TMR Editors’ Prize
Our new, enhanced online anthology
Current Issue: 36.1 (Spring 2013)
Featuring the winners of the 2012 Editors' Prize as well as work by Cara Blue Adams, Jennifer Anderson, Aaron Belz, Jerry Gabriel, Darren Morris, and Brad Wetherell... along with a conversation with Steve Almond and William Giraldi and a look at the art of Al Hirschfeld.
Sign up for our newsletter!
TMR on Twitter
- The Nifty Trick of Dan Chaon’s “A Little Something to Remember Me By” | Rebecca Meacham on Here’s A Little Something to Remember Me By
- Francesco Sinibaldi on Short Story Month, Day 31: “Babylon Revisited”
- Francesco Sinibaldi on Working Writers Series: Darci Schummer
- Francesco Sinibaldi on The November Story
- essay writing on Short Story Month, Day 28: “The Lady with the Little Dog”
Author Archives: Molly Pozel
I moved to Nashville exactly 6 months ago this Friday and on that day I will have 6 months to go until the end of my first year of teaching, which also happens to be my birthday. This milestone, recent drives back and forth to my home in Missouri, and a sighting of Hayden Panettiere have me thinking more about my relationship with locations. Six months is enough time in a place to gain a sense of direction (although I still often pull into the wrong driveway), find a favorite Kroger, know the blue laws, and to recognize landmarks with some pride on an ABC drama every Wednesday night. Nashville starring Connie Britton, Hayden Paniettiere, a brunette male with stubble, a clean shaven brunette male, Avery (oh brother!), Scarlett’s speaking voice, the mayor, and some others is a drama about competing female country singers.
The show is filmed in Nashville so I can recognize the sweeping shots of downtown and occasionally I know the bar or cafe or part of town where scenes are taking place. A few weeks ago while writing at a coffee shop down the street from my house, Hayden sat down outside, ate a bagel with cucumbers, and sent back a mimosa. The next day the coffee shop was blocked off for taping.
Nashville has become a sort of gauge for how much better I am at living here. It’s nice to know that I don’t resent the city despite missing home. It’s not complex, this notion that I am reassured about my choice to live here by a compelling story line and images for one hour a week. In contrast both in medium and my relationship with a location, my own writing has served as a long term gauge for my relationship with my hometown. It is a more complicated medium revealing a more complicated relationship.
The first creative writing class I took in college was Writing About Place during my freshman year at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. I was the only freshman in the course and trying to decide if the school’s small writing program was worth all the drawing I had to do. I remember that we had a professor named James from San Francisco who made bitter remarks about the administration and referred to the drug culture a lot as if it were still a culture of beat poets. A girl who sat next to me said once that her summer plans were to go to a forest in Maine and take a zine writing class with Noam Chomsky. Maybe she said it was a forest in Vermont. There was a Truman Capote lookalike, a guy from Port-au-Prince who didn’t understand why we all wanted him to stop writing about New York City, and 4 or 5 more earning degrees in fashion or animation or painting. Missing home informed most of my writing in that class. I found that I had a similar contrasting relationship with the new city that I do today when I watched Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and felt like I had seen those droopy trees before in my own experience of Savannah.
The fleeting joy of the “I’ve been there before” recognition written into a book, movie, tv show, postcard image, etc. is what warps our memory of vacations and places we used to live because it doesn’t ask us to delve into our own experience in a location that way that writing it down does. When Connie Britton drinks coffee in Nashville, I can relate down to some detail of the location that makes saying “I’ve done that” more exciting. When I first started writing about my hometown in my workshop in Savannah, I was nostalgic. As I wrote more about place, the nostalgia became mixed with resentment and pride and way too tied to who I am to simply be a moment of recognition for the reader to ground themselves. In a new city when you’re a freshman in college or a first year teacher, the comfort in that recognition is almost embarrassingly reassuring that things aren’t so bad away from that place that you’re missing.
One recent television show Switched at Birth takes place near my hometown in Kansas City, Missouri. I’m less comforted by it. Here is a preview.
Here is an extremely generous article by the New Yorker about Switched at Birth. Extremely generous in that it was written. Laughably generous that it’s titled “Seen But Not Heard: The revelatory silence of ‘Switched at Birth.’” And concerning that its author thinks an ABC Family show with a character called Chef Jeff, sometimes just Chef, but never Jeff, has an “undertow as strong as anything on TV.” Anyway, I’ve seen every episode and really hope Bay can find an outlet for her art that isn’t so dangerous!
Today, on my way back from buying leopard print shoes at Target, I considered giving somebody a handmade essay about my old dog as a gift. One of these decisions is the worst, the other has already been paid for, and both make me sound like somebody so socially inept that they don’t even know when to stop putting in the effort. This blog post is the first anything I have written since May. I left Missouri on my birthday for Nashville to begin a teaching program that will hopefully have me certified by the time I turn 23 in 2013. I work now teaching English I to freshmen who can guess what annotation means because it’s a lot like a Spanish word they already know, who draw gang symbols on their desks, but sometimes just write “I’m so bored,” who give me cupcakes on their birthdays, ask me at least once a week how old I am and/or if I have ever smoked anything, and who once called me “the cutest white person in this hallway.”
The shoes and an inclination to write not only for the hell of it, but also with the intention of forcing it on to an audience as a gift are representative of my confusion with this title, young professional. I hate it because I don’t feel like either. Pretend professionally, I’m suddenly interested in the chore of writing and have more ideas today than I did in four years as an undergrad. None of these essay ideas are related to teaching and most are better concepts than writing about “my old dog.” During Fall Break, I was able to go to a Missouri Review reading, drink wine, and speak like an adult who has read books. I miss sitting here like this, wandering off, then sitting back down to delete, then wandering off again, then sitting down and writing a little more.
My professional reality is that I am a first-year teacher who wakes up before the stoplights turn on. Small talk with other teachers and administrators still makes me feel like I’m talking to someone else’s parents. I spend all of my daylight hours giving 80-minute presentations on Odysseus to different audiences, all of which need to be reminded to sit down. I allow myself an hour of Hulu and dinner standing up before I work and fall asleep by nine. In my hiatus or whatever, I’m trying desperately to not lose the writing confidence I need to one day, when I have time, write that essay about the Christmas my dad took our family to see the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. We didn’t like it and no one can believe it, but that show is really awful.
This professional piece I haven’t figured out because I haven’t come to any real conclusion about teaching other than that it is exhausting, difficult, and sometimes not that bad. This also seems like the exact same conclusion I had about writing by the time I had graduated, which leads me to the leopard shoes and the former half of that term, young professional. Leopard print is the notorious go-to print for clinging to youth. My only true fear graduating from college was that there would never be a time in my life where I would never not be busy. In school, writing papers, going to class, and logging TMR submissions 20 hours a week (with snacks available) seemed tiring. I’m sure I knew then that the free time available to me was a luxury. I said things like, “who doesn’t have time to brush their hair in the morning?” and skipped class to lay belly up on the porch of my best friend. Now I have to go to work every day. Then I’ll probably have to maintain a marriage and adult friendships. Then I’ll probably have to commit to an organization or a committee or a club about politics or the neighborhood or cooking. Then I’ll probably have a baby who will just expect me to brush their hair in the morning. This fear snowballs into a familiar doomsday scenario where I finally have the freedom to be young and instead I’m old and nobody even wants to go out.
I don’t feel relatable or cool like a young person. I don’t feel like I’m on a fast track, a path, or a road to anywhere just because I have an English degree and a job post graduation. I feel tired and I’m less funny than I have ever been. This is how I feel anyway. Teaching has taken over my identity, which I think means I’m doing it pretty well. I also like my identity, especially being cool, and I think that the reemergence of writing as a true desire and not a chore is an attempt to hang on to a voice that I honed and liked before the confusion of being a young professional came about.
The advice I have received over and over this year has been to make time for myself, to spend a day without doing anything school related. I guess I’ve written this now so that’s something. I’ll write another one in two weeks, probably about the hour of television I allow myself. Here is a blog post I wrote about not liking, but liking writing. Here is a blog post I wrote about not wanting to, but wanting to teach. I’ll archive this one with those under Being Twenty-Two.
*Special thanks to the most youthful person I know (besides most babies!), Hannah Baxter, for first pulling off leopard shoes.
I haphazardly applied to a few jobs this semester. One of them was a copywriting position for a clothing company whose dresses I would like to purchase, but could never justify if I want to keep buying fancy, glass bottle, hormone-free milk. It was not until after I sent my application into their cyberspace submission machine that I actually studied the clothing captions I would be writing. The template for the copy on this particular website went, “Awesome [article of clothing] featuring [clothing material]. Looks rad paired with [any pair of shoes or any belt]!” Variations replace “awesome” with “perfect” or “rad” with “amazing” and once, “totally hot.”
I did not hear back about my application because, I’m assuming, I did not pass the background check portion that detailed my order history of zero items purchased. A couple of the other sporadic jobs I applied for were not interested in my wardrobe, but impressed by my choice in milk so I think things worked out for the best. My nights spent filling internet shopping carts until they reach laughable totals hasn’t waned and now the result of applying for that job has only been to make clothing copy impossible for me to ignore. The photo below is not from the website I applied to that sells really expensive dresses. It is from a different website called ModCloth that sells pretty expensive dresses. Their punny product titles and “The Story” tab for each article of clothing rivals Elaine Bennis’ work writing for the J. Peterman catalogue on Seinfeld.
I came across the above dress on ModCloth’s website a few weeks ago and tried to like it just as much as I try to like every Molly I encounter, but the references to blogging, wallpaper, and The Story’s suggestion that I “hook a thumb on this dress’ self belt” were ultimately unappealing. I think a lot about how difficult it would be to write for this website. How many different ways could I describe an A-line, semi-retro dress? Do they have a bank of cutesy titles like “Cowl of the Wild Dress,” “Teal It In Dress,” and “Only Time Will Toile Dress” to choose from or does a copywriter have to come up with that within 24 hours of knowing the dress? I would stay awake nights trying to rhyme “pleat” with “please.”
Most of the time on this post was dedicated to think of a slant rhyme as mediocre as pleat and please, which means by the time I got around to writing a narrative about pockets, I would probably only have the creative capacity to come up with “totally hot.” The Story portion of ModCloth is the same tool that has been utilized in print long before I signed in to these websites. The J Peterman catalogue is not entirely Seinfeld fiction. As with most Seinfeld episodes, the show only portrays a more entertaining truth. The real J Peterman catalogue does provide an almost notoriously great example of the belief that a backstory on a product heightens its appeal. This article pokes fun at the discrepancy between J Peterman’s elaborate narratives versus the actual product. A short-sleeved linen shirt is captioned with:
“Anything was possible then. She took him hunting for blue crabs along Chesapeake Bay… They shook hands with Elektro The Mechanical Man. They gasped at the television-telephone in the Drug Store of Tomorrow…”
I like to think that I’m not the kind of consumer who gets taken by a paragraph that makes me visualize what it would be like to be the kind of girl who could drive with the windows down in a drop waist skirt. Then again, if the copy printed on the side of my glass milk bottles romantically referred to shaking hooves with a cow, I might be more inclined to try to be a hat person.
William Faulkner has never been on my list of (dead or alive) dinner invites or authors who I wished I could have seen give a reading or even men with accents who I would want to spend an hour with. I came as close as I ever will in meeting my uninvited non-idol recently though when I sat through a one-man Faulkner impersonation as part of an assignment for a course titled Performance of Literature. The act was bizarre, but apparently part of a professional genre of performance called Chautauqua where actors take on the role of a historic figure in an effort to educate an audience while entertaining. The beginning of the performance felt like a play, with an actor arriving on stage and in character. As Faulkner-Not-Faulkner began reading excerpts from his novels and laughing at his own autobiographical jokes, I couldn’t help comparing again the subtleties of literature to the production of performance.
John Anderson, the actor portraying Faulkner, recounted stories of the author’s life in an accent with a pipe in hand. The performance became odd with a question and answer portion where Anderson remained in character. It seemed that as an audience we were supposed to pretend like we didn’t know how this whole thing would turn out. There was a moment of tension when an audience member asked Faulkner about how much of the author’s own attitude on race is present in his books, but the question seemed more like a challenge to Faulkner (but not really Faulkner, who is dead) to admit that he is/was a racist. Faulkner stumbled over his words and the silence following his response made most of the audience cringe. Finally a woman two rows ahead of me broke the silence with a question that she asked with complete sincerity and curiosity, “How many children do you have?”
Anderson removed his blazer after Faulkner had answered everyone’s questions and explained that the costume change signified his return to reality. A second round of questions and answers began. Anderson called Chautauqua a storytelling genre, a medium less about mimicking and more about knowing an author like Faulkner in a personal, performance way as well as having vast scholarly, literary and historical knowledge of the character. The art of storytelling line is one that I’ve used before to describe writing and to hear Not-Faulkner use it made me wince a little as somebody who always believed the art was in the subtle details rather than the accents.
The sort of suspension of belief required during the first Q and A was a stretch for me. I’ve seen plays and musicals and read fictional stories where I could get behind operatic phantoms and Emerald Cities, but the imposed agreement that the audience ignore our foresight of Faulkner, a real person, seemed unfair. As my Performance of Literature class continually points out, acting a story and writing a story are much different mediums, but from my theater chair I still tried to think of a literary equivalent. Authors ask audiences to pretend not to know all the time. The audience knows before Jennifer Egan’s characters in A Visit From the Goon Squad how the eighties punk scene ends. It’s not only fiction either, an audience senses tragic implications in Richard Rodriguez’s Late Victorians at the mention of AIDS and San Francisco. Chautauqua is an elbow nudge and a wink after somebody tells a joke whose punch-line is already apparent, while good use of time and history in literature shape a believable narrative. Overall, I can appreciate that the use of performance to narrate a figure’s life can be more entertaining than reading a biography and certainly takes up less of my Friday night.
The Kansas City public library series Meet the Past created time warp interviews with some of Kansas City’s local, dead historical figures. The library director wears a suit and tie to talk to Jesse James, Amelia Earhart, Langston Hughes and others. James showed up with two holsters and a surprising willingness to tell the story of the first daylight bank robbery, which incidentally took place in my hometown. The interviewer gives the more likable, less chiseled James a flippant definition of collateral damage after the innocent, unintended victim of the robbery comes up. James makes a joke about watching where you’re going and the audience laughs. I suppose the literary equivalent of Chautauqua is reading the same book a second time and knowing that Dorothy makes it home, the only difference in performance being the hand-over-mouth giggle of a Q and A session where an eager audience member asks her, “What size shoe do you wear?”
Last weekend I learned that my relatively progressive, moderately diverse and reasonably funded, suburban, hometown school district was going to allow a self-described “man cave” reading area in a school library. Before I was able to comprehend the dangerous consequences of what gender-assigned reading would mean for literature and education and what kind of political norm my suburb was representing for the rest of the nation, I had to get past “man cave.”
I hate the term when it is used on HGTV, TLC, E!, any sitcom, by a friend’s mom or in an elementary school library. The purpose of the cave, besides reiterating the tired stereotype that men are comparable to cavemen, is to provide the man of the house a separate leisure space. Man caves have pool tables and the kind of leather couches that always look menacing or sad or obese. Sports memorabilia, animals innocently lumped in with that previous categorization and stuff from a garage floor (i.e. license plates and street signs) are nailed to the walls. These are the decorating generalizations that appear over and over even in a Google Image search of “man cave” and reflect an outdated image of masculinity. The decor does not (always) offend me; if a stop sign would look best above the fireplace, level it out and nail it up. I take issue with two components of “man cave,” the “man” part and the “cave” part, especially when implemented by a school library.
For the reading space itself to be likened to a cave is symbolic of the confining, backwards nature of the concept. The reading spaces I remember in elementary school were designed to be areas of comfort and it was a privilege to read in a corner of pillows our teachers probably brought from home. In Kindergarten our classroom designated this space to a loft, lifting us higher as we read. A girl named Annie and a boy I forget supposedly French kissed up there, but that kind of gender interaction wasn’t the fault of the loft.
I remember getting some flack when I read The Pleasure of My Company in seventh grade. My oversexed peers wanted to know what a girl like me was doing with that “racy” cover and maybe what a girl like me was doing later. I carried the book around cover-up and read it wherever I felt because no librarian had ever told me that I wasn’t adult enough, funny enough or man enough to read this book or any other. By the time a child has entered the education system, they have been bombarded with society’s gender expectations. Boys are supposed to like blood and bugs and baseball while girls remain equally confined to categories where what little sexuality is present in Steve Martin’s book cover image is taboo. To condone such arbitrary divisiveness in a library misses the point of literature and education. Students will be turned off of reading before they learn that the best books are about human experience. It has been hard enough to begin to undo the notion that writing is a boys club or that teaching is a woman’s job. That we wonder what it means when a girl relates to a science fiction book and question the validity of feminized book covers speaks to the hazy categorizations of genre versus gender that remain engrained even in book lovers. I hope that the term “chick lit” disappears with “man cave,” but it certainly won’t happen if we’re keeping our next generation confined to the same deer-decorated walls we’ve built for ourselves.
Recent trailers for the animated film The Secret World of Arriety based on the children’s novel The Borrowers reminded me of another series I read as a child, The Littles. The entirely unappealing and disturbing concept of both of these books is that I may be the biggest threat in a reality where small, proportionate humans survive on my crumbs. I do not want to read a book or watch a movie that makes me wonder if a tiny family has run off with a turkey leg. If I drop a pea, could I hurt one? I would feel responsible, but I also don’t really want them living here. I donated the series over Thanksgiving break (I had a hard time forgetting this cover over dinner) and was surprised by the discrepancy between my childhood and adult feelings for the books. I had sought out and read the entire Little’s series at some point in my life, but could now barely stand the sight of a cover.
I spent last weekend at AWP with a Hilton hotel full of adults, where adult is synonymous with professional, successful, tall or married. I didn’t feel like I was going to be crushed by a pea, but the distinction between feeling big and small was on my mind. The conference was open and welcoming despite my intimidation. There is though a level of cynicism, elitism and doubt that acts as a rite of passage to feeling big that does not only apply to writers or artists, but to adults. It is a made-up pressure that I have put on myself in situations like AWP to separate myself from the naiveté of smallness. It is the pressure that makes me nod along when fellow writers claim that children’s and young adult literature have no merit and it is probably the same pressure that convinces them to make such claims in the first place. More often than not, I think these generalizations are meant for Stephenie Meyer, but their broadness reaches Lois Lowry, Maurice Sendak, Ezra Jack Keats, Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis and all of the littles checking out books.
The purpose of children’s literature to me was to prepare a young generation that will one day grow big and read real literature. My stance has changed and I know that it began when my high school French teacher assigned Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The Little Prince is marketed as a children’s book, but the themes are about bigness and smallness. Our French class spent a semester on what is still one of the most in-depth book analyses I have ever taken part in discussing adulthood, innocence and human worth. It is a book about being small and having merit.
Writing literature for children is a daunting task that I will probably never face as a writer. Knowing your audience, understanding the nuances of literature and believing in imagination are essential for holding the attention of children, but not necessarily for writing a novel that becomes a good book club read. The challenge for an adult writing children’s literature has to be remembering that they are writing for an audience who still believes in original ideas. Writing children’s or young adult literature seems like the smallest, most confining space, but not in a claustrophobic way. I can combat the land mines of an intellectual adult mind because education and adulthood have prepared me to question, but in a systematic way. Navigating a child’s mind is like squeezing through a maze that is constantly being built and redirected with “why?” and “how?” in the places that adults don’t know to ask.
Even Saint-Exupéry’s seemingly simple sentences need unraveling: ”Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.” I take my steps a little bit more carefully and can combat the pressures of intimidation if I remember that I might be living with French royalty.