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 Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, Dictionary Poems, and the novels The Book of Dead Birds, which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage, Delta Girls, and My Life with the Lincolns, which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. Her essays, poems and short fiction have appeared in such places as The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Salon and The Nation. Gayle served as Inlandia Literary Laureate from 2012-2014. She teaches for Sierra Nevada College, the Incarcerated Student Program through Lake Tahoe Community College, and the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles.
My First Wardrobe Malfunction
I wrote my first poem when I was four years old:
Blow, little windA simple ditty, but I think I understood even then that writing can be like a wind that blows through us, making us spacious inside, setting us free. I was a shy, quiet girl; writing was the place where I could be most open and brave in my life—it still is, today. I published a neighborhood newspaper when I was 10—writing it gave me the courage to interview my neighbors, to sell subscriptions door to door. If I wasn’t doing something in service to my writing, I could barely make eye contact.
Blow the trees, little wind
Blow the seas, little wind
Blow me until I am free, little wind.
The Frugal Frigate—an independent children’s bookstore in Redlands, California, that also had “A Room of Her Own” featuring books by women— had opened when I was a student at the University of Redlands in the late 80s. It became a place of respite for me--I would go there to have a cup of herbal tea (free—much appreciated on my student budget) and daydream and read for pleasure; a welcome break from academia. When I found out I was pregnant my senior year, I bought What to Expect When You're Expecting there, and everyone at the store was very supportive at a time when I wasn't sure I'd be accepted as a young mother. The store continued to support me as I came in to browse the shelves with my little ones and talk to the owner about writing. Katherine, who had become a beloved presence in my life, offered to host my book launch, and I couldn't imagine a better place to usher Fruitflesh into the world.
In the car on the way to the event, I sang the alphabet song over and over at the top of my lungs to remind myself that my voice, which is normally pretty soft, can have volume. My family had just had dinner out and I was hoping my breath wasn’t too garlicky, hoping I hadn’t spilled anything on my new outfit, a wrap blouse and flowy matching skirt in the same lilac shade as the jacaranda flowers that bloom from my favorite tree.
Katherine had decorated the store beautifully, with a big bowl of strawberries as the centerpiece—appropriate, given the first line of the book is “A strawberry changed my life.” As people started to flow into the store—friends, my kids’ teachers, kind strangers—I began to feel more at ease. These people were here to celebrate, I realized, not judge. I felt buoyed by all the loving, encouraging faces beaming at me as I perched on the edge of a tall stool and started to speak.
Midway through my reading, I felt air on my stomach. I glanced down and noticed my wrap blouse had come unwrapped, and was dangling down the sides of my body like an open robe, leaving my entire torso exposed. I fought a wave of panic; even though Fruitflesh is all about tapping into the body as a source of creativity, I wasn’t all that comfortable sharing my own body in public. Thankfully I was wearing a bra—not an everyday occurrence back then—and I was able to think on my feet, not something I can always muster. “I guess I’m sharing more of my own fruitflesh than I had planned,” I said, and the audience laughed as I hastily tied my blouse back together. After that, the air was even more festive. I could barely get through the rest of the reading without laughing, and the audience laughed right along with me. My blouse was lopsided and possibly sweat-stained, but I didn’t care. One of the worst things that could have happened happened, and it just made the event all the more fun.
The shy, quiet girl still lives inside me, but I love giving readings now. I love connecting with readers, having conversations about stories and writing and life. My heart still pounds a little right before I take the stage, but I try to let that help me feel more alive instead of more nervous. And while some people at my book launch told me I should make wardrobe malfunctions part of every event, I make sure to leave the wrap blouses at home.