July 31, 2014
8:00 — 68° July starts here. Today I erased “Sewanee begins” and “Sewanee ends” from my calendar book.
— from The J, my paper journal
June 29, 2014
You have to drive slowly along the traffic lane in front of the credit union. It’s narrow, and has two speed bumps. I was headed for the drive-up ATM to deposit a check for $2.85 (my share of the settlement in a class-action suit involving price-fixing of a nutrition drink). I saw a man who’d just come out of the office get to the curb. He lowered his left leg the way I do, canting his right hip a little to the side and putting his left foot squarely in place before beginning with the right. Greater trochanter bursitis, I thought. Tough when there’s no handrail.
I stopped at the edge of the crosswalk to let him make his way. He moved across the flat pavement with more difficulty than I do. As he neared the opposite edge, a man carrying what looked like the kind of plastic tub that a large quantity of coffee or laundry detergent comes in began his way across from the parking lot. Halfway toward the sidewalk, he stumbled, and a rain of bright pennies spewed out of the container and into the crosswalk.
I waited while he set the container down on the curb. Others were approaching the crosswalk from both sides. The man smiled and waved me on. I felt the mound of pennies crunch under my tires. In my rearview mirror I saw him stooping to scoop up the pennies. When I had finished my errand at the ATM, I circled back around. The crosswalk was empty of both people and pennies.
The Sewanee Writers’ Conference saw its ninth full day today. On the second night, the historic building Rebel’s Rest sustained heavy damage in a fire that broke out not long before midnight. (No one was injured. The building was undergoing renovations and was not being occupied as a guest house this summer.) On Saturday, a cat walked across the front of the lecture hall while Steve Yarbrough was reading.
I did not witness these events, but have heard of them (and seen a picture of the cat about to walk behind Steve) from my friends who are there. I was not admitted to Sewanee this year. I have just deleted material that began “I was stung by the rejection” and ended with recalling that the faculty member who organized and led the discussion of my work last year pronounced my characters “boring” and delving into their lives tedious for the reader. What could be more tedious for the reader of this piece than whining and sighing over that?
But I was stung by the rejection, and it took me a month to erase the dates from my planner and understand that I really was not going to Tennessee this year. I devoted that month to preparing a manuscript for discussion at Bread Loaf, where I was admitted, on the strength of material less well-shaped than that I sent Sewanee.
I decided to take July off from fiction. I read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, finally, even though I’ve had it since its day of publication in 2012. And Danzy Senna’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, a chronicle of her efforts to discover facts about her father’s heritage and her own racial identity. I read some of E. B. White’s essays, particularly “Once More to the Lake,” and wrote a lot of meandering recollections of places that have been important to me.
I took a moment from the summer I was 19 and crammed it into 600 words that I sent to a contest for short pieces about summer memories. I didn’t win (here’s the piece that did: “An Otherwise Ordinary Day”). I didn’t expect to. But I did meet a deadline, learned a little more how to write tight, and found that a tiny detail from that experience had already found its way into my fiction (my short story, “Take Care” mentions a letter-writing ministry that never was mine).
And here it is, the eve of August. I leave in ten days for Vermont, again, my twelfth sojourn at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Back in April, I named this summer “Unstoppable.” The character I created that day remains in my idea bank. The man who dropped the pennies at the credit union has found his way into what can be termed “flash nonfiction.”
I didn’t stop, exactly. I just went down a road I hadn’t expected to take. I grieved my absence from Sewanee, and I regret my absence from this space. But here we are, August again. It starts here.