Guest blogger Kate Blackwell’s collection of stories, you won’t remember this, was published in June by Southern Methodist University Press. Catch her Wednesday, July 11, at 7 p.m. at Quail Ridge Books & Music, Raleigh, NC; Thursday, July 12, at 7 p.m. - Barnes & Noble, Greensboro, NC; Friday, July 13, noon: interview with Frank Stasio on "The State of Things" WUNC - 91.5 FM; Sunday, July 15, at 5 p.m. - Politics & Prose Bookstore, Washington, DC
Tomorrow I’m driving South on I-95, a road I’ve virtually memorized over the years, heading down to see my family in North Carolina. This time is different. Tomorrow night, in Raleigh, I’ll be giving a reading from my new story collection, my first book of fiction. A good part of the audience will be related to me: fifteen or twenty cousins live in the area. We’re a close clan and there’s a party afterward, so I imagine most of them will show. These are people who’ve known me all my life—or all theirs—and will recognize the stories’ topography. Some will recognize themselves, or think they do. They will surely get a good look at me.
I’ve been dithering all morning about what to read. There’s not a story in the book that isn’t at least partly drawn from memory, memory transformed, but these people won’t be fooled. In some cases, the memory was theirs in the first place. Shameful to say, my stories are usually about things that happened to other people, often someone in my family. I’m the onlooker, the thief of other people’s secrets. That’s been okay as long as I was publishing in lit mags where almost nobody I knew read them, certainly nobody kin to me. Now the book is out; they’ll know I’ve been spilling the beans.
I think of my closest cousin, a woman a few years older than I—still for me the shy, musical girl I idolized in childhood. She’s a widow now. Twenty years ago her husband died without warning, dropping in the driveway of their house while she was away playing music. Now he dies again, in exactly the same way, on a page in my book. When the collection was accepted by a publisher, I thought about her immediately. How would she feel when she read that story? How would I?
We all have this worry, to the extent that we write about people we know, invading their lives and laying them out for all to see—for them to see, which may be worse. The issue is always coming up in workshops. Never mind, I say to worriers. Write it! Who am I kidding? It’s not so easy to resolve this issue and frankly I’m afraid to try. I can’t do without memory in my fiction. I start with a character wholly unknown to me; pretty soon I’m stuck; then suddenly he’s got my father’s neck and a major disappointment that rules his life, and I’m cooking. Or a mother pushes back the messy hair over her daughter’s forehead and exposes a wasteland of acne; the daughter winces, my mother’s hand drops. Now my character and I share a memory, and I can write about her. I never know what image will spring from memory to help me out, especially the evocative images from childhood, those that make me want to stop the car when I think of one and pull out a pen and write.
That’s the defense I gave when I was writing my cousin’s story, but
when I got the good news about publication, the excuse didn’t seem
enough. I owed her an explanation. Finally, I emailed her and told her
what I’d done. Her reply was more than gracious: She didn’t mind.
That’s what all writers did, wasn’t it? She was sure, even before
reading it, that I’d written an "exquisite" story. "I’ve always known
you were an exceptional writer." Total absolution.
Tomorrow night she’ll be sitting in the audience listening to me read, smiling and supportive. I won’t be reading her story, needless to say. But what will I read? I picture my cousins in the audience, their round, pleasant faces and easy smiles—my unlikely muses. Suddenly I know. I’ll read to them about the overweight, middle-aged former May Queen who, at the end of the story, dances naked on her lawn. I was never a May Queen but that woman is nobody but me. In the end, all my stories are me, only me, bare as birth, cavorting for all to see. That’s the truth that’s been worrying me all morning.
So be it. Let’s dance.