My dear friend and guest author this week, Catherine Brady, is the author of three story collections: The End of the Class War; Curled in the Bed of Love, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction and just out in paperback; and The Mechanics of Falling and Other Stories, winner of the Northern California Book Award for Fiction. Her stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories 2004 and numerous literary journals. She is also the author of Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction, for which she did a wonderful post here, and the biography Elizabeth Blackburn and the Story of Telomeres: Deciphering the Ends of DNA. She is the academic director of the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco. And I seriously love her writing! – Meg
I started to write my second collection of stories, Curled in the Bed of Love, when I got a writing residency at the Mesa Refuge, on the Point Reyes Peninsula. This beautiful, wild peninsula, just north of San Francisco, is a totemic place for me. Located in the small town of Point Reyes Station, the Mesa Refuge house is situated on a bluff that overlooks the mouth of Tomales Bay. I was lucky enough to get a room on the second floor of the house, with a small balcony where I could look out over the water. Just before I was set to start this residency, I got a call from an editor who let me know she was accepting my first book for publication. I went off to Mesa Refuge feeling I’d been given permission to keep writing.
My two-week residency also marked the first time I’d ever spent more than a few days away from my kids, then ten and twelve. I’d hatched a plan for my husband to bring the kids up to visit on the Saturday that marked the halfway point of my residency because I didn’t believe I could go that long without them. After I’d spent a week in serene solitude and constant writing, interrupted only by a daily hike and dinner with my two fellow residents, my husband arrived with the kids. Promising to be quiet so they wouldn’t disturb the other writers, David and Sarah came upstairs to see the room where I was staying. The only thing of any real interest to them was the desk chair, which rolled on castors. They jumped on the chair and began sailing around the room, fighting over who got to steer, and I was completely overwhelmed by the kid noise and their unbounded potential for doing damage to the wood floor and to the walls. Could you get expelled from a writing residency? All I wanted was to get these intruders out of that sacred space. In just seven days, I’d completely lost hold of my mommy self.
I’ve never forgotten that sense of dislocation, of one self being so divided from the other. To write—to pursue any vocation with intense concentration—requires that you barricade yourself against intrusion and interruption. But to mother requires that you make vocation out of being permeable to interruption. Of course this is true for good fathers too, but I still think it’s different for women—we feel more obligated to be always available to our kids, and our sense of self is more bound up with that identity too. (For some reason, my husband and I forgot to confiscate the house keys from our now young-adult children, and they pop in for visits, wind their way down to the basement office where I work, plop down on the sofa, and wait for me to turn around from the computer screen. I always do. I always want to set my eyes on them. But I have the sense that they’re timing me, and working on getting the turnaround time down to a fraction of a second.)
This tug of war, which is not entirely an internal one. I think women writers often feel divided about the fact that they’re women writers. On the one hand, I’d like to imagine my work didn’t need the adjective—that whatever aspect of experience matters to women should not be segregated as a subtopic. On the other hand—and ironically because of this sensitivity to being marginalized—I feel the need to call myself a feminist writer, someone who is concerned with the dilemmas women face in 21st-century America. This contradiction can’t be chalked up entirely to my personal hesitation. It’s also rooted in a culture that coined the term “chick lit” to cover everything from romance novels to Jane Austen. When people debate whether a writer who is heralded on Oprah’s book club risks his or her literary credibility, they’re not just debating the tension between commercial and critical success, they’re assuming a predominantly female readership is such a—shame.
It matters a lot to me to write women’s stories, and at the same time, I don’t want to be seen as writing “women’s stories” as if this is a limitation. Or worse, as if this automatically marks me as having an axe to grind, some generic point to make. Joyce Carol Oates was once asked which of her stories were feminist, and she said, “All of them. I’m a feminist.” I believe she meant that she doesn’t set out to write A Feminist Story, but the fact that she’s a feminist filters in, just as the fact that you’re a man or a bleeding heart liberal or a child of immigrants filters in when you write fiction. All of these things matter to the fictional world you create.
During the residency at Mesa Refuge, I wrote what became the first story in Curled in the Bed of Love,. “The Loss of Green” probably owes some of its mood to that visit from my kids. It’s very much about the divided self. The main character is a woman, Claire, who’s had a series of miscarriages and doesn’t know if she can endure trying another time. When her old lover, Sam, comes for a visit, she’s brought face to face with how weary she is of trying, and of trying to be good, and how tempting it might be to revert to the kind of careless hedonism she once shared with Sam. While I was writing the story, I’d switch from the computer to pen and paper and go out to the balcony off my room to work out what to do next. I’d look up to see the Inverness ridge rising from the shores of the bay, the calm water silvered in the sunlight, a pelican hefting itself into the sky. That filtered into the story too. It’s set in the little town where I was writing, and I made Sam a naturalist who’s into the risks that being in the wild entails; he’d really prefer the national parks to bar tame RVs and concession stands. I got interested in thinking about human nature in relation to the actual laws of the natural world. Sam’s view is that there are no necessary limits on either. Claire’s husband’s view is that we should honor limits out of reverence for nature, and Claire is caught between the two of them. Nature’s laws are literally working themselves out in the failure of her body. I hope that in the story, a reader can recognize something truthful about how we struggle with limitations. How a woman feels after a miscarriage is just one way to try for that.
If there’s anything universal in a story, a writer captures it almost by accident. As a (hoped-for) by-product of the fundamental premise of fiction, which is that one biography—one particular life—matters in a way that we don’t have to justify. – Kate