Feb 282010


Robin Oliveira is one of my former students at VCFA. She won a $10,000 James Jones First Novel Fellowship, edits fiction for upstreet, and has a new novel My Name is Mary Sutter about to roll off the presses. Watch for it. You will be tempted to read the following as a thinly disguised version of student life at Vermont College, but for the most part I think this would be misleading. For the most part…(I keep reminding myself this is the Internet. Do I have to explain irony here?)




When I call my writing instructor for a conference, he complains about how much hand-holding I need.

I remind him that I already warned him how much trouble I am and besides, he was the one who established the telephone conferences in the first place.  If he is living such a busy life, I say, why doesn’t he just hang up now?

And he says, Oh, shut up.  Then he talks to me for an hour about a problematic story I am writing.  Before he rings off, he says, meet me at that bar in Bonner at six.

I seem both to exasperate and intrigue him.

His name is James Pierce.  He lives on the edge of campus, on tree-lined University Avenue in an old Missoula house with a sagging porch that has definitely seen better times.  It needs a good coat of paint if it’s going to make it through the winter that is rapidly sweeping a particularly blistering variety of cold through the Hell’s Gate Canyon into the glacial slice of valley where William Clark—yes, that Clark, of the Lewis and Clark—floated his canoe down the River that Runs Through It, which, if you know your literature, was a rhapsodic hymn to beauty and the fucked-up-edness of life.  (The river he is referring to in his little tome is actually the Bitteroot, another river that runs through the Missoula Valley, but here begins the lie that makes up a story, which is nothing but pseudo facts rearranged into fiction.)  Seduced by the lushness of a Missoula summer fragrant with lilacs, Clark was caught, like James Pierce is now, in a long winter that sapped strength and discouraged the soul.  I believe that one of the reasons James Pierce’s heart heaves in a stutter-step of desolation is because he is on tenure track at a university located far from anything that resembles actual culture.  (A culture, that is, that does not include a requisite gun rack in the back of a pickup truck, a cliché I had a hard time coming to terms with again when I returned to Montana from Connecticut after my most recent disaster.)  I think this is one of the reasons why James Pierce is so damned grumpy.  Why he hunches around campus, student papers clutched in his arms and flapping in the bitter wind, refusing, like the rest of the professors, to use a backpack, thinking it somehow less dignified, less professorial, less East Coast.

At six, the November wind funnels a steely blast through the rocky canyon walls of Hell’s Gate.  I always feel as if I am on an epic quest in search of a ring when I drive through the canyon into Bonner, a town of limited housing but abundant saloons. James Pierce is waiting at the booth where we always sit—scarred, curved wooden benches and a low-hanging stained glass lamp—a sweating tankard of beer cupped in one hand, his sad, droopy face, untrimmed moustache and dark, green eyes vacant and staring, even when I sit opposite him and order my usual, Shirley Temples.  Over his beer, he tells me again that he was raised in Connecticut, too, and, I wonder if this is what my appeal is, except that there is no real appeal, not in the traditional professor-bonks-the-student way.  I am too standoffish for one; I had heard stories, for two; and I don’t like lonely men except as drinking companions.  I am morose enough on my own, and except on the rare occasions when I do drink, I prefer not to wallow.  Too painful. I can be a professional wallower, so recently I have trained myself not to do it too much.  Professional wallowing can lead to bankruptcy, insanity, and the worst, suicide.

Been there already.  (I hope you are thinking, Of course, because if I have done my job as a writer, I have already established that I am needy in a rescuer kind of way: hint, hint, meeting my writing instructor in a bar outside of Missoula on a night that is telegraphing blizzard-on-the-way; the sharp knife of serious cold is, of course, your other clue that cold and its corollary, death, will have something to do with this story.)  Anyway, back to me.  Yes, suicide.  Two recent, neat slices across my wrists.  The wimp’s way, of course.  If you are really serious, you have to dig deep along the radial artery, tearing an irreparable, vertical cut that will empty you of a good liter in a minute.  My cuts, however, were so shallow that no doctor or nurse scurried when my parents brought me into the emergency room, despite the crimson-soaked towels which resembled handcuffs of despair.

But these medical people had seen such obvious, shallow cries for help before.  Medicine is a profession sated with drama; you have to really do it up right to get much of a rise out of them.  Even my parents took on the nurses’ blasé affect and drove me home after the mere dozen stitches I required, no psychiatric visits arranged, no doting how are you’s, just the smear of defeat across their shoulders.  Such a disappointment, their 23-year-old daughter.  So lost, so infinitely fucked-up.  I left for my alma mater the University of Montana and the MFA program where I had been admitted by some miracle three months later.  And fell into the company of this fellow Connecticut Yankee and drinker and writer who appears to like my companionship for reasons I have yet to ascertain.  Because I am not beautiful, though, if I want, I can project a kind of shimmer that can reel a man in across a barroom.  It is this trick I rely on when I venture out alone.  The bars along the railroad tracks near Frenchtown always provide the shade of anonymity I require when I do not wish to sleep unaccompanied.  Indians, pulp mill workers, loggers in from the sticks thinking they’ve found heaven when I shimmy in.  It’s too easy, I think, but a girl has needs.  And a reputation to protect, at least in the world of the university, where sex is free like water, but tallied, discussed, dismissed and its participants ultimately resented for a coupling that was so easily abandoned.

Sorry for the digression, but every story needs a little sex.  This will be important later, as you will see.  Besides.  Two single adults?  In a bar?  It’s got to have crossed your mind already, especially after the earlier bonking reference.  If I didn’t mention it, you would think I was being disingenuous.

Anyway, back to the story issues at hand: how is it, I wonder, that two such morose and needy souls as James and I have found one another?  Is there a musk of despair, a heat of magnetic need, a black hole of gravity that draws unstable souls together?

James leaves off talking about Connecticut and begins to stare off into space.  This requires drastic measures.  I signal the bar maid for a second Shirley Temple, and say out loud that life can be hell, I know, a non-sequitor from the Connecticut theme, and James begins to show signs of the aforementioned exasperation.  His face has a pale, distant aura, slightly yellowed, giving the impression of a slow decay, a general fatigue with life, absolute anguish that his life has distilled to listening to his young, female student make statements about life in this pseudo-meaningful way.  I talk on despite his depressed affect, because he is not talking and because he asked me to come and I simply will not stare off into space with him.  And the story has to go somewhere.  It simply cannot be about me thinking in a Montana bar on the eve of winter; this would be writer’s suicide and would also bore the reader to tears.  Far too many students, like I have done countless times, forget that there has to be action in a story.  Desire and resistance.  James Pierce rails on and on about it  in the hallowed halls of the Liberal Arts building that story is action is life is Everything, damn it.  A bit of an exaggeration, but he can get away with it, because he loves teaching and gets carried away, which is endearing and might be the reason I am at the bar with him. It’s hard to say.

James is unwilling to engage me in conversation on this new subject, so I ask him another rhetorical question.  Where are all the happy people?  Where are the people who ponder bright, shiny thoughts like what color to paint the new baby’s room, or what kind of invitations to send for the baby shower, which, if I were to attend would soon curdle into something along the lines of the Mad Hatter’s bash, dash upon excess upon garish distortion of out-of-hand exuberance that would eventually tip all the other guests towards fear.  Where are the people for whom life is a perpetual fest?  Are they all stupid?  Do they never attend MFA programs to colonize and infect the minds of the budding, fearful student writers?  I want to find these happy people, become one of them.  I want to be a woman in pedal pushers and red shoes carrying flowers in one hand and a baby in another, reasonably assured that life will never spring surprises of infinite sadness upon her.

Sometimes I see women like this whizzing past in their minivans, not completely Stepfordized, but comfortably placid, worried about mundanities like juice box stains on the family room carpet. (They have family rooms! With the inherent implication of an actual, cozy room where family interactions take place!  I imagine not the suburban Sodom and Gomorrah of John Updike—sex with the neighbors—nor John Irving’s tweaked universe of wounded, tattered souls—instead, I imagine Iowa in the mountains (Missoula), where mothers with love on their minds rear children who wear reasonable clothes for the weather and eat protein without protest.) Anyway, sometimes I see these women and their single overriding worry is whether or not the kids will insist on McDonald’s when they pass it up ahead. These are minor, plastic, enviable worries. I want these worries.

James Pierce begins to gulp his beer while I complain that the only thing aspiring writers ever worry about are all the possible ways a character might resolve a painful made-up situation in a manner that will satisfy a reader.  Ergo, we are worrying about things we have made up.  We are seeking resolution and satisfaction for ink on paper.  The irony of it hits me in the face, and I shout,  I want to satisfy ME! pounding on the thick, Formica slab for dramatic emphasis (dramatic emphasis is important in a story, it goes back to all that business about stuff happening), rousing the bar patrons with a transitory hope that perhaps there is the possibility of sex involved, making them glance my way, but upon seeing James, resume staring at the liquor bottles.  But this mention of satisfaction makes me think of Mick Jagger, who might be the answer.  I can’t get no…oo— pause—sat-is-fac-tion. Famous, pouty lips, a reputation for dalliances with tall, leggy models, crooning about satisfaction in a way that surely has gotten him some over the years. I can’t get no…. good sex, peace of mind…what?  What do I really want?

I am fairly certain it no longer involves torturing myself.

I should know what I want, of course.  I am the writer, the one who is supposed to know what the character wants.  Rule one.  Make sure you know what the character wants.  Make sure.  (James Pierce’s eyes are glazing over at this point, because he has been saying this for a long time, it is his liturgy, his pedagogy, his didactism, his fetishistic Sermon on the Mount.)  But he is right.  You have to know what your characters want, because otherwise you end up in the wilderness of vagueness.  The wilds of non-specificity, the sinkhole of imprecision.  A farcical, sophomorish penitentiary of non-talent and despair.  A hideous place into which I wander with some regularity.  Funny how you can know something and not know it. For instance, I know all these rules, but following them?  In the heat of creative fervor?  How is a student supposed to translate them effortlessly onto the page?  Besides, I think I mightknow what I want.

What I want, I think, is James Pierce.

Of course, this is an idiotic, stupid idea which I dismiss immediately.  The man can’t even walk across campus without depressing the hell out of everyone around him.  He is damned good company in a bar, though.  Damned good.  He projects a sufficiency of weary generosity.  Sit with me, his silence says.  I will listen.  Sigh.  I don’t even like the way he looks.  He’s too….ragged.  He looks as if he requires much shoring up and after all, I’m the one who needs shoring up, if anyone does.

I actually have very little sanity to spare.  In fact, spare is the word.  I have a spare amount to spare.  Don’t you just love words?  They are all little cousins of one another.  For instance, earlier in the story I wrote that I shimmer and then that I shimmy.  They are not quite the same are they?  No.  (Don’t worry if you didn’t notice this detail before.  You have to be a writer to notice and then appreciate these things, a skill spawned solely from hours upon hours of staring at a computer screen, your mind in a veritable pretzel of determination to be original.  Another rule.  Be original!  But don’t forget to emulate Chekhov, either!  However do not write in his outdated style!  Make a new style!  And also, Make it a story and not a story!)

Do you see the impossibility of this, James Pierce?  (He doesn’t even respond.  He is listening like we listen to him, without awareness.)  The antitheses that slither through a writer’s mind?  Why, for instance, suicide seems like such a handy dandy option?  I mean, because if you are trying to divine the nature of life by sitting alone in a room making your fingers hit buttons on a board that are emblazoned with symbols that mean things when they are strung together, and then you affix little pinheads and half-moons at various points, and then you print them out, and pray that some editor sitting somewhere scanning an endless river of symbols will deem yours important enough to reproduce on paper, bind, and truck to a big building to be placed on shelves so that people can spend their hard-earned money on this river of symbols, and it is this that will mean you are a success, an interpreter of life, a great thinker, someone who should be paid attention to, then the objective, futile nature of this activity might just might induce a character to slit her wrists.

You see? Suicide.  I wrote that before, remember?  In fact, I have mentioned it a lot.  It is a little theme, maybe even a major one, you don’t know yet because you haven’t read the entire story yet, and me, I don’t know because I haven’t written the end yet.  What’s really going to cook your noodle later on (this phrase is blatantly stolen from The Matrix, a stream of consciousness, highly crafted, musing on the nature of life) is whether or not I knew the ending when I started.  Plagiarism aside, this final objective is important for a writer, the highly technical rule being something like, Know the fuck where you are going.  Anyway.  Writing is little circles of meaning that reflect the circle of our lives.

The circle of life!!!!  Pardon moi, James Pierce, but I think Mr. Disney was on to something, don’t you?  (I am not sure James is following my drift.  He is on his third ale, and has slid into a hunched bullfrog position with his head resting at a tilted angle.)  Even though Walt, Jr. presented it in a commercial, nifty, humorous way, that lion story definitely had a thematic point.  Circles.  I need more circles in my life.  In my fiction.  This supplants what I stated before, about wanting James Pierce, and before that about wanting to be a placid, suburban mom.  You have to catch these little transitions that writers put in.  What I, the writer, am telling you, the reader, is that something matters more to me than the superficial, stated want.  An undercurrent, either a sewer or a bubbling spring—sometimes it’s hard to tell which—that drives the character.  Joy or despair?  What does that character want underneath?  People hide things, so characters have to, too.  So rarely do people understand their own psyches that a writer has to be a psychiatrist, a diviner of need, a wise, empathic soul who reveals the workings of human desire so that the reader understands something big about his own life.  This is the way to build a readership.  Because basically, what people want is to know what life is all about, because mostly, they don’t have a clue.

Another rule: make it big. (The wilderness of non-specific words; you are wondering what I mean when I say it.  Does she mean theme, plot, image?  By it, I mean action.)  Don’t make the action small.  Small is boring, dull.  Every day.  Old shoes.  Old hat.  Old, old, old, slit your wrists don’t make me read this stuff.  In real life, people go to the grocery store enough.  You put that in a story and it’s gonna be snooze-fest city.  Or, for instance, laundry.  Or how about mopping the floor, which I recently put into a story because the character is about ready to leave one life behind and move into another, more exciting life, so I could use mopping, but hoo boy, for a second here I get nervous and almost abandon this short story I am writing now—it seems like a conversation in a bar, but it’s not that, it’s just those symbols all strung together.  Literature is magic on so many levels—anyway, I almost abandon this story to rewrite my entire novel.  Beginning writers like me can panic about the littlest things.  It takes wisdom and sometimes marijuana to calm them down.  This is why MFA programs hiss along on a percolating bed of tentative attack and hasty retreat, because beginning writers are trying to demonstrate they belong in the program, but for the most part, they are simply scared, earnest beings who only want to know if this pursuit of writing is going to matter.  At all.  Ever.

Basically, they just want to know the Meaning Of Life.

Now, James Pierce, I know that if I could just see the connection between my life now as a budding writer and my life before, when I was troubled by David’s disdain…  (Oops.  I have to pause at this point because I have done a terrible thing writer-wise.  I have introduced too late a VIP of a character, one on whom the story hinges.  This was quite clumsy in a crafting matter.  No doubt you, the reader, are disoriented.  You are thinking, who is David?  Why does he matter?  You thought this story was about James Pierce and this narrator who hasn’t even revealed her name.  I apologize.  There is just so much to learn and to try to jimmy all the important elements into a story at the proper time sometimes takes so much more brain energy than a girl possesses so that she just gives up, just flat out abandons the story, but I won’t do, because I know you are engaged, I can tell, it’s like that shimmying thing, a girl just knows.  And you will be pleased to know that even though I have made a mistake, I will press on.  Tenacity is the secret to being a writer, even though most people will tell you that it is talent.)

I wish I had been able to slice right through that little charade David was playing with me and my sister Susan.  David, I mean, make up your mind, have a clue, do not exhibit such weakness of character!  Honestly, in what lifetime is it not clear that sisters are not interchangeable?  Maybe in the Middle Ages when the bubonic plague ravaged civilization and courting both sisters, (ie, playing the odds on which sister might survive) was a necessary ploy that was admirable, if you think about it in a sperm-banking kind of way.  But that is the only time in the history of civilization that sister-switching was acceptable.

Sperm. Yes.  Sperm was the issue, I remember now.  I wanted David’s sperm.  That was when I really knew what I wanted.  (I feel compelled to point out that this want is a past want, not a future or a current want, deftly handled when I slipped into past tense.  It is important to note this if you are paying attention to the way I am writing the story.)  I wanted David’s sperm, not in a catch-the-man way, but in an I-really-want-to-be-a-mother way.  I did, too.  Babies.  The soft, brilliant shine of them, the smell, like the sweet insides of you.  You, David.  Isn’t that what this is all about?  You and me David, making out in the front seat of your car on the back road near the airport where girls got pregnant all the time.  The baby, conceived on a glacial night in November just after the policemen made their rounds with their heavy searchlight and their polite, Do you wish to be here young lady? questions, so damned considerate, though they could have been more to the point, as in, Is he raping you and keeping you against your will?, but even policemen can be delicate.  A delicate policeman, as in the one my parents called the night I first went deep into bloody hell after the abortion I needed because David, the dread pirate David—no, wait, that’s The Princess Bride, (except in that book it was the dread pirate Roberts) that would be plagiarism again, but damn, it works so well here, I wish I could use it—stole my confidence, my joy, my belief that I deserved his child after he found Susan more to his liking.

Now, that’s an unsolvable pickle.  How do you keep loving a sister after a betrayal like that?  My older, delicate sister Susan.  Love and hate, attraction and anger.  They are the same little bundle, I think, like the little bundle of love I wanted.  I was so far gone that I needed three blood transfusions.  And Susan?  I haven’t spoken to her since I learned she eloped with David soon after he impregnated me.  And David?  I’m thinking of changing his name to Robert, because maybe the memory of him will hurt less.  They moved to upstate New York, to the Loudonville Road, to live near an elementary school, which I hear is the best school, if you can’t afford private.  The suicide attempt happened years later, of course, after I first graduated undergrad from UM, and returned home.  It happened, of course, because of the lingering, unresolved pain stemming from the Series of Unfortunate Events.  (It’s such a shame that so many good phrases are already taken.  It’s getting harder and harder to be a writer.)

I think James Pierce needs a rest.  The fifth beer has made him nearly comatose, but he is still upright, so I talk on.  But you should know that I have broken rule number four.  (Have I skipped some?  No.  I have artfully dropped them into the manuscript without your seeing), Rule Number Four is Do Not Cluster Tragedies.  Suicide and abortion together creates just a big, black hole that tires and confuses the reader.  I mean, real life can be hellish, yes, and unfair and piling on in a rugby sort of way, and certainly has been for me, but the reader wants one thing to worry about.  One need.  What is the one thing this character wants/needs?  Back to Rule Number One.  Writers are always going back to Rule Number One.

Am I boring you, James Pierce?  I mean, you’ve taught me some of these rules yourself.  They’re not exactly mine.  Well, they are now, because I’ve earned them by repeating them over and over to myself in a desperate attempt to infuse them into my consciousness.

I know them so well that I could teach a course now.  Teaching assistant!  This might distract me from my difficulties.  And I could use my near suicide as a cautionary tale.  Never ever make love to hot high school boyfriend anywhere near airports in hopes of having baby.  It tends to have a bad effect on the future.  But it’s good for the writing stuff.  Despair is, anyway.  It’s like, AMAZING.  No better news for a writer than upcoming or preceding hell.  It’s a heady, glowing aphrodisiac that seduces the writer to wait at the computer screen, breath-bated, to see if her little life anecdote, so painful, so soulful, so life-changing when lived, proves to contain good fictional bones that can be manipulated, rearranged, taffy-pulled into some kind of recognizable form that will not get you kicked out of the MFA program, because I tell you, what with rampant worry over well-meant criticism, a girl could just kill herself, I mean DO AWAY with herself if she believed half the stuff she heard in workshop.

You know what that is, don’t you?  An all out free-for-all located in Hades, better known as the Liberal Arts building on the second floor where I used to take Russian as an undergraduate but where I sit and have to keep my lips zipped while my classmates—hungover or caffeinated or sometimes both (the worst)—get to fire vicious bon mots of esoteric disdain over some piece of writing that that very morning I thought was brilliant, I mean publishable, we are talking Pulitzer!  Won as a student!  Oh, the awards, the acclaim, the glory, but of course, the truth, the absolute truth is that they are justified in their criticism because the piece of writing I have submitted is absolute trash.

Have you ever noticed this phenomenon, James Pierce?  I mean, how long have you been doing this, twenty, thirty years?  I take a deep breath and wait for him to answer, but his head has fallen forward onto the table.  Sometimes I fancy myself a nurse, I mean, after all, two emergency room visits under twenty-three years of age for very serious bleeding episodes, that’s a record right?  So I reach over to take James Pierce’s pulse to see if he is still alive, because it would be quite a shame to lose the man over beer in a Bonner bar.

But then I think, Alliteration!  A device much admired in the past but severely maligned now, but, still, I abandon my Florence Nightingale-like intention and write beer in a Bonner bar as well as Pierce’s pulse on a napkin stained with maraschino cherry juice to take home and use in some future piece of writing, picturing in my mind the absolute glow of praise I will receive in workshop for resurrecting a little-used, ancient literary device.  (By the way, in case you didn’t notice, I commandeered the whole jar of cherries from the waitress and have been eating them non-stop while I’ve been talking, abandoning the pretense of the Shirley Temples and mainlining the sugared cherries, in an honest, though embarrassing strip-tease to show James Pierce that I am really a kid at heart and this sophisticated, worldly, oh-so-tired air I have affected is nothing more than a charade, not unlike the charade of listening that he is pulling off.)  Of course, of more import in a literary way, the cherry juice is a nice echo back to the previous bleeding scenes, and thereby reiterates the life and death nature, of, well, life.  Which it is important to emphasize in stories.

And it is especially important for a writer to repeat things, because repetition, also known as image patterning, is the soul of fiction, I tell you, its very soul, though I was once ridiculed for even thinking that fiction had a soul, way, way too much perversion of pathetic fallacy which is another old-fashioned device that a Canadian writer named Alice Munro—the high priestess of short stories, the goddess of psychological acuity—uses all the time and which she can get away with because she is Alice blank (I don’t like too much swearing in a story) Munro, someone James just loves, and oh, yes, that’s right, I was supposed to be checking James’s pulse.  I touch my fingers to his limp wrist.  A slow, rhythmic surge bulges under the cool skin.  He’s alive!  James Pierce is alive!  (Mary Shelley I am certain wouldn’t mind this oh-so-homage-filled reference to Frankenstein, since we just passed Halloween.)

I hold his hand for awhile, because life is lonely, it is definitely lonely.  Especially for a writer  in his fifties with it all behind him and a girl in her mid-twenties with it all before her, a girl whose only friend is a semi-comatose—he is now snoring—drunk who does not freak out when his student confesses all manner of personal and private things in the name of holy friendship.  I check my watch.  Whoa, five hours, how the fuck did I talk for five fucking hours?  (Although, as you see, sometimes swearing is effective.  Think pepper, not salt, just a taste, here and there.  Besides, if my mother were to ever read this story I wouldn’t want her to think I had lost all my breeding.) It is late late late and James Pierce is in no shape to drive.  I perch on the bench next to him, put my arm around his waist and slide him toward me.  Then I alley-oop him and stumble with him out of the smoky bar and into the blizzard, which has arrived like news of a suicide, to my little beat-up Honda, flop him into the seat, buckle him in, scrape the ice crystals and snow from the windshield and drive the man home, holding his hand all the way, even though this is a dangerous and near-suicidal act, because one wrong move and we are floating down the Clark Fork, and then I haul him up the sagging steps into his ill-painted house and tuck him into bed, of course, first removing his shoes and belt, because, as I’ve told you, I have nurse-like tendencies.

Here, of course,  is the part where you, the reader, and me, the character, think about sex again.  Here, too, is the part where the character has to sort out what it is she really wants.  She thinks, here is a man, not too shabby (raggedy appearance aside) and here is a woman.  She thinks, what man isn’t willing to engage if a woman should give him a shimmy?  She thinks, I could climb into bed, warming both him and me, because winter is barreling down like death, and life is a brief shot through hell, and heaven can sometimes be just this: two people in a bed with the wolves at the door.  (When I first came to Missoula as an undergrad my father warned me about the wolves that would howl at night, but the only animals doing the howling were the wildlife majors who bent double laughing when I asked them how close the wolves got to campus.)  I could climb in, wrap my soul around this man, give him my young body, my confused heart, my pain and my adoration.  In his drunken sleep, James Pierce breathes as if he is on the verge of the wilderness, animated and excited.   He is dreaming.

But he is not dreaming of me.

I make certain the comforter is piled high on his bed and shut the door to his room.  Then I feed his cat and wash his dishes and mop the kitchen floor—the man can make a mess—and lay down to sleep on his couch with only a throw blanket as cover.  Tomorrow I will rise early and make him coffee and then I will sit at his kitchen table and talk with him about who needs to hold whose hand, no more resisting my caring efforts with feinted drunkenness and resulting unconsciousness, because I noticed when I was mopping the floor that no message light was blinking on his answering machine.

And I know one other thing, too.

I know for a fact that his wife, a writer too, committed suicide last year, lost in dismay that her fiction was not true enough, or maybe it was the vision of all those symbols strung together, a hallucination of Tolstoyan objectivity that drove her to slit her wrists this very night one year ago.  This is the real reason he is so grumpy.  The reason he has let me into his life.  The reason he endured my insufferable soliloquy at the bar tonight.  He needed to make it though the night.  And so did I.  Because November is a hell of an anniversary month for me, too: the six-year anniversary of my less-than-immaculate conception, the second anniversary of my suicide attempt.

I apologize, for I withheld this bit of information from you, the reader, letting you think this was a simple story impressed with its own playful irony.  I enacted a deception, building this story brick by brick, installing each essential element with care, letting you think the story was going one way, which was writing-teacher-beset-by-slightly-crazy-but-earnest-student-who-might-or-might-not-sleep-with-him, when I fully intended it to take another path at the end.

The stated desire has changed a lot, hasn’t it, which may cause you to accuse me of being unreliable, though I have tried to direct you through the story as best I could, but, I confess, subterfuge was my intention all along.  I did it in order to tell you what the story is about.  It is a little known rule that sometimes you have to tell the reader what the story is about.  So, here it is: this story is about the fact that only one thing matters in life and one thing alone: Generosity of spirit and helping people through the tough times in their lives.  This is it.  The secret of life.  The reason I write.  The reason anyone writes.

While I was making you think that I bored poor James Pierce to tears in that bar in Bonner, in fact, I was writing myself right into your hearts.  Why?  Because now you know that James Pierce was grateful to me for droning on and on about my woes and fiction and psychology and desires and wants and literary devices and Alice Munro because if anyone’s hand ever needed to be held, it is his.  He is lost.

So, what I really want, despite all those shifting statements of desire, what I want, and this is the truth, you can trust this, is to guide James Pierce through the thicket of pain that I myself know something about: the rough country of suicide as literary nightmare as tenure-track hell as bloody mess as lost baby as lost wife as parental disappointment as sisterly betrayal as unfaithful boyfriend as wintry night as wolf-inhabited wilderness of desolation.

Perhaps, however, I want one thing more, which you as the reader may have picked up.  Writers are sometimes unaware of what they are trying to communicate.  Sometimes, it just unfolds, or if you are fortunate, a reader finds it for you and points it out. The one thing more that I want is to be a writer.  That singular desire is both my sewer and my bubbling spring, my unconscious and conscious aspiration.

Writing shapes your mind.  It forces it into a disciplined, critical cipher of the lives lived around you, makes you think about your own life and what you want and what is most important.  And if I, the student writer, am attentive enough, tenacious enough, deluded enough, persistent enough, stubborn enough and crazy enough, I might just achieve my goal.  No one knows who will succeed.  It is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a puzzle.  That, I know I stole from someone, but I am too tired to get up and reference it.  Besides, it is a truth apparent enough to anyone who even attempts this sorcery of word on page.  Writing matters because writing is about life and it is life and somehow this Bermuda Triangle of ink on papyrus makes a difference and shapes the Mind of the World.  But even more important than this truth is that there is a man I admire asleep in the next room, a dear, wreck of a man, and he needs me.  And I need him.  And somehow, we found each other.

—Robin Oliveira


  No Responses to “How to Write a Story in an as yet Undetermined Number of Difficult Steps, Or a Love Story, of Sorts, Or the True Nature of Friendship, Or How to Save the World: Fiction — Robin Oliveira”

  1. Robin, Thank you. Reading this piece reminded me of my personal interactions with you at the residency, for which I am still grateful. And now I notice that the story was posted by Doug, and you might not read this comment. But still I need to post “thank you” to you for knowing what writing is all about.

  2. Hi Anna Maria,

    So lovely to find you this way. Douglas did indeed tell me of your kind note, but I’ve been out of town and have only just returned.

    I hope all is well with you. Check your sheet from the residency to find my email. Or Rachel can send it to you. I’d love to hear how the semester has worked out for you. All that we talked about was so important.


  3. Love this story of Robin’s. Reading My Name is Mary Sutter now & the versatility of this writer is remarkable. 🙂

  4. Wonderful piece, Robin. I enjoyed this as much as “Bedtime Story” and hope you’ll have a collection out one day.

    Doug, thanks for posting this one. I didn’t realize you’d be featuring creative work here in addition to the blog. I’ve got to visit here more often!

  5. Just reread this Robin. Lovely. Even more so than the first time around.

  6. I was bouncing around checking things out in the NC archives when I tripped and fell into this delightful story. Thank you NC & Robin.

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