Rachel Stolzman

WHAT TO WRITE

Last week, in honor of the Brooklyn Book Festival, the author, essayist and journalist, Jill Dearman, re-published some of her interviews with Brooklyn authors from recent years. The funny thing about this was that in the very same week, I’d crossed paths with Jill after quite a few years, through our kids’ school and I’d said, “We used to know each other through our writing, perhaps the Brooklyn Writer’s Space, somewhere…..” In our early morning bus-stop encounter, neither one of us remembered this author interview we’d had about eight years earlier, before these bus-riders were even born.

Well, I really enjoyed reading these Brooklyn author interviews of Jill’s, and re-reading my own. One thing that jumped out at me, that I hadn’t remembered discussing with Jill, was that the author, Jeanette Winterson, is a writer who I consider an influence. Winterson is a diverse novelist, but what runs across all her fiction is surrealist poetic prose. I admire her literary acrobatics, her voice, and her skill. I also admire her subject choices. Every time a writer sets out to start a new long piece of fiction, there’s an infinite amount of possibilities akin to sky-diving at a frenetic speed, and trying to choose your next perch, a safe-landing, while your body whizzes past possibility after possibility. Before I jump, I have many conflicting thoughts, such as, I’m gonna choose something really commercial this time, I’m gonna do that young adult sci-fi idea, I’m gonna write that historical fiction book that requires five years of research, I’m gonna write a chapbook of poems about youth.

I harbor a secret belief that there’s a Jeanette Winterson novel in me that I haven’t had the courage to write. My apparent commitment to realism is overpowering for one thing. A lack of imagination, and my fear that I might have the imagination to start it, but how could I possibly sustain that level of imagination to finish it, is another obstacle. The reason I keep thinking about writing a surreal novel, in the style of a fairytale or allegory, aka a Jeanette Winterson novel, is that they are so divine to read. Her writing instigates my own imagination. She baffles and tosses around her reader into make-believe worlds that are fierce rivals of the real world I always depict in my own writing.

Lately, I have an urge to write in new genres. I’d like to work on poems, fairytales, short stories and this blog on the side of my latest novel endeavor. Maybe my Jeanette Winterson homage can get a little foothold on the page in one of these shorter forms, while I still grow the courage to make that big landing of a novel in a new and stranger voice.

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WHAT’S IN A NAME?

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You may have noticed a change in the header of this blog. It might seem like I recently married. In reality, for some people it takes precisely five years to settle into a new name. Five years ago last month, I got married. I gave only a little thought to going to a social security office in Brooklyn and changing my name from Rachel Stolzman to Rachel Stolzman Gullo. I was six months pregnant on our wedding day, and I know my decision to change my name was largely fueled by the baby on the way. It seemed like a good thing to board future airplanes with a baby and eventually kid that shared the same name as me. I vaguely imagined him going to school and wanting the school to see my name and his name as the same. I wanted the kid to have one last name not two. But, I was also forty and had been a Stolzman for forty years and I was a published novelist with my name. Somewhere in my head was the thought, “I won’t use it.” It was for documents, planes and schools, bank records, passports, it was my official name. And in fact I did not use it. I didn’t introduce myself as Gullo, or submit short stories or articles with Gullo, and so on. But pretty fast there were some credit cards, some bills, some mail and even my pay checks (!) where Gullo was popping up. I kind of looked away, confused. Neither name felt like me anymore. I thought about more important issues and let it go.

When my son was about two, I got in a car accident that was my fault. When the cops arrived they asked for my name. For the first time, without hesitation I blurted out, Rachel Gullo! Her. Not me. More years went by, still no name that felt very true anymore. I didn’t give it much thought, except when I’d call the cable company or check-in at a hotel and I’d have no idea what name I’d given. I debated what I’d use for publishing, and didn’t really decide. It didn’t matter, my novel wasn’t ready. Well recently, our five year anniversary came. And I think it’s significant that my husband and I have been paying more attention to our union lately, not just what to call ourselves, but our connection and commitment; I’m quite sure that has been part of settling into my name. Secondly, our boy talks now. Some of the things he says include, “We’re the Gullo family.” He knows me as Rachel Gullo, just as he knows himself as Enrico Gullo.

Recently several poems I wrote were accepted for publication in a journal called Sixfold. I had submitted them under the name Rachel Stolzman Gullo. When they asked for final proofs, I made a few edits to the poems and also asked that they please publish them under the name Rachel Stolzman. And finally, enough psychic and pragmatic lasers crossed in my brain and I was abruptly able to see the name that felt like me, it wasn’t Stolzman or Gullo, but both. I’d made that decision five years ago, but never actually took it in, felt it. Until now. I imagined a book arriving later this summer with my poems inside, and my name on the page header. I imagined showing Enrico, “Hey look, I wrote some poems and they’re in this book.” I imagined him saying, “Why doesn’t it say Gullo?” It’s a small thing in the scope of the universe and even in my own concerns and life, but as I changed my name on social media and on this blog header, and when I rushed to contact Sixfold before it was too late to say, I figured it out- my name is Rachel Stolzman Gullo, it felt really settled-in and nice.

WHITE PRIVILEGE

I think about my white privilege often. I think about it when I intentionally run a red light, when I ride my bike on the sidewalk or the wrong way down a one-way street, when I drink alcohol in Prospect Park on my picnic blanket, and when I self-serve myself coffee at my local Pret and decide I’ll “pay later” because there’s twenty people in line.

Alongside the deep horror and painful grief of the endless events of racist police brutality and murders, I am gladdened and also surprised by, taking note of the proliferating media coverage and political commentary on racist police brutality and racist mass incarceration. Racism in policing and in the criminal justice system is nothing new. All the attention on it is not a constant, to say the least.

In my twenty-plus years working in public health, in the HIV and AIDS field, it is a constant that we discuss racial disparities and inequalities, health and wealth disparities. There are wildly different stats in this country for premature birth, infant mortality, disease acquisition and life expectancy between black and white people. This can be attributed largely to poverty (racist economics) and the everyday stress of racism.

I attended a panel discussion not long ago about AIDS amongst gay black men, and yes, even as we discuss the end of the epidemic every single day at my office, it is gay black men who continue to have new infections of HIV and will bear the brunt of the epidemic as it winds down in America. This panel of gay, black professors, academics and physicians, referred regularly to white supremacy in their talk. I was startled by the phrase. It was used in place of where I would have expected “institutionalized racism” to appear.

But I liked them describing the bias in our American society as white supremacy. I live in a land where I can steal coffee, drink wine in public, and break traffic laws in front of the police, and not only am I not arrested and assaulted and accused of assaulting an officer, I don’t even suffer the heart palpitations and chemical reactions to stress of fearing these things.

Here’s one small example of how institutionalized racism or white supremacy has been established in our land. When FDR initiated Social Security for senior citizens in 1935, it excluded two groups of workers, domestic workers and agricultural workers. 95% of black Americans held one of those two jobs in 1935. This created a legacy of poverty where poverty was already abundant. Black senior citizens could not support themselves when they stopped working. Their middle-aged children could not acquire wealth so easily because they financially supported their parents. Without a single word about race in the Social Security bill, a huge system of government entitlements institutionalized the racism that prevailed throughout the country. It’s one small example of so many.

I’m convinced that part of ensuring an avalanche of attention on racist police brutality and racist mass incarceration- and hopefully a societal shift in attitudes and policies- is that we white people recognize our white privilege. Noticing how we “benefit” by being dominant can create a cosmic adjustment. There are so many out there that deny racism even exists anymore. I think most people do not deny it, but I think most people have a ways to go in seeing how racism has not hurt them, and what the cost of that has been.

A WRITING DAY

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Tomorrow, a Wednesday in late July will be my first day of writing, an entire day for writing, in…..an immeasurable time. I used to write on Wednesdays and Saturdays as a regular schedule, and often micro sessions in between, before having a kid. Last year, I wrote on Wednesdays (my day off from my Department of Health job) until 2:30 when it was time to pick up my son, and often his friends, from pre-k. One unintended outcome of summer camp, is that my boy’s day goes until 4pm, and hour and a half that feels like a whole other day when you’re counting writing time.

For the last ten months I’ve been revising my second novel. The way I’ve come to sum up this revision is that I re-wrote the beginning, adding a new plot-line and substantially upping the stakes of the novel. Then I combed forward the revision, including the new story-line and revising what was already on the page to fold into the new story. Eventually, I hit a wall where the end needed to be re-written, and I’ve pushed through that wall recently. The very end of the novel holds up, but I think there will be about ten new pages blended in to make it more of a ….hugely-satisfying-culmination-like-feeling of- I’m so glad I read this totally original and illuminating book! Or something like that. I am now on page 219 of what I think will be a 235 page book. For me, that fact is breath-taking.

So, a full day of writing feels not only important and necessary (writing a book requires writing) but it also feels kind of revelatory, a gift, a reward, a huge symbol of good fortune. I guess I’m really happy I have a writing day tomorrow.

BOWERY BUMS

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I’m reading about an alcohol detoxification program that began in 1967 in New York City for homeless men. It’s making me think of my grandma Lill, who was born in New York City in 1911. On payday she used to make sandwiches for the “bowery bums,” and walk down Bowery Street handing them out. She often told me, “Those men were good men and really interesting to talk to. Most of them had read all the classics.”

ARRIVE LATE, LEAVE EARLY

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Arrive late, leave early is a writing adage that you can hang your hat on. Crudely explained, it means enter your scenes (your openings especially) when the action is underway. Put the reader in front of the action as it takes place, without the reader needing to walk in half a mile to find it. Leave early is a little more elusive in meaning. But get out when the reveal/peak/climax is hot and new and not explained to the last crumb. Show your reader what there was to be gained from the story, what was gained or lost by the characters and then split. Leave the reader wanting more, not wishing you’d shut up.

I’m reading a novel right now that I want to love but I don’t. It’s a recent literary-fiction post-apocalyptic story. I’m about two-thirds through it and am starting to give up on being wowed. I couldn’t figure out why it was failing me, until I thought of “arrive late, leave early.” The novelist has chosen to arrive very, very late. How late? Well, the two main characters have gone through the end of the modern world when we meet them. I personally would have liked seeing the end of the world with them. But I understand, things ended very gradually and perhaps their story occurs afterwards. Then they finally, after two years, meet some neighbors in the woods. Then there’s this time jump to after the neighbors have poisoned their children and then themselves. I could have standed the novel being there for those events too. Then they make their way to a settlement of people- they haven’t seen more than 4 other people in years- this is exciting. The settlement has survived the raids of pirates, terrible things have happened- but it was years ago. We learn of it through dialogue. The settlers tell them. All the good plot delivered after the fact through dialogue? Years later? This is arriving way too late. It’s like watching home video of a great circus, but it’s actually footage of the empty tent after all the performers cleared out. I have often wondered how much weight dialogue can bear in fiction. I wrangle with this in my writing, not trusting dialogue to do much heavy-lifting. I like dialogue sort of as proof. You’ve established through prose who your characters are, what they’re like and then you prove it through their dialogue, or you show that they’re being disingenuous, deceitful or changing(!) by the dialogue disproving what we know. But plot-delivery through dialogue makes me wary.  This novel is almost an experiment in that. The author thought the whole book could rest on dialogue, after the fact. Why not just move the novel 4 years earlier; see the world collapse, see the pirate raiders, see the suicides? Arrive earlier damn it. I’m going to finish the book for sure. I’m still hoping something crazy will occur that wasn’t years ago. Maybe it will be the last page and the whole book is a set up for a series….

On another note. When I went running today along the Hudson River, there were two girls about fifteen or sixteen years-old, skate-boarding on the bike path. They rode plastic skateboards, mostly just scooting and gliding, nothing fancy. It was 61 degrees and overcast. They were vaguely dancing while they skated to music coming from an iphone one of them held. She was wearing an off the shoulder tiny purse too. They looked alike. The world could use more of that.

LENGTH AND STAKES

I know this from every long piece I’ve ever written. One hundred pages is your first real test. A novel allows for a lot of establishing, as well as unspooling backstory. The novel form unfolds and builds. That establishing and hopefully skillful doling-out of backstory can sustain a long momentum. But if your plot is not successfully moving forward and wholly satisfying the reader, this momentum will falter at a hundred pages. I experienced this when I wrote the first draft of my novel, The Sign for Drowning. Every single hair on my head was brown. I had only been an adult for six years. I was a writing innocent. I was intentionally writing a series of vignettes. Oh my. And things went along swimmingly- all my teachers and fellow grad students agreed- for a hundred pages. Wham. It took me about eight years to figure my way out of that lack of forward momentum. A couple of months ago, I reached page one hundred of my revision of my current novel. I wavered as I approached it. I looked in every direction for oncoming traffic intent to derail my project, and I found things were secure. The book, its plot, was solidly built and moving under its own force, and I was able to steer the narrative ahead. I passed. The book passed. About a week ago, I arrived at another junction. It happens to be page 160. I haven’t written quite enough novels to know if page 160 is a typical crossroads. But what happened here, this time, was about the higher stakes I’ve raised in my earliest chapters. The stakes are higher. This is very good news. The characters are going through harder, scarier, more threatening and immediate challenges. A gun in the first act….(actually there are guns) Higher stakes in the second chapter of this book require higher outcomes, starting on page 160 it so happens. I’ve been sitting here for about a week, wondering how to meet the stakes I’ve set up. The very end of the novel achieves what I want. But I’m not at the very end. I’m at the three-quarter mark perhaps and I sense the time is now to climb higher with the stress, the challenge, the total fear of my unwitting characters. They were pushed. They had a chance to equalize for a minute and re-group. I have to torture then again now. I’m trying to decide just how.