November 5, 2010
“Breathe into the balloon,” bade the doctors; she did, and saw the world. It was blue and green and round like the globe in the library and got smaller and smaller as she soared away from it, till she was scared it would vanish altogether.
— Julie Hayden, 1939-1981
American fiction writer and editor
Every time I read that passage I get dizzy. It’s from “A Touch of Nature,” a short story included in The Lists of the Past, the 1976 debut collection of the work of Julie Hayden who was, according to the jacket, then “at work on a novel.” To my knowledge, the novel was never published, and probably never finished either, since the author died only four years later. I read the collection in a library copy when it was first published, and a few years ago acquired a used copy to read it again. The title of the collection continues to haunt me, as does my own past, that thing that I keep on writing about, that most apprentice writers, even most established writers, continue to write about. Who we were and who we are and how we got from there to here finds its way inevitably into most of what we do.
“A Touch of Nature” is set in 1945 and involves a six-year-old child who undergoes a tonsillectomy. The passage about breathing into the balloon describes precisely the experience I had as a six-year-old in 1953. Ether was the most common anesthetic in use then. It was administered by inhalation. I remember a nurse telling me to pretend I was blowing up a balloon, and I protested that I didn’t know how to do that. I was about to undergo an invasive procedure that almost every one of my age mates experienced, and I was having performance anxiety, concerned that I would be unable to please the nurse.
It turned out, of course, that you didn’t have to blow up the balloon, just breathe in and out as it was pressed to your face. I remember the swirling blue and green colors, the sight of my father striding down the hall, his coat flapping out behind him. I remember a sense of urgency as he reached the gurney where I lay and bent to kiss me, the sensation of moving out and out, the fear that everything I knew was about to vanish.
That’s what fiction does. It captures and holds sensations and images that might otherwise vanish. The fiction writer imposes swirling and disparate memories and fragments of memories from her own life onto the lives of people she has invented.
This week at the Vermont Studio Center I stepped into the lives of people I invented in October of 2001. It was a Sunday afternoon and I’d been walking in a neighborhood I lived in for only nine months, the duration of a school year, drawn as usual in the fall when the leaves start changing colors, loden to ochre to scarlet to gone, to the site of my first post-college apartment, where I was starting a new life, alone, while the person I had expected to be starting a new life with was doing so with someone else. I stopped outside the house where I’d rented two furnished rooms, looked up at the window, and began to hear the voice of a young man I knew that year, a student teacher assigned to the math department in the school where I taught.
I began writing the story the next day, worked on it off and on, and by 2004 had a draft advanced enough to get me admitted to Bread Loaf. It was well-received there, but when I came back I put it away and, except for showing it to trusted readers from time to time, never did anything else with it until now.
And so this week, I wrote 18 pages in longhand in my journal/notebook, studied two versions of Jessica Treadway’s extraordinary story, “Shirley Wants Her Nickel Back,” outlined, added to, and subtracted from the original manuscript, finally gave my central character a last name and his wife and children more clearly-defined personalities. And the places they inhabited took shape as well. The apartment drawn on my own first furnished place acquired a sleigh bed and a Morris chair that are the sole personal possessions of the inhabitant. (I took a desk and the lamp I once went gallivanting to buy.) These characters I loved had swirled away from me, they’d almost vanished, but this week I brought them back.
The jacket copy for The Lists of the Past quotes Brendan Gill, longtime staff member at The New Yorker who must have known Julie Hayden well, as saying that the collection has “at least one sentence that even the most cynical of readers will be unable to finish without tears.” I have no idea which sentence that is. But I know that in reworking “Cardamom” this week, my central character, Daniel, became more tender and vulnerable than he had been before, and I wrote one sentence about him that brought me to tears.
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