Sara Burnett is the author of the poetry chapbook Mother Tongue (Dancing Girl Press, 2018). Her poems have appeared in Barrow Street, Bullets into Bells, Matter, Poet Lore, SWWIM, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in English literature from the University of Vermont. She lives in Maryland with her husband and daughter.
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.
Please meet Mary LoBello Jerome. Mary Jo’s fiction has appeared in Short Story and Center magazines. She currently teaches college writing in New Jersey and is working on new poetry and short fiction. She lives in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
We published her short story “Dermis” in our Winter 2014 Science issue. She read her story at our launch event, so be on the lookout for a video when they become available. (The video is now available. Please find it below.)
Mary Jo shared these insights about her approach to the work with the title “Thinking On Skin”:
I’d been working on the story “Dermis” for a while because I was intrigued with the idea of skin as a metaphor. I knew a chemist who worked in a lab on skin samples, and she was frustrated with her job for reasons related to her career such as salary and advancement, not the emotional or harassment issues, real or imagined, that disturbed my character Mary Ann. And once I had that weirdly pleasing image – of a young troubled woman in a lab coat looking at skin – well, that’s a fertile Petri dish of narrative possibilities.
Skin. We mostly don’t think of it until it gets irritated, the same way we don’t think of our hearts pumping or the neurons firing in our brains when we taste a piece of cake. But once we slow down enough to observe anything closely, so many beautiful and frightening and perplexing questions arise. Scientists know this. So do poets and writers. For a while, I was obsessively thinking about and looking at skin. Two early discoveries: One of the fastest ways to isolate yourself at a cocktail party is to move in close during conversations to study pores or beauty marks. And, if you’re squeamish, don’t ever Google images of skin diseases.
But the role of skin as a permeable shield was the most powerful aspect of questions that kept popping up for me. I allowed the character Mary Ann to voice those thoughts from a scientist’s perspective full of awe about the miraculous biological organ we’ve evolved. Skin breathes and absorbs nutrients while protecting us from the most dastardly, pervasive and invasive little microbes on the planet. But a shield that is so permeable or easily damaged? There’s an oxymoron for you.
Further questions fell in line pretty readily as I was discovering the story while writing. What are the other shields we put up to protect us emotionally? What if one of those emotional shields isn’t as strong as we would like it to be? How does someone protect herself or create barriers between her inner world and the “real” world? In the story, I purposely left ambiguous the motives of the secondary character, Dev, the supervisor who is infatuated with Mary Ann. The serious problem of sexual harassment in the workplace is a question most women must grabble with. As a writer and a feminist, I challenged myself to set the story as fully as possible in the workplace, where our private selves – for both men and women – are necessarily concealed and protected while we get on with the practical duties we are assigned. Later, the story moves to a short scene in a mundane, public mall — another edifice that seems a natural spot these modern days to protect or lose our selves among the crowds. Sadly, we know how easily assailed these places really are. (Tragically, there was a mall shooting just one mile away from the LPR reading on the day of the issue’s launch.)
This is not to suggest that these narrative steps occurred with purpose at first. Writing is a messy process. I wrote scenes, which I revised out, that followed Mary Ann to her apartment and explored her love and family life. To paraphrase Gardner, I cut those scenes that distracted from the dream world I was conjuring. It didn’t matter in the end what her relationship was with her mother or that she did or did not have a serious love relationship in her past. The reader didn’t need to get that far under the character’s skin to believe and feel the conflict. Focusing on setting gave the story structure, and when I revised, I tried to develop the details of place to support the emotional pull without, I hope, overdoing the metaphor.
When LPR announced its science issue, this story seemed a good fit. I’m a little disappointed, however, that I didn’t have access to the recently publicized research about skin microbes. A recent story in the NY Times detailed the micro-biome of helpful ammonia-eating bacteria that live on our skin and feast on some of the odor-causing bugs that populate our extraordinary – and in my case increasingly wrinkled – natural wrapping. What interesting narrative turns could have evolved if either of the main characters in my story were just a little bit smelly? Would there have been face licking? These new scientific findings may yet cause a narrative itch that needs scratching.
Note: If you enjoyed Mary Jo’s story and want to read more poetry and prose from our Science issue, you can purchase copies of that issue and others online.