life: unabridged

life: unabridged

Stories of Life-Defining Moments by Christie Grotheim

TRUTHFUL FICTIONS AND FICTIONAL TRUTHS

It was with trepidation that I signed up for an Advanced Fiction class at the 92Y a few months ago, hoping to get accepted based on submitting a non-fiction manuscript. Intrigued by it, but apprehensive, since I’d never written one piece of fiction, I wondered if I was even capable of invention, of complete fabrication. Yet I was spinning quite a tall tale in the cover letter itself, just by applying—and implying that I was in any way advanced. Terrified of attempting to write fiction, I had no perception of plot lines, no concept of character development, and no notion of a narration nor creating a voice, since up until that point my voice and view had always been, well, my own.
         
What motivated me to break out of my comfort zone and try an entirely new style of writing? While I love the personal essay and considered it my genre of choice, the previous year had been frustrating. It seemed that editors didn’t appreciate my quiet moments, small revelations, and even larger life events. Unless someone is close to death, divorces, has an affair—or at least an abortion—no one is interested, especially at the glossy women’s magazines. I wrote about giving up drinking, my relationship struggles, but apparently my rock bottom wasn’t low enough and (horrors) I was still happily married. I realized a writer needs to go to rehab, have an eating disorder, and/or a parent with Alzheimer’s. 

The last straw was reading a first person essay in The New Yorker in which a woman has an almost full-term miscarriage on a bathroom floor while traveling and documents it all in horror-movie-style, gory detail. I questioned how many babies must die in order for one writer to get published? How much of your soul must you sell? In essence you’re becoming the literary version of a reality TV star—but with all of the humiliation none of the fame and fortune. There was something sickening about the shock and awe trend of personal essay publishing and it had turned my stomach.          

So the description of Adam Langer’s Fiction Workshop caught my eye: “Fiction is the art of using a lie to reveal the truth. Or maybe it’s telling the truth and only pretending that the truth is a lie.”

This philosophy appealed to me. I also liked that it was a chiasmus, a literary term I learned in my very first creative writing class. Even if I did have traumatic, horrifying stories to tell, I wasn’t sure I’d want to reveal them to the world in print and online so they could follow me around for the rest of my life thanks to Google. In this art form, maybe you didn’t have to sell your darkest secrets for a few hundred bucks.                

Surely I could incorporate a little fantasy in my work; I’d already told little fibs and white lies in the name of non-fiction, exaggerating things for effect, creating dialogue to make a point, manipulating minor details to make the story better, and now I could do so freely, taking it to the extreme, not held back by the ethics of truth-telling. My mom notices these liberties, often getting caught up in the details, correcting inaccuracies.       

“Your buck teeth really weren’t that bad,” she said the other day when I asked for her feedback on a piece.         

In fiction you can do anything, say anything, things you don’t want to admit, sinister thoughts you wouldn’t dare speak, in the name of your main character—no matter how thinly veiled. So what if your character is your age, works in your profession, and coincidentally, lives in your neighborhood. She likes pistachio nuts; you like pistachio nuts. She bites her nails; you bite your nails. No one can prove that it’s you. They can speculate, but the evidence wouldn’t hold up in a court of law.                    

So adopting this attitude, I developed my first character and started my first short story. I was in heaven now that, unlike every other piece I’d written, word count was no longer an issue, and I let it fly. Let her rip. Described everything in grand detail. My character had so much to say, it seemed, that the short story could no longer be defined as such and extended into a novella and then, forced to drop the “la” it became the beginnings of what would be a very lengthy, full-fledged novel. 

Let’s be clear; she isn’t me. She isn’t. She is a friend of mine. Who looks like another friend of mine, who has personality traits and neurotic tendencies of several friends of mine—an amalgam character, a sort of antihero, infused with a bit of my darker side at her core: my insecurities, my unedited thoughts, my raw, real self that I usually try to hide from the world. She lives in my sister’s town in a house that is eerily similar to my second cousin’s, has my old roommate’s profession, went to my BFF’s alma mater, and drives my parent’s old car. She is married to a man who is a mixture of every man I’ve every dated combined with all of my friends’ boyfriends, and also every man I’ve ever known. He is a complex character indeed. 

Even if she started out based in reality, my main character Margie has come alive, at least in my mind, yet she has a mind of her own. (No Margie Culpepper, it’s not you, her last name is Moore. I just borrowed your first name; didn’t I always tell you I liked it?) She has taken shape, morphed, and I find myself asking what would Margie do in every day situations; I notice things only she would appreciate. She’s become my imaginary friend and she is evolving, as is her world. A plot is developing rapidly—in fact she’s out of control. Underappreciated and undervalued, she overspends, and she is on the brink of an affair. This is for my own personal amusement; luckily it does fit in with her character. She’s always getting into situations with her kids and her neighbors that I can only imagine. (And I did.) Margie is so mischievous, so manipulative, that at times I have to question my own conscious. But the story is gaining momentum. Even I don’t know where she’ll go or what she’ll do. And that, I’m finding, is the beauty of fiction writing.

Now the class is finished but my novel is most definitely not. Which has put me in a strange predicament. I’m not sure if I can continue to write personal essays because my life is so mundane—especially compared to hers. No wonder no one will publish my essays. I will happily write more non-fiction… if anything of interest ever occurs. Things materialize so quickly in fiction; they transpire, they arise and develop, while much of my life lately seems to be standing still, waiting for things to happen. Anything. Have an argument with a cab driver, have a relapse, have an epiphany. Hell, at this point I’d be happy to trip on the sidewalk, stub my toe.

What I’ve come to learn from this class—beyond the fact that my life is incredibly uninteresting—is that, as my instructor said, the best stories are created when we construct truthful fictions and fictional truths and all borders between the two are erased.  

Apparently, truth is not always stranger than fiction. 

After “After the Rose.” A Conversations between Juan Pablo and Nikki.

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“Oh, Juan Pablo, I’m so glad you picked me!”

“Nikki, Nikki, Nikki. I’m so happy it is you. After Charlene left, I thought that you were the one. And when Claire started asking too many questions, I knew it had to be you.”

“I can’t wait to finally start our lives together.”

“Nikki. I like you a lot. But remember, we are not necessarily starting our lives together, because eet’s not, how you say, eh, official engagement, but I’m so glad we are continuing to be dating and that you are my girlfriend, and you are so pretty.”

“I want to know everything about you now. Your hopes, your dreams… what it is you do for a living.”

“Of course, but first, bessitos.”

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VALENTINE’S DAY: PRESERVING YOUR PAPER HEART

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Elementary School was probably the last time I truly loved Valentine’s Day. Crafts, cards and candy. Who could want for more? I loved learning to cut perfect hearts out of construction paper by folding a piece in half before maneuvering my lefty scissors into a sweeping arc to make them beautifully bulbous, smooth and symmetrical. Each one larger than the last, I glued expanding heart shapes one upon the other, rotating between blood red, of course, and Pepto-Bismol pink, until the ripple effect looked like a bad acid trip, like a heart-shaped bomb about to explode. Moist in the middle from too much glue, it was bulging, practically bursting with love. The center heart would be cut out of a paper doily and added last. Almost as thin and delicate as a spider’s web, it had to be pulled apart from the others with the gentlest touch or it would tear.

Craft day fell a couple of days before the class party and decorating the room created a palpable sense of excitement. We made cards for our parents and oversized paper pouches in which the Valentines would be stuffed. While others rushed through and ran off to play, art was my favorite subject and I was meticulous down to every crayon choice, testing the color on scrap paper before committing. The night before the big day, I would eagerly spread out all of the store-bought Valentine’s cards around the dining table and carefully consider which was the best fit for each classmate.

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“OVER-PUNCTUATION!”

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Until I took a writing class this past fall in which I had several papers marked up by my professor with certain semi-colon, colons, and other such symbols circled and connected by multiple arrows merging at the same point in the margin with “too much punctuation” or “use less punctuation” or finally “DON’T OVER-PUNCTUATE!!!” scribbled in red ink, I didn’t know the term existed, I certainly wasn’t aware that it could be seen as problematic, and I questioned whether it was actually possible to over-punctuate, considering many of my most-admired authors use the devices in abundance—while many of my least-favorite writers’ works, I would argue, are lacking in punctuation, a necessary and effective tool in communicating clearly, controlling flow, and conveying emotion—beyond the added aesthetic value that these curvaceous question marks, playful explanation points and commanding commas provide.  

Look at the first paragraph of Nabokov’s Lolita: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

The word to punctuation ratio is 36 to 14.

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BLOWING SMOKE

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If you are or were a smoker who has already quit, is quitting, is trying to quit, or is thinking about trying to quit, you will know that overcoming the physical challenge is nothing compared to the mental mindfuck you will be faced with. Arguing with yourself all day long is exhausting. You will be blowing smoke up your own ass, so to speak—when you’d much rather suck it into the upper orifice, down your throat and deep into your lungs.

Mornings are nothing more than a series of self-affirmations, starting when you take your first breath of untainted air. You wake up telling yourself how wonderful you feel and how healthy you look. How smooth your skin looks. How energized you feel.

You remind yourself to start the day off on the right foot, that how you start your morning will affect your entire day, and that each day is the first day of the rest of your non-smoking life. You fill yourself with clichés instead of nicotine. The sun is shining and you smile and tell yourself that this will be the day you stop smoking for good.

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AIR CONDITIONS

Only one or two days after you’ve shed your winter coat, you will enter a hot, humid, swampy apartment, and you will want to put the window unit into the window, and you will need to install it, and you will need to install it THAT DAY. 

Every year I wait and wait for buds to bloom on trees, my frozen bones aching for just one leaf. This year was especially grueling. Branches were bare well into May as temperatures stubbornly stuck in the forties and fifties. The month started out partly cloudy with a few warmish days thrown in offering false hope followed by mostly cloudy skies, cold rain and dipping temperatures, followed by dark depression. And then I woke one morning to find the streets full of fluffy green storybook trees that exploded overnight.

Though I try to get it through my head, my heart will never understand, even after living here twelve years, that March will be whorish, April will be a bitch, and May will be nothing but a tease. Around here spring is all but sprung, existing in name only. Summer simply overtakes it—gives it a heatstroke.

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list: (n) a series of names or other items written or printed together in a meaningful grouping or sequence so as to constitute a record

—Webster’s Dictionary

Making a List, and Checking it Thrice

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Like Santa, I too make a list, but I most definitely check it more than twice, obsessing over it all day long until every little item is attended to—and then checked off. Beyond the tasks, the act of completing the checkmark itself is satisfying, the quick zig of the downstroke and then the exaggerated upstroke, swooshing wildly and then trailing off as I pull the pen away for a dramatic climax.

Years ago I started making lists to prioritize an overflowing workload while on staff at bustling agencies, writing “things to do” the night before in order to help me fight stress-induced insomnia. Ironically, now that I’m less busy—read sometimes under-employed—my lists still fight stress, this time in the form of restlessness and anxiety accompanied by occasional feelings of inadequacy. The list becomes part organizer, part companion coaxing me through the day, and part motivational speaker, thanks to generous use of exclamation points.

For example:

 —Healthy Breakfast!

—Call Accountant

—Call Mom

—Shower and Shave Legs

—Write eBook / Publish It!

—Zumba Class!

—Check Banking On-Line

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WHAT IT MEANS TO LIVE WITHIN OUR MEANS

I had always been good with money. My parents thought so—and credited themselves for “the way they raised me.” My friends said so and wondered aloud how I was able to save regardless of my income. I traveled the world on a budget, staying in hostels until I was well into my thirties. I lived without an AC unit my first two summers in New York; I’m a survivor. I have cut open tubes of toothpaste to get the parts that can’t be squeezed out. When I finish a jar of pickles, I then drink the juice. Nothing wasted. No matter how much or little I have had in the past, I was able to live within my means.

That was before I moved to the West Village.

In this high-falutin, upscale, downtown, fashion-forward, historically-preserved, in-Vogue, on-trend neighborhood what does living within your means even mean? My husband and I are often out of our means, out of our element, and sometimes feel that we’re out of our league. Surrounded by blocks and blocks of beautiful brownstones sold at an average of 3 million a pop—when we sometimes have only three dollars in our pockets—let’s just say we might fall into a different tax bracket than some of our neighbors.

Stepping outside of our front door is like a navigating a minefield of exorbitant spending at explosive prices, our cash blown around town at various vendors, our wallets left wounded. Luckily we have back up forces: debt cards are utilized and as a last resort credit cards are authorized.

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WestView News | Search Results

As we await approval on our Harlem apartment, I’m sharing a link as a tribute to the West Village. These are five articles I contributed to the West View News. It was such a great experience to be involved in a neighborhood newspaper!