Bio Part Two: My Struggle continued
Before dropping out of college in my second year, I’d been taking mostly art and theater classes, out of interest with no eye toward a career in either. I worked in an electronics assembly plant until I had enough money to travel and left the country for six months that were spent mostly in the UK, with side trips to France and Spain, where I decided I wanted to learn Spanish. (I did later in college and in Guatemala.) A friend I made in London said, “Come out to Oregon,” so I went and stayed three years in Portland. My jobs there were deli sandwich maker, carpet cleaning telemarketer (part-time), potato chip production line worker, sweater factory order packager, and strawberry picking crew leader. Why didn’t I waitress? a roommate once asked me—she was making good money. I guess because the summer before college I’d worked in a small family run electronic assembly plant—there were maybe twenty five of us, all women except for the supervisor, and I liked the camaraderie of factory work. (I did, many years later waitress for a month. That’s a tough job. Always tip your waitperson well.)
It was there in Portland I wrote my first short story, beginning, middle and end. Off and on I’d kept a journal, sorting out my angst-ridden thoughts. In a separate notebook I started writing sketches, snatches of conversations, erotic scenes (where the physical activity got sidetracked by the participants’ interior monologs and histories). Writing was a release, something personal, and I didn’t think of publishing or even showing it to anyone.
The complete story I wrote was in the third person about a woman walking home at night, for the most part an account of what I had just experienced (wolf-whistles, comments yelled out the window, a car slowly driving alongside) for the half hour it took me to get from downtown Portland across the river to where I was living at the time. I have no idea what happened to that story—it was the act of writing not the product that mattered. This was during the time I had the telephone job and when a Tae Kwon Do school opened up across the street from the office, I went over to check it out. That’s where my time and energy went, working out there four times a week. Walking home at night became less nerve wracking knowing there were things I could do, if needed. Tae Hong Choi was a great teacher and I might have gone on to get my black belt and pursue a career teaching women self defense if I had been more of a jock. Encouraged to enter tournaments, I won two trophies: one for sparring and one for “Good Sportsmanship.” (Years later, as a member of the Boston Area Women’s Self Defense Collective, I did teach some workshops at the Y.)
An amorous entanglement drew me to Boston; ill-fated, but as he said, I wouldn’t regret being in a city with a lot more going on. My first job there was painting the interior of a school for the blind. (We were not a professional crew.) The next job was one of my all time favorites: working in the Paperback Booksmith Warehouse. Ah, those were the days, being among shelves and shelves of books. You would take a wooden cart (some of the best graffiti I have ever seen was scrawled in magic marker on those carts) and go off to whatever section to pick the orders that would then be sent out to the stores.
It didn’t occur to me until I was living in Somerville with a drawer full of notebooks (Oh, yes, I read Doris Lessing. And Margaret Atwood. Not until years later would I read Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant.) that I might make something of this compulsion. In my mind, there were things you did for money and there was your inner life. I hate to think of all those hours, years, that were given over to work that had no value to me beyond the dollars I needed to pay the rent. But that is the reality for most people and I didn’t see myself as anything special.
I went back to college and proudly graduated from UMass-Boston, Cum Laude, with a B.A. in Economics, which surprised everyone, since I’m terrible at math. At my work study job I learned how to run an off-set press and, after a grueling stint at a small print shop, I went back to school at night and got a paralegal certificate. The local Community Action Agency hired me to assist tenants struggling with rent increases, bad conditions, and evictions. (My interest in the law stemmed from my own experience dealing with all of the above.) In my spare time I’d done political work: union, Central America solidarity, abortion rights, and now for the first time I was getting paid for doing stuff I cared about.
Wouldn’t you know it—then I realized writing was what I really wanted. I heard about a writers conference that summer (1989) on the Mt Holyoke campus. I got accepted, read the stories of Tony Ardizonne, who I’d be studying with, and the work of Russell Banks, who was to be a featured guest. Success Stories and Continental Drift had a big impact on me and I was much impressed with Banks himself, so the following summer I applied to and was accepted to be in his workshop at the New York State Writers’ Institute. That was the turning point of no return. The following year I went to get my MFA in fiction at UNC-Greensboro. There I took a poetry class and discovered Elizabeth Bishop. Stuart Dybek visited and he was also an inspiration.
When I got back to Somerville, I had some debt and needed a fulltime job. Someone I knew from my previous work with tenants told me that the local progressive, female state representative was looking for someone to fill in while her burnt-out aide took a leave of absence. Electoral politics, the inner workings of government, the aura of power held little charm, but for three months, it might be interesting to work inside the golden dome. I should have known from the squirrely way the aide was acting that she wasn’t coming back. How true what they say about the making of legislation and sausage—I was already cynical, but still it was gross. One day it hit me that a sizeable sum had accrued in my state pension (after four and a half years). I gave notice and cashed in. That allowed me to find part-time jobs that gave me the mornings free to write, a habit I acquired in grad school and have maintained ever since.
I have great admiration for Elena Ferrante, for her writing and for her stance against “self-promotion obsessively imposed by the media.” (Quoting from the Paris Review interview.) By the culture, I would say. A culture more and more geared to using every possible avenue to sell something. Selling is all people know anymore. I’m not on Facebook or Twitter. Time spent promoting is time taken away from writing. And living. Still I feel pressure to have some presence: hence this website.