I just had word from Conjunctions editors that my story, Still Life with Nixon on the Beach, which I mentioned in my prior blog (Running on the Grass), has gone live as the featured story at Web Conjunctions today.
I’ve had the following excerpt on this site, on the page featuring my short stories, for the past months:
At a bar in Crooked Moon Bay, making small talk with a friend who was days away from being married, I watched a woman with long, titian hair lean over a burning candle as she bent close to talk to a friend. She didn’t know, but in her excitement, her hair fell into the flames. The friend gestured desperately, trying to stop the girl’s emphatic story. She finally noticed, her hands rising pragmatically to put out the flaming twists of her hair, squeezing out fire as if wringing out water. Shampoo, rinse, repeat.
Rereading that excerpt today as I went to post news of the publication, I couldn’t help being reminded of a stream of conversation amongst fellow writers at Poets & Writers’ Speakeasy some months back.
So often, no matter the definition of “fiction,” writers are asked of their work, “Is that character really you?”
Still Life with Nixon on the Beach is an intensely personal story to me — yet also perfect example of why debating fiction vs. autobiography can be so controversial to a writer.
For what it’s worth, I never followed the seasons, island to island. I never dated anyone named Nixon. I am not the one who swam from an anchored sailboat to shore, seeing the oversized form of a tiger shark swim beneath her, and the sailor with a parrot sleeping on his shoulder was not this rake. Yet in the fiber of every detail, this story is still mine.
I do live in the tropics, grew up with my father’s boating history and charter sailed in and out of Charlotte Amalie. I did in fact lean over a candle once at a bar, my hair catching on fire, and have the band start riffing a song, “To the lovely lady with her hair on fire.” I did have recurring nightmares about tornados, and also about a man in my house. I did meet a certain friend in the sleeping porch off my room with a knife up my sleeve. I did once have a conversation with my father about all the moments in my childhood when I’d needed protection and was startled how little need he felt to load that metaphorical shotgun. I did find the orange-crayoned letter, I did watch the leather journal being purchased months before it arrived in the mail. I did find the redemption of a pod of dolphins at twilight, right at the moment I’d lost all faith in my love for someone.
The story reminds me, in fact, of granny square afghans my grandmother used to crochet when I was a child. She would spin them out like daisies in patchworked colors from odd loose-ends of yarn, only later assembled into the form of a baby’s jacket or blanket for the sofa (which sadly all have been thrown away as tacky remnants of the 70s, which would be oh-so-cool to have now). So, in the same way, this story is pieced together of collected truths from my childhood through young adulthood, from my first hopes at love through my first disillusionments and my first understanding of real faith in the absence of concrete proof, and is the only existing revelation of an unnerving 6th sense that has too often left me confused if I were knowing things I could not know, or simply imagining things.
It is in that sense autobiographical.
Fiction is still its own invention, its own living truth. Using details that might be the same granny squares first crocheted, yet assembled to create a new form, pieced together to perhaps make more clear an understanding of the world that was so much less clear when still a mass of untwisted yarns.
An example of how the twisted yarns of a writer’s personal details get woven into a story that is no longer exactly about them, is what got me going on this blog today. Rereading that excerpt above, I smiled in reminder of where I got name for the bay. Riding home in the car with my preschool son one night, he looked out the window and said, “Look mom, the moon is crooked!” In revisions this became, “At a bar in Crooked Moon Bay…”
So, like many of my peer writers, I would say, “No, the life of the main character is not mine. She is not me. It is fiction, not autobiography.” Yet yes, the story is mine. And I am very proud for it to be live at Conjunctions this month. I hope you’ll check it out.