Susan Chiavelli

Girl's Life: A How-to Manual

“Forgiveness lives alone and far off down the road, but bitterness and art are close, gossipy neighbors, sharing the same clothesline, hanging out their things, getting their laundry confused.”

          —Lorrie Moore


If you can arrange it, try to make your earliest memory a traumatic one. When your mother routinely locks you outside the house all alone at the age of two (or was it three fingers you could hold up?) stand on the back porch sobbing and pounding your tiny fists on the door. Pay attention to details. Note how the milk chocolate paint on the door looks like a melted candy bar through your tears. Memorize your mother’s face laughing at you in the window as she nuzzles and pets the cat. Experience metaphor by clinging to the back porch as if it’s a life raft. Learn about subtext and irony when she yanks you inside, scolds that you are such a silly little girl, crying like that and giving the neighbors the wrong idea, making them think she’s hurting you when she’s not even touching you—when all she’s doing is making sure you get some fresh air. After you learn your ABCs, put this on a 3X5-index card.

          Grow up in Seattle where it’s forever raining, and they have the highest suicide rate in the country. Spend a lot of time indoors watching the Mickey Mouse Club and dreaming about going to Disneyland, but end up marooned during Centennial Days in Denver where they have yet to figure out how to build an amusement park.

          Pick a family where children should be seen and not heard. Wipe that smile off your face, keep your two-cents-worth to yourself, and don’t sass back, Miss. Nobody wants to hear what you have to say. Keep everything inside so that someday it will have to bleed out of your fingers, permanently staining the paper with truth.

          During your formative years be sure to have a recurring nightmare about a screech owl swooping out of the darkness. Yes, talons extended and aiming at you. And no, your child’s mind can not do better than a scary owl as a dream symbol. You’re locked outside in this dream, lost and alone in the night until you see your mother’s laughing face fill the window, bigger than life, and so beautiful that it hurts. But she’s not there to let you in. She’s always on the inside of the glass pane, and you are always on the outside. And the door does not have a handle or a key or even hinges. Let your dreaming mind play with the image of the glass pane—the pain. Wait several years to get it. After all, you’re just a little kid, and you haven’t heard of Freud.

          At the age of eight, feel a cartoon lightbulb pop out of your head. March out to the living room with your hands on your hips and confront your mother. Tell her you know where the nightmares came from. Tell her how it wasn’t very nice to lock such a little kid out of the house all alone. Watch the fear in her eyes and then the shame, but never hear an apology. Never. Listen to her explain your need for fresh air—your solitary need. Listen to her laughter, like the sound of the tinkling brass bell she places by your bed so you can call her when you’re sick. Where is that bell the rest of the time?

          Get over it. In high school become the Organizations’ Editor of the yearbook staff. This is a cool job, since you can boss the cheerleaders around on photo shoots and pose them however you want. Cut their pictures out like paper dolls and create a photo essay pasting them into perpetual perkiness. Your picture at the annual Quill & Scroll banquet will appear in the yearbook under a heading that says: Literary Artists Record Thoughts and Events.

          Most of your teachers will fail to have great aspirations for you, since they have few for themselves. Your counselor, nerdy Mr. Nelson, will not pay the slightest bit of attention to you. But in all fairness, you will not make it easy. In advanced English, write a parody of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” Call yours “The Duck.” Check the box that says “model” on the aptitude test, because there isn’t one for “novelist,” and after all, you were in that fashion show once, and wouldn’t it be fun to get paid tons of money for trying on clothes and makeup and standing around looking good? Mr. Nelson will not even try to conceal the smirk on his face when he sees your career choice, and he’ll relish every word as he says, you do not have what it takes. He will not even bother to counsel you; after all, you are just a girl in Distributive Education. As he tells you this, you will suddenly see his entire back-story hidden behind his goofy smile, in his burning revengeful eyes: He is unmarried, never dated in high school, and chose teaching so he could have power over the kind of kids who rejected him his whole life. But he’s still disappointed; it’s not enough. Give him a look back that says you know what he is. Record this thought and event.

          Write in a diary. Try to describe the way leaves sound underfoot when you walk in the autumn woods alone. Write: crunching like potato chips. Hide the diary in your underwear drawer where no one will ever find it. Discover that your mother—the same woman who never talks to you about anything and says she’s just not good at fixing hair—has a secret talent for picking locks with bobby pins. Be very dramatic as you burn your diary in the fireplace in front of her, ripping the pages out one by one. Pay attention to the way the pink plastic cover melts into molten globs, leaving nothing but the useless metal lock glittering in the ashes. Watch her flip through the pages of Ladies Home Journal as she tries to act nonchalant while petting the cat that is forever in her lap. Feel your face burn in shame at describing leaves crunching in such a stupid manner. Pay attention to the fact that the poor word choice is more humiliating to you than the confession of a boy’s hand groping beneath your blouse. This is a sign. Inhale the toxic fumes of betrayal. Vow to never write again. Dream of California.

          Spend the next twenty years doing everything the hard way: make an early and disastrous first marriage to your alcoholic high school sweetheart; have two babies before the age of twenty-two; get divorced and go to college as a single mom; go through a hip interracial dating phase; pick a demanding job like nursing; only date newly-divorced- doctors. Go on a ski vacation with Doctor Number Three to Heavenly Valley and listen to him tell you how your kids are not exactly in his big picture. Step out of his narrow lens and give your phone number to a nice guy you meet in the ski lodge who’s blessed with panoramic vision and an address in California. Teach your kids to sing California Dreaming. Marry the nice guy. Then discover you’re all moving to New Jersey.

          Once in awhile, attempt to talk to your mother in person about your relationship, about real emotional issues, about misunderstandings, about the truth. Memorize the tightness in her jaw and the stiffness in her spine as she turns her back on you, leaves the room and slams the door. Notice the resonance of the closed door.

          Try to talk to her on the phone. Memorize the steadiness of the dial tone and how dependably it fills the void.

          Try writing her a letter. Wait and watch the empty mailbox for the answer that never comes. Pick up the phone and hear your father’s voice tell you that your mother isn’t speaking to you, in case you hadn’t noticed. Watch the seasons change, but never this.

          Wake up one day at the age of thirty-five with a small bird fluttering in your heart. Sign up for an Adult Ed class, but perch by the door for a quick escape. When the teacher tells you to write about your first childhood memory, try to make your heart stop pounding. Go home with sweaty palms and stare at the blank paper for one full week. Drop the class and sign up for photography. Tell yourself a picture’s worth a thousand words, because you don’t yet know this is a cliché. Think: this is the creative outlet you’ve been longing for. Study light and shadow and how things look on the surface. Wander around parks and take black and white pictures of ducks swimming in stagnant water, water so thick with algae you can’t see beneath it. Be drawn to departure points without knowing why. Take pictures of railroad tracks slicing into the horizon. Take pictures of ferryboats on their way to Fire Island. Take pictures of your children growing up and waving goodbye.

          After your grandmother’s death, try not to strangle your Fundamentalist brother-in-law when you discover he has burned your grandmother’s books in a backyard bonfire. Yes, her collection of books on the occult that opened your eyes to the mysteries of the universe and her Ouija board that you so adored as a child. Watch his eyes glow red like the devil he is trying to exorcise as you catch him throwing her last book in the fire. Inhale the smoke. Breathe in Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical truth from The Secret Doctrine, the truth about UFOs, the truth about Edgar Cayce. And don’t forget the lost city of Atlantis. Store it in your cellular memory.

          Wait eight more years and finally sing California Here We Come. Move to the golden state. Get a promotion and pass the time with an administrative nursing position. Stay late in the office writing policies and procedures and memos for the nursing staff—each one a jewel of clear, concise communication that (if only read) would keep the nurses from accidentally killing the patients. Relish the power you have to make the staff read everything you write. You are the boss! Rewrite their job descriptions to include memo reading.

          Armed now with late-blooming bravery, give up your nursing career and take a writing class. Get hooked on writing classes and the people who take them—people who are not afraid to talk about things that lurk below the surface. But pay attention to the first rule of fiction: never admit that anything you’ve written ever really happened.

          Write your first story about your disastrous first marriage. Rewrite it at least 127 times. Disguise it. Change the names, the place, the sex and number of your children. Take it to your first writers’ conference and watch the sage instructor from the renowned Iowa School shake his balding head as he slowly stretches out each word and says, “It’s just...not...credible. You can’t really expect the reader to believe this, can you? Pray tell?”

          Yes, he uses that expression. Make a note of it.

          He laughs in a dismissive manner. “You actually expect us to believe that this young father picks up his little three-year-old daughter and throws her at the hope chest in a drunken rage?”

          The instructor looks a little pickled himself, so maybe there are shady things in his past he doesn’t want to remember. Dark caves unexplored. Wipe the memory of your little boy/girl trying to protect you out of your mind. Don’t look at his bloody face. Look down at the words on the page. Focus.

          “Hope chest?” the sage instructor says, with a withering laugh.

          “Isn’t it a bit over the top?”

          Think: why yes it is. Why couldn’t your ex have aimed at a less symbolic piece of furniture? Why didn’t you think to tell him that his actions were just not credible, too cliché, a bit too predictable.

          Wait for the instructor to give you some instruction, the benefit of his great wisdom. When he offers you nothing but a smirk—a bent smile that reminds you of your ex-husband—ask in a small voice, “But what about the writing, itself?” Swallow the lump in your throat as you watch him shrug. Shrink in your seat as you realize you’re obviously beyond help. You are just one of those pathetic people who keep rewriting their own lives in a pitiful attempt at therapy.

          Go to the other workshops and learn the language of critique: Whose story is this anyway?

          You’d like to say, you don’t know, you found it on the street.

          Wouldn’t it be better told in first person?

          Maybe, but it makes you feel naked.

          Couldn’t you add some irony to the ending?

          Yes, but then you’d have to tell on your parents; how they turned their backs on you and your kids after you finally left him, and that would be a whole different story you aren’t ready to tell. There’s a missing ingredient you don’t understand, and you can’t write the story until your mother will speak to you about it. And she won’t.

          Can’t you make the little girl less sweet?

          No. You can’t. She/he is your hero.

          Must you keep writing about an abusive ex-husband? Don’t you know that abuse stories are not in style?

          No, you didn’t. Resist the urge to say they’ve never really been out of style, just out of awareness.

          After the workshop, slink into the dark cave of the hotel’s bar.

          After the conference go on vacation to Provence with your husband and some dear old friends—non-writing friends. Wander through an antique flea market and see the exact mosaic seashell box you’ve given to Lily in your latest story. Pick it up and hold it as if it’s a great treasure, a sign from the universe that you’re on the right path. Make the mistake of blurting out in front of everyone. “Oh, look! This is the exact seashell box that Lily’s going to save her California money in before she sneaks off to San Francisco on spring break with her high school boyfriend to visit his best friend who happens to be her old boyfriend, and...” Watch the alarm spread across your friend’s faces as their eyes dart away to look at antique china.

          Keep the creative stuff to yourself. Decide to read all the great contemporary writers in the entire world. Buy more books and subscribe to more literary journals than you could possibly ever read. Let them stack up all over the house in frightening, towering piles. Buy an antique armoire just for the New Yorkers alone.

          Be prepared to live much of your life in an alternate universe of your own creation. Lose all track of time. Look up from the green glow of your computer screen with glassy eyes, surprised that you have a husband—a hungry husband expecting dinner. Where did he come from? While your brain is still soggy with your latest story, try to have an underwater conversation with him about golf, freeway traffic, or how bad things are at the office. Try to speak. See words float in cartoon bubbles. Don’t tell him that your character, Lily, is having trouble at her job, too. She’s trying to stay awake on the graveyard shift and not get killed driving home on the freeway. Try to stay connected to reality.

          Start sending your work out. Collect rejection slips, and cut out certain repetitive negative words and phrases, like sorry, and not quite right and make an artistic collage out of them. Drench your psyche in the essence of it. Make up back-stories for each handwritten rejection. This truly sorry editor went to bat for your story. He fought for it in the editorial meeting; he pounded his fist on the desk! But since he is so truly sorry, he has no power to get your story published.

          When you finally learn via an e-mail from Switzerland, that you’ve accidentally been published by an obscure new quarterly in Great Britain, without your knowledge or consent, due to a highly improbable set of convoluted circumstances that no one would ever believe if you wrote it as fiction—break down and sob. Your story has been out there in the world in print for months and you have not known? Shouldn’t you have felt somehow different all that time? Discover the great secret about literary magazines. They’re like your old boyfriends in high school: The ones you want don’t want you. And the ones you don’t want, want you bad.

          Stop crying when the magazine sends you a check for $200 and a copy of the issue. You’ve paid your dues. This is the proof you’ve been waiting for! Go to Office Max to make a colored copy of the check. While waiting in line, steal bits and pieces of eavesdropped conversation. When it’s your turn, watch the clerk’s mouth tighten after she furtively informs you it’s against the law to make copies of checks in color. Try to explain that you are not a thief. You simply want it for your scrapbook. Tell her you’re a writer. Note that this is the first time you have said it out loud in public. Watch her face as she whispers for you to go to Kinko’s where they have self-service. Memorize the way her eyes narrow slightly in suspicion, as if she really can’t see the distinction between a writer and a thief. Thank her politely and get used to people looking at you this way.

          Get used to your parents and family having little or no interest in your writing. Notice that your parents have grown elderly and have forgotten the difficult parts of your life. They look at you bewildered and say it never happened. They have a conspiracy of amnesia. They are hurt that you could make up such lies, and they wonder what they ever did to deserve such an ungrateful daughter. Say nothing. Let this be your silent forgiveness to those who are unaware that they need it.

          Go home and start writing a novel about a mother and daughter who are emotionally estranged. Rewrite the mother’s deathbed scene over and over. Put her in a wheelchair, push her outside on the deck and lock the sliding glass door. Leave her there crying too long, alone. Watch her through the glass. No. You can’t stand it.

          Trap her in bed instead and tuck her in with an afghan. Make her too weak to get up and slam the door. Watch the cat creep into the picture. Delete him. Give the mother that little brass bell from your childhood. Tell her to ring it if she needs you. Wait and listen to the silence. Break it, like a window. Force her to listen to her daughter. After the daughter finally says everything she has always wanted to say, the mother will claim to remember nothing. Make her remember. Make her say she’s sorry. Make her say she loves her daughter, at least once before she dies.

          No. The daughter will have to be the one to say it first. She will have to say I forgive you, even though forgiveness has not been asked for. Have the daughter take the mother’s hand, thin and delicate as a flower pressed between the pages of a book, and hold it in her own. Describe the pained, confused expression on the mother’s face when she hears her daughter’s voice—as if something has been stolen from her. Then watch her turn away from the daughter and look at the closed door, without speaking a solitary word.

          In the silence the daughter will shiver. You can have her remember the baby owl story, “Sleep 1969.” The prose poem you found yesterday in a slim chapbook that fell open in your hands—a sign so stunning that it seemed to have been written in the language of your dreams. Give it to the daughter now; she needs it. Have her tell the baby owl story to her mother, how it tries to fly and falls on the roof outside a boy’s window. The owl comes from the prairies of Nebraska, but it could just as easily come from the woods outside Seattle. And the boy could just as easily be a girl. The daughter will wish she had the book in her hands so the words could fall shimmering from her lips, perfect as the author dreamed them. But she doesn’t; she’ll paraphrase the best she can. There is a moon. There is a baby owl lost outside in the snowy night. There is a window and waiting. The owl waits. The child waits. Inside the room the child has five sleeping brothers, all dreaming the noisy things that boys dream. But it could just as easily be two dreaming sisters, their heads filled with longing and soft breathing. The girl waits on the other side of the pane, she touches the cold glass with her thin fingers, and the cold makes it real forever. She is wearing a long flannel nightgown covered with pink rosebuds and her feet are bare against the wood floor. She cannot know that this moment will never end. After hours of waiting that seem like days and days, the mother owl swoops out of the night—magnificent. You remember that word from the story, because it was. The mother owl rests beside the baby, almost touching. The girl at your window tries to see through her own foggy breath; her hand still rests on the glass. The coldness has traveled all the way to her heart, and she is afraid to move. She will be touching this glass forever, but she cannot know it. She looks deep into the owls’ eyes, first the mother’s, then the baby’s, and she sees how their eyes are so alike. She sees them shimmer golden as hope.