Writers Read: Live Girls by Beth Nugent

Live Girls by Beth Nugent is the story of Catherine, twenty-years-old, who abandons her first year of college at a women’s religious university, moves to the nearby city where she takes up residence at a seedy transient hotel, and accepts a job as a ticket seller in a squalid, decaying porn theatre. Catherine is pretty, curiously reserved, and certainly strange, as if she harbors a secret. And she does: she had a younger sister whose face was covered in ropy pink scars from a steam vaporizer over-turning in her crib. Growing up, the sister (whose name we never learn) quietly tortured Catherine out of envy, rage, and disgust for her own existence. The parents, ineffectual and shell-shocked, did little to alleviate the situation, and the girls were left to their own devices. Catherine neither learned to fight back nor be confrontational. Instead, we witness her react to her murky surroundings.

Catherine’s boss, Dave, the owner of the theater, happened to have killed his wife, though it was an accident. Adamant that Catherine is too pretty and has too much class to be working there, he offers her some ‘options’ by setting her up with his nephew, Danny: beefy, geeky, socially inept. Danny kills pigeons for the city, and he can’t dress. Catherine slowly becomes a pressure cooker about to burst, increasingly haunted by vivid memories, and the ghost of her sister. A few months after Catherine left for college, the sister had set herself on fire in her own bed and killed herself.

What affected me most about this book was its tone. It was subversive and pitch-perfect throughout; swirling through its bleakness was laugh-out-loud humor. This humor is primarily filtered through Catherine’s unexpected friendship with a snippy, regal transvestite named Jerome, who is anorexic and constantly covered in bruises from the beatings by the sailors from his nightly romps. Nugent is relentless in offering us the despair of these pitiable transients who can’t get their lives together, and would not know what to do with them if they could. But the distance at which she remains, narrating via Catherine’s razor-sharp first-person POV, is skillful, astute, and funny. Sentences reach out and grab you, then caress, leaving a trace of poison before darting back into the dark. If Carr, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac had been women, this is probably what they would have written. Take the opening:

“My sister never slept. This is what she always told me: she never slept; she never had a dream; she never thought of me. Any of it could have been true. I never saw her sleep. When we were children, she moved around our room at night like an animal in the dark, a creeping little thing, stealing from shadow to shadow. She was like a shadow herself as I watched her through half-closed eyes, a moving patch of fluid darkness. Some nights, I woke to find her beside my bed, her hand on my face, brushing softly over my skin like the hand of a blind person…I longed to open my eyes to look at her, but at even the slightest motion she pulled her hand back and retreated into the darkness” (3).

Later in the book: “My heart is a moth, beating against the walls of my chest. My throat is a moth; my brain is a ball of spiders, moving, walking; a ball of moving spiders moving” (23). Nugent uses the word ‘moving’ three times, a provocative word for a story where basically nothing moves at all.

This book influenced my own work because it has encouraged me not to fear the subversive: don’t dread the desire to let my writing be a little like Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pies. Don’t shy away from uncomfortable terrain. There is some rich, deep mining to be done in the darker parts of the cave. The trick, as it were, is to make it accessible, and in some way, cathartic. How can a writer be truthful and set a dark heart on fire, and while watching it burn, toast marshmallows with his or her readers so as to transcend the pain into something more palatable? These are questions that writers must explore, experiments to try out, observing the bright, little sparks that pop in the wicked dark. Yes, eventually Catherine escapes—stealing a neighbor’s dying cat and stringing Jerome along on the veiled promise that they are going all the way to Hollywood so he can become a star. To say any more would spoil the ending.

Nugent serves up dishes born of other ingredients of the American Dream: the bland broth of our economy, the empty bread bowl of the job market, and the bacony ways that beautiful young women are devoured by men in America. At its core, Live Girls is a slow-burn fever-dream about guilt and how it parasitically devours an innocent heart. It turns out that Nugent’s cavernous debut holds more relevance now than it ever did twenty years ago when it was originally published. These are strange and shady times, and Catherine is a weirdly apropos anti-heroine for those who, though they want to, can’t quite figure out the right way through.

Nugent, Beth. Live GirlsKnopf, 1996. 

Tim CummingsTim Cummings is currently an MFA Candidate in Writing for Young People at Antioch University Los Angeles and holds a BFA in Acting from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He admires the works of Philip Pullman, Patrick Ness, Madeleine L’Engle, Richard Adams, Beth Nugent, and Joan Didion. He is the recipient of several major performance distinctions, including two Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards for Best Lead Actor and Best Ensemble Performance. He has been the Associate Director of the Youth Workshop for the Ojai Playwrights Conference since 2010.

 

My Lover is Killing Me: Trauma and Writing

 

 

I lost my mind again. I lose it frequently, to varying degrees, but it generally returns quickly. Lately, though, my mind has taken longer trips, leaving me alone with my body for weeks at a time. In its place, there is rage. I have stared blankly at the ceiling, contemplating suicide. I have pulled my hair, scratched my arms, and slapped myself repeatedly in the face. I have isolated myself. I don’t want to be seen like this.

 I lost my mind a month ago because I started writing my memoir. I thought enough time had passed— that I was finally strong enough to open my jar of teenage trauma and consume its contents. I read through my old journals, pieced together an outline, and started writing the first draft in a big purple notebook. A few weeks ago, I sat down with that draft and started revising. Every day, the memories intensified. Every day, they pulled me further away from 2017 and closer to 2010, when my body was being touched in dirty motel rooms by dirtier old men. The memories penetrated my dreams, my emotions, and my perception of reality. I began mentally oscillating between my current age and my late teens.

Meanwhile, Trump was gaining momentum in making his devastating promises a reality. Protests broke out across the country. I wanted to rage with my friends, but my internal collapse combined with widespread panic left me petrified and helpless to do anything.

I have post traumatic stress disorder. I’ve felt its effects since I was young, starting with a deadly car accident and then a fire that burnt my childhood house to the ground. It got worse when I was sexually assaulted at 13. It became unbearable when I was robbed and kidnapped five years later. During  middle and high school, my pain stayed internal, evident only in my isolation and severe anorexia. After I started drinking and using drugs, though, my approach changed. I turned into the other kind of PTSD sufferer—the kind who acts out instead of caving in. My life past the age of 18 is dotted with extreme incidents of retraumatization in the form of more car wrecks, more rape, and a few years of prostitution.

I play with danger because I’m addicted to adrenaline. Because I don’t know any better. Because chaos is my baseline, my “normal.”

I’ve been writing trauma for almost as long as I’ve lived it. When, at age 12, I was sent to a behavioral health hospital, I started recording my thoughts in a brown journal. It wasn’t my first journal, but it was the first time I admitted to my despair in writing. That journal (as well as two milk crates full of journals that followed) sits beside me now. One entry reads:

In high school, I turned to another means of expression and started writing lyric-heavy music about insanity, eating disorders, and abuse. My songs were threads connecting the disparate parts of myself. They chipped away the “sane” voice I’d adopted to save face with friends, revealing the self-hatred, terror, and loneliness beneath. By playing these songs publicly, I learned that people could relate. That I wasn’t alone. That my words brought life to experiences that some could not articulate. My playing was sloppy, but when people found solace in my insanity, I found solace in the fact that they felt the same.

I have a compulsive need to be understood—for people to see what I feel so they won’t think I’m crazy. Over the years, I’ve turned to every available means to achieve this. I have thrown fits. I have run from home. I have carved words into my flesh, as though blood were clearer than pen. I have made myself too fat. I have made myself too thin. I’ve used drugs and alcohol to make big messes, desperate for someone to tell me to clean up my act. These approaches have only succeeded in scaring people away from me.

Writing is the single most effective way for me to communicate. It’s the one way I can explain the full extent of my pain without seeming like I need to be institutionalized.

When I was 21, I went to my third treatment center, where I was supposed to get help for PTSD and addiction. I stayed for three months, until the day my roommate hung herself in her closet. I started drinking again. Heavily. I made it two months before hitting another rock bottom and moving back to Minneapolis, where I enrolled in my first memoir class at the University of Minnesota. The professor, a grad student, assigned Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water. It was the only book I read all the way through that semester. Yuknavitch’s candor and fearlessness inspired me to adopt memoir as a primary means of expression.

Our professor gave us a ten-page essay assignment at the end of the semester. I wrote about sex, starting with my early experiences and then tackling the traumatic. Once the pen started moving, it didn’t stop. It took on a life of it’s own. I woke up early every morning and wrote for hours. When it came time to turn in our ten pages, I turned in sixty.

And then I went fucking crazy.

I walked to school every day when I lived in Minneapolis, a two-and-a-half mile trek each way. Each time I crossed the Franklin Avenue Bridge from the West Bank to the East, I thought about jumping into the Mississippi River. I was stuck inside my trauma—not just one of them, but all of my traumas at once. I was walking through a constant flashback that wouldn’t turn off. I started self-harming again, partially in an attempt to bring myself back to reality, but also to apply punishment for being “dirty.” I dissociated almost every night, usually to the point that I couldn’t talk. I would try, but my lips wouldn’t open. My mouth was stitched shut. The words got stuck in the back of my throat and wouldn’t budge.

Meanwhile, the people who loved me and knew what was going on begged me to stop writing. I insisted that I couldn’t. I had a mystery to solve and misery to wallow in, so I kept going, kept pushing, kept forcing the memories that wanted to stay hidden onto the page. And I went too far. My body and brain shut down on me. I collapsed into months of midday naps and zero writing. The unavoidable recovery period was long and painful. I missed my toxic lover. I missed my writing.

This is my constant battle: Should I write this thing? Should I stop? Is this doing me harm or good? I’ve come back to the same answer again and again: It’s helping and it’s hurting, but, for better or worse, I’m stuck with it. No matter where or how well I hide, writing always finds me.

*     *     *

I retraumatize myself with my writing all the time, especially when I share it publicly. It’s like compulsively stripping naked in front of fully-dressed crowds on a daily basis. Writing is one-sided: you’re the vulnerable party and everyone else is free to dismiss or scold or piss on your words. People often read my writing (my personal blog especially) and decide they know me intimately, that they can describe me succinctly and tell me how to deal with myself. Other people read my writing and call me a slut, a crazy bitch, a liar.

So if writing about trauma is traumatizing and sharing it is traumatizing, why the hell do I do it?

Because writing is multifaceted. Every time I try to find its fundamental purpose, I come up with something different. I write for every reason. I write for no reason. I write because it’s compulsive, addictive, automatic. I write for the chemicals—to trigger action in my amygdala. I write to heal and self-harm. I write to build connective tissue between my separate selves. I write because I don’t understand. I write because I do. I write as proof and testimony. Writing mends, writing breaks, writing is a daily cycle of shattering myself and rearranging the pieces. Writing makes manifest my inner world. Writing is my child—my little girl. And she has different moods on different days. Sometimes she throws tantrums. Sometimes she enlists as a keyboard warrior. Sometimes she types vicious things to old friends turned enemies. She’s an unruly child, but her heart is good.

I have to listen to my body when it comes to writing—to accept that when I’m ready to write something, it will emerge (mostly) organically. I know it’s not time to write when my body and mind and memories scream, “No, not now. This fire is too hot.”

I do write most days, but I don’t fault myself if I skip a few. Five years after my first attempt at  memoir, I’m finally attending to my limitations, figuring out where I need to draw the line before I fall too far. If my body says, “Get the fuck away from this essay,” I listen. I put down the pen and take a walk or watch funny monkey compilations on YouTube. Sometimes I need a week away from trauma writing, sometimes a month. When I pace myself, I don’t need nearly as much recovery time.

Last summer, Antioch professor Christine Hale suggested that I begin recording positive memories that can anchor me throughout my writing process, so that the traumas don’t swallow me whole. I’ve tried to make a habit of this, jotting down notes about my dog, black-eyed Susans, Christmas ornaments, and a seagull friend I made by the Atlantic Ocean. It helps, even though positivity is still mostly foreign to me.

When I get to a point where my body says, “Step back from this,” I try to spend a week writing only these light-filled memories. When enough time has passed and I feel ready to return to the trauma writing, I weave some of the positive memories I’ve accumulated throughout whatever I’m working on. The goal is to give myself—and my readers—a few seconds to breathe.

*     *     *

But what can I do now, in the midst of this collective political trauma? This is trauma I can’t avoid unless I turn off the news, throw out my phone, and delete my social media accounts. Even then, it’s inescapable. Trump’s rise has encouraged men like that 30-something white guy in the BMW to call my boyfriend a “faggot” and a “homeless piece of shit.” It’s why a Trump supporter at the gym felt entitled to say, “Just lie back and spread your legs,” to my mother. Now we have the trauma of watching and reading about deportations, blatant racism, and the promise of a border wall. There’s the trauma of knowing that my friends are being targeted, that my body is being targeted, that many more will be targeted, too. I’m on edge. I feel it in my stomach, my limbs, and my chest.

How do I balance self-care with care for my fellow humans? How do I participate without compromising my safety and mental health? How do I make space for myself when so many people around me are suffering?

My current solution is to stay close to home and take care of those around me—my friends, my partner, my dogs, my family, and anyone who happens to cross my path. Beyond that, I’m still doing what I know how to do, which is to write about insanity, addiction, prostitution, and PTSD. Those are the things I’ve lived and areas in which I have something to give. Right now, I can write for my fellow trauma survivors, reminding them they’re never alone and creating a platform for them to be vulnerable.

If I push past my limits and live in a constant state of hyperarousal—which many of us are right now—I will eventually collapse. The fight will be stripped from me. I have to listen to my limits. I know that I am not my strongest self right now and that I can’t participate in the same ways that other people do. I haven’t been to a protest. I had to remove myself from Facebook. I can’t watch much news. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s my truth.

To stay in fighting shape, I take time to disconnect and breathe. I hike deep in the forest and talk to the trees. I sit by the tracks and watch freight trains pass. I collect rocks and feathers and fox teeth.

I write the light, write the pain, and return to the light again.  

 

 

Emily Eveland a.k.a. Leif E. Greenz, is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in xoJane, Narratively, City Pages, The Minnesota Daily, and Entropy. She shares far too much information about her mental health and sex life on her blog, Big Mouth.

Spotlight: Eso

When business was slow, the curandero would take his skills to the stable
to heal horses. To the ladies at the barn, he speaks English,
recommending an ointment, but there is no saying it in
English. So, he says it in in Spanish:
Cebo de Coyote con Aceite de Víbora.

To the horses, he speaks in Spanish because they prefer it.
Laying his hands across these beasts, pausing where there is pain,
he addresses each part directly — the hock, the wither, the flank,
the croup: Dígame, huesos. Dígame, músculos doloridos,
dígame, dígame.

The horses reply in their own language with their bodies, con sus cuerpos,
with their breath, con la respiración. With a ripple of skin, a sigh,
a snort, a stamp of the hoof, a swish of the tail, a swivel
of the ear, they let him know what it is like to be a horse.
Body and breath, they tell a story, una historia.

Knowing how to listen, the curandero would answer, eso, eso, eso,
in affirmation, but what passed between them, the idiom of horse to healer,
healer to horse, there was no saying it in English.
It was only just that, just then, just there. Just these few words:
eso, eso, eso. Sólo eso.

Jimena BurnettJimena Burnett grew up in several places—Illinois, Missouri, Virginia, but mostly in south Texas. She graduated from Texas A&M, College Station, with a degree in English and later attended Texas A&M, Corpus Christi (TAMUCC), to earn a master’s degree in English. Currently, she is an adjunct professor at TAMUCC, encouraging freshmen students to discover that writing and reading are pretty cool. Though Jimena has been writing steadily for many years in a lonely garret, she has not actively pursued publication. Eso is her first published piece of writing.

To My Past Selves

This is a love letter from me to you. Why? Because you deserve one. Because I miss you. Because it was just Valentine’s Day. Because I need to know what it was in you that always demanded an audience, that so craved connection, that sought relief in everything from loud music to medication.

I created names for you. For the purposes of this correspondence, you’ll be Reject, Romantic, Rebel, Rebuilder, and Reflector. These are mostly for my convenience. I’m providing a retrospective structure here, but you were always you.

We had a chance to catch up a bit when the family was together at Thanksgiving. Some of you love making an appearance when I’m home for the holidays. (Rebel, I’m looking at you.) Still, with the parents and siblings chattering, it was hard to grab a free moment for us to shoot the shit. It’s OK. I express myself better in writing anyway.

While loosely chronological, this is not intended to be a comprehensive history and to be clear, I don’t want catharsis. This is a letter of endearment, not therapy. You did what you could with what you knew then, so I don’t blame you for past missteps and mistakes.

How could I? What was yours is mine.

*     *     *

Reject, I love you kid. I know school wasn’t easy. Sports were scary and, let’s be honest, not a great fit for that flat-footed, awkward body. Remember in 6th grade when you shook dandruff all over the desk like Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club? I do and it was hilarious. (But a little sad too.)

Before you found your place among the freaks and ghouls, you attempted to infiltrate the in-crowd. Once, you hitched a ride to a preppy party locked in a trunk when the car was full. Who does that? I mean, outside of the John Hughes movies you memorized. It was like you were going for extreme self-effacement. I suppose you figured if you belittled yourself first, they couldn’t get you—a reliable form of misfit self-protection.

The bright lights of the stage promised escape and you ran to them. Our stepfather reminded me how during 8th grade graduation they nearly dragged you off with a cane. Remember how thrilled you were watching Into the Woods and West Side Story? Then they gave you the title role in the local production of A Charlie Brown Christmas but it felt like a backhanded compliment. Still, you took the strokes where you could get them.

Like so many outsiders, Rock and Roll wooed you away from the theater. The Stray Cats, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, and all the other acts you witnessed in sweaty clubs only confirmed your need for attention. No matter how good the band was, that was your space they were occupying. The only way to claim what was rightfully yours was to climb up there every chance you got.

So you went for it: traveled from drama clubs to rock clubs to recording studios and finally onto the page. The mediums changed but your hunger for recognition remained constant. You were relentless and I respect that.

*     *     *

Romantic self, admit it: there was satisfaction in the pain of yearning. Unrequited love and self-pity were your first narcotics. How you pined for Shana Goldberg all throughout grade school, suffered through interminable tales of her handsome summer boyfriend, offering advice, condolences, sympathy. Secretly, you cursed the lucky son of a bitch.

Later, you left letters for Hillary at the candy store where she worked. A lot of work went into that cursive.

In high school older punk girls drove you around. Their car interiors reeked of leather jackets and menthols. You never even smoked a cigarette; proximity to their cool was enough.

It couldn’t have worked out with Jessica; you were in 8th grade and she was a senior at a nearby Catholic school. Somehow you got her to go out with you. It was the late ’80s and you slow danced at a Faith No More concert. Things ended when Jessica left for college in the city and you started high school.

Rhonda flirted and gave you a colorful Band-Aid in your bedroom before relegating you to friend status. Ryan was a safe male college crush. (It was the ’90s and everyone had to have one.) But let’s be honest, that was more of a mutual clothing admiration club based on an affinity for white belts, Chelsea boots, and 7-inch hardcore singles.

*     *     *

Rebel, it was tough to express yourself at a private Jewish day school, especially when you wanted to look like a cross between Bryan Adams and a member of RUN-DMC. But you always had your own thing going fashion-wise. You still cribbed from The Breakfast Club, only now it was fingerless gloves as modeled by Judd Nelson.

You started getting in trouble too: wandering away from youth dances without permission, lighting toilet paper on fire with hairspray, drawing all over yourself in anticipation of future epidermal projects.

Remember the year you dressed up as David Lee Roth for the Purim Carnival? That was fucking amazing. That was you doing you. I think of Diamond Dave as a Sherpa on your journey from misfit to grown mensch.

Rebel, I’m not mad at you. At summer camp, before 7th grade, Reject promised he would never do drugs. Then, on a windy Sausalito hill with our buddy Dan and two stoner friends, we unconvincingly inhaled from a joint two or three times. We know where it went from there. Suffice to say, that youthful pledge went unheeded.

Somewhat horrific and not worth glorifying, your years spent in addiction shaped who you’d become. You remain locked in that college apartment along with the attendant euphoria, lethargy, mania, shame, and compulsion. Stand still a moment, so I can get a good look.

I’m just glad I’m around to write this letter.

*     *     *

Rebuilder, we’ve kept in better touch, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be left out of this Valentine’s love fest. Over the years, you have surprised me. I’ve seen you scared, square, reactionary, gullible, hungry, eager, lost, impulsive, obsessive, compassionate, funny. It was a struggle to repair your life after you smashed it up.

You finished college—which wasn’t a given during the lost years of self-abuse and indifference. Then you found yourself a little fallback career as a teacher, just in case rock and roll didn’t work out. Like I said, full of surprises.

You couldn’t stay off that stage, though: hundreds and hundreds of performances, from grimy clubs to stunning theaters. If you wanted to prove how seriously you took music, point made. Eventually, you got those tattoos Rebel wanted and saw a few of Reject’s dreams come true. You even met Yoko.

*     *     *

Reflector, I see you: sitting on your comfy couch, drinking artisan coffee, looking back. Never unwilling to do the ugly work of self-reflection, you must have gone through thirty journals over the past twenty years.

But you look good, Reflector. I like the gray. The wrinkles you worked so hard to give yourself at age nine (so you’d resemble Harrison Ford) settled in nicely.

You’ve got a wife you adore. I’ve seen how you look at her. She keeps you in check when you spin out, which is a less and less frequent occurrence. Our mother was right: you never had trouble making friends. Even after a cross-country move and a handful of relocations that pool has only grown in width and depth.

So, you’re back in school now. After all those indie albums and music composing gigs, you decided to do the writing thing, huh? I’m just kidding. Your best material comes when you lean into what scares you. You’ve always been that way.

It was never quite as simple as having the eyeballs on you; you had thoughts to articulate. Songwriting worked pretty well for the most part, though it became a bit of a party trick after a while, striving to create the perfect confection on demand. Playing in front of audiences (even scant ones) fulfilled some of your needs, but after driving hundreds of thousands of miles you were spinning your wheels.

Now it’s you guys and me and the words. We can’t hide behind volume, fashion, pretty melodies, or someone else’s vision anymore. It’s up to us to dig in and stick with the work until it’s right. I think we’re capable. And if I didn’t come right out and say it: I love you guys.

Let’s not go this long without talking again.

 

 

Ari Rosenschein is a Seattle-based writer whose work appears in Stratus, The Observer, PopMatters, The Big Takeover, From Sac and elsewhere. Ari earned a BA in Theater Arts from UC Santa Cruz and recently completed the University of Washington’s nonfiction writing certificate program. He is currently working towards his MFA at Antioch Los Angeles. A lifelong musician, Ari has released albums as a solo artist and as a member of The Royal Oui. He lives with his wife and their dog Arlo.

Writers Read: The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

“Somebody’s got to bleed if anybody’s going to drink” (164).

In his climate-fiction (cli-fi) novel, The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi’s cinematic writing begs to find its way to the big screen where his vast landscapes, dramatic dialogue, and poignant message on water consumption can reach the masses. While his story lands big, juicy punches, Baciglupi’s keen storytelling skills render his message in an authentic manner, avoiding didactic rhetoric. The Water Knife takes us on an action-packed ride that leaves the reader questioning their values and wondering if it’s already too late to change their impactful habits.

The Water Knife is set in the desolate, near-future desert landscape of Arizona. The powers that be are fighting for control over the water reserves of the Colorado River. Border walls have been constructed around state lines in an attempt to control remaining natural water resources and keep the masses from migrating to more verdant parts. Enter Angel Velasquez, A.K.A. The Water Knife. Angel is employed by Catherine Case, the leader of the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA). Velasquez is a secret operative tasked with cutting off access to the reserves with no regard for the millions of lives that rely on them for survival. He is an ex-con trained to injure without emotion. Enter Angel’s counterpart, tough Pulitzer-winning journalist, Lucy Monroe. Lucy is searching for answers. She wants to know why the water is drying up in some territories of the southwest, but still flowing freely in other parts of the country. Soon they team up with a young Texan migrant named Maira who holds a vital key to the SNWA’s resource grab—original documents proving ownership of the water rights by the area’s indigenous native tribes. Along with former home-builder-turned-pupusa-vendor, Toomie, the four set out to fight the evil water cartel that wants to keep the truth of ownership buried.

Bacigalupi’s novel explores the underground of a society on the brink of extinction. He employs graphic violence, sexual situations, and torture to take his readers into uncomfortable territory.

Aware of our limited natural resources, we still chose, day in and day out, to ignore the signs that we are hurting the environment that sustains us.

In his protagonist, Angel, Baigalupi creates a flawed man torn between his desire to earn Catherine Case’s respect for his professional abilities and Lucy’s respect for his humanity. Angel’s internal conflict personifies our society’s current situation. Aware of our limited natural resources, we still chose, day in and day out, to ignore the signs that we are hurting the environment that sustains us. The Water Knife reminds us that only we can save ourselves and Bacigalupi’s excellent craft forces us to examine our complicity.

In a poignant exchange between Lucy and Angel, he writes, “It’s not the lies. It’s the silence. Silence is what gets me. All the things you don’t say. All the words you don’t write. That gets to you. After a while it just kills you. All the stories you teach yourself not to tell. All the truth and lies that you never ever print because all of it is too dangerous” (165).

As a creative writing student, I found Bacigalupi’s writing to be a study in the mantra “show, don’t tell”. He builds a setting that feels desperate and raw. His characters teeter on the edge of morality, scrapping to stay alive and find a sliver of any remaining promise of paradise. His pacing is quick and fluid, much like the contents of the CAP. He submerges us in his near-apocalyptic world and lets us discover the truthful horror that could lie ahead, all on our own. He never clubs us over the head nor demand that we take action. Instead, he let us experience the possibility of this nightmarish scenario.

In his acknowledgements at the end of the novel, Paolo writes, “If we want to know what our future will look like, it’s worth following the people who report the details and trends that our rapidly defining our world” (372). While journalistic reporting will always hold a place of extreme importance for an informed reader, The Water Knife proves that well-written cli-fi can make a meaningful impact as well.

Bacaigalupi, Paolo. The Water Knife. New York, NY: Vintage Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2015. Print.

Kim Sabin studies Writing for Young People in the MFA program at Antioch University in Los Angeles. When she isn’t driving across the desert to study craft, she lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with her husband and daughter.

 

Middle School is for Monsters

all names and identifying data have been changed to protect privacy

My friend Rebecca and I, both writers, have been invited to lead a creative writing and empowerment group for girls at a local middle school. Our own adolescence is a distant country, but we both remember discovering our writing, our creative process, at that age. Since then, writing has been a life raft. We’re excited to have the chance to pass it on.

I can’t remember,” Rebecca says while we are brainstorming and preparing for the group, “do eighth grade girls want to be children or adults?”

Both,” I say. “That’s the problem.”

We plan to use creative writing to give the girls a place to work through this middle space between childhood and adulthood. Our hope is to create a comfortable space where they can explore identity through play; where they can connect rather than perform. During the middle school years, the tectonic plates of identity shift, and like the earth after a quake, the girls will find themselves changed on the other side. If they’re lucky, they’ll come out of it with a solid sense of themselves. The luckiest will also land with a real friend or two who can still see them beneath the armor of adulthood. Connection equals sanity.

We arrive on our first day armed to teach with the words of Lynda Barry and Climbing PoeTree to inspire us, and with composition books and cheese sticks. We are ready.

*     *     *

Image result for what it is lynda barry

The group meets during the girls’ lunch period in a large, fluorescent-lit classroom that we shrink by pulling metal folding chairs into the center of the room. We place a pile of decorated composition books in the middle, for the girls to choose from. And, of course, we provide food: cheese and crackers, strawberries, juice boxes. On the first day, the girls file in one by one. I wouldn’t be able to guess their age if I saw them on the street. They could be sixteen; they could be twelve. We anticipated that it might be challenging for them to feel comfortable at first, but we were wrong—there’s no easing into the hard stuff with these girls. It’s as if they’ve been waiting for the release valve.

On day one, as an icebreaker, we ask the girls to tell us a story about themselves that we might not have guessed. Elena, who recently transferred from a different school, describes a time when her previous school was put on lockdown due to a threat of violence. Her eyes are downcast as she tells us her story; her voice is hushed. She tells us the kids weren’t allowed to leave their classrooms and no one explained what was going on. They were told to be quiet and work on their homework, but Elena says that she felt confused, and scared. Meanwhile, Dani, on the other side of the circle, folds her arms across her chest and sinks a little deeper into her chair. She wouldn’t be upset if that happened to her, she says. She wouldn’t be scared at all. Several of the other girls nod. None of them would be scared. Apparently, in middle school, being scared is not an option.

The girls in our group claim a diverse array of identities, but by virtue of living in female-identified bodies, they are all charged with similar developmental/psychological tasks. In one way or another, they are asking themselves and each other: How do I learn to trust others and accept myself? How can I comfortably and proudly express my identity? How do I live strong in a female body in this world?

*     *     *

Is this good? Does this suck?” Lynda Barry, What It Is

Lynda Barry, graphic artist, writer, and all around creativity goddess, reminds us that we are born to create and play. But somewhere along the way, we forget how. We begin to want to tell the correct stories, to draw well.  We strive to produce what we imagine other people want to see. Performance nudges out creativity. If play is our birthright and our communion, the space where we share our innermost, mysterious, unspoken selves with our fellow humans, then we’re at a loss from a very young age.

Where do we get the idea that we aren’t supposed to play anymore? Should we blame middle school? Or can we use this developmental precipice as a place to create connection and empower? As writers, Rebecca and I know that play is essential to our humanity, to our psychological survival. Can we use play, creativity, to arm these girls for the travails of early adolescence in this particular moment in our history?

*     *     *

The author and friends in eighth grade

When I was in seventh grade, I spent hours playing dolls with my best friend Jenny. Our Barbies were untamed. We intentionally wilded up their hair and they frequently went topless. When Ken kidnapped Skipper and whisked her under the dining room table in a plastic sports car, my old Wonder Woman doll, a head taller than the rest, led the rescue wearing nothing but a belt of Christmas bells around her waist. As we played with our Barbies, a secret and powerful space unfolded, a space where we could use play to grapple with the mysterious changes that were unfolding within our own bodies. Hair. Blood. Mounds of rising flesh. Sensations we didn’t understand. The ogling eyes and odd comments from men and high school boys. The Barbies gave us a place to work it out.

Until we realized we weren’t supposed to play anymore. Of course I don’t play with Barbies! I heard myself saying at school. That was in eighth grade. Later that year, I was called up in front of the entire middle and high school at an assembly. I overheard a group of high school boys talking about me as I walked up to the stage. Is that Melissa? When did she grow tits?

Jenny and I soon tucked the Barbies away in their little plastic boxes, stuffed them in the back of the closet. Wonder Woman too. Girls were being shoved into the wall in the hallway of our middle school, taunted if they hadn’t started shaving. Shave your legs or become a social pariah. Playtime was over. It was time to perform.

*     *     *

A few weeks in, Rebecca and I introduce Lynda Barry’s “Monster Jam,” a cartooning activity, to the girls in our writing group. In this activity, participants have five minutes to turn a shape into a monster. The exercise is timed, so there’s not much room for perfectionism and self-critique. At first we have to re-direct the girls as they sigh and cross things out.

Sample Monster Jam

“Keep going,” we say. “It doesn’t have to be pretty. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s a monster.” The fact that we are making monsters gives everyone permission to be wild, to be silly, to play. Soon, the giggling and the muttered critiquing subside and the circle of girls becomes seven points of distilled concentration, each face flickering with quiet delight as we give them additional prompts, challenging them to give the monsters parents, siblings, favorite toys, true loves, and best friends. The act of cartooning and creating, once fraught with perfectionism, becomes delightful. In the weeks that follow, the girls draw several cartoons of their monsters, write stories about them, discuss their dilemmas in impassioned detail, turning over possible solutions to their problems.

Once the impulse to critique is stripped away, the monsters become the proxy, the self, living in a space of play. Like my old Barbies, they are a half-space removed from reality. They give the girls the space they need, the me/not me, to find clarity and connection, just as Rebecca and I, in adulthood, have learned to use writing to make sense of our lives and our world. The psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott described play, creativity, as a potential space: “…it is play that is the universal, and that belongs to health: playing facilitates growth and therefore health.”

*     *     *

Three of the girls in our writing group recently transferred from other schools. It’s week five when Cora tears up during the closing ritual at the end of the hour we spend together. “I feel so homesick,” she says, a tear sliding down the side of her nose. “I don’t know if I’ll ever find a place where I belong.”

Dani, who at the beginning of our group spent much of her time with her arms folded across her chest defensively, speaks up. “This is a safe space,” she says. “That’s why we’re here together. You can be anything you want to be. You won’t be judged.”

Rebecca and I catch each other’s eyes. The monsters are working their magic. Play spills into reality, opens space for community, creates a shift, a connection, a change.

*     *     *

The last day the group meets happens to be the Thursday after Election Day. The man about to ascend to the United States presidency is the adult embodiment of the boys who pushed us to the wall, the men and boys who have scrutinized our bodies with forensic efficiency for most of our lives. One by one, the girls file in. Rebecca and I have dimmed the fluorescent lights and made our circle of chairs, but today, the air in the room feels flat, deflated. The girls take their seats, and Amy, who has only recently begun to eat lunch in front of the group, puts her feet up on a second chair, then pulls back, apologizing for taking up so much space.

Wait a minute,” says Rebecca. “Let’s all take up as much space as we can.

Several of the girls laugh. Typically, they’re not supposed to put their feet up on chairs during school. But in this moment, spreading out, greedily taking up as much space as we can, feels necessary, important.  Rebecca and I join the girls in pulling second chairs into the center of the room. During our last group, we all use two chairs. We put our feet up. We drape our arms dramatically over the seat backs. We talk about power poses, stand up and make triangles with our elbows, hands on our hips. In my heart, my Wonder Woman doll climbs back out of her box and, surrounded by powerful young women and a dear friend, I invite her back into my body. As the session comes to a close, several of the girls want to make a circle together. We come together at the center of the room, stand shoulder to shoulder. The girls tell us they’ve taken their monster books home; they’re still writing in them. A few say they wish the group could go on. We remind them that they’ll still be together in school, every day, that the connection we’ve made here leaves the room with them. Then we separate, go back out into the rest of our lives—a creative, imperfect, empowered community of women, bringing our wonder out into the world where, whether you like it or not, we will take up lots of space. We will be seen. We will be heard. And Rebecca and I, just like the girls, are different now. The part of us that was pushed against the wall many years ago pushes back.

“You

who replants today despite unwelcoming soil

so tomorrow can be worthy of the roots;

Your children will grow up to be oak trees”

Alixa Garcia

Climbing PoeTree

 

 

 Melissa Benton Barker is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. A Navy brat and native of nowhere, she currently lives in a small Midwestern town where she spends her time imagining stories, wandering in the woods, and raising children-sometimes simultaneously! Her work appears or is forthcoming in the Manifest-station, Smokelong Quarterly, and Literary Mama. She serves as Lead Fiction Editor at Lunch Ticket.


 

Donna Steiner, Swimming with My Eyes Open, July 2016, acrylic ink on clayboard, 6”x6”

Spotlight: Swimming with My Eyes Open

In the last year, both my mother and father died. They were gone within 42 days of each other, one to a stroke, one to heart failure. These paintings, part of a much larger collection, were attempts to convey feelings of being submerged, of being unable to put words to experience, being unable to surface […]

The Wishful Dread of a Career in Art

I used to ghostwrite erotica novels. It was lucrative and consistent work doing something I love—telling stories. I could embarrass myself here trying to justify why I had a penchant to write drivel, but my point is to illustrate that ghostwriting erotica was quite literally the only thing I could will myself to do for money at the time. I didn’t go seeking the gig; it was just one of those things that presented itself through a client I worked for in Hollywood. Even as I appreciated the paycheck, I felt creatively drained. My own (non-erotic) writing took a backseat as I stressed to meet cutthroat deadlines churning out novels for other people.

By no means was ghostwriting erotica artistically satisfying. The final product served a commercial purpose, but this was not what I had in mind when I imagined one day being a writer. I aspired to put my heart into my characters and create profound, moving works of literature. Instead, I was writing raunchy (yet tasteful) stories full of dramatic and graphic sex scenes perforated with subplots that made the work barely pass as fiction. The more I ghostwrote these erotica novels, the more other opportunities opened to ghostwrite different creative works. I wrote everything from historical romance novels (with zero sexual intercourse) to psychological thriller feature film scripts. As a freelance writer, I was stuck abiding to the deadlines of my clients. I made a living this way for the better part of a year, often working around the clock.

I’ve been at the mercy of art since I was a teenager. Now, in my late twenties, I’m starting to feel that being an artist isn’t something that someone chooses to do. In fact, coming to the understanding that I was an artist made me anxious. Dread set in when I realized that there is nothing else in this world I can do but art.

I can only define art based on my personal experience. When I was ghostwriting, the process became so mechanical that I felt more like a story-generating robot than a writer. I would sit at my desk and conjure storylines that met my client’s erotica ratio (33% of the prose must consist of steamy scenes) while trying my best to stick to the formulaic structure found in Blake Snyder’s, Save the Cat!, a screenwriting bible. I decided that I would rather turn down a cushy paycheck and retain my energy for writing I was passionate about.

For me, there is nothing else I can do but write. I know because I’ve tried everything else—filmmaking, acting, music, visual art. I’ve had varying degrees of failure and success. But, given the chance to do it differently and avert these failures, I wouldn’t. At some point, once the artist mantle crystalizes, there is a clarity—hopefully an acceptance—of personal destiny. I can look back on my experiences, reflect on all the choices and events, and see how it all contributed to my voice as a writer. Dealing with artistic hardships and trials has helped me cope with the unpredictability of life, making me a better writer than the one I was before.

*     *     *

Photo by Robin Charney, 2009

You’re at The Ground Level coffee shop on poetry night. Echoes and vibrations of words, snapping fingers. The room is full of writers and artists. Like you, they’re here to open up. Briefly unlock their souls. See if anything true and haunting escapes. You look over the chicken scratch you call a poem and prepare for the host to call you to the mic. The previous literary artists have already brought the room to laughter and tears. You take the stage.

Even today, I look back to those artists and coffee shop poets in Toledo and feel as though I was walking among giants. Circa 2005 Toledo had an ambitious group of filmmakers, poets, artists, musicians, writers—all of whom I was lucky to associate with. My personal experience with art growing up in the Midwest was riper than I thought.

One of the cornerstone influences on my identity as an artist today was the opportunity to live at the Collingwood Arts Center when their Artist Residency program was still around. There, I met poets and artists who taught me not only how to live as an artist but also what it means to be one. A writer who lived there casually told me that he wrote steamy, harlequin romance novels under a female penname. At the time, I thought he was joking. I never imagined that one day I’d be doing the same thing for a living. This was the same writer who I’d seen reciting Shakespeare at the top of his lungs during poetry night. The dream of being an artist was real to him and the other writers, painters, musicians, and filmmakers whose paths I crossed. For them, the dream was to have the freedom to create and a venue for their expression.

*     *     *

You’re in the Cleveland snow bringing the star of a Nickelodeon movie her coffee between takes. A team of bright-eyed creatives work together around you to create a motion picture. You’re the lowest person on the totem pole. You’ve got a bachelor’s degree in film and the coffee you were assigned to bring to the movie star is not hot enough for her. You keep your mouth shut, do as you’re told. When the star takes her place in front of camera you think that you might be cut out for her job. Members of the cast and crew, the people who have become your temporary family during this production, tell you that if you want to make it, you can’t do it in Ohio. You have to move to Los Angeles. That’s where it’s at.

You spend the rest of the winter living out of a hotel room just so that you can be involved in a real film production.

The film wraps. You wait tables. Save cash. Drive across the country.

It is essential to point out that I didn’t move to Los Angeles and get handed a job in the industry. Like most people I needed to supplement my artistic pursuits with part-time employment. Before leaving the Midwest, I worked three part-time jobs to save money. I was a bookseller at Barnes & Noble, a server at Olive Garden, and a stocker at Forever 21. I would wake up at four a.m. to drive forty minutes to work and put in fifteen-hour days. I was fresh out of college and fortunate to have gotten a few major gigs in Ohio and Michigan, but it seemed impossible to make it consistent while staying in the Midwest. I was determined to save as much money as possible so that when I finally got to Los Angeles I would be able to hit the ground running.

I got job transfers with both Barnes & Noble and Darden Restaurants, so when I arrived in Los Angeles I wasn’t completely lost. These jobs allowed me the freedom and financial stability to pay the astronomically higher rent and the miscellaneous costs of getting started in entertainment. For me there was the cost of headshots for acting, fees for submitting to film festivals, expenses of equipment and gear for independent film production.

Nathan Elias as Scotty on the set of “Kleptos” (2014).

In Los Angeles I ran the gamut of jobs in the film and television industry. Before I landed my first gig, working in entertainment seemed like a mirage. It took moving across the country to discover for myself whether these goals were illusions or reality. I learned that the longer you follow the thread, the more visceral the dreams become. I can think back to being a Midwestern teenager obsessed with movies and having no realistic conception of how they were made. A decade later I was working on film sets, producing reality shows, writing screenplays, and collaborating with the people I grew up watching on my television. I networked with writers, schmoozed with producers. I put in relentless hours of work and tried my hand at everything. When I realized that the opportunities I dreamed of weren’t mirages, I dove in head first.

With a high cost of living added to the weight of dreams, passions, and ambitions, it’s a marvel that artists continue to strive at all. Los Angeles is a city of never-ending opportunity with equally abundant chances to fail. Some of my difficulties: I’m in debt. I’m 2,000 miles away from my relatives. I’ve turned down stable job opportunities. These are only a few of the things I’ve accepted in order to pursue burning artistic desires.

To do art requires sacrifice. Time. Money. A social life. Pursuing art means infinite moments of uncertainty that can lead to questions of identity and purpose. All this for the fleeting feeling of accomplishment in the act of creation or having created. The possibility of failure is omnipresent—still there is something that forces artists to keep trying. It seems so irrational at times, but I can’t keep myself from art, even though the payoff is often microscopic compared to the energy invested into it.

*     *     *

You’re sitting in your Los Angeles apartment. Sunlight spills in from the south-facing balcony. The person you love calculates another brushstroke to her canvas. She’s preparing new work to display at an upcoming art show. You think about your own art. You think about language. Words. You consider how they are the paint for the artwork which is a story, a way to present reality through your eyes. Character. Setting. Plot. Meaning. Theme. These are what the literary artist has to create with. You put your fingers to the keys. You go to the gallery of thoughts in your mind. You generate words until the whole story is there on paper.

I’ve reached the point of no return. Art is a part of who I am. I know I will be faced with challenges. The call to be an artist is often one that cannot be denied. But each challenge is my own. I would rather fail at doing something I love than succeed at something I am dispassionate about. I’ve learned that in order to truly grow as a writer and artist I must strive for authenticity rather than succumb to commercial endeavors.

These days I’ve put working in entertainment aside so that my writing can take the wheel. I’m learning to embrace the slow process of crafting works of quality fiction, free of the encumbrance of churning out writing that I don’t even get credit for. The transition has not been easy. I’m no longer surrounded by a commune of artists like I was back in Toledo, or by film crews like when I first moved to Los Angeles. Writing requires discipline and, in my case, the ability to tune-out the world. At times it proves difficult to commit to the solitary act of writing with a world of opportunity right outside. I’ll keep striving for authenticity, take each moment as it comes and enjoy the never-ending journey of the artist life. Read more