Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Sunlight All Over

This is one of those stories where artists and writers meet and mix it up and children are not really involved.

In April, one of my short stories (in fact, the only one I have ever finished!) was chosen for the First Annual Emerging Writers Festival in Chicago. The festival was sponsored by The Parlor and the Green Lantern Gallery, a combination art gallery/poetry space, that also doubles as the living room of Caroline Picard's apartment.

Six writers had their stories selected for the festival. Three of the writers were local, and three of us came from out of town to read. One woman drove from Brooklyn with her parents, one came from North Carolina, and I flew in from New Jersey.

My story is called "Sunlight All Over," and it is told from the point of view of a new father whose own father is in crisis. I wrote the story in March, after my husband and I bought "Sunlight Everywhere," a painting by Jessica Lenard, a New Jersey-based artist. My friend Lora, an art consultant, took a group of women to visit Jessica's studio in Jersey City. Jessica's studio is large, sunny and filled with paintings. Many of are her paintings are of the Pulaski Skyway, which runs through Newark and Jersey City. These Skyway paintings are stark, twisted, black, and beautiful, but they reminded me of my father, who lived in Jersey City before he died. Then, I spotted a painting of five pale women in various positions on a golden beach. Each woman stood, sat or lay alone, near or under a brightly colored umbrella. There were more umbrellas than women and the painting hung alone on the wall. I admired it and asked Jessica which beach this was, and whether the painting had a title. Jessica shrugged and said, "I haven't thought of a title yet. It's just the beach." The color of the ocean is an intense sapphire blue, the sand glimmers yellow in the sunlight and the umbrellas are luscious combinations of red, orange, yellow, purple, green and blue.

I worried the painting might be too bright and cheerful for my occasionally dark and cynical self. But Lora pointed out that one of the women in the painting looked downright unhappy, and though a couple of the women are smiling slightly, they all look dreamy and isolated in their own little worlds. This is not a painting where people are frolicking at the beach, Lora said, and she assured me that we were not buying a "happy painting."

We wouldn't want that.

My husband and I both turned the jpeg of the painting into the screensaver on our Blackberries, and patted ourselves on the backs for buying a piece of art.

By the time Jessica sent us an invoice for the painting, she had named it "Sunlight Everywhere." We hung the painting above the piano in our living room, and hoped our kids would be inspired by it every time they sat down to practice the piano (which is seldom.) Meanwhile, the title prompted me to think about sunlight. I remembered a novel I had written back in graduate school---a novel that wasn't very good and never saw the light of day (forgive the pun). But one of the chapters of the novels wasn't bad and it started with a character named Mick being woken up by sunlight in his hotel room. I decided to rescue the novel from the closet in my office where it was gathering dust. I renamed Mick, "Nick," and instead of having him wake up in a hotel room, I had him wake up, hung over, in a dream state, in his New York apartment. I kept thinking of Jessica's painting while I wrote the story, even though the story has nothing to do with the beach except at the end, when Nick remembers running in a marathon along the ocean in Long Branch, New Jersey, and is pulled to the finish line by the ghosts of his father and grandfather.

I sent the story out to a few different places and forgot about it. Then Joanna MacKensie, the editorial director from The Parlor, emailed me and said they had selected my story for their first Annual Emerging Writers Festival. Did I want to come read my story at the festival?

"Sure," I emailed back, figuring the festival was somewhere in the East Village.
"Great," Joanna emailed. "I just want to remind you that we are in Chicago!"

Oops, I had neglected to read that fine print when I submitted the story. I spoke to my husband, and we agreed I should go to Chicago if I could do it on the cheap. I called my close friend Lynne, who lives outside of Chicago, told her what had happened, and waited for her to invite me to stay with her for the weekend. Gracious girl that she is, she did, so I went online and paid $359 for a round-trip plane to Chicago.

The Emerging Writers Festival took place on Saturday night of Memorial Day weekend. Saturday morning, I left my husband and sons to fend for themselves for 30 hours, and flew to Chicago. Lynne left her husband, four year-old son and 18-month old twins home with a babysitter, and drove me downtown to the gallery. Before the reading, Lynne took us out to dinner. We sat outside a restaurant on Wyoming Avenue and ordered plates of strong cheese, a large beet salad, and a couple glasses of white wine. After polishing off the wine, I started to feel a little tipsy, so I drank a latte to chase the sauvingnon blanc. At that point, my nerves weren't sure quite what to do---race around or relax? In the end, they joined hands and did both.

The Green Lantern Gallery is above a Singer Sewing Machine repair shop, in Wicker Park. To reach the gallery, Lynne and I climbed a steep wooden staircase. Though the space is an art gallery, there was no art on the walls---which meant there was nothing to distract me, or the rest of the audience. The audience was made up mostly of twentysomethings, with a few people in their sixties. There was another writer in her forties named Julia Borcherts, and she read a really funny story about taking her new baby into a gas station, only to find a man murdered behind the counter. Despite its tragic beginning, Julia's story was hilarious. All the other reader/writers appeared to be in their late twenties or early thirties. The audience sat in a wide range of chairs---plastic lawn chairs, folding chairs, bridge chairs and upholstered dining room chairs. I kept looking up at the high ceiling, which was covered in old, beautiful, red, pressed-tin. A broken bamboo umbrella was suspended from the ceiling. I wondered what this place had been before it was turned into an apartment. My sister-in-law's good friend Laura R. came in right before I read, and as she sat down, I noticed that she, Lynne, and I were the only ones in the audience whose toenails were polished.

I was third in the lineup, and Anthony Ruth, the guy who read before me, was young and really funny. He wrote about a man's difficulties coming out to his father, and the simultaneous pleasures of watching "Golden Girls" with his grandmother. The audience laughed hysterically during his story, and since Anthony lives in Chicago, he had a lot of people laughing. My story is fairly morbid and though there are some funny bits, it's not laugh-out-loud funny. I wrote it from the point of view of a man who has just had a baby, and whose father has just attempted suicide. I've always liked stories where life chases death, and vice versa, but my story was definitely heavy with a capital H. The audience actually did laugh a few times while I was reading, but I couldn't tell if it was uncomfortable laughter, or just a desire to let off steam after hearing about a near-death experience. I tried my damndest not to think about what the audience was thinking. I had only read the story out loud once before, and that was in my basement, standing in front of my very good friend Laura K. and our labrador retrievers, Roxy and Cocoa. The dogs were barking and chasing each other, and though I knew Laura was trying her best to be supportive, watching her listen to me was nerve-wracking. So as the L train rumbled outside, I stood before the microphone, thanked the audience for coming, prayed they wouldn't walk out, and then read my story as slowly as I could for twenty-five minutes, without looking up once to gauge their reaction.

When I arrived home Sunday afternoon, my husband and kids seemed genuinely happy to see me. My older son wanted to read the story I had written (No way, adult content and too many curses.) My younger son told me that now I would be famous. (Yes, I might be, if only if the editor-in-chief of Random House and the fiction editor of The New Yorker had been sitting in the audience....) My husband beamed at me. The kitchen was clean and he was dressed in tennis whites. He gave me a kiss and said,"I'm so proud of you. Now I'm going to play tennis with your mother." And off he went, while my kids retreated downstairs to play Guitar Hero, or Xbox, or whatever they had flickering on the flat screen in our dark basement on that sunny afternoon.

Caroline Picard, Joanna MacKensie, and Terri Griffith, The Parlor's editorial directors, were nice enough to do a podcast of the reading. You can check it out either by going to Itunes, hitting "podcasts," and typing in "The Parlor, Chicago." Or you can listen to all six of us read by going to Theparlorreads.com.

1 comment:

  1. I've known Laura since we were two fledgling writers moving from workshop to workshop in NYC. She is a true gem, she shines without artifice. Her clean honest prose style moved me, and I'd like to read the text of her story online, if that's possible.