One good thing always leads to another…My story “The Incredibly Short Love Affair of Sixo Reese” just came out in Issue 146 of Crack the Spine Literary Magazine. Rather than talk about what the story is about I want to share where the story came from.
I’ve met very few kindred spirits on this journey so far, so I wanted to be sure to let one know I haven’t given up- and lo and behold, in the process of seeking her out I discovered neither has she. I started a bit of writing in 2001 at The New School in my first semester of my M.F.A., in the throes of adjusting to the Big Apple, in the double throes of witnessing and living through 9/11 a few months after I arrived from small town America. Novelist, memoirist, and painter Abigail Thomas’s fiction writing workshop was longstanding and legendary in the program for some time. I was so calmed and inspired in there I broke protocol to take the same workshop instructor the next year, pretty unheard of in an M.F.A. program where part of the point is to connect students to as many professionals as possible.
Abigail’s class style was casual, rote and predictable so effective, guided by a constant writer who often scribbled feedback up until the last second of giving our work back. This was my first time I had shared my work at all besides college playwriting and screenwriting classes. I was only 24 so could only write about so much, embarrassed by my clearly alternative voice and unsure how to honestly show black people in fiction when I was the only one sitting there in real life.
I had no idea how two years of borrowing money to make up stuff freely and constantly would make sense after I had chosen an elite school with plans to be like my friends of color: working themselves through ivory towers to be waltzed into high-powered jobs and already making six-figure incomes before age 25. Most M.F.A. students I met received a substantial amount of parental support, or worked full-time jobs in New York City and decided to write fiction at night. It was a tough time out there alone, for such an uncertain thing, and this workshop helped. Abby was very warm and zealous about life, and this was very settling and encouraging for her students to follow.
Also, at that time, my mother’s father who helped raise me was terminally ill and near his end. I was racked by guilt for not being back home. I could not get him, his generation, and his wisdoms out of my mind. Out of this, grew not necessarily a prototype of him (the character does not smoke, and my grandfather passed from 2-pack a day lung cancer) but certainly an outgrowth: the protagonist Sixo Reese, a senior black male Peter Pan who wants to have his own fun but save the world at once. I don’t remember what the first writings of this character were, but I do remember he had his older sister Mae Bell to worry about- and Abby adored everything about Mae Bell, even though most things about the story sucked at that time.
Abigail Thomas was the most uncritical workshop leader I have ever had. All conversation was focused on what was there to like and find out more about. From here, as well as much laughter and wine in class, I learned to always let writers (including myself) know what I want to know more about instead of what I wish there was less of. And then, what is worth really knowing about the work will multiply and divide accordingly. I think I really wanted more of myself in the story, and to examine my role as an educated cosmopolitan woman from a working class legacy, empowered by Midwest and Bible Belt generations I resembled in appearance alone: How to relate? How to remember? How to celebrate? How to describe and make visible and make significant? From there and over the years the story came around, and I am happy to see it in Crack the Spine now.
When I went to let Abby know the story was published I found out she had another memoir out for us again and I am overjoyed. “What Comes Next and How to Like It” has been showered with praise from Stephen King, Anne Lamott and Elizabeth Gilbert. She writes about good friends, important relationships, her dogs and her children. Although she began her writing career as a novelist and teaches fiction at The New School, she is actually one of America’s forerunners of the memoir craft. Her writing style is varied and intuitive, chapters of just a couple of sentences or sentences of just a couple of words mixed with near novellas about one person she has been close to. In “Safekeeping: Some True Stories of a Life“, her memoir published right around the time I came to her class, I could actually hear her real voice and words as if she would really say them- with the same “Oh my goodness!” quality to the stories she tells. This evolution of her work was long before today’s times of confessional writing online and gurus baring their souls on reality television. Memoir was not always the go-to style for would-be writers. But if you want to go to a memoir to read, you can’t beat Abby’s.