People always give where they're from, don't they? I was born in Kansas, but grew up in Seattle, where I learned to love cloudy days, and Richland, Washington, which is near Hanford, part of the Manhattan Project, where the plutonium that blew up Nagaski was manufactured, and is the most toxic place in America due leaking radioactive waste. My father was a scientist at the plant, researching the effects of low-level radiation on miniature live stock (yes, you read that correctly), so I was ever cognizant of the world of the bomb and the nuclear age (a reason for which I did the Remixing the Hanford Declassified Project art series 2005-2013). As it was during the Cold War, I spent my school days, looking out the window, waiting for the bright flash of The Bomb that would consume our world, and I was all too aware of the dangers at home, having undergone a mass testing of children in Richland for what radioactivity they might have been absorbing through water, milk and locally grown food. All steel forged after WW2 has radioactivity in it, so steel from ships before the nuclear age is used in the full body scanners. That's the kind of knowledge upon which I was raised.
Children are hostages to parental occupations, and as my father was preoccupied with plutonium, when the family relocated down to Augusta, Georgia, near the Savannah River Site and its nuclear facility, I was carried along. Thus I found myself in a part of the south where the south liked its South to be populated with Southerners, and there wasn't a trace of South in me or my family's blood. Not long after we arrived, the neighbors, in a pique of famed southern hospitality, welcomed my brother with a rock to the head for being a northerner, hard enough that he was out cold for several minutes, and the police were called to intervene. It was a huge culture shock and made for big problems with me being called a a Yankee and a communist and told to go back where I came from. All that I knew about Yankees before the move was that they were a renowned baseball team, and a black friend and I used to stand out in her driveway and sing "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets" from the musical, which we thought was wonderful. When she visited family in New York, she'd return with tales of Broadway, which was how she knew about "Damn Yankees".
And, actually, though these southerners didn't know it, it was true, my grandmother on my father's side of the family was from a lineage of communists who lived in 19th century communal societies, free-thinkers who were some of the first residents of the only free-thought town ever built in the United States that banned all churches. That town is Liberal, Missouri, which erased its liberal roots and is about as conservative now as it gets. In fact, my grandmother and her siblings, worried about backlash during the McCarthy era, destroyed a trunk of papers and records from the family's communist and free-thought history, even nearly all the letters that had been preserved, for some odd reason keeping only some envelopes that recorded where people had been. Having told me this story when I was ten and living with them for a few months in Missouri, my grandmother then advised me, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," and never to tell anyone your personal business and to pretend you were part of the pack and believed like the rest of them because it wasn't anyone's business what you really believed (advice that I ignored as I didn't want to be like everyone else if they were all assholes). Also, on my mother's side of the family I had great-uncles who were members of the communist party, but my mother's mother was appalled by it and this was only spoken of in whispers.
The Bible Belt South was bizarre to me, backward. Not just backward but horrifying. This was during the late 1960s and the South was split with hard-core segregation, an apartheid of white communities and third world black communities. Recollect, I mentioned earlier the black friend in Richland with whom I sang all the time. She had several sisters and I was the White Supreme, knowing all their songs by heart. She was one of my two best friends in Richland, and she lived across the street from us, her father also working at Hanford. We had sleep-overs and we went to the movies and the community pool together. When we were "old enough", her mother had sat us down together, told us we had a special friendship that we would one day look back on and appreciate, and discussed Martin Luther King Jr. and Civil Rights marches down in the south, which seemed a world apart to me. Richland was essentially a town of migrant scientists at that time, everyone from everywhere else, and this may have been after a new family moved into the neighborhood, who was from the south, and they wouldn't let my friend inside their home. "You know why," they had said to her.
Now I was in that world. Fully immersed, Imprisoned. Where there were white and black water fountains. Where the only black individuals I ever saw in our neighborhood were the maids who worked in the homes of others and the men who picked up the garbage.
It's not that racism didn't exist up north, or that I wasn't aware of it. By the time I was at least seven, I was acutely aware of all forms of prejudice. Perhaps because I was an "outsider". We had moved several times. We didn't attend church at all and then my mother went through a period of sampling a number of different churches, so that I was five or six years of age and aware that many different groups, even among Christians, had different ideas of who was destined for so-called heaven and who would get to languish in so-called hell. I recognized early on fickle, toxic prejudice and knew when someone was an outsider because of various prejudices.
School was no refuge. I was called a communist because I thought the community, school-owned playground equipment ought to be shared by all. I was told by a teacher that the south had won the War Between the States. Boys carried daily to school Time-Life books on the Civil War, and touted family treasures of pistols and swords used in the war, and Confederate costumes and flags. I was penalized for not being able to understand southern accents. They began the school day with bible readings, which I knew to be illegal, though I was only a youth, I knew about the decisions of the Supreme Court that protected my rights, so though I was only in elementary school I protested with a Jewish friend and refused to participate, passionate about the separation of church and state. I was sent to the principal and threatened with being kicked out until another student's lawyer mother became involved. Instead, I was permitted to go stand out in the hallway, with my Jewish friend, during the bible readings. That was winning, being able to go stand outside in the hallway, which we knew made us even more obviously "outsiders" to everyone. It wasn't winning but we took what we could get.
I was always in trouble for simply being me. Trouble was inescapable. My school life was hell. I was bullied mercilessly throughout my school years. My social life was hell. (The fact that a number of Jewish families lived in our neighborood was the only thing that saved me during that time--and Jewish families were the only ones who ever employed me to babysit.) My family personal life was also from hell, so home wasn't a refuge either. I was in a perpetual state of terror. Daily, on my way to school, I would be thinking about the hell I'd catch there. Daily, on my way home, I would be thinking about the hell I endured there.
There was no escape, except, of course, for alcohol and some drugs. Alcohol was bliss, and I was in such deep trouble with it by the time I was seventeen that I was doing my best to quit drinking even then and would go months white-knuckling it. I did quit at twenty-three. I'd had a stint in the hospital after a feeble attempt at suicide at the end of a very long, hard binge. The kind where you haven't eaten in a long while, and you're out back lot of the apartment complex at 3 a.m. burying your bottles because you can't bear to hear them clank in the Dempsy dumpster and you don't want anyone else hearing them clank in the dumpster either. Because I couldn't be trusted as far as alcohol was concerned, I was put on Antabuse while I was in the hospital, and then hey kicked me out of the hospital for sneaking out and getting my alcohol and bringing it back to the ward and drinking on Antabuse. My rationalization was where better a place to drink, while you're on Antabuse, than in a hospital. To me that was great, dark comedy. They told me I was hopeless, that I would never stop. But I had been trying to stop for years, and I felt again like, "Fuck you." I spent some few more months of spiraling down, and then I managed to quit. With some good help. Some very dedicated people helped me out and I quit. For months afterward we were finding all kinds of places where I'd hid bottles and pills and I had no memory of it. I'd have black-outs while drinking, and much of that period of time is simply gone.
Along the way, very early on along the way, I met a southerner who wasn't a southerner despite the fact his family and ancestors had never been above the Mason-Dixon line and I married him. I suppose our son is a hybrid. And, whereas I am daily in torment over Red State South and the conservative mentality that has consumed the country, I'm proud to live where John Lewis is our Representative, and glad our son was born in and grew up in urban Atlanta. Not that Atlanta doesn't have its problems. We've been gentrified out of one neighborhood after another for the past forty years, a situation which has become even more intense recently, but all cosmopolitan areas have been experiencing this.
That is a little part of the formative years, part of where I am from, and a little part of the kernel that was me, became me, is me.
I write. I have always written. Novels, and I've had some plays produced. The way that I conceive a novel's world and voice is laborious and takes forever. I also paint and do photography. The art--especially the photography--is less time intensive. It takes years for a book to be completed. Though I may work years on a series of photographs or paintings, I don't labor over a single one for five to ten years. From the time I was old enough to pick up a pencil and draw I was an artist with opinions and preferences. Everywhere I went I drew, and when I was five I would get upset if someone gave me a lousy pen or lined paper. "But, I'm an artist! I can't draw with a red pen!" When I was ten I taught myself to type, because I wanted to write stories, and I was dyslexic and typing was my salvation. I was one of those people who always knew what I was and wanted to do. Writing and art were never hobbies or preoccupations or simple activities. They were my occupation. As a friend says of herself, a vocation. They were my vocations from when I was a child.
Yes, I used to write plays and had productions of them from my late twenties to when our son was born, when I was 40. Writing is a very isolating activity and plays were enjoyable for the reason that I was always a part of the production as a consultant. I didn't crowd in. I was invited to be very involved--artistic design, coaching, etc. I was always at rehearsals, and working on sets and props. I did a number of plays but I was a writer of literature in the novel form first and returned to it with the birth of my son.
Also, my plays had a rough go of it. But then it's that way with everything I do. With the first full production of a play of mine, a theater critic was reported to me as having fled the theater afterwards. The review that he wrote didn't slam me so much as coming down hard on the company, for no other reason than it was doing experimental work. A radio talk show host, who later went national, very popular, Neal Boortz, picked up on this and went after the company on air, calling for them to lose their NEA funding. The public shouldn't be paying for art like this, that kind of thing. It was a big deal. Now, with social media, this could be battled and would actually bring positive attention. But back then? No. This critic for the Atlanta Journal-constitution thereafter refused to see and review any of my plays for years. It's one thing to see and give a bad review, but to refuse to ever see another one of someone's plays? What's up with that? What kind of idiocy is that? Needless to say, it was no help to me. After some years, he was finally talked into seeing another play of mine and he gave it a glowing review, saying it was the best new Atlanta play of the year, but it was one of my least experimental and more straightforward works.
My writing style was at first completely different from what it eventually involved into. Early on, I was influenced by Robbe-Grillet and surrealism. I spent years writing and developing and eventually broke completely from that. I used to think those early novels were good works. Perhaps they are. I was told they were. I certainly spent many years trying to get them published but was always told they were too experimental. Some are stashed away in boxes and I will likely never look at them again and would never offer them up to others now. Most were poetic in their sensibility, intensely psychological. Intentionally thick with description and minimal on plot. It's not that I didn't have a comedic voice then. I did, but comedy didn't fit in with with the early works. Then I got into the plays and that took many years of my time. While I was doing the plays, I very soon began using that comedic sensibility, feeling out timing. It was very dark comedy. And I found I really liked abusing my characters with it, which I know must sound odd. But it's an empathetic dark comedy. When life isn't plain out-and-out tragedy, it's dark comedy. Or should I say that a dose of dark comedy sugar helps the medicine go down. Sometimes the only way to handle out-and-out tragedy is dark comedy. Not that all my plays were dark comedy, in fact only a couple were. They were all intense.
Here's the thing, it's not a science. They can teach you tricks but those are mass entertainment tricks. One is always growing in one's craft. You think you're good at one stage and several years down the road you're embarrassed by what you were doing. Give it several more years and you may like again what you were doing. You may do something and not understand then what you're doing, and not even like it, and then twenty years later you revisit and appreciate if and like it. You may love what you were doing one day and wholly believe in it and the next day it's all mud. The arts are so tough that way. When you're very young you can have all kinds of self-confidence and think you're great, but you can also be very aware that you aren't yet what you will be, that you have years of apprenticeship to go through, learning, writing, rewriting and rewriting. You build an early body of work that at the time is all about your art, you are practicing it, you believe in what you're doing, but you're still apprenticing, still learning. People who are published early, that record is out there. If you're not published early, it's not and you can hide it all away if it later doesn't meet your own criteria.
The germ for Unending Wonders of a Subatomic World (or) In Search of the Great Penguin was sprouted while I was still doing the plays, exploring the dark comedy voice I had begun to use in a couple of the plays. Then I completely re-envisioned the novel after I had quit theater and subsequently spent years honing its comedy and message. I'd written myth and psychology and archetypes before but it was with Unending Wonders... I decided to write directly about society and culture. Then came Thunderbird and the Ball of Twine which is a different style from Unending Wonders... but still has a lot of dark comedy to it. Rhetoric of Streets has zero comedy.
Perhaps through my experience in theater, and post-theater experience, I also became interested in literature as a possibly transformative experience for the reader. In a way, that interest had always been there. I have always been interested in the transformation and initiation myths. But if I had an "artist's statement" that I needed to compose on it, what I would write now would be far different from what I have written in my 20s and 30s. Back then I wrote for sake of the word, for story, for word pictures, for effect, for atmosphere, and, yes, for something beyond all that. Now I write for sake of the mythic undercurrents and transformative experience, to put it as simply as possible. And, yes, to awaken readers to social and cultural issues, to upset their paradigms. That has always been there.
Curiosity and a desire to learn. But you'll want more than that. Did I go to college? Of course. I went to college. I am dyslexic, and by the time I was a senior in high school an English teacher got a clue. When I was ten, I had taught myself to type, because of the dyslexia, and because I wanted to write. Dyslexia caused problems in math because I was always reversing numbers, and it caused problems in English because I had difficulty spelling. (Throughout the years, every time I thought I was getting better at spelling, someone else would give me a dictionary for bad spellers, which is useless when you're dyslexic because you can't ever find the word you want to spell. Then came along word processors and spell check, thank you. But dyslexia is a whole other discussion.) Despite that I had no trouble with the SAT, though I'd not studied for it, and skipped first year English classes in college. I was working my way through and of course I majored in English. I had wanted to go into cinema and was accepted into the film school at NYU but ended up not being able to go because life and far more important matters happened. I had married early (I knew he was the one and we are still married), and my husband became very ill after an accident that should have killed him. He was working at a green house and, after a storm, a big pane of glass that was loosened fell out of the roof, and hit him on the neck in such a way that a little niche in the glass kept his jugular from being cut. The glass cut around and under his jugular vein. I went to pick him up at work and the owner of the green house, covered in blood, came out to tell me he wasn't there, that he was at the hospital. My husband was very ill for a long time afterward, he couldn't work, and my greatest concern was trying to get him good food to eat, because when you don't have money you can't buy fruits and vegetables. You can only buy cheap crap. We lived forever on dried beans and fear. We had to drop our plans for the move to New York and my going to NYU, but all that I was worried about was my husband becoming well.
So I did the English major path at a local college, and picked up a second major of French, translating French surrealist works. And I nearly completed college then dropped out.
Why did I drop out? I used to tell everyone it was because I wasn't going to be an academic, that I got pissed off at the system and I decided to hell with this. And, it's true that I had no desire to be an academic. That wasn't in the cards.
But what drove me out of school was sexual harassment on such a level that a female professor came to me to tell me she knew what was going on and offered to go to the dean for me. What had happened was I had sexually refused a professor who went after me. While he was going after me, while he was holding me there, he had said we should forget what he did had ever happened, and I had said yes just so he'd let go of me and I could flee. Actually, I nodded yes, because I couldn't breathe while he was holding me. It wasn't that he was keeping me from breathing. Freeze or flee had caused my body to freeze so that I couldn't even breathe, plus I had this fear that if I moved I might be in trouble. But mainly it was flight or freeze, and I froze. He he held onto me until I promised I would tell no one. I was terrified, paralyzed, and I went for so long without breathing, he first trying to convince me to give in and then trying to convince me to forget, I felt like my lungs would rupture. I was terrified to move, to do anything. So I nodded, yes, that I would forget it ever happened and when he said I must promise never to tell anyone this had happened I nodded my head yes, I would never tell anyone, which is when he let me go and I fled. The terror pursued me afterwards, I couldn't release it. I was frightened of the person. And the sexual harasser was now going after me personally and academically. When the other professor came to me and offered to go to the dean for me--she had overheard him influencing other teachers against me, how they should come down hard on me, that I'd had it too easy, and she had guessed what had happened--I should have said yes. But I was physically terrified to the point of being unable to breathe whenever I simply heard the voice of the professor who was doing this. My body would stop breathing and I'd feel like I had hide or escape. One time I heard him outside my apartment window, I didn't know what he was doing there, if he was there to visit someone else or if he was coming to see me and had met the other person on the way...and I hid. I hid in a corner, crouched down under the air conditioner, listening, choking, waiting for him to leave. That kind of physical fearl. Plus, though this other professor came to me and offered to go to the dean, this was during the 70s and I felt like what good would it do? Who would believe me? The teacher had the authority. Plus, the professor who was going after me was married and had children and I was also conflicted with the idea of what if he was censured and it caused problems for his family and children who were entirely innocent?
Perhaps someone who hadn't been abused as a youth would have had a clearer head. I fled home at seventeen to escape an abusive situation. I thought of myself as strong, getting out of it. I had fled with only the clothes on my back, and had finished high school with stupid teachers telling me over and over they wanted my books back and seemingly unable to handle my repeatedly telling them I couldn't get my books because they were at the parental home and I was no longer there, I couldn't get them. I thought I had escaped abuse, and having escaped abuse I was in control of my own life and destiny. Now, here I was in another abusive situation. Why? How had this happened? I couldn't handle it and figured that I was doomed there. I figured the dean wouldn't believe me. And if the dean believed me? I felt like I'd have the guy's family and children on my conscience if he was censured. It didn't occur to me yet that he might have ever done this to anyone else.
I fled school, torching my bridges behind me. I was just a few credits away from graduating, had always been on the deans list, and I dropped it all and ran. My husband dropped out along with me and we moved to Atlanta.
I figured, who needs school?
Here's where things get extra prickly. Look at my history. I had no trust in authority and no reason to trust authority or pedagogical institutions. Environment and personality combined in such a way that my natural inclination was one of distrust and rebellion.
I thought, well, I can do it on my own.
What I didn't know, and what I couldn't foresee, was how vitally important academics and degrees were to giving one credentials in the arts, especially in literature.
I wanted to write. That was my vision. I had been writing all the while. I kept on doing odd jobs for rent and food money (so many jobs seem intent on humiliating the employee), and spent also a lot of time on the road with my husband, who is a musician, where at least I was always assured a meal. I purchased lights and worked lights for a while. I worked more odd jobs and quit them. I went into theater, wrote plays, was involved in productions, and continued working odd jobs. Then I quit theater, went back to the novel form, became a mother at 40, and that was its own job, especially as we homeschooled. We wanted our son to have a liberal education and be free to create, because he spent all day creating. We didn't want him tied to a desk. We didn't want to struggle with a system that might insist on our putting him on drugs to keep him in a desk, that would penalize him for being creative, and that would teach him useless, rote-learning bullshit and lies.
When my son was an infant I taught myself to do Photoshop and code for sake of a little money and also because I was intent on getting my work online and wanted to rely on myself to do it.
With the digital age I also shifted into digital arts because art is expensive. I couldn't afford physical supplies, much less a studio.
It's one thing to be an artist and another thing to be able to get the money together to be a public artist. When you don't have money it's impossible. When I was in my early twenties I'd had a bathroom photography set-up where I did my developing and printing, but even that became too expensive, the price of paper. Paint is expensive. The digital age began to put certain things back in my hands as far as being able to simply do them. I worked for years and years on digital photography and painting, going through that same process of apprenticeship, of learning and growing while endeavoring to make art in the same time.
Authoring. I've striven to be dedicated to my craft, to eventually write a few novels I thought really spoke to the human condition and were worthwhile. That was my goal. I wrote a lot in my 20s and 30s, I wrote continually and lived enough to have a dramatic change in philosophy of approach. As part of that crisis in changing my approach--for it was a period of crisis--I burned all my rejection slips. I had saved all my rejection slips from the time I was eighteen. The bathtub in the place we we lived was an old, ugly one. For some reason the landlord's father had once painted it black, then stripped it so there was no finish at all left on the porcelain. I filled it to the brim with all my rejection slips and I burned them. I'm a careful person in that I filled a couple of buckets with water first, despite them being in the bathtub, just in case it blazed up unpredictably and I couldn't easily cut on the water in the tub and douse it. I burned all the rejection slips and reset my clock and ambitions. The past twenty years have been spent dedicating myself to a philosophy course in my writing that came during and after that period.
There. Those are my credentials. Have I been foolish with my anti-authoritarian nature? Perhaps, but not if one examines my history. I'm well aware they aren't credentials enough for the literary world. I have worked hard and have criticized my work harshly, thrown much of it away, and worked harder and harder, and I know that's not enough. I don't have credentials. I'm well aware that I will never "succeed" or make it. It's not a pleasant situation. I just daily have to say "fuck that" and continue working, because I have more to write. I know that there will be no success even after I die. And still I fucking write, because I feel like the world has the room to be written about in a particular way, needs to be written about in a particular way that I'm trying to do.
Foolish and always on such a fool's errand, but you know that already. I'm a skeptical idealist.
Always. Yes. And I hope to have more stories that desire to be written for a while. No one may be listening (as the fortune cookie has said, literally), but, for the moment, I still have characters that wish to speak.