Telling Stories

by Lisa Piazza

This is fiction, the writer said, sorting through the papers in front of her. You don’t have to worry about me. Then she dipped her voice deliberately, sounding out each push-pull syllable—each open o and empty i. Half a page in, mid-phrase, she tipped tightly into the rote dispatch of someone else’s scene: someone else’s white dishes, edged in baby blue. Someone else’s salad plates stacked by the sink, someone’s saucers thrown against the wall, shards aimed like arrows at the ankles, flecks of porcelain grazing someone else’s face.

At the table, two writers down, I pictured brown cabinets. Dark lights. Not my mother’s kitchen, not my own. A steep staircase, a hard push; suitcases taken and torn. I pictured harmful arms, tender necks, broken glass; tokens too fragile to last.

This is fiction, we remembered, stunned into silence after her last word—the usual post-reading pause times two.

You don’t have to worry about me.

I was nineteen. And I believed her.

At that time MFA candidates at Mills College were mixed in with undergraduate writing majors, so I was the youngest in the room by far. We met Tuesday evenings around a long seminar table in the Lucie Stern building to read and critique each other’s work. Each week, like a new page in a lift-the-flap book, never knowing what we would find. Revealing, by degrees, what we dared to share.

There was Susan, whose teenage daughter had taken a horse out bareback with some friends and fallen off. She was in a coma now and would be dead by the end of the semester. Early December, Susan read a sparse page describing in stark detail how she had given her daughter permission to die. We knew this was not fiction. She admitted too plainly the mixture of relief and despair of that hospital room, that side-sitting chair, that breathing machine. That exact moment. I expected more feeling—some weight to the words. I didn’t understand then no metaphor could possibly coddle her pain. Any clause would only hold her loss like a futureless child, cradled by commas too far apart.

Mia’s piece, set on a remote Greek island, read like an independence anthem: sentimental boasting about leaving a lover for good. Tossled sheets, warm skin, silent goodbyes. (Images of motorcycles zooming through the hills of Kythnos, overlooking the crystal sea, would lure me to this island the following year during my study abroad. I would find goats, not love. Goats and ripe tomatoes; rocky beaches, empty towns.)

Alison, the other undergraduate at the table, was quiet but confident. She had long blonde hair and peachy skin and wore plain cotton turtlenecks with ankle-length skirts. I guessed she had moved from Utah or Nebraska—some place more chaste than here. She always smiled with her mouth closed so that we could only assume she knew more than she let on—more than she was ever going to share. Her story started with a subtle knock at the door and ended with a bloody stain on the floor. No one expected murder from her.

That year I wrote a short story about a girl in a car, driving the highways at night. Except she wasn’t driving. She never drove. She was always the passenger in her boyfriend’s overhauled sports car. She would stare out his window at all the lights—all the lives—lit up across the Bay or nestled neatly into the East Bay hills. Whole worlds she leaned close to imagine. The story ended with an image of the seashore: a father and daughter collecting shells. There was some kind of final metaphor involving hovering elephants. It made sense at the time. Something about memory—time before time. Easy lines. Simple story, half-thought. I didn’t know the extent of the arc then. It felt like fiction.

You don’t have to worry about me.

Our instructor, Sheila Ballantyne, was patient and generous. She asked questions and allowed for pauses, encouraged without pushing. Twenty years out I can still place myself in her office, nervously watching as she pulled her pencil toward my pages, marking in the margin what worked, cutting into sentences what didn’t. I sat by her desk, too shy to ask questions, too inexperienced to consider myself writer-enough. Too young to see how the purity in fiction can overpass truth, too scared to ask what truth isn’t, in fact, magnified by fiction?

Before Mills, my main experience with critique sessions had been a small dysfunctional committee of my own concoction: part older sister, part neighborhood best friend. Together they processed each story-start, sanctioning the ones that could go on. We sat in a circle on the blue carpet of my bedroom and they wrote “can it” or “yam it”—our codes for no way or keep going on each draft. But they were readers, not writers, and didn’t understand my commitment to characters. Whole paragraphs were laughed at, isolated words tossed between them like a crazy game of four-square, or worse, skimmed briefly then neglected entirely. I don’t know why I showed them anything.

In high school I lucked into Jane Juska as an English and Creative Writing teacher. She tolerated the sentimentality of my lengthy girl-meets-boy stories, typing out page-long letters in response to my portfolio—a simple manila folder filled with my best work. She wanted to know why the girl always needed to be rescued. She prodded me to write from the male perspective. I got it almost right—but I was one of three girls in my family and over-romanticized all things boy. Jane treated all of her students’ pieces with a seriousness that legitimized our efforts in storytelling and verse. She brought in coffee and tea and put on music to mask the conventionality of our suburban public high school classroom; she wanted to give us a café-style experience akin to her Berkeley neighborhood. I sat next to my friend Vrinda and we mostly goofed off all year, pretending to write. Vrinda did manage to produce one poem that year that Ms. Juska admired enough to tout. It was called “Sarah, Sarah Backyard” and had something to do with observation and perception, bugs and blades of grass. It made a crazy kind of sense that earned Vrinda all sorts of esteem in the class. I don’t think she wrote another piece all year, but that poem carried her through. Sometimes one poem is enough to prove a poet.

Now that I lead my own writing workshops for kids, I understand that talk of technique and poetic structure is ancillary to what I can really offer them: the permission to write. They don’t come for answers or wordplay. They come (on a Saturday, no less!) because they have a story or a sound beating against their brain and there is very little room on a Scantron sheet to eke out a verse or develop character motivation. They come wound-up and leave freed, because there is comfort in sitting around with other poets, other perceptive kids who cleave to words the way athletes cling to balls or actors clutch their scripts.

This is how it felt when I first met with Sheila at Mills. I didn’t have to explain my crazy compulsion; she shared that same writers’ madness. It was the closest I had ever come to therapy, with her tasteful display of black and white photographs, abstract postcards tacked to the wall; a desk, a chair, a window, a wanting. Words lined up belly deep, secrets to keep. Each meeting felt like an unveiling—a blessing. Phrases chosen to dedicate the day, stories crafted for the ultimate audience.

Would I turn to her now? (Though she is many years dead from an obscure neurological disease.) My current therapist, a marriage counselor who expects much more than fiction from me, wears similar sweaters but heavier make-up. She doesn’t bother with my syntax, but she sometimes talks about helping me construct a “new narrative.”

I can only bring up the old stories.

And not mine either.

I tell her I’m teaching Gatsby to my high school juniors again and she nods. I tell her this time through I am stuck on Daisy Buchanan. I say, some years, when I read her, I can’t stand that vapid trill. But some years, I get caught up in the billowing whiteness of her sitting room—in the heat of her afternoon, the romance of her loss. Everyone loves Jay the first time around, I tell her, the tragedy of his dream gone wrong. But for Fitzgerald, Daisy is only an easy target. And I don’t want to end up like her. The stasis of her situation. The meanness of her marriage. A woman pale enough to be called wan.

How bad is it? My therapist asked at the start of our first session, but today she is casually alarmed by my literary intensity. I have escorted extra characters into the room, introduced a new thread she can’t weave into her version of my life.

“That’s fiction.” She chides, as though the distinction is clear. Invention versus truth. Falsehood, deceit, lies. Not fact.

“That’s only fiction,” she says again and I think about the way my mind slices time sideways, intersecting narratives, pausing one reality to play another. How sometimes I sit staring at both sides of the same mirror. And maybe I am only telling stories here.

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Telling Stories

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