November 18, 2010
Raymond’s job today was to keep an eye on The Mourner. He’d heard about her, but he didn’t think she’d been to any of the funerals he’d worked. “The Mourner?” he said, hoping that if he sounded clueless or tentative, Mr. Tyler might give the assignment to someone else.
— Margaret DeAngelis, b. 1947
American apprentice fiction writer
from a story-in-progress with the working title “Raymond on the Parking Lot”
Although this was a short week here at the Vermont Studio Center — I am Outta Here before 9:00 tomorrow morning — it was in some ways my most productive. On Monday I had my one-on-one with Antonya Nelson. We are allowed to send up to ten pages for the visiting writer to look at and comment on. Ten pages isn’t much. The stories I prepare for Bread Loaf admission have a limit of 6,000 words, and that runs 20 or 21 pages. I sent two short pieces that I knew had flaws too deep to mend. Nevertheless, it was a good session with Toni. She showed me how to marry the two pages, lose the lingering scent of autobiography and the stench of the classroom prompts and exercises that gave rise to them, and, by that weird alchemy of the fiction writer’s brain, transform them into something new.
For the rest of the days I followed my original plan of working on revisions to a different story each week. This time I chose the piece that went through workshop at Bread Loaf this year, labeled in my files as “Raymond on the Parking Lot,” because that’s how it begins — 21-year-old Raymond Wheeler, serving a year-long internship with a funeral director in pursuit of a career in that vocation, is directing traffic on the parking lot of the church where the funeral of his classmate, Megan Mesaric, is about to be held.
He’s told to “keep an eye on The Mourner,” a woman who makes a habit of going to funerals of people she doesn’t know and who has garnered a reputation among the brotherhood of local undertakers a someone who must be watched and possibly restrained or even removed. Raymond also has to contend with a young woman who presents herself as a grieving classmate but who is really seeking to reestablish her broken romance with Raymond. Then Raymond learns that a family member’s secret drinking problem is making itself manifest this day and threatening to disrupt the proceedings. All the while, he is becoming more and more aware of how deep were his feelings about Megan, how he let them go unexpressed, how maybe if he’d done something or said something . . . .
At least that’s what it’s about now. Megan and her death are the center of my novel, and this scene involving two classmates, her stepmother, and a total stranger (not to mention her half-brothers, her aunt, her other aunt, that aunt’s almost fiancé who gets tired of being introduced as “my friend,” and her eleventh grade English teacher, among others) began as an exercise in portraying a large number of people gathered for a common purpose.
That’s a good place to start. The piece was well-received at Bread Loaf, and I said then that “I came away from the session convinced that my classmates had read a better story than I actually wrote, and I feel challenged now to go into revision and achieve the grace and the elegance they see there.”
In looking at it again for the first time since August, I saw how great the challenge is, saw that the hole in the middle caused by the absence of any dramatization of the funeral itself is pretty much a crater, and saw that if this is Raymond’s story, we can’t have him disappear on page 3 and not reappear until page 17.
I took the colorful graphic Antonya Nelson made for us that outlines the concerns she brings to revision, used the techniques I’d been getting more and more familiar with all week, and, as I had with Catherine and the Bad Girls, with Gene and his half-dozen half-brothers, and with Daniel and his lost opportunity named Callie, I fell in love with my characters again. with Raymond especially. I worked all day putting him at the center of everything, stopping at 5:00 only because I had to work the dinner shift.
This is my last night in my place near the Gihon River. I leave in the morning, my time here concluded. Most of my living quarters stuff is packed, including the coffee pot. (I can walk two blocks for dining hall coffee once in my life!) I’ve packed an overnight bag with enough clothes and toiletries to get me through another day or two. Most of my studio is packed as well — the books, the basket of pencils and Post-Its, even the crate with the manuscripts I’ve finished with for now. Only my computer, and the papers that hold Raymond’s story, and my talismans remain.
I brought a few things from home. There’s the Fiesta plate I use as the template for the mandalas I make during my morning C&C, the circles inside which I write the names of the people I love and the concerns I bring to prayer. The figure of a woman carrying a water jar reminds of the woman at the well in John 4, a woman who received the courage and the will to make a new start. The little blue glass bird and the candle holder were gifts that grace my morning table at home.
The portrait at the edge of the table is not of anyone I know. Throughout this month I have occupied Studio #4 on the second floor of the Maverick building. This structure is new, and was made possible by generous donations from people who love the arts and who have a special affinity for the Vermont Studio Center.
#4 is one of the named studios. The sign on the door announced that this was The Leo Blum Studio, a gift from David Blum. The picture was on the bookcase. It is labeled “David Blum (VSC alumnus) with son Andrew and grandson Leo.” I worked for nearly a month in a studio named for a little boy, by his grandfather who worked on his own writing somewhere on this campus, in whatever building was used by the writers before this warm, well-equipped, electronically up-to-date structure came into being.
I moved the picture to the desk, and during all the days I have worked here I have been able to raise my eyes from my work and look first at the picture of Lynn as a two-year-old in her Halloween pumpkin pajamas and then at Leo Blum, laughing in the arms of two men who love him very much. I was never without joy when I was in this room, even when I was taking my characters into their deepest emotional valleys. My talismans protected me, buoyed me, gave me energy, reminded me who I was and what I was here to do.
I remembered the Blums every day in my meditation, inscribed their names in my mandala, and wished for them health and happiness. I will continue to do so when I return to my own place near a different river. And should I ever be awarded another stay at VSC, I will request this room to work in.
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