Why He Wrote

June 4, 2020 § 13 Comments

By Mandy Gardner

I was going to tell you about why the homeless people who attended my writing workshop in Hoboken, New Jersey, wrote. I was going to turn to the reams of notes I kept over those nine years, the carefully typed record of what they themselves had expressed. I was going to relay Bobby’s words that he liked being “the boss of my own pen.” Or Michael F., who said he wrote “to feel like a free-spirited butterfly.” Studious Patricia, for whom “having the writer’s bug makes me feel good about myself . . . keeps me busy and attentive.” Or Gerome, who created new words and phrases to say what no one else could. For him, writing was “pride mind.”

Instead, I am going to tell you about one writer, a man who was not technically homeless because he had a roof, of sorts, over his head, and four walls enclosing a single room in a run-down three-story tenement with a broken pane of glass in the front door, one of the few buildings to have escaped gentrification in this mile-square city across the river from Manhattan. He earned $6,000 a year as a part-time city street sweeper and ate dinner most nights at the shelter. He did not live there, though once, years ago, he had.

I’d heard R.G. utter “Yes” a few times in his stuttering, gravelly voice, or “No.” Mostly he communicated with notes written in block-ish capital letters on napkins from McDonald’s, or in the margins of newspaper articles (“ARE YOU IN DANGER OF LOSING YOUR JOB?” he once wrote in pencil at the top of a New York Post item about newspaper layoffs a few weeks before the Daily News handed me a pink slip). He wrote on give-away pamphlets from the library (“Making a career change?” said one. “Become a librarian.”) The first poem he ever showed me was written on an index card. “Shade,” it was titled, and dated circa 1967. Once he handed me a flyer for rabies vaccinations. On the back, he had jotted notes on playwriting. And the request presented on half a sheet of notebook paper:

MANDY, CAN YOU USE YOUR COMPUTER TO FIND ME ALTERNATIVE TREATMENTS FOR ALCOHOLISM SUCH AS ‘RATIONAL RECOVERY.’ I CAN’T FIND THIS GROUP IN THE PHONE BOOK AND I HAVE BEEN SICK THE PAST WEEK. R.G.

And every Wednesday night, or almost every Wednesday night for seven years, he wrote at our workshop on legal pads I had snitched from Vanity Fair, where I once worked. He declined a pen, pulling his own out of a shirt pocket, a pocket which bulged with another pen, newspaper clippings, a small spiral notebook held together with a rubber band, and stray napkins. He later wrote that his pockets “serve me as sort of a crude filing system”: a lucky penny dated 1944 in his right jacket pocket lost among packets of sugar and salt from McDonald’s; shirt pockets “jammed full of articles I cut from newspapers with my little knife”; back pants pockets “reserved for those items in an envelope which are not too important but which I have to do something about.”

Every week, he’d plod up the stairs from the basement where dinner was served, to the church sanctuary. We wrote in pews until they took the pews away, and then on collapsible tables, temporary spaces for temporary people. We put the tables and folding chairs away after each workshop, leaving no traces of ourselves except the writing which I took home and typed up because I had a home and that home had a computer. R.G. always sat in a back pew or, when the pews disappeared, apart, if he could, at one end of the table, chair set slightly back to accommodate his long legs. He was, he once told me, six feet, three inches tall, a long-winded statement from him, preceded as were all his utterances by a quick clearing of the throat.

Not once in seven years did he read his own writing out loud. He gave them to me. “STREET SWEEPER’S LAMENT,” I announced the title of the piece he wrote the first night he attended the workshop:

WHY DON’T YOU SOUND YOUR HORN
ON YOUR APPROACH TO WARN
BUT YOU LEAVE ME NO ROOM
WHEN LARGER THAN LIFE YOU LOOM
RIGHT BEHIND ME! (SHOUTED)

I raised my voice for the last line, per his instructions. That made him smile, a stuttering smile, just like his voice, followed by a nervous adjustment of his large, plastic-framed glasses. One of the arms was attached with tape, just like the window in his front door. Then came another Lament:

MY TOES IS FROZE
AND SO’S MY NOSE

When I asked the writers in the group to record why they wrote. R.G. had this to say:

I HOPE THIS DOESN’T SOUND TOO GRANDIOSE BUT WE WRITE, I SUPPOSE, TO LEAVE A RECORD OF OURSELVES, TO SAY, HEY, LOOK, I WAS HERE ONE TIME AND IN THIS PLACE. SOME OTHERS WRITE FOR REASONS OF CRASS COMMERCIALISM—THE MONEY. SOME OTHERS THINK WRITING IS SOMEHOW NOT WORKING (IN THE DREARY, SWEATY SENSE OF THE WORD) AND THAT IT’S BETTER THAN PUNCHING A TIME CLOCK. BUT ASK ANY PRO WRITER, WRITING IS WORK. BUT, I LIKE TO THINK WRITING IS ITS OWN REWARD, THAT WE FEEL BETTER FOR HAVING EXPRESSED OURSELVES.

It has been almost two decades since Richard died and I still have in a file cabinet in a folder marked “R.G.” All his writing, all the notes on index cards and napkins and envelopes, in margins, his notebook held together with the same rubber band.

I can pull it out and I can say, “Hey, look! He was here! He still is.”

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Mandy Gardner is a freelance reporter and community artist living in the mountains of New Mexico. She has conducted workshops at the Albuquerque jail and in various other community settings. She is the co-author of the National Endowment for the Arts-funded Prison Arts Resource Project, the first annotated bibliography of evidence-based research into correctional arts programs. Her article on homeless writers, “A Space of One’s Own,” appeared this year in Vanderbilt University’s AmeriQuest.

Sarah Einstein and Mot: The Memoir

November 23, 2015 § 2 Comments

mot-memoir-sarah-einstein-hardcover-cover-artSarah Einstein’s much-anticipated Mot: A Memoir, winner of the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction, was released in September 2015. Many of you may remember Sarah from her days as Managing Editor of Brevity (and, in fact, she is still with us on special projects.) Recently, one of Brevity’s Assistant Editors, Penny Guisinger, sat down with Sarah for a long-distance conversation about the book, an intimate examination of her friendship with a homeless veteran who often suffered frightening delusions.

PG: The book opens with a scene in which you are going to meet Mot at the KOA. Was this the first opening scene you wrote? What made you decide to open with this?

SE: Oh, gosh, no. Not by a long shot. Like most beginning writers, I started out with a whole lot of backstory. I began the piece with what is now the second chapter and worked chronologically for a long time. It wasn’t until I started getting things down—and workshopping the things I’d written—that I realized we needed to start there. And, quite probably, the writing did need to start at the very beginning, because I needed to work my way toward that opening scene. But there is no reason to make the reader do that work, too.

PG: Can you talk about the significance of the quotes that begin each chapter?

Sarah Einstein

Sarah Einstein

SE: People figure out the world in different ways; some through religious practice, some through work, some through living in community. I figure the world out by reading, and during the writing of this book, I had a lot to figure out. The authors I turned to, then, needed to somehow be present in the book itself, and the epigraphs are an attempt to do that.

PG: It’s interesting that the book is clearly your memoir, yet it’s named after another character in the story. Can you talk about that decision? Did you ever consider not naming it Mot?

SE: I tried, briefly, to find a different title for the book because I had also published an abbreviated version of the first several chapters under an essay of the same name. But I never found anything else that I thought framed the piece in the right way. This is a memoir in which the central character really isn’t the narrative character, and I wanted to make that clear to the reader from the start. Using his name for the title was the only way I found to do that.

PG: I think one of the most interesting things to know about any piece of creative nonfiction is this: what didn’t you include? Were there threads to the story that felt important at the time or during early drafts that had to be removed in service to the book?

SE: I’m a pretty minimalist writer, and for me the process was more about adding to the skeleton narrative that I developed early on rather than taking away threads that ended up not going anywhere. In early drafts, there was almost nothing about my life away from Mot, because it took me a while to understand that the reader needed to place my friendship with him within the larger context of my life at the time. I was resistant to this, because my fear was that too much of that could turn this book into exactly what I didn’t want for it to be: the story of a white middle-aged, middle class woman who finds truth through her friendship with “the other.” And that really isn’t the story at all. I wanted the reader to see Mot, not me.

Penny Guisinger

Penny Guisinger

PG: CNF writers are often in the position of telling other peoples’ stories as we tell our own. How did your ex-husband feel about your portrayal of him and/or of your marriage to him? Was there any fallout that you had to manage?

SE: I doubt very much that he has, or will, read the book. While we were still married, and I was working on early drafts, he told me to write what I needed to write and not to worry about what he thought about the work. And I’ve taken him at his word. But we are each now happily married to other people, and really not in one another’s lives any longer.

I did try, though, to be fair. To own my own failings and to explore how we both were lousy at being married to one another. Which doesn’t make either of us lousy people. Just people who mistook a single shared passion as an adequate foundation for a marriage, which it is not.

PG: At what point in your relationship with Mot did you know you would write a book about the experience?

SE: So, the writing of the book started out as a kind of intellectual sleight of hand. If you tell people, “I’m going to go visit my friend Mot in his homelessness in the American West,” they get alarmed and do their best to talk you out of it. If you add the phrase, “…because I’m going to write a book about him,” though, then suddenly everyone claps you on the back and says that’s a fascinating idea. So, I started saying I would write the book very early on.

But, of course, saying you’re going to write a book and actually writing one are very different things. I took copious notes from the start (because I don’t like to lie, and I said I was going to write a book, so I needed to take notes), but in truth I never thought I’d actually finish the manuscript, much less manage to get it published. Writing a book seemed like a very big thing to me then, bigger than I believed myself capable of at the time. And so I don’t think I knew I was going to write a book until I had finished the first polished draft of it. Up until then, I was pretty sure I was just faking it, first to have a way to explain my travels with Mot to other people, and then to manage the loneliness of his leaving.

PG: One of the things I love so much about the book was this narrator’s unfolding awareness that her efforts to “save” Mot are actually efforts to save herself. It’s a requirement of the memoirist to have that duality of brain – to be able to record in-the-moment experience while also analyzing it from afar. Did you have that awareness as the events of the book unfolded? Or was uncovering that realization part of the writing process?

SE: One of my biggest struggles with this work was trying to make myself known to the reader on the page, because in many ways, I’m not a very self-reflective person. It’s a genuine personal failing of mine. People would ask, “Why are you doing this?” and for the longest time I couldn’t think of an answer beyond, “Because it’s interesting to me.” At the time of living these experiences, that seemed like enough to me, and I didn’t try to puzzle out a why.

But every early reader—and I was lucky, my early readers were excellent writers and pioneers in the genre, including people like Kevin Oderman and Brevity’s own Dinty W. Moore, so I knew enough to listen to them—kept insisting that I delve deeper. And it was only in later drafts, when I had some distance from the events, that I came to realize how much of my friendship with Mot was also about reclaiming parts of myself I’d lost to a lousy job, a failing marriage, and just the ennui of middle age. But, having said that, I also hope it doesn’t get lost that Mot was my friend because he was a generous, intelligent, entertaining person who cared for me as deeply as I cared for him, and that the point of the friendship was always and only the friendship itself. But I think that every significant relationship changes us in important ways, and in this case, I was lucky to have been changed for the better.
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Sarah Einstein is the author of Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press 2015), Remnants of Passion (Shebooks 2014), and numerous essays and short stories. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Best of the Net, and the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is also the Special Projects editor for Brevity and the prose editor for Stirring: A Literary Collection. 

Penny Guisinger is the author of the book Postcards from Here, which will be released by Vine Leaves Press in February 2016. Her essay “Coming Out” was named a notable in 2015 Best American Essays. Other work has appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Guernica, the Brevity blog, Solstice Literary Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, multiple anthologies, and other places. She is an Assistant Editor at Brevity, the founding organizer of Iota: The Conference of Short Prose, and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine.

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