Monday, July 2, 2012

My First Time: Michael Downs

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Michael Downs, author of The Greatest Show, a book of linked short stories about the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944.  You can read more about the collection and how he came to write it in this article from the Hartford Courant.  Downs is also the author of House of Good Hope: A Promise for a Broken City, which won the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize.  He has won literary fiction fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and has published stories in the Best American Mystery Stories series (2001, 2002).  He teaches creative writing at Towson University in Maryland and lives in Baltimore.  With his wife, who is 17 years older, he writes the blog Him + 17 about love and age.

The First Time I F---in’ Choked Up

The other day, after supper, as the dogs came nosing about the table, my wife said, “You don’t have a foul mouth.”

“I do!” I said.  We were talking about an earlier draft of this essay, in which I first tried to connect choking up—you know, crying–with the need to cuss.

My wife shook her head.

With my hand I made a traffic cop’s motion, as if a gesture could stop her disbelief, and said something like, “You don’t hear me in the car when I’m alone and playing music really loud.  Sometimes I just shout F---!  F---!  F---!”

Her facial expression didn’t change.  My wife had mastered skepticism long before she became a journalist, and the profession has only honed the trait.

“You know when I’m in the shower, and from another room you hear me say something, and you shout, ‘What?’ and I shout back ‘Nothing!’  Most of the time what you heard was a muttered curse.”

She said, “After 18 years of marriage, I’m just learning this about you?”

It is true that I try not to throw F-bombs in my wife’s presence or in polite company.  I don’t cuss people out.  Never have I found myself yelling at someone to, well, you know, or insulting them with profanity.  But a generalized g-d--- or f--- feels as good as a deep exhalation of breath; it relieves stress.  Some folks crush a squishy ball or lift weights or meditate.  I spew venom.

Usually, I don’t intend to say anything.  I’m in the shower or driving or walking the dogs, thinking or reliving some past anger or joy.  A word slip-slides out.  Automatic as breathing.

A few years ago, I spoke publicly as part of a graduation ceremony.  This was at a university where I’d worked several years, but was soon to leave.  Standing at a microphone on a blinding blue day, in front of all those black-robed beautiful people, I broke down, choked up, blubbered.  It was the end—thank God, it was the end–of long, stressful, emotional years.  Inside me roiled a concoction of joy and grief and exhiliration, before which I was helpless.  Helpless as a baby, helpless as my leg when a muscle cramps.  Some cruel thing possessed me, limiting my choices for self-expression to two.  One option was to lean into the microphone and curse like a m-----f----r.  The other was to cry.

So, I blubbered, right up there in front of God and everybody.

Often when I give public readings something similar happens.  Put me in front of a group of interested listeners, and ask me to read from something that has been part of my life for so long­­­–over which I’ve worried/exulted/banged my head–and my throat will tighten.  My eyes will burn and sometimes tear.  I’ll swallow hard, as if to keep down a “Holy Sh-t.”

The first time this happened?  Graduate school.  The class subject was Danté in translation.  The professor offered the option of a creative response rather than a paper, so I wrote a short story that challenged an idea put forth in The Divine Comedy, that sinning requires the desire to sin.  My question: Couldn’t a person sin–even intentionally–without wanting to?

Thus, a story about a man who kills his terminally ill wife, at her request, to relieve her suffering.  To write the most emotional scenes, I imagined my wife and me in my characters’ places.  I imagined her as terminally ill, and me as helpless.

On the last afternoon of class–a warm, sunny May day–students and prof met at a bar near campus, a place that had Woodstock-era furnishings and which served sprouts and day-old breads and beer by the pitcher.  I’d like to blame the beer.  Or the way the sunlight fell on our table.  I didn’t see what was coming.  Then it was there.  The professor had asked me to read from my story.  As I declaimed my way through the last scene, my throat tightened.  I choked.  I smiled, tight-lipped, sipped from a sweating glass as somewhere in the lizard part of my brain a @%*&!! struggled to emerge.

A few years back, the magazine Scientific American Mind published a piece called “Why Do We Cry?”  In the article, science writer Chip Walter notes that crying is part of the autonomic nervous system.  That system has two parts, one sympathetic and the other parasympathetic.  The sympathetic part kicks in during stress: the fight or flight responses that include adrenaline bursts and racing hearts and dilating pupils.  The parasympathetic-self does its work following these stressful moments.  These are the involuntary ways our bodies and ourselves recover equilibrium.  Crying, science shows, is parasympathetic.  Crying is ourselves coming back after stress.

That grad school day with Dante?  For years I’ve thought I choked up because I had to imagine again my wife suffering a fictional terminal illness.  But that never seemed correct.  Sheri was home, safe and healthy.  More likely, it was that at the end of a difficult semester I’d written what was probably my first decent short story.  I had a beer in hand.  It was a beautiful day with friends.  What choked me up, I think, was relief.

At every reading since, I’ve risked the embarrassment of tears.  This is not because readings are stressful, though sometimes they are.  This is, I think, because writing is stressful, because every time I sit down at the desk I face a fight-or-flight moment: the adrenaline rushes, the pupils dilate, the heart rages.  Every sentence.  Every word.  For years.  Fight it or flee.  Fight it or flee.  Fight it.  Fight it.  Fight it.

Then, the writing ends.  Book in hand, I go to a party.  Or a reading.  Someone hands me a beer.  Or I see the faces of people I love, smiling up at me from a row of folding chairs.  They’re happy.  Me, too.  Time, then, for those long, slow parasympathetic F-bombs.  Or for the choking up that stifles such blessed words.


  1. Michael Downs is such a fine f-ing writer. Thanks, David, for inviting him to share this with us. Great stuff. Recently, I read an essay for the first time at the place where its heart happened (love, death, 9/11, that sort of thing) and f-ing choked up three times. My audience was in tears by the end, probably empathetic with my own f-ing embarrassment!

  2. Somehow, Ms. McNair, I knew that you of all people would empathize.