Stay Awhile with Your Own Ones: A Father’s Day Essay

June 13, 2014 § 8 Comments

A guest blog essay for Father’s Day from Alexis Paige:


Alexis and her Dad, 1978

When I was a child, I remember my father growing irritated, impatient even, when people made a fuss over his single dad status. When my parents split in 1983, Mom moved to Texas, and my little brother and I to New Hampshire. Our family story happened this way for many reasons, some of them practical, some of them tragic, but Dad always felt that he got special notice when single moms never did.

“Aw, your daughter’s running a fever, and you are going to pick her up from school?” a lady from the office might coo, sighing longingly as Dad grabbed the keys to his Datsun 210 and hustled his tall, gangly body beyond the cubicles and out the door. As if his leaving work, scooping me up from the school nurse’s office, and dropping the pink, chewable aspirins into my fleshy hand were somehow more heroic as a dad, as a man.

The winter I turned nine, we moved from an apartment complex that smelled like cigarettes and burnt SpaghettiOs to a modest split-level ranch about a mile away. Our new house sat on a tiny cul-de-sac in a subdivision grandiosely named Windsor Pond. Upstairs were two small bedrooms, one bathroom, and a kitchen/ living room, and downstairs was an unfinished basement, where we roller-skated in tight, dizzying circles.

For the first four or five months while Dad and my uncle refinished the basement, my brother Josh got the front bedroom and I the back, and Dad slept on a secondhand sofa in the living room. At six-foot-three, he dangled off of it from all sides, his spidery arms and legs draped over the armrests, his outside arm hanging limp on the floor like a vestigial limb.

He would go to sleep with the television tuned into M*A*S*H or Hill Street Blues, the foil-muffed antennae crackling into the night. An early insomniac, I would rise in the dark and grab a snack or read, and hear his snores rumbling against the hiss of the television. Back then, stations would sign-off around midnight with a long BOOOOOOOOOP, followed by a shower of black and white snow, and not return to life until dawn with an instrumental rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

I had stopped sleeping one night when I caught the beginning of a scary movie about witches; one witch in particular wore an indelible sneer. For months she terrified me: I would find her under the covers, in my closet, hiding behind my bedroom door. I took up reading during these long stretches of night, with a little flashlight I held under the covers.

Alexis and her Dad, 1985

Alexis and her Dad, 1985

I read anything I could get my hands on—Judy Blume, the Ramona Quimby books, the Babysitters’ Club series, an Amelia Earhart biography, The Red Badge of Courage, and even Dad’s copy of The Happy Hooker. I feared something in the maw of nighttime, and the TV-movie witch may well have been the easy symbol I projected to blot out the deep.

Dad found me one night, the flashlight glow seeping through my polyester bedspread, so I found other ruses. I would lie on the bathroom floor with my books; if Dad stirred, I would flush the toilet and go to bed. At one point, I clipped a desk lamp to the rod in my closet and read in there, sitting on an exercise mat with a book propped on my knees.

Dad eventually caught me on another night, rolling the door open with great fanfare and shouting, “A-HA! Gotcha! What are you doing up kiddo?  You’ve got to sleep!”

“I can’t,” I whined. “I get nervous.”

“What are you nervous about, Pumpkin?”

“I don’t know, the witch, I guess—and everything,” I said.

He checked under my bed, inspected the attic hatch, and showed me behind the bedroom door. “See? All clear!” he said. “Now, let’s get you back into bed.”

“How did you know?” I asked.

“I grew up with eleven brothers and sisters; I know every trick in the book.” Once in bed, he sat alongside me and scratched my back until I grew tired.

“Use your nails, like Gram,” I begged.

“Want me to crack an egg?” he asked, and as I nodded I began to feel the happy tingle of yolk oozing down my scalp, my head growing heavy under his hand.


Dad showed up for everything—for late night crises, ear infections, homework, and field hockey scrimmages. He planned father-daughter dates on my birthdays, showed up on Sunday mornings with fresh donuts or raspberry danish, and at the dinner table on ordinary days to talk about Algebra or Amy’s dad’s new drum set.

He showed up five years too early in the training bra section of Bradlee’s Department store, and an hour too late with tampons when I got my first period at 15.

Alexis and her Dad, 2012

Alexis and her Dad, 2012

Ten years after that, Dad showed up when I called from a phone booth in Italy to tell him I’d been sexually assaulted the night before. Because he was 6,000 miles away in San Francisco, he sent me to the embassy. “The Marines will be posted out front; they will take care of you,” Dad said. They weren’t much older than me, but in their dress blues, I was reminded of Dad’s own Marine Corps portrait from 1967. When my plane landed in California 36 hours later, Dad showed up at the airport and waited for me at the gate, so his was the first face I saw as I stepped off of the jetway.

Dad showed up at the emergency room six months after that, when I cut my wrists and took a bottle of antidepressants, and he showed up yet again a few years later still, when I got arrested for drunk driving. I was 29 at this point, and he should have been tired of showing up by then, but he did anyway.

At 38 now, I am grateful that he stayed long enough for the happy stuff and for me to finally show up for him. I know what Dad would say to all of this. He would say that he was just being a father. He would say that showing up doesn’t make him any more or less of a hero than other parents. But I would say this: it does make him mine.


Alexis Paige’s work has appeared in Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, Ragazine, 14 Hills, and on Brevity’s blog. Winner of the 2014 New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Prize, she also received a recent Pushcart Prize nomination and a feature on Freshly Pressed by WordPress. Twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in poetry from San Francisco State University and will complete an MFA in nonfiction from the Stonecoast creative writing program in July. She lives and teaches in central Vermont.

The Ultimate Guide to Not Letting the AWP Do You

March 5, 2013 § 9 Comments

awp2013By Alexis Paige

I arrived in Chicago last year for my first AWP with a hazy plan and a suitcase that weighed too much and cornered poorly. I packed stilettos, cigarettes, scarves, and lipstick, but forgot my laptop, cotton swabs, and new business cards stamped with a retro typewriter logo. Forgetting cotton swabs on a trip is a bad omen indeed. My plan was breezy and vague: oh, I dunno—find some authentic deep-dish, go to a few panels, say smart things, be charming, and have literary types fall in love with me. If there’s time, wrangle a book deal.

I’ve never been comfortable networking-as-a-verb, but my skills in this area hadn’t evolved since my 20s — awkwardness masked by flirtation. Incidentally, I gleaned this approach from an Anne Sexton biography that I read over ten years ago and interpreted not as a cautionary tale but as a primer on sex and dating.

I managed to get my AWP tote bag and lit swag, grab a slice served in a cardboard triangle, and check-in to my hotel room, all without incident. But it wasn’t long after I had gotten to my room, scarfed the pie, and lined up my little sentry of toiletries by height, that I found myself overwhelmed and on the verge of panic. The conference hadn’t even started, and this was not my usual existential panic, but an actual can’t-leave-the-room-and-function-in-public panic.

With nothing to do but strip down to my underpants and smoke in bed, I flipped through the 10-pound conference tome and tried to dam the tears with self-ridicule. I’ll spare you most of the rest of my mega-conference meltdown, but I accomplished little and went home an exhausted rube. Unable to navigate logistics capably, I ended up in the wrong panel at least a half-dozen times (each in the wrong genre and with a title more obtuse than the last); told Sven Birkerts his book The Art of Time in Memoir was “cool”; skulked around the book fair like a nervous woodland creature; collected business cards that would ultimately flounder in the bottom of my tote bag; and shouted “Hi!” to Cheryl Strayed in an elevator. (That’s it—just “Hi!” followed by a pregnant ellipsis. I should’ve told her I loved her or thanked her for “writing like a motherfucker”…something memorable.)

On the last night, I got invited—by way of the etiquette equivalent of the service elevator—to a VIP reception. Laureates, Pushcarts, NEA fellows, and National Book Award winners would be there: I was going to that room, the Gatsby room. Once there, however, I bored of the pomp and circumstance and sulked in a corner, popping cheesy poufs and getting hit on by a grandfatherly poet who mentioned his “new and selected” no fewer than eight times.

It’s redemption time now—a new year, a new me. I can do AWP: I just need a better plan.

First, a pep talk. Having spent much of my later childhood and high school years in Boston, I know the language, the land, the people, and customs. Home turf advantage. Also, I come from a military family—my husband, brother-in-law, and father—all no-nonsense types. This can-do competency must live in my muscle memory, right? Early wake-ups, hospital corners, overnight hiking trips in rugged New Hampshire mountains, extensive travel, and scrapping for respect in a big Catholic family: this was my childhood training. Dad was a recon Marine, for chrissakes; I can’t get pummeled by a writers’ conference.

Next, a plan and some rules of engagement. Instead of waiting until there, I grab my planner and Ned Stuckey-French’s “Handy Guide to Nonfiction Panels,” and I highlight. I highlight like a motherfucker. I pick two panels per day and write them into my planner in tidy block print. Anything extra is gravy, but these two are non-negotiable. My schedule is set and reconnaissance complete.

The rules of engagement are simple: no side trips to Fenway Park; no hesitant lollygagging at the book fair (get in, get out—with solicitations and business cards); no window shopping on Newbury Street; no improvised chit-chat with famous writers; no panel reconnaissance on the fly, flipping through maps and schedules while bent over a subway grate; no sulking or crying; and no reading of panelist bios until I am safely extracted and home.

If I seem a little more serious this year, that’s my plan. I am on a mission: do AWP, don’t let AWP do me.

Alexis Paige’s writing has appeared inTransfer Magazine, 14 Hills: The SFSU Review, Seven Days: Vermont’s Independent Voice, Prison Legal News, Ragazine, and on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. Alexis was twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s annual personal essay contest. She received an M.A. in poetry from San Francisco State University and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Stonecoast low-residency program in Maine. She is at work on a memoir about how 749 days in the Texas criminal justice system taught her to grow up. She lives and teaches in Vermont.

Gnawing the Story Bone

September 25, 2012 § 29 Comments

“Pursue, keep up with, circle round and round your life…
Know your own bone: gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw at it still”
—Thoreau, as quoted in Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life


I am a writer first, but once I become a teacher, I will use smoke and mirrors to get my students unstuck, to get them gnawing on their own bones. We do rapid-fire writing drills. I play keen illusionist to their bored bravado, ratcheting the intensity with cliché—C’mon, guys! Time’s a-wasting! There’s money on the line! (Who says such things?) In fact, our whole selves are on the line, and we all know this, hence, the magic show. As writers, we sometimes have to trick ourselves into going there: we have to dodge our conscious minds with sporting maneuvers.

I do, anyway. Each time I write (or teach) I stand at this conscious edge, with my mind’s cartoonish miasma at my back—all of its limitations and lost points and monkeys and awful fucking chatter. Still, going there and beyond is the point, the singular, impossible point, and sometimes it is also the reward. The point is to hold my breath and throw my whole body into the deep that others may do the same—whether in writing or life. The point is to do it because others have done it before, and their doing it mattered.

So I find prompts in writing books or online, and I save them in my teacher’s Rolodex. My students sniff corny from a mile off; corny doesn’t get you there. The good prompts mimic the jumping off point, that feeling of running headlong at the abyss until your breath is ragged, your steps loose engines of wholeness, and your rhythm your own little rain dance.  I remember. I don’t remember. I think. I don’t think. I fear. I don’t fear. I love. I don’t love.  I am.  I am not. Good stuff comes from the litotes; some higher force comes to bear in the negations, and tamps the language into shiny coins.  My students fear the surprises that emerge here; they don’t want to share them. “That’s good,” I tell them, “go on…” And here again, I am convincing myself.

“What’s your larger theme?” my writing buddy Sarah asks about my current memoir project. I don’t want it, but I need her to ask this, to prompt me in this way. She says, “I think it’s: Why Alcoholism?” I have to stop for a few days and ask the question until it becomes a koan. What is the theme? What is the theme? Why? Where am I going? What do I want people to do or feel? The questions seem aimless, rising dust motes in my ears. And then I have it: it is not Why alcoholism? Not exactly. It is so simple, it seems silly to write it down, but I do anyway–on a sticky note with the closest available marker:


“What am I to myself/ that must be remembered,/ insisted upon/ so often?” Robert Creeley writes in his poem “The Rain.”  Ultimately, we keep writing and prompting and asking not because we want to know so much as we need the relief that comes after the knowing, the relief that comes after the awful black mounting and the storms marching upon us. We need the rain to come and wash us clean.

Alexis Paige’s writing has appeared inTransfer Magazine, 14 Hills: The SFSU Review, Seven Days: Vermont’s Independent Voice, Prison Legal News, Ragazine, and on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. Alexis was twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s annual personal essay contest. She received an M.A. in poetry from San Francisco State University and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Stonecoast low-residency program in Maine. She is at work on a memoir about how 749 days in the Texas criminal justice system taught her to grow up. She lives and teaches in Vermont.

~ Want to Write Flash Nonfiction? Read the Rose Metal Guide ~

On Didion and the “Selling Out” Mantra

June 4, 2012 § 5 Comments

A guest blog post from Alexis Paige:

“My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.

– Joan Didion in the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem

On the first day of my creative writing class last fall, I asked my students to bring in a writing mantra. I like to trot out my shrill inner headmistress early on, so I told them they were to affix said mantra onto a notebook, “NOT A JOURNAL!” (see Didion’s own distinction).  I shared the above quote, raising my head after with a broad smile, but to my surprise the students looked stricken. I had expected that I would smile upon them beatifically and they would nod in spiritual communion with the sentences, and we would all just bask. But the spell was broken before it was cast, and I began the peculiar tap dance of a teacher trying, and failing, to connect. On a day when I should have inspired trust, I had done the opposite, even leveled a perceivable threat—I might sell them out one day. No one was safe; everyone was just material.

I argued that Didion’s quote didn’t give writers carte blanche for revenge or carelessness, yet the students didn’t buy it. “Selling somebody out” was something you did if you were a punk.  I considered reciting the words of Inigo Montoya to Vizzini in The Princess Bride: “I do not think it means what you think it means,” but the damage was done, and a dated pop culture reference would not undo it. I doubted my own objectivity then; the words had been with me for so long that I seemed lost in my own translation. I first read Slouching Towards Bethlehem sixteen years earlier, while at a campus bus stop in a yellow Paddington Bear hat; I read the book because M. Mark Moskowitz gave it to me (in what I misinterpreted as a romantic gesture), and because I was avoiding Dante.

Initially, I invoked the quote as permission to write bad spoken word poetry and feminist rants and to jettison the people-pleasing that plagued me.  And a few years later, as a reporter myself at a small Maine newspaper, the mantra helped me fake chutzpah to make phone calls and to march up to duffers at selectmen meetings.  I covered town meetings mostly, and lobster festivals, but even the small stories required confidence I did not possess.

Later still the words helped me rationalize writing as astute voyeurism, but since class last fall my mantra seems different to me. Recently, I had occasion to use an insult in a piece, and I did use it—not with particular conviction, or virtue, or even malice. I used it because my husband said it and I could not think of a better word, and as a result I sold someone out. Yes, the choice constituted a kind of loyalty to my husband, but it was loyalty to the story that prevailed. It seems that I have had it all backwards: the admonition is not for the reader; it is the writer who must remember to watch out.

Alexis Paige’s essays have appeared in Seven Days, Ragazine, and Prison Legal News, and she was twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s annual essay contest. She received an M.A. in Poetry from San Francisco State University and begins an MFA in Creative Nonfiction this summer. She lives in Central Vermont with her loyal pack.

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