Desiree Magney: Writing from the Heart, Shaping it into Art: How Memoir Evolves into Prose

 

LPR’s publisher, Desiree Magney, offers some insight on writing narrative and memoir.

Little Patuxent Review is always searching for captivating true stories. But having a great story to tell is just the first step to writing a compelling memoir or personal narrative. What makes a memoir stand out? What gives it appeal? What makes it relatable to a larger audience? How does a good story become a work of art?

Elements such as a narrative arc, character development, dialogue, incorporating sensory detail, scene writing, and musing all contribute to making a good story a work of art, just like in fiction. But in memoir writing, the narrator is you, and the story to tell, uniquely your own. And in telling the story, a good narrator shows the reader how events created a conflict, a change, a transformative moment. We see the narrator grapple and muse and come away with some kind of reckoning of the situation. And even though the reader may never have experienced circumstances like the writer has gone through, the reader can relate to it at some level. The reader is on a journey with the narrator and sees the bigger picture.

The relevance to the reader may occur in myriad ways. For example, there may be a commonality in circumstance. In, “White Shoulders,” a story I published about my mother’s lifelong favorite scent and her decline and passing, readers may be able to relate to the link between scent and memory, to the illness or death of a dear one, or to a daughter’s guilt as she sees her mother slip away. In circumstances where a reader may not be able to relate to the specific story, there may be a larger relevance or lesson to learn. For example, perhaps not many readers of “Taking Flight,” a story I wrote and published about my daughter’s decision to study Arabic in Amman, Jordan, soon after the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, could relate to those precise circumstances. But anyone with a child can relate to the struggle of parents to let go of their young adult children, especially when fear for the child’s safety feels overwhelming.

Desiree Magney, LPR Publisher

Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story says, “Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events…What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required.”

In a class I teach at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, I delve into more of the elements that make a story engaging to a reader. My other favorite books on craft are: The Story Within: New Insights and Inspiration for Writers by Laura Oliver; Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz; Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg; and The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Our editors are looking for stories that are true, well written with all the elements mentioned above, and that connect, as memoirist Cheryl Strayed says, “to the greater, grander truth.” Send us your story.

Desirée Magney is a former practicing attorney who writes narrative nonfiction and poetry. Her nonfiction has been published in bioStories, Bethesda Magazine, The Delmarva Review, The Washington Post Magazine, Washingtonian Magazine (Washington Voices column), and The Writer’s Center – Art Begins with a Story. Her poetry has been published in Jellyfish Whispers and was included in the Best of Anthology, Storm Cycle, published by Kind of a Hurricane Press. She is the publisher of Little Patuxent Review and teaches at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Advertisements

10th Anniversary: The lightning bug versus the lightning: thoughts on word choice

This essay was originally published on November 20, 2015. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Author Matt Tompkins. Photo credit: Kori Tompkins.

Author Matt Tompkins. Photo credit: Kori Tompkins.

Please meet author Matt Tompkins, whose story “The World on Fire” appeared in Little Patuxent Review’s Summer 2015 unthemed issue. The ebook version of Souvenirs and Other Stories (Conium Press) goes on sale today. He works in a library and lives in upstate New York with his wife (who kindly reads his first drafts), his daughter (who prefers picture books) and his cat (who is illiterate). And now, Matt Tompkins:

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” – Mark Twain, in a letter to George Bainton, 1888

I think the sentiment is as applicable to our daily communications as it is to literature: word choice matters; precision and specificity of meaning are important (if frequently overlooked). In a text-heavy culture, words are often all we have to connect with one another. But it also begs the question: how do we select the right word, rather than the almost-right? I don’t claim to succeed every time, but there are some things I keep in mind, while writing and revising, to increase my odds. Here’s a sampling:

NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 17: Food.  https://littlepatuxentreview.org/issues/17-winter-2015/

10th Anniversary: A Partial List of the Voices I Stole

This essay was originally published on August 21, 2015. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

Tyler Barton. Photo credit: Natalie Morgan Sharp.

Tyler Barton. Photo credit: Natalie Morgan Sharp.

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

An excerpt from “Lease,” which appears in Little Patuxent Review’s Summer Issue:

What Miss Allens don’t realize is eleven is just two ones next together. Mean, she don’t know basic maths. One and one is two. Followed by a zero means twenty. So I walked right up through her yard, past the sign advertising the bike and slapped a Jefferson in her left hand. She spit into her bucket mean the way she does at strays, and she crumbles it up, tosses it at me. Starts shoutin.

  1. Holden

If you really want to hear about it,[1] I have this complex about third person narrators. Who the hell’s talking to me, and where the hell are they?

These are questions I started asking myself a few years ago, when I was first trying to write, feeling a need to justify my tendency toward the first person. There was something repulsive to me about reading a story or novel and picturing the words coming from a writer, narrating from her desk, or—god help me—his favorite coffee shop. I wanted the words to come from somewhere (that at least seemed) real-life. When a character is a narrator, I see them talking to me—something people do every day in my real life. They’re right there. It’s as if I just happened upon them.

NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 18. https://littlepatuxentreview.org/issues/18-summer-2015/

10th Anniversary: Concerning craft: Making Macular Conception

This essay was originally published on November 20, 2015. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

 

 

 

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Destiny O. Birdsong, MFA, PhD

Destiny O. Birdsong, MFA, PhD

I’m a crime TV junkie, and some of the most disturbing stories I’ve ever watched involve fetal abductions: the kidnapping of an unborn child, usually by removal of the fetus from a pregnant woman’s body. Fetal abductions are almost always committed by women, are almost always violent, and the mothers almost always die, but what most fascinates me are the interviews of people who knew the assailants. Typically, when a woman commits these abductions, she has also faked a pregnancy, but family members will say things like: “She had to be pregnant. I touched her stomach, and I felt the baby kick.” The person telling the story is always so convinced. They had to have felt something. And the woman, so desperate to be expecting, must have felt something too. What power can the body harness in the midst of that much belief? Can it become the thing it is pretending to be? I’m not sure, but this is the question that prompted me to write this poem.

There have also been times in my life when I’ve been desperate to be pregnant, usually for reasons other than wanting a child. I’ve wanted to be pregnant to keep men. Or to prove my body capable of something I’m still not sure it can do. I mean, I haven’t always been the most careful, so I’ve often wondered what’s wrong with me for not conceiving. I’ve had some of the moments I outline in the poem. I’ve done things. I’ve said things. I’ve made wishes.

NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 11: Social Justice https://littlepatuxentreview.org/sales/individual-issues-2/

The Lightning Bug versus the Lightning: Thoughts on Word Choice

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Author Matt Tompkins. Photo credit: Kori Tompkins.

Author Matt Tompkins. Photo credit: Kori Tompkins.

Please meet author Matt Tompkins, whose story “The World on Fire” appeared in Little Patuxent Review’s Summer 2015 unthemed issue. The ebook version of Souvenirs and Other Stories (Conium Press) goes on sale today. He works in a library and lives in upstate New York with his wife (who kindly reads his first drafts), his daughter (who prefers picture books) and his cat (who is illiterate). And now, Matt Tompkins:

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” – Mark Twain, in a letter to George Bainton, 1888

I think the sentiment is as applicable to our daily communications as it is to literature: word choice matters; precision and specificity of meaning are important (if frequently overlooked). In a text-heavy culture, words are often all we have to connect with one another. But it also begs the question: how do we select the right word, rather than the almost-right? I don’t claim to succeed every time, but there are some things I keep in mind, while writing and revising, to increase my odds. Here’s a sampling:

Deny the existence of synonyms

No two words are the same. No two words are interchangeable. Whether the difference is one of denotation, or connotation, or simply one of syllables or sounds, no two words are equal. This point is fundamental in recognizing the importance of mindful word choice.

Determine your prime directive

In attempting to choose the right word, I find it especially helpful to consider my primary goal–the one thing I most hope to accomplish with a piece of writing. Ask yourself: Do you intend, above all, to create sweet music for your readers’ ears? Do you want to evoke the richest possible multisensory landscape? Are you trying to compose a picture of your narrator by an accumulation of consistent (or inconsistent, or idiosyncratic, or regional) diction and dialect? Do you want to tell your story in the fewest (and perhaps shortest) words possible, or do you want to pack as much detail as possible into each passage? Chances are, you’re trying to do more than one thing. But being clear about your primary purpose can be especially helpful in breaking ties–in choosing between two otherwise seemingly equivalent words.

Assonance, consonance, and alliteration

Consider this sentence:

The reluctant child shuffled her feet.

This example displays assonance in the short “u” sounds of “reluctant” and “shuffle.” But to what end? These guttural u’s might be better used in a sentence like this: “The glutton gulped down the mussels with gusto.” You can hear (and feel, if you read aloud) the repeated, fulsome dropping of the throat muscles. While this example may be overdone, I think it illustrates the point.

How about this instead:

The shy child shuffled her feet.

With “shy” and “shuffle” working in tandem, alliteration draws the reader’s attention to the soft gliding of the “sh-” sound, and to the onomatopoeic effect that’s heightened in the sound’s redoubling.

Onomatopoeia and “mouth-feel”

You might have guessed from the examples above: I like onomatopoeia. It makes my heart thump and my toes tingle. I can’t get over how it manages to transcend the adage “show, don’t tell” by simultaneously doing both–by performing its own linguistic content. A good, albeit common, example is “whisper.” There are other choices that get at the same effect: “susurrate” or simply “speak softly.” But I’d argue you’re working at cross purposes if, in describing murmurs, you choose instead to use the sharp angles and hard consonants of “talking quietly.”

Another, related quality is something I like to call “mouth-feel.” It’s a term borrowed from the culinary world, but I think it serves nicely as a writing concept. For an illustration, imagine you’re describing a piece of a broken plate. You could call it a “fragment,” which, to my mind, places emphasis on angularity (I chalk the effect up to the strongly opposed stresses on the two syllables). You could use “shard,” which foregrounds sharpness (in the same way that Schick is an evocative name for a razor). Of course, you could use “portion” or “piece.” Either of those would be accurate, but I personally find them ill-suited, as they feel significantly softer. Consider the qualities you wish to highlight, and choose a word that fits–a word that feels right.

Scansion, syllables, and stresses

I wouldn’t advocate for using formal meter extensively, or rigidly, in prose. But I do find it useful, when applied sparingly, in matching the cadence of a sentence to the activity it describes. Consider an example:

The little dog cavorted down the hill.

This is good old iambic pentameter. It’s bouncy: you can feel yourself rollicking along. If you chose instead, “The small dog frolicked down the hillside,” the basic meaning of the words would be retained but the effect would be lost. Here’s another:

The old woman tip-toed along the care-worn garden path.

In this sentence, the stresses are irregular and frequently opposed, which gives the line a mincing, hesitant feel–almost forcing the reader herself to tiptoe through it. Again, choosing words with different stresses or syllable counts would alter the effect, if not the basic meaning.

Considering diction

Perhaps most important of all, context is key. I find it helpful to consider not just who is speaking, but to whom, and when, and for what purpose. Some questions I ask myself:

      • Does the occasion call for a flashier word (like “syncopation”) or something more understated (like “rhythm”)?
      • Is the speaker steeped in, or an authority on, a certain subject? Maybe there’s reason to use medical terminology or industry jargon.

What is the time period? If it’s not contemporary, it’s probably wise to avoid slang and modern vernacular. I realize this advice, to be mindful of time period and modes of speech, may seem to some too obvious to mention, but I’m mentioning it anyway so as not to be held responsible when someone, somewhere, writes a piece of historical fiction that contains a line of dialogue such as “Verily, bro, I shall join you anon.” Or, “Prithee, what is, like, her problem?”

If you know who’s speaking and why, you can be more intentional about how that person speaks, and more successful in capturing and conveying nuances of character.

And finally

I’ll close with a disclaimer: This list is by no means exhaustive, or authoritative. These are simply some things I think about while writing. I’d be glad to hear, by way of the comments section below, what factors others consider when trying to choose the right word–when attempting to bottle lightning, rather than just catching bugs.

Souvenirs and Other Stories | Matt Tompkins | Conium Review | SBN 978-1942387060 | June, 2016 | 79 pages

Souvenirs and Other Stories | Matt Tompkins | Conium Review | SBN 978-1942387060 | June, 2016 | 79 pages

Online Editor’s Note: You can read Matt Tompkins’ in Little Patuxent Review’s Summer 2015 unthemed issue. In addition to Souvenirs and Other Stories, he authored Studies in Hybrid Morphology (tNY Press, 2016). Matt’s stories have also appeared in New Haven Review, Post Road, and other journals. 

LPR’s fiction editor, Jen Grow says “In Souvenirs and Other Stories, Matt Tompkins creates a compelling universe that normalizes the bizarre . . . Souvenirs is thoroughly entertaining, a smart and funny collection from a wildly imaginative writer.”

You can follow Matt Tompkins on Tumbler: http://needsrevision.com/.

Editing for Publication: Detours on the Way

Leaving Shangrila

Leaving Shangrila

Online Editor’s Note: I first met Isabelle Gecils, an October 2014 graduate of the Stanford Writing Program, when she read an excerpt of her upcoming book Leaving Shangrila at San Francisco’s premier annual event, LitQuake. She so impressed me during her reading that I requested her card after our graduation luncheon and saved it, knowing there would be a chance to introduce her to others when her book came out. Gecils’ was born in Brazil but her immediate family hailed from six different countries: her father from France; her mother and grandmother from Egypt; one grandfather from Turkey; another grandfather from Lithuania; and a second grandmother from Poland. She grew up belonging nowhere and everywhere. She says, “There is a certain amount of freedom in that.” 

Kirkus Review declares Leaving Shangrila: The True Story of a Girl, Her Transformation and Her Eventual Escape, “The poignant life story of a woman who escaped a restrictive past to embrace an independent future.” Although it publishes on May 10, 2016, the book is available for pre-order now.

Gecils graciously agreed to share her journey to publication with Little Patuxent Review readers. 

I handed over my final manuscript of my memoir, Leaving Shangrila, to Otis, my book advisor, with a sigh of relief. A feeling of pride swept over me.

“This is great!” Otis said.

I beamed.

“You’ve built a great foundation,” he said. “Now all you have to do is build the house.”

After I’d spent ten years getting to this point how could he think that I’d only built a foundation? “The house is already built. It even has a roof.” I felt a mix of frustration and panic that three full revisions of my manuscript had not resulted in a complete structure in his mind.

“Then after you congratulate yourself for getting this far, turn on your computer, get back to your writing, and make it better,” he said.

Here’s the truth: Despite having traveled from San Francisco months earlier to ask my Portland-based advisor to guide me, I had only reluctantly accepted the advice I professed earlier that I had wanted. After his proclamation, I labored over my manuscript for the next six months under the nightly glow of my computer screen. I deleted entire sections, expanded on dialogue and scene, added complexity and depth to characters, and filled in plot holes.

Heeding Otis’ advice improved my manuscript, and I felt confident that my fourth draft was as good as I could make it. I registered for the San Francisco Writers Conference, the premier writer’s conference on the west coast which last four days.The event is packed with 100+ sessions for writers — from the craft of writing to the business of publishing.Thus, armed with multiple printed copies of a 107,000-word manuscript and a book proposal — drafted with guidance I obtained from a Google search on how to write proposals — I arrived with a singular purpose. My goal? Find an agent and a publishing deal for Leaving Shangrila.

To achieve this goal, I registered for speed-dating sessions with agents. Ironically, these sessions fell on Valentines’ Day. To prepare, I first attended a panel where the agents introduced themselves and talked about the genre in which they were interested but, most importantly, their criteria for showing interest in an author and her work.

“You have one chance – and only one chance – to impress me,” said one agent.

My palms felt sweaty.

Another agent added, “Your book must have a hook from the very first paragraph. If it doesn’t, your manuscript will get its 10 seconds of fame before I place it in my discard pile.”

The agents fed off one another as if scaring aspiring authors was some kind of sport.

“This must be your very best work – no typos, no grammatical errors, no half-developed characters, no holes in the plot,” the next one said.

The stakes were high. Despite my bravado, I didn’t feel ready. I spent the following two days preparing for my speed-dating event, honing the pitch for Leaving Shangrila, my deeply personal memoir which I was sharing with strangers for the first time.

Isabelle Gecils

Isabelle Gecils

Then what I had longed for came true. A publisher, not an agent, said he was intrigued. He asked for a copy of the manuscript and the book proposal that I had been lugging around on my shoulder for the previous three days just in case someone would want a copy.

But I told him no.

Why? Because as I listened to what the panelists said they wanted, I recognized that my manuscript still wasn’t ready. My hook needed work. In fact, my entire book still needed revision! Despite all the efforts I had put forth to get to that point, my manuscript was not yet ready for prime time.

I spent the next month incorporating what I learned during the conference. I purchased How to Sell Your Memoir: 12 Steps to a Perfect Book Proposal,” by Brooke Warner, and wrote a brand new proposal.

Only after this latest revision was complete did I send the newly polished manuscript and the book proposal to the two publishers I met at the conference. I also wrote query letters to agents who had shown some interest, and to a few who had not, feeling confident that now that I had refined my pitch, they might reconsider their previous lack of interest. And within a little over a month, Leaving Shangrila had not one, but two offers!

I still wasn’t finished: the publishers said that they would publish my book, provided that it was professionally edited first.Recognizing that I had done the best I could, I hired a professional. After another two months, I held the sixth iteration of Leaving Shangrila on my hand.

Transforming the manuscript into a book is a wonderful, but lengthy process. After a few months had gone by, I received the beautifully designed interior proof that showed me what my book would look like. Feeling such excitement, I randomly opened the interior proof pages, took a picture of it, and immediately posted it on Facebook, happily sharing about this huge milestone.

Within minutes, I received comments from my many friends. “This is great.” “This is awesome.” “You are an inspiration.” Feelings of pride and more than a couple of tears of happiness fell.

While basking in my glory, one message arrived that knocked me off my perch.

“You used a word incorrectly,” she said, pointing it out, not just to me, but all my friends, how I mistakenly used the work “bellied.”

While pondering how could we have missed this error during the editing process, things got worse. I received another message within an hour, pointing out an obvious typo. No one seemed to believe that this book had been edited six times.

Here we were one day away from sending the final proof to the printer. I read the manuscript to find more errors. Unable to see them, I hired a proofreader.

She found 100 errors!

Naturally, I complained to my editor.

“We’re all humans, after all,” she said. “One hundred errors in a 107,000-word manuscript is a 1% error rate. It’s to be expected.”

But I couldn’t accept it. I instinctively knew that this many mistakes would end my writing career before it even started.

In sharing my despair with a friend, she generously offered to do an additional proofread. I was already behind schedule, but I felt this was the right direction to take. My friend found an additional 160 corrections!

I painstakingly fixed them all. Rather than resubmit the manuscript at this point, I followed the advice I heard (yet ignored) so often: I read the book aloud – to catch what no one could by simply reading the manuscript. Apparently, the eye places words where it expects them to be. I read every single word of my book before feeling that indeed this was the best version it could be.

I had called my book “finished” so many times only to be proven wrong, having to do more work. I felt humbled by this experience and grateful for surrounding myself with people who were willing to help make Leaving Shangrila better.

Here are the  lessons I learned:

  • Edit your manuscript, multiple times
  • When you think you’re done editing, edit it one more time, start-to-finish
  • Have other people (whom you trust to give you good advice) read your work – during and when you think it’s finished. Take their advice, and then edit your work again
  • Hire a proofreader and check her work
  • Read the book aloud to yourself, start-to-finish

And only when you checked off all these milestones can you confidently say that you have reached the finish line. Of book production, that is. Celebrate getting here. And then get ready for the next step – publishing!

Leaving Shangrila: The True Story of A Girl, Her Transformation, and Her Eventual Escape, by Isabelle Gecils, is the captivating memoir of a charmingly complex heroine. Isabelle paints a colorful world as she tells the tale of how she forged her own path in the midst of turmoil.
The story, set in Brazil where she grew up, is populated with fascinating characters, both good and bad. From a narcissistic mother to her perpetually flawed lovers to three resilient sisters, Leaving Shangrila’s motley crew make for an endlessly intriguing storyline. Leaving Shangrila begins with young Isabelle, trapped in a hellish world. Surrounded by lies, manipulation, and abuse, Isabelle is desperate to escape the adversity of this place. Filled with tremendous strength and an unyielding drive to survive, she begins her journey toward freedom and self-realization. Through the trials and obstacles along the way, Isabelle goes back and forth to balance who she is with what she must do to survive.
With themes of perseverance, self-reliance, and the resilience of the human spirit, Leaving Shangrila: The True Story Of A Girl, Her Transformation, and Her Eventual Escape highlights the important character traits one discovers on the path to finding their self. Truly empowering and inspirational, readers everywhere will relate to this coming of age story.

Concerning Craft: Making “Macular Conception”

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Destiny O. Birdsong, MFA, PhD

Destiny O. Birdsong, MFA, PhD

I’m a crime TV junkie, and some of the most disturbing stories I’ve ever watched involve fetal abductions: the kidnapping of an unborn child, usually by removal of the fetus from a pregnant woman’s body. Fetal abductions are almost always committed by women, are almost always violent, and the mothers almost always die, but what most fascinates me are the interviews of people who knew the assailants. Typically, when a woman commits these abductions, she has also faked a pregnancy, but family members will say things like: “She had to be pregnant. I touched her stomach, and I felt the baby kick.” The person telling the story is always so convinced. They had to have felt something. And the woman, so desperate to be expecting, must have felt something too. What power can the body harness in the midst of that much belief? Can it become the thing it is pretending to be? I’m not sure, but this is the question that prompted me to write this poem.

There have also been times in my life when I’ve been desperate to be pregnant, usually for reasons other than wanting a child. I’ve wanted to be pregnant to keep men. Or to prove my body capable of something I’m still not sure it can do. I mean, I haven’t always been the most careful, so I’ve often wondered what’s wrong with me for not conceiving. I’ve had some of the moments I outline in the poem. I’ve done things. I’ve said things. I’ve made wishes.

eyeSo “Macular Conception” is a story about the body’s utmost desire and belief, and the title lends itself to this. The macula is the part of the eye where light is transmitted to nerve signals that tell the brain what you see: a word, a stoplight, a baby. It’s also the point of sharpest visual acuity, where we see things the most clearly. But as a person who doesn’t have perfect eyesight, I also understand that acuity is relative: easily compromised, or often misread by the brain.

I started with the first image I knew: the speaker wrapping negative pregnancy tests in paper towels and throwing them away outside her house. She’s hiding them from herself as much as from the guy, a fact that I try to bring home when she also hides her tampons (because her boyfriend isn’t counting her tampons). I wanted to open the piece by illustrating her neuroses, and the listing of these actions with the halting sentence structure is another manifestation of that. I wanted her to be practical about all of it. I wanted her to have checklists, even as she was doing this irrational thing.

pregnancy imageI was also certain that I wanted her to be young. Honestly, I was writing back to a younger self, and I wanted to highlight that naiveté in the speaker as well as in her boyfriend. I wanted him to misread her fingernail imprints on her belly as stretchmarks. I wanted her to see a pregnancy as a “suc[cess] at failure” without truly understanding why the single mothers in her life wanted her to do something different. I wanted her to be oblivious to how dismissive (and inaccurate) a term like “failure” can be. There’s something tragic in that: a girl who wants to take on this massive responsibility but is unable to articulate independently a personal stance on what motherhood means to her. That moment is the most problematic for me in the poem (I’m always a little apprehensive of how readers might perceive it), but I chose to keep it in for that exact reason.

I also really wanted the speaker to have an orgasm, an instance when her body—in all its imagined and hoped-for failure—has a visceral reaction, like the non-existent child kicking in the would-be mother’s womb. I wanted her body to work for her in a moment when she is enraptured by the thought of her holding a part of her lover inside it. The sentence structure changes here too, and clauses get longer to illustrate the messiness of it all: the dirty bathroom stall, the child who feeds on her insides like a catfish, the boy with his painful kisses. It’s unfortunate that this is the place where it happens, when she is alone and hoping, and not with someone who wants to be with her, pregnant or otherwise—or better yet, when she is by herself in some other place, thinking about her whole self, and not about what her body must do in order to be valid. But that too is a part of her story. Not only is her desire overwhelming, but also unwieldy, perhaps because she has never taken the time to explore it on her terms.

It isn’t until the final lines of the poem that we get to something like that, but it is still a problematic moment: an articulation of self-belief, but again, for the unworthy cause of keeping “the boy,” who is only staying because he believes she is having “his” child. I chose the final image of the traffic light and making a wish because she is still so young, and this is a game she’s playing with the hopes of not getting caught, but still doesn’t understand the implications of doing so. I wanted to leave the reader with this final image of youth and self-absorption, but also of an intense, transformative belief—a dangerous combination. Like the television shows I often watch, I wanted to narrate a disaster in the making, in the instant before the light turns red, or the cop pulls out of his hiding place, or the car comes barreling toward her. And I also wanted to give her a voice before the disaster—a flawed one, but not a monstrous one. So often, I too have wanted something that badly, not knowing that my body’s desire alone was proof enough that I was human, haveable, whole.

Macular Conception
by Destiny O. Birdsong

She wrapped all the negative tests in paper towels
And threw them away at the gas station up the street.
Lined the tampons up, one by one, beneath her mattress:
Thirty-six. Doesn’t want to need them; hopes
That in the days and weeks of the summer’s bilious heat
She will succeed at failure. Failure in the eyes
Of the single mothers she knows. Especially her own.

But she wants this. She wants it so badly she imagines
Her skin stretching in sleep. She claws it feverishly,
Awakening to trails of crescent-shaped welts on her belly
That resemble a seascape drawn by the hand of a child.
The boy, who has never slept next to a pregnant girl,
Has seen them, but he believes they’re stretch marks.

The boy believes her, along with her shift manager,
All of her friends, and two of her professors.
But the stash of tampons is dwindling. She can’t buy more.
Luckily, the flow is weak—red dabs of spit.
If anyone asks, she can tell them she’s spotting.

Squatting over a restroom seat, she wonders
What her body means to say in this remittance.
The possibilities excite her. Standing, she wills
The unshed blood and refuse to knit a net,
Trapping a piece of her lover. This swimming self
Nudges against the folds of her endometrium
Like a catfish nosing algae from the walls
Of an aquarium. She can see it
As clearly as if her womb were made of glass.
She can feel its small, open-mouthed kisses stinging
The way the father’s does: teeth nicking her tongue.
And the bliss of it—the body’s obedience, and the boy—
Brings the rush she never feels. She arches, contracts.

This father, the boy who sleeps next to her, wants to leave
But now he won’t: she’s having a child. Or she will be.
She must be. Beneath yellow traffic lights, she
Scratches the sun-visor and makes a wish
That is much more like a prayer: Please,
Let it count for something that I believe
Myself. Because I believe myself.

Online Editor’s Note: Destiny Birdsong’s “Macular Conception” will appear in the Winter 2016 “Myth” Issue. Also, her poem “Selective Reduction” appears in the Fall 2015 Issue of Rove.