Baby It’s You -excerpt-
“I’m revising an essay, “Trauma in the Creative Writing Class,” when I spot a glint in the paperclip jar. Digging down, I pull up two shiny discs, silver and gold. Jim Wellington’s track medals! Proof of what I already knew—I couldn’t leave my past behind.
I figured I’d lost these high school mementos on my move to Wyoming, no big deal, but now my bifocals strain to decipher the worn inscription circling the gold, “Seton Hall University Spiked Shoe Club 1961.” Our junior year, after Black students integrated the Greensboro lunch counter. I’m not sure I was aware of that then, but remember chucking this glittering token of your love out the attic window, too hurt to cry.
The silver medal, attached to a red, white, and blue ribbon, proclaims, “New Jersey Association Championships 1962, 120-yard hurdles.” The popular girls—blue-eyed Sandy, goofy Darlene, dangled their boyfriends’ ruby class rings around their necks, but I pinned your second prize inside my homemade wool vest. Because you were the only “Negro,” as we said then, in our suburban high school I didn’t announce our status with visible signs.
What was our status? The racist undertow, less obvious up north, made it hard to define. We weren’t “steadies.” Potential embarrassments stopped us from holding hands in public or dancing at proms. We never quite “did,” our vague term for intercourse, or get engaged, Mom’s worst fear, though despite separations and mutual cruelties we loved each other for almost four years. You were, and I guess you remain, my secret revolution, my shadow side. No wonder I wore this medal close to my heart.”
My Memoir is Hibernating
from Brevity, July 22, 2020
In December of last year, I finished my ‘60s memoir, Baby, It’s You. (I won’t admit how long “finishing” took.) Then I placed the 300-page manuscript in a black plastic box and buried it in my walnut cabinet. Here, I thought, Baby could rest like a tulip bulb waiting to bloom — for three months.
When Alan, a writer friend, asked how “Baby” was going, (hesitantly, as if inquiring how many millimetres a melting glacier has shrunk), I said, “It’s done.”
“Wow,” Alan said, “Congratulations! Are you sending it out?” And I confessed I wasn’t, not yet. I’d come to understand that I sent my stuff to likely prospects all too soon, and only after rejections popped into my inbox, realized that the manuscript needed work — from cutting and shaping to re-imagining. And if that was true of an essay or short story it would likely be truer for the monster snoozing in the black box. Despite compulsive revisions, I told Alan, “Baby” was too vast for my limited literary vision to take in just yet.
Alan said that failure to “see” new work applied to his process too. As it does, I think, to many writers. We finish, so full of hubris, trepidation, even boredom, in such a hurry to “succeed” or to “win” that we gulp down encouraging feedback from other writers and forget the endurance that writing, the toughest extreme sport, demands. “Patient sustained labor,” Vivian Gornick called it.
That was one truth, but I faced another, more psychological: I’d been nurturing “Baby” so long that to throw the infant to sharp-toothed critics in cold publishing waters seemed like diving naked into the Arctic Ocean myself. And I admit, writing the memoir had transported me back to the ‘60s, a transformative era, more rewarding than the current one, enmeshed as it is in this global pandemic.
So I called Melissa, a wise Montana poet and essayist. She, too, asked about my memoir. I explained that “Baby” was hibernating like a Grizzly in winter. Melissa loves bears, but she didn’t exclaim, as Alan did, “Good idea.” Then I raised a painful topic — the time I refused to resubmit my short story collection to a contest, in which it had been a finalist, after the judge strongly suggested I should, assuring me that the book didn’t need more and better stories as I insisted. (No, I didn’t rush to the psychoanalyst Junot Diaz recommends for all writers.) And now, after years of kicking myself for not exploring my fear of rejection, I asked Melissa, “Am I doing what I did with the contest by putting my memoir down for a long winter’s nap?”
“YES,” she answered without missing a beat.
But though I did self-destruct by not resubmitting the story collection, I still thought I should give my memoir time to ferment. Nobody was clamoring to publish it in a pandemic. And it focused on a subject that could benefit from additional thought— a taboo relationship, which helped the teenaged girl I was in the memoir to jettison the ‘50s stifling script. Plus an agent had told me what I already knew: My first chapter sucked.
After revision I’d called that chapter “good,” but needed time and space to be sure. Another question: Had I figured out what my father — a munitions expert who’d conceptualized weapons systems for the Vietnam War — was doing in this work? After three months of thinking instead of pretending to think by re-writing compulsively, I knew.
But back to “Baby”, germinating in the cabinet. While waiting for the proverbial tulip to bloom, I wrote shorter works, a new short story, an essay, and my morning prompts — “comments” to The New York Times. And I kept reading relevant books and stuffing notes in the black box.
Then came the early spring day I’d vowed to awaken “Baby” from torpor. I duly extracted the closeted box, and forbidding myself swings between depression and elation, pencil-edited the manuscript. I’d been right to wait. How had the best chapters turned into the worst ones? With refreshed vision I saw countless passages that would shine after tightening, or in some cases, loosening; I empowered verbs and batted away pesky commas. Most important, I judiciously developed essential ideas and remodeled misshapen sentences. Then I began typing my handwritten edits into the computer, seeing more opportunities for betterment. (But when I caught myself changing new words back to the old ones I knew it was time to stop.) The governor’s stay-at-home orders, I guiltily admit, proved a gift, though some days I stared into space, immobilized by anxious inertia. Ultimately my apartment lockdown revealed that I needed to let go of the past as who could say how long my present would last.
Now I’m about to mail the manuscript to a few friends who’ve agreed to read it. Then I will write a query, the hardest part.
And when “Shelter-at-Home” turned to “Safer-at-Home,” I visited Tess, my new Jungian shrink.