I wanted to. So I did exactly that. “The Snowstorm” is one of those two stories, and it ultimately became the first fiction story I published (thank you, Zone 3!). 

When I started to talk to the publisher of my memoir about doing an exclusive giveaway for those who preordered my book, what came to my mind immediately was “The Snowstorm.” Though my book is nonfiction and this story is fiction, the story chronicles two young people as they navigate the choices and sacrifices one must make to go for the love they each want. Which is what my memoir is about, too. 

My publisher gave “The Snowstorm” a beautiful design, and the story will be given to anyone who preorders The Going and Goodbye.

I have been working on a short story collection for the last few years, and it’s nearly done. “The Snowstorm” is in it, of course. As I have been writing short stories, I often think of advice my professor gave me. I think of her fearlessness. I think of how I hope my own journey toward fearlessness would make her proud.