Monday, February 24, 2014

My First Time: Jerri Bell

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 Jerri Bell.  Jerri retired from the Navy in 2008.  She is a graduate of the M.A. In Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University.  Her fiction has won prizes in the West Virginia Writers’ annual competition, among others.  She is the managing editor for O-Dark-Thirty, the literary journal of the Veterans Writing Project.  Her story "Memorial Day" was recently published in Volume 8 of Stone Canoe, and her nonfiction has been published in Southern Maryland ParentLine and The Charleston Gazette.

My First Cinderella Writing Moment

Long ago, in a place far away, my mother--always a reader--introduced me to the magic of literature.  In her childhood, she maxed out her allotment from the county library's mobile book truck every week.  As an adult, she always had a stack of novels from the library somewhere in the house.  There were no bookstores within sixty miles, but when I was still a baby she brought me Little Golden Books from the grocery store.  By my first birthday, I understood the letters spelling out Katie the Kitten and The Poky Little Puppy were magical cyphers that unlocked enchanted worlds for my personal pleasure.  I learned to crack the code by my second birthday to get there faster.  The fictional world was the only place I wanted to live, and deep in my heart I believed that I was Cinderella--that all my dreams would come true, and I would live happily ever after.

1965: already surrounded by books at 9 months old

Mom sometimes behaved like Cinderella's stepmother.  To her, a clean house in the real world mattered far more than skeletons in some fictional protagonist's closet.  She scolded me for reading too much, for tossing books and papers on the living room couch after school, and for leaving my room a mess.  But she also lent me her typewriter, a massive Olivetti manual that smelled deliciously of ink and machine oil, so that I could hunt-and-peck my first woeful attempts at enchanting others.  When I was nine, she gave me a stamp and an envelope to mail an anecdote I'd written to Reader's Digest "True Stories" (my first rejection; the editors didn't even bother to acknowledge my submission).

When school board-approved library books failed to satisfy my reading appetite in junior high school, I appropriated Kathleen Woodiwiss' steamy bodice-ripper Shanna from Mom's "adult" stack atop the refrigerator and read it under the covers at night with a flashlight so she wouldn't catch me and take it away before I finished all the deliciously naughty bits.  When I got to high school and took a typing class, Mom replaced the Olivetti with a portable electric typewriter, all my own, from Sears.  By my senior year I was determined to be a published author some day.  I believed that my first acceptance--the final transformation from enchanted to enchantress--would be the dream come true.  One of the most magical moments of my life.

When that moment finally arrived one afternoon last November, I was sprawled in exhaustion on the bed in a weekly-rental apartment near Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore.  Anya von Bremzen's memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cuisine, a gift from my sister Joan which I'd been dying to read, lay unopened on the bed beside me.  The magic of reading had gone: I couldn't focus long enough to read anything longer than a Facebook post with words of two or fewer syllables.  And I'd lost the writing mojo altogether.  Couldn't even make myself open my laptop.  But sleep wouldn't come.  I decided to check my email on my phone one last time.

RE: [Stone Canoe] Memorial Day, said the subject line.  My gut clenched in that nauseating way that always precedes opening a rejection.

I'd already been wrestling with bad news for three months and didn't want more.  In September 2013, routine testing had revealed that Mom, now in her mid-seventies, had colon cancer.  Because she had other serious health conditions, the surgeons told us that she had a 25 per cent chance of dying under the knife.  If she survived, she might be in rehab for three months with a tracheotomy.  Or she might die a lingering death from post-surgical infection.  I became her advocate.  I read medical literature obsessively; improved my vocabulary with words like "hemicolectomy" and "adenocarcinoma;" revised test results and doctors' comments into a narrative that made sense to her, so that she could make informed choices about her health care and whatever future she had left.  Fictional conflict had become limp and uninteresting compared to the fight for my mother's life.

Mom survived her surgery.  Johns Hopkins encourages family rooming-in, so even though my sister had rented a place for the week, she and I had been trying unsuccessfully to sleep on slippery vinyl recliners in the intensive care unit for three nights.  We'd followed Mom's vital signs, her attempts to walk, and the function of her gastrointestinal system with excruciating intensity.  We were both whipped.  I'd sent Joan to the apartment to get some real sleep first; finally it was my turn to catch an afternoon nap in a real bed while Sis sat vigil.

I sighed and opened the email.
Dear Jerri,
We are happy to inform you that "Memorial Day" has been accepted for publication in the 2014 issue of Stone Canoe.
I felt...nothing. I was numb.

I forced myself to skim the terms and conditions, felt a vague stirring of gratitude toward Stone Canoe's editors, and wondered fuzzily where I'd misplaced my sense of joy.  I rolled over, hit the link to accept the terms through Submittable, and thumb-typed a short thank-you note to the editors that may or may not have been coherent.

A few minutes later I texted Joan:
14 Nov 1400: I was just notified that a story I submitted is getting published--my first fiction acceptance!!!!
Congratulations!!!! she texted back.  Mom walked the hall once, will try to get her up again in an hour.  Gave her a sponge bath...she seems very tired.
After her first week in the hospital, Mom wanted her Nook.  When she finished the last book on it and couldn't download any more through the hospital wi-fi, I looked through my shelves for books she might enjoy.  Our tastes have diverged significantly in thirty-five years: she only reads a certain kind of "women's fiction"--fairy tales with tidy, happy endings.  No serious peril; no dangerous emotions.  Every time I try to get her to read something a little more challenging, she gives up halfway through or fires off a volley of complaints.  I brought her Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell.  It was a good story, she said, but it didn't really have an ending, did it?  She judged the first half of Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena a real page-turner, but just too violent.  And I couldn't keep those funny names straight anyway.  She gave it back to me unfinished.  I thought Lee Smith's Saving Grace might appeal, since we hail from her part of Appalachia.  I can't read any more of this, Mom said.  There are snakes in it!  I just can't read about snakes!  I gave up, went to Second Looks Books (our local used book store), and picked up half a dozen paperbacks--the kind with pastel beach scenes and empty Adirondack chairs on the covers.  And half a dozen more.

Ten weeks later, Mom went home with a vacuum-assisted closure device attached to her still-open incision.  I hadn't planned to be in town on her first weekend home.  The ArtRage Gallery in Syracuse, New York was hosting a Saturday evening reception for the contributors to Stone Canoe, and I had an invitation.  I was really Cinderella!  The Fairy GodEditor had finally accepted one of my stories, and I'd received an invitation to the ball!  Finally, I could celebrate my first acceptance.  But Mom's blood pressure was still dropping dangerously low and she was having periodic dizzy spells.  I couldn't leave her alone.

The Saturday morning of the reception, I sat at the table in Mom's apartment with a cup of coffee feeling sorry for myself.  The housework had piled up while Mom was in the hospital, and I said I wished I was getting a little more help from Prince Charming and our teenage sons.  Mom looked at me, baffled.  "But David works," she said.  "You should be doing the housework."

Writing isn't work?  I'd spent eight years revising and submitting the story Stone Canoe had accepted.  And I had to sit on the hearth cleaning up ashes in Maryland--I had to miss the enchanted ball, for heaven's sake!--to make sure that Mom would be safe.

I snapped.

"It may not seem like I work, to you."  I might have been shouting just a little.  "Writing may not seem important to you, compared to what David does for the government in an office all day.  It may not seem as important as washing the boys' dirty socks under the couch, or mopping up the sticky stuff in my kitchen floor.  But it's work, dammit.  It's hard work!"

She looked at me, baffled.  "I didn't mean it like that," she said.

I sighed, capitulated, took a slug of my coffee, and sulked in silence.  How DID you mean it, then?  How do you think those books you love to read get written?  PFM--Pure Effing MAGIC?  Even those plot-driven potboilers you read are hard work to write.  They cost some poor writer months or years of her heart's blood, of dedication, and sacrifice, and hard work.  And you think books just write themselves.

Just then, the voice of the wise old Fairy Godmother whispered in my ear: Yes.  She does think that stories are magic.  So do you.  That's why you write them.  Just let her believe in the magic.  Then you can go back to believing in it again, too.  Your keyboard is waiting at home, Princess.  Now finish that coffee and get back to work.

I stood up to leave and pointed at the two plastic grocery bags full of paperbacks in the floor by Mom's bed.  "Let me know when you're done with that last batch of books," I said.  "I'll take them over to Second Looks and trade them in for you."

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for giving us this, David and Jerri. I'm so glad I saw David's link to this "first time" post on my Facebook page this morning. A great way to begin my Monday.