Monday, May 20, 2013

My First Time: Sarah Gerkensmeyer

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 Sarah Gerkensmeyer. Her creative research interests include bubble algae, nipple creams, internet ads for secular polygamy, Wonder Woman, and bare-chested female skin divers in ancient Japan (among many other things).  Her story collection, What You Are Now Enjoying, was selected by Stewart O'Nan as winner of the 2012 Autumn House Press Fiction Prize.  A Pushcart Prize nominee and a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction and the Italo Calvino Prize for Fabulist Fiction, Sarah has received scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, Ragdale, Grub Street, and the Vermont Studio Center.  Her stories have appeared in Guernica, The New Guard Literary Review, The Massachusetts Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, and Cream City Review, among others.  She received her MFA in fiction from Cornell University and now teaches creative writing at State University of New York at Fredonia.  Click here to visit her website.

My First Superhero

I've got a lot of strange stuff in my short story collection. Looting babies. Gigantic catfish. Chocolate-milk-drinking monsters. But for some reason, the first and only time I have ever stopped and truly questioned a weird choice in one of my stories was when I decided to write about Wonder Woman. I was stumped. Why her? How did you get here, I wanted to ask her, in a story about a group of bored teenaged girls who kill time in the middle of nowhere Nebraska at the airport bar?

I did not read comic books growing up. But after I wrote a story about Wonder Woman (as an angst-ridden teenager in the middle of nowhere Nebraska), I began to wonder if there is a sense of story in any comic narrative that we can all tap into, whether or not we are true fans of the genre. So I've done a little bit of digging, in an attempt to understand at least a tiny portion of the superhero history that I've missed out on. It seems that with this topic you could keep digging back into eternity. Gilgamesh was an early superhero, people argue. The chalky, faded stick drawings on ancient cave walls, supposedly, tell the stories of superheroes. But let's start with Mandrake the Magician, who was born into the comic strip world in 1934. When Mandrake runs into a shady character, he simply gestures hypnotically, causing his foe to hallucinate. He can sidetrack any evil force in this way, from gangsters to mad scientists to extraterrestrials.

Now that's a story I can sink my teeth into.

When I teach students in my introductory creative writing courses about persona poetry, I show them examples like Jeannine Hall Gailey's “Wonder Woman Dreams of the Amazon” and A. Van Jordan's “The Flash Reverses Time.” These poems show students how strong and direct voice can be in poetry, and how much story a poem can hold. These poems tap into a longing that reaches beyond nostalgia, into something unspeakable. But both poems try to speak it nonetheless: pain and loss, enough of it to don a cape and perhaps a mask and to demand action and popping color. When I ask my students to write their own persona poems, they grimace at the task of giving a cartoon character an authentic voice. (The one rule of the exercise: Take your character seriously.) But then they churn out magnificent pieces in which Cap’n Crunch and Stewie from Family Guy are desperate and bursting with emotional epics that need to be told.

I like to think of story as something that is inherent in all of us, an instinct that each one of us is born with. And perhaps that's why I feel connected to the stories of superheroes that I've never paid much attention to. But there are the hardcore superhero know-it-alls—the true geek fan boys and the comic book scholars who know every single detail about overwhelming worlds that I know nothing about. Do I have a right to Wonder Woman, their busty, red-booted heroine? I think I do, because of the child-like fascination that comic books elicit in all of us, even if we aren't faithful fans. We all want to be fantastic. And we all want to hear a story about someone who suffered and then rose up to defeat evil. Superman's home planet exploded, along with all of his people, when he was an infant. Batman witnessed the murder of his parents when he was eight years old. And according to a 1984 issue of Marvel Comics’ Spiderman, Peter Parker was sexually abused as a kid. Tracing all the way back to Mandrake the Magician, who discovers that his nemesis The Cobra is his own half-brother, the backstory of any superhero is a sad one. They have a lot to bear. And so why not let them enter our own stories and live like us every once in a while? Why not give them a chance to be ordinary and small?

Maybe this is why Wonder Woman ended up in my story, in a dank airport bar in the middle of nowhere Nebraska with a horrible fake I.D. Self-conscious and bored. Give her a few horrible margaritas. Try to help her ignore the supernatural awareness of human suffering that's constantly buzzing about her head, at least for one night. Yes, when I decided to write a story about Wonder Woman, I was truly stumped for the first time. And yes, she might be the only superhero in my short story collection. But she's not alone. Look at the people we write about. Dig into their lives of solitude, their hidden identities and their radioactive backstories that burn like nothing else. Whether we tell these stories in pixelated, primary colors or not, they are all very familiar indeed.

1 comment:

  1. I assigned this story in both my college freshman "comp" courses and a higher-level Lit/Comp course; a number of students chose to explore "Wonder Woman Grew Up In Nebraska" for in-depth analysis papers and the results were fantastic.

    One student explored this story about Wonder Woman in the context of the hero's journey, another focused on Wonder Woman as a feminist icon in a coming of age narrative.

    The one thing that a majority of the students talked about in class discussions was the idea that we all have "secret selves" that we either wish we could reveal or hope to hide forever.

    So thank you, Sarah Gerkensmeyer, for a story I love and one that has such rich depths to explore.