I Agree to Write Elena’s Memoir, Elena Vanishing

Elena Dunkle several days after her miscarriage

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This excerpt starts on page 419. A few days before this episode, Elena had cut herself badly, and she and I had reached a real low point in our relationship. Then, the day this episode took place, Elena and I attended Family Day at her eating disorder treatment center. The programs there opened my eyes to how much I didn’t know about anorexia nervosa and about my own daughter.

Elena and I drove home in silence. My head hummed and whirled with all the new information I’d learned. I thought of my earlier decision: I’m done! She’s a closed book. I thought of how I had thrown up my hands and told myself that no one could understand my daughter.

But that was the coward’s way out. Understanding was possible.

It had to be possible—because it was necessary.

But how? I had tried, hadn’t I? I’d tried, and I’d failed. Elena and I didn’t talk anymore. We’d lost the energy to talk.

How could we bridge the gulf between us?

Understanding. My brain knows only one way to get to understanding. When I have a question I can’t answer, I write a story. I watch my characters, and I learn from what they do. Over the years, my characters have taught me many things I’d never even begun to guess before working with them.

And Elena has the mind of a writer, too.

Since the Summer from Hell, Elena had wanted to write a memoir about her anorexia. She’d asked me every few months if I would help her. Each time, I had told her no, that this was her story to tell, not mine.

But was that really what was behind my no?

Wasn’t I really just pushing all this away? Wasn’t I just refusing to get involved? My telling her to write the story herself was a way of saying (to myself, at least): This isn’t my problem. This is somebody else’s problem. And I have problems of my own.

Now, as I drove, I turned my mind to look at my characters, one by one. Paul, my werewolf woodcarver, pale and sick with his deadly contagion, afraid for those around him. Kate, plucky and serious, determined to figure out a way to vanquish goblins. Poor little Izzy, the ghost without eyes who had been my wayward daughter Valerie. Martin, whose adventures had gotten tangled up in my own unhappy life.

As I’d written about them, I’d learned things that no one else around them knew. I’d discovered things—all kinds of things—that even they didn’t know. I loved all my characters, even in their weakest moments. Even the villains had a chance to tell me their side of the story.

Had I been denying my own family this same closeness?

Elena and I reached the orphanage, and I parked the car in the horseshoe-shaped driveway. It was going to be a busy night here. There was only one spot left. In silence, Elena and I walked past grandparents talking on their cell phones, past a father pacing the hall with his fretful baby, past a trio of children running by with dollar bills in their hands to feed into the vending machine.

I unlocked our door. Elena walked in and dropped her backpack by her bed. “I’m glad that’s over!” she muttered, stretching.

I was still standing by the door.

I should say it, I thought. But it was going to be hard—I could see that already. It would be harder than anything I’d ever tried. Maybe I couldn’t do it. Maybe I didn’t have enough of the gift.

And what would be the cost if I failed?

But then again, what was the other option? Keeping my head in the sand? Protecting myself? Leaving my own daughter to carry her burden of stress and pain while I played with my imaginary friends?

“Elena,” I said, and there was something in my tone that made her stop and look at me. Probably I sounded like I was about to deliver one of those “mom” pronouncements that make children want to roll their eyes. Yes, that must be it because I could see Elena’s face falling into her polite, distant mask.

And I thought, I do not see how this is going to work.

“Elena,” I said, “you’ve asked me to help you write a book about your eating disorder. If you still want me to help you, I will.”

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of Elena a few days after her miscarriage copyright 2009 by Elena Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted in Anorexia nervosa, Books and reading, Creativity, Elena Vanishing, Hope and Other Luxuries, Writing craft | Leave a comment

Folklore and Psychology

Mermaid Fountain, Allerton Garden, Kauai

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This excerpt, beginning on page 404, conveys a concept near and dear to my heart: the stories we gravitate toward reveal aspects of ourselves that we don’t consciously understand. This episode took place at a particularly bleak time in Elena’s therapy. She was on an enormous quantity of psychiatric medications and was a somnambulant shell of her former vivacious self. I was staying with her in lodging while she underwent full-day therapy at an eating disorder center about a thousand miles from our home. The therapy wasn’t going well.

It was the morning of our weekly family-therapy appointment, the one day a week when I got to have a pleasant chat with a real living, breathing person who was looking me in the eye. Today, Susan, the therapist, leaned toward me and remarked brightly:

“Elena says you think she’s possessed by a devil.”

Well, isn’t that lovely! I thought.

Elena and I had been at Clove House for about a month. She was marginally more wakeful but still very subdued. To me, she seemed like a zombie, and our relationship had gotten so bad that neither one of us tried to converse anymore. Elena wanted to go home; I wouldn’t take her. That was where things stood.

It was true that I hated Elena’s eating disorder so much that I pictured it as a devil. My imagination showed it to me as a big, ugly, flabby demon with shiny, sweaty skin, crouching at the center of her soul. It opened its wide, froglike mouth and guzzled down great gulps of loneliness and isolation. It grew fat and sleek on her misery. Meanwhile, it let fall just a few crumbs of peace now and then—just enough shreds of satisfaction to keep Elena working hard to feed it that feast of hunger and pain.

Of course, Elena knew perfectly well that my imagination showed me everything in images like that. It pictured problems in metaphor and story. That’s how I could write. But Elena must have known that Susan wouldn’t get this, and she hadn’t made any attempt to explain. She must have gotten a good laugh out of telling Susan about this devil and watching the therapist’s shocked reaction.

Possessed by a devil—what a stupid thing to say!

“Well, I certainly don’t think Elena needs to go through an exorcism with bell, book, and candle, if that’s what you mean,” I said.

Susan tilted her head, very professional and interested and coy.

“Can you tell us what you do mean?”

Us? There was no us, as Susan knew perfectly well. Elena was sitting beside me on the couch, but mentally, she was a world away. Her eyelids were drooping, and she had sunk into the cushions. Ten to one, she was already half asleep.

That left Susan, and Susan had brought this topic up with that slightly smug smile that says, Until proven otherwise, I am going with the assumption that you are a superstitious, ignorant moron.

Oh, yeah? I thought.

Time to open up a big ol’ can of academia.

“You know I’m a writer,” I said. “My writing is based on folklore—on myths. These are the oldest stories we have, and even today, we still can’t stop telling them. They center on themes that are ancient and universal. Pluto drags Persephone off to the underworld; the Phantom of the Opera drags Christine off to the caverns below Paris.”

In my mind, my goblin King brushed his striped hair out of his bony face and gave me a wry smile.

You, too! I told him, and he nodded.

“Stories like that exist in every country, in every language,” I went on. “I think they explain how we deal with the psychological demands of our world. They may even have to do with how our brains are wired.”

“I see,” Susan said cautiously.

I could tell that Susan was disappointed. She’d probably been angling for emotional hot buttons between Elena and me. Maybe she’d hoped for a nice knock-down-drag-out fight over religion. But Elena was almost asleep. And I wasn’t a professor’s child for nothing.

“When it comes to anorexia nervosa,” I said, “the first thing I think of is Ophelia. Did you know that Ophelia-style mermaid stories occur all over the world?”

Susan fidgeted. “Ophelia isn’t a mermaid.”

“The story repeats all over the world,” I said again. “Ophelia is just the best example. Think about it: think about who Ophelia is. She’s the girl who’s been used and tossed aside. She more or less admits that she slept with Hamlet, and she may even be pregnant. Then Hamlet turns on her. He tells her that he doesn’t love her and won’t marry her, and that she can’t marry anybody else, either. Presumably, he’s reminding her that she’s no longer a virgin. He insults and humiliates her. He even kills her father.

“So Ophelia does what wronged girls and unwed pregnant girls have done since the oldest days of story. She finds some water nearby, and she drowns herself.”

Susan glanced at Elena. “But to get back . . .”

“Compare that to the Little Mermaid,” I continued, ignoring her. “And I mean the real Little Mermaid, not the Disney one. Andersen’s mermaid gives up everything to win her prince—not unlike Ophelia. But her prince doesn’t love her. She even has to dance for him and his bride on their wedding day. Her sisters try to persuade her to kill the prince, but she throws herself into the water instead.”

As I spoke, I remembered the day when my mother first introduced me to that story, the story where the mermaid doesn’t win her prince. So powerful was the spell it put me under that I could remember everything about where I was with the new book she had bought me: in my parents’ room, sitting on the edge of their bed as the two of us turned the pages. My feet were swinging. They didn’t touch the ground. That book was a board book, I was so little. It was designed so preschool children wouldn’t spoil the pages.

A preschool board book about a woman, brokenhearted, unlucky in love, who can either commit murder or lose her own life. Wouldn’t Susan have a field day with that!

Not that she would ever hear about it from me.

“So, I ask you,” I went on in my blandest lecturing voice, “why has the legend of the Little Mermaid stayed with us? Why is Ophelia one of the most memorable teenage girls in literature? Why are there pools all over the world, watched over by the spirits of drowned girls who pull men down to their deaths?”

Susan’s brow furrowed. “Pools?”

“You’ve never heard of a rusalka?” I countered. “That’s either a drowned girl who was wronged and killed herself, like Ophelia, or a water nymph, like the Little Mermaid. Either way, the rusalki are predatory spirits that haunt sources of water, and they drown men without pity. Deadly female water spirits show up all over Europe and Asia. I know of a mythic water demon like that from Hawaii.”

Susan leaned forward, intent again—but probably just intent on bringing this lecture to a close. She asked, “But how does this ‘water demon’ relate to you and Elena?”

That was a good question.

I didn’t know.

“It’s a pattern,” I concluded. “An age-old human pattern, like Pluto kidnapping Persephone. But this particular age-old human pattern has a special meaning for Elena. She surrounds herself with images of mermaids.”

And she didn’t even grow up like I did, I thought, with the tragic mermaid who loses her prince. In her generation, they’ve tampered with the story to make it work out to a happy ending.

When was it? I mused. When did my daughter first start showing me pictures of mermaids and Ophelias? She would do Internet searches and scour library books to find them. Most important was Millais’s famous Pre-Raphaelite Ophelia, so delicate, surrounded by flowers. Her clothes spread wide, and mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up . . .

Was it? Yes, it had to be. It must have been after the rape.

Would I be sharing that with Susan?

No.

“So, if you sum up the patterns,” I concluded, “the mermaid/Ophelia embodies a history of sexual violence or mistreatment. She wanted a normal life, but it was a man who took that life away from her. Heartbreak drove her into the water—or back into the water. It was a step from life toward death, and the mermaid is happy to repay the favor. Think about this: the mermaid is the strong one when she meets a human man. He’s the one who needs to fear for his life. Is that why mermaids bring mistreated girls such a sense of satisfaction? Is that why they seek out water? Because mermaids have transcended a man’s mistreatment, and now they can kill?”

Susan declined to comment. I brought up religion, she was probably thinking. I wanted indignation, vulnerability, and a reexamination in a new light of this family’s most fundamental structures. I wanted to break something open, to get something started. This has nothing to do with what I wanted.

Well, no. Because her approach had been idiotic.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of the Mermaid Fountain, Allerton Garden, Kauai, copyright 2016 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted in Anorexia nervosa, Books and reading, Folk traditions, Hope and Other Luxuries, Jungian archetypes, Writing craft | Leave a comment

Line-edit Stage of The House of Dead Maids

Flower from the Canadian Rockies

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This excerpt starts on page 395. Elena was in treatment at Clove House all day long, seven days a week. I was living with her in a small room in a former orphanage and driving her back and forth to treatment. Elena was so drugged out from all the medications they gave her that she couldn’t stay awake. She could barely even speak. I was lonely and beside myself with fear over whether Elena would survive. It was a horribly depressing time for us both.

During this dark time, I was working on a dark book, doing final edits (line edits) on The House of Dead Maids. It’s worth noting that I first wrote The House of Dead Maids back in early 2006. I blogged about its beginning here. That manuscript was finally going through line edit in early 2009, three years after I’d written it. It had been sold first to Simon & Schuster and then, when my editor there left, to Holt. Seeing a book make it all the way to print often takes years in the trade publishing world.

That night, I tossed and turned. My head hurt, and I felt horrible. My peace of mind was gone, and so was my comfort.

“I don’t feel good,” I told Elena the next morning as she smoked and we watched the Canada geese. “I’m getting a cold. I couldn’t sleep last night.”

Elena flicked the ash away. There were big bags under her eyes, and her face looked puffy. “I feel like s***,” she groaned, in agreement or in competition. “My head is killing me.”

“It’s going to rain again,” I ventured after a minute. “More thunderstorms on the way. No wonder those great big peripatetic geese don’t need a pond.”

Elena rested her aching head on her hand as smoke dribbled out of her lips. She didn’t bother to come up with a reply. And when she went to treatment, she didn’t bother to change out of pajamas, either.

“Why get dressed,” she muttered, “if I’m just going to sleep?”

The next day, or maybe a day three days later, or maybe a day a week later (they all felt the same), I dropped Elena off at Clove House and went back to the room to read manuscript printouts.

The Wuthering Heights manuscript full of ghosts that I had written when Valerie ran away was back again, all grown-up like she was. It had reached the line-edit stage, the very last stage before my editor passed it along to the art department and it got made into a book. All I needed to do at this point was to make sure that every single word sounded perfect.

That was good because it distracted me from the fact that I had no other writing to do. Since bringing Elena to Clove House, I hadn’t found the time or courage to start another new manuscript.

Now I carried the printout to the bed, picked up my red Sharpie fine-point pen, and got to work.

I was not the first girl she saw, nor the second, and as to why she chose me, I know that now: it was because she did not like me. She sat like a magistrate on the horsehair sofa, examining me for failings.

“I mustn’t take a half-wit, though,” she said reluctantly, as if she would like to do it. She seemed to consider idiocy the greatest point in my favor.

“Oh, our Tabby’s no half-wit,” countered Ma Hutton. “She just has that look. You did say you wanted to see an ugly one, miss.”

Miserable and sick, blowing my nose until tissues littered the bed, I lingered long and lovingly over this manuscript. The descriptions were so firm and decisive. The characters—even the dead ones—were so vivid.

Could it be true? Was this really my writing?

In the safety of my room, I stood for a while and stared out the window. Thunderclouds massed behind the suburb and rolled in over the deserted playground. Rain hissed down on the gray sidewalk outside, and then hail tapped and rattled on the glass.

The chipmunks and the geese were gone.

If I were at home, Joe would be making special runs to the grocery store to bring home medicine and snacks for me. And Valerie wouldn’t let me hold baby Gemma with this cold, but she would bring me cups of tea. She might even show up at my bedroom door and say, “Get dressed, woman! Dad called and got you an appointment. I’m driving you to the doctor.”

But Valerie and Joe weren’t here, and I didn’t have the strength to go down the hall to the kitchenette and make that tea myself. So I huddled under the blankets and shivered and reached for my line-edit printouts.

Soon I was safe in familiar scenes I’d plotted three years ago, watching two little children play with their dolls by a crackling fire while ghosts crouched in the shadows nearby. I let myself get lost in the story, as if it weren’t my work at all but an old book I’d found in a forgotten corner of a library.

Did I really write this? It sounded so confident—so unlike the person I’d become.

Would I ever have the nerve to write like this again?

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of a flower from the Canadian Rockies copyright 2010 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted in Books and reading, Characters, Editors, Writing craft | Leave a comment

Elena Asks for Help with her Memoir Again

San Francisco skyline from the shore near Fort Baker

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This excerpt comes from page 374. By this time, Elena was a residential patient again at an eating disorder treatment center we’re calling Clove House. She had finally revealed an important trigger in the development of her eating disorder: she had been violently raped at thirteen years old by a stranger at a party. Then, the year before this excerpt, when Elena was working in the college dorms, she had revealed her anorexia nervosa diagnosis to her bosses and peers as part of a diversity training session held by the counseling center. The very next day, Elena’s boss had demanded that she see a psychologist and had asked that psychologist if Elena was fit to do her work. The day after that, she had fired Elena.

The shame and fury of this unjust firing had brought back Elena’s eating disorder with a vengeance. She had spent months taking out her rage on her own body. Sadly, Elena had then become pregnant, but the eating disorder had so damaged her health by that time that she had lost the child.

It was at this point that Elena again asked me to help her write her memoir. She wanted her story told, but she couldn’t face the pain of it herself.

At that point, neither could I.

Clove House had done medical testing. Elena’s eating disorder had stunted her bones. She would never have the height or the full woman’s figure she should have had. It hurt my heart to know that, to know this had happened on my watch. But we had trusted Dr. Eichbaum. We had trusted his diagnosis: ambitious, dramatic—but nothing to worry about.

So much to look back on. So much to regret. And maybe Elena was thinking the same thing.

“I’ve been working on my memoir,” she began.

“Good for you!”

“We have lots of time to write in our journals,” she said, “so I’ve been trying to write things down. But I can’t. I just can’t do it.”

Immediately, I slipped into writing-workshop mode. “Maybe you’re overthinking it,” I said. “You don’t have to hunt for big words or perfect explanations. It can be as simple as the stories you’ve told me tonight: just think how you would say them to me, and write them down like that.”

Elena broke in on this well-worn advice. “No,” she said. “It isn’t that I can’t write it. I just can’t do it.”

She turned back from the view of the window and glanced my way, and for a fraction of a second, the pain she was in shone out through her eyes. It seared its way into my soul.

Raped at thirteen, a goofy, silly girl, unable to defend herself or shed the shame. Locked up and bullied in one hospital after another, until her trust in authority figures was broken. Stressed out, pushed along through high school and college, forced to pretend that she was in complete control, that she had this, that she could get past it. Betrayed by her bosses at the university after all her hard work, belittled for the very condition she couldn’t control—for the one part of her ambitious existence that she had carved out to belong to her, that was nobody’s business but hers. And then, the baby, her own little butterfly baby, with its own light, perfect heartbeat . . .

Yes, I could understand why she couldn’t do it.

“Well . . . Maybe it’s just not time yet for your memoir,” I said awkwardly. “It’s something that can wait until you’re ready.”

Elena looked back at the view outside. Her brows were furrowed. She was chewing on her lip.

“I just wish,” she said, “that you could help me.”

And that pain seared through me again.

“I—I just think that it isn’t my book,” I said. “It’s not what I’m good at, not at all, it’s the way you think, it’s what you do well. I’m right here, though. I’ll read what you write. I can help you write it . . .”

Elena’s expression didn’t change. “Sure,” she said, and she let the matter drop.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of the San Francisco skyline from the shore near Fort Baker copyright 2016 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted in Anorexia nervosa, Elena Vanishing, Writing craft | Leave a comment

Pulled in Too Many Directions

Duck family near Arnhem, The Netherlands

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This excerpt, from page 304, follows closely on the last one. I was struggling to complete any writing at all while I watched my daughter becoming dangerously ill. But my publishing house and I were trying to complete work on The Walls Have Eyes. I had deadlines. The work had to get done. To this day, I can’t reread The Walls Have Eyes without feeling nightmarish amounts of anxiety and guilt.

Elena and I sat and chatted and swapped favorite songs and YouTube videos for half a happy hour or so. Then she gave a yawn. “I’m going to go lie down,” she said. “I’ve been up since four, studying.”

“How about letting me fix you a little lunch,” I offered. But I already knew what the answer would be.

“Nah, not right now. Later.”

Later . . .

That meant never.

“I could do with a break,” I said, following her across the living room. “How about a Sherlock Holmes?”

Elena and I both adored Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes. As far as we were concerned, he had been genetically engineered to play that role.

“Okay,” she said. “But I get to pick which one.”

“Caramel corn?” I offered, turning back to the kitchen.

“Yeah!” she answered.

Yes! I thought. A win! And I sprinkled the caramel corn into two bowls with a generous hand—even though I knew I would be the only one to finish mine.

Sometime later, my daughter finally headed off to bed, and I returned with the stacked bowls to the kitchen. I snacked on the rest of her caramel corn while I opened up my laptop again. Martin’s story was going through final edits, under deadline. I had to do my writing!

I opened up the file again, stared at the black letters against white, and waited for my imagination to bring me the right film. I waited while it flitted through scenes of YouTube kittens and the Sherlock Holmes episode. He was brilliant! That nervous twitch, the sudden turn of the head away from the villain . . .

Now I was seeing the interior of the pantry. Was there anything in there that maybe Elena would eat later tonight?

I closed my eyes and took a long, calming breath.

Finally, the turbulent rush of images stilled, and I could focus on the text again. I was in a dusty room. Martin had a lump in his throat. He was hugging his dog . . .

“Mom!” Elena yelled from her bedroom. “The cat peed in here again, all over my pillows!”

And poof! Martin was gone.

“You’ve got to keep your door shut!” I called back.

“I do keep my door shut! They sneak in!” Which was certainly true. And they were my cats, after all.

I set aside my laptop to go retrieve the pillows and wash them. That’s a good use of time, too, I thought, perking up. I’ll separate the laundry. It’s starting to pile up. I’ll wait to work on this file until the house quiets down tonight.

Anything to put it off. Anything to keep from living through Martin’s sadness as well as my own.

“Close the door,” Elena murmured as I carried the offending pillows out of her room.

Lately, Joe and I had been discussing a plan with our Georgia kids. Clint was scheduled to go into Air Force basic training in the spring. Valerie’s lease would be up in March. We’d offered to bring Valerie out here to live with us while Clint was going through his training. But this thought awakened a new swarm of worries in my mind. So much needed to get done—

Specifically, Martin’s book needed to get done.

Joe knew this, too. At dinner, he asked, “So, how much writing did you get done?”

“Not too much,” I said, thinking with guilty misery about the neglected file. “I don’t know where the time went.”

Where had my time gone today? What had I accomplished? A few pages of edits, a bowl and a half of caramel corn, and three loads of laundry.

Joe didn’t comment, but I could see the disappointment on his face, and that disappointment hurt. I just wasn’t very good at balancing my priorities, I thought. I didn’t have the knack of pleasing everybody at once.

Joe and I washed the dinner dishes. Okay, no more commitments now. I would get to that file—very soon. But first, I would practice piano, just for a few minutes, just to clear my head. That would take my mind off my worries.

Or would it?

Lately, even the piano made me feel guilty and unhappy. Week after week now, I didn’t seem to get any practicing done. Each time I saw the piano teacher, my old friend, I felt her patience with my lack of progress. But it hurt. I was failing even at my hobby.

Now, I ran through last week’s song over and over. My hands were so clumsy! They never seemed to be where my brain told them to be. But slowly, the plaintive melody formed under my fingers. It was a little piece in D minor. It sounded like a Russian folk tune.

As I played, my mind filled with scenes of snow. Then a city floated up among the snow drifts, all gray columns and gray stone, with a white, frozen river threading through it.

“Mom?”

There was a broad window with light shining out, golden light that sparkled like champagne. Tall men in black evening dress floated past the golden window, clasping pale women in flowing ball gowns.

“Mom.”

A peasant clumped by beneath the window, out on the icy street. His long brown beard was snowy, and his feet were wrapped in rags.

“Mom!”

Elena was at my elbow.

“Can’t you do that later?” she begged. “I was up all night studying for my exam.”

In my mind, I reached for the snow-filled city again. “But I can’t keep putting it off,” I said. “I never practice anymore!”

“You can practice while I’m at school.”

“But I don’t. That’s when I write.” Try to write, I corrected myself.

“You can write while I’m asleep.”

“But I don’t! It’s too late in the day by then!”

“Mom, please.”

The city was gone. Elena’s face was all I could see now. It was exhausted. No, not just exhausted—drawn and pale.

Remorse and worry shot through me. She’s sick again, I thought. She just got over being sick, and now she’s sick again!

“Please?” Elena said again.

So I stopped.

I need to drop these piano lessons anyway, I thought. We’ll have a baby in the house soon. And I’ve got deadlines. I need to save up my time for writing. And speaking of writing, I need to get back to Martin.

The edits wouldn’t go well, I realized with gloomy certainty. They were going to be . . .

Gloomy.

But they had to get done. They had to get done!

Anyway, it was good that Martin was facing these kinds of scenes. He needed to learn that life wasn’t going to be all that I had hoped for him. I had wanted him to have reader friends, but that wasn’t going to happen now. He would have to get used to loneliness and neglect.

Even my characters wanted things I couldn’t give them.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of a duck family near Arnhem, The Netherlands, copyright 2015 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted in Anorexia nervosa, Characters, Daily life, Hope and Other Luxuries, Writing craft, Writing distractions | Leave a comment

Sadness in Real Life Means Sadness in My Novels

Gustav, victim of the Vasa shipwreck, Vasa Museum, Stockholm, Sweden

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This excerpt, from page 302, describes a time when my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa was once again taking control and she had moved back home with her father and me. I was worried sick and miserable about her. My two cats were taking advantage of the situation to escape into the backyard as often as they could. We lived on a very quiet street with no through traffic, but I felt they weren’t safe outside.

My writing started to reflect my worries about Elena’s health and the cats’ safety. It’s no accident that today’s excerpt contains a dead cat.

After a couple of hours, Elena would get up, blinking sleepily, wrap the fuzzy blanket around her middle, and shamble off to smoke a prenap cigarette on the patio.

“Mom!” she would call about half the time. “Simon and Tor got out again!”

Would the cats be okay? It was just one more thing to worry about, but I couldn’t fight on every front at once. Joe, Martin, Elena, Simon and Tor, Valerie and Clint and the grandbaby . . . I was starting to have to pick my priorities, and Martin and the cats were losing.

Oh, well. At least the cats loved it outside. And Martin—

Martin was having to grow up.

Last year had been the most successful writing year I’d had. I had brought in almost as much money as Joe did. But this year had been completely miserable. Martin’s first adventure had come out, but the publishing house had shoved it down a hole. They had done no marketing at all. Almost no one knew that his first book even existed.

I didn’t feel it as a blow to me personally. I had never felt like a real author. But the thought of Martin and his dog Chip out there on their own, having the adventure of a lifetime . . . They should have had reader friends to go with them on that journey.

First, I had failed to help Elena. Now I’d failed Martin, too, and my sadness over these failures soaked into his world. They didn’t change who Martin was, but they changed what happened to him.

One afternoon, I sat at the kitchen table and sipped my coffee. My laptop was open, and I was rereading a marked-up Word file, working on some last-minute revisions. But I wasn’t seeing words. I was seeing what Martin was seeing.

He was face-to-face with heartbreak and loss.

Martin couldn’t make up his mind about the skeleton slumped over the table. One second, it seemed small and pitiful. The next, it seemed uncanny and horribly inhuman, and he wanted to smash it with the nearest heavy object he could find.

Rudy had told him that the people who hadn’t gotten picked for the domed suburbs had lined up to be given euthanasia shots.

“I guess I’d want to die at home too,” Martin murmured to Chip. “You know, have a little peace and quiet.”

Because skeletons were only people, after all—people who had faced the ultimate rejection and experienced the ultimate failure.

Martin plucked up the courage to come closer. Dry brown skin encased the bony hand in a glove of its own making. It lay in that flattish nest of fur that was piled up in the basket. A pet basket to match the little paw print bowls in the kitchen. A cat bed. The pale fur belonged to a cat.

A vision wove itself together in Martin’s mind of the house before the dust, when the neat row of potted plants in the kitchen had been green and flourishing. The world was ending, and people were forming long lines to get their shot. But this man with the paw print bowls couldn’t do that. What would happen to his cat? He couldn’t just put her outside and not come back. He loved her too much. So he gave his cat poison and stroked her until she lay still, and then he took poison himself. And the soft fur of his cat was the last thing he felt as he drifted away into death.

Martin’s throat ached. He knelt down and buried his face in his dog’s shaggy fur. “I wouldn’t leave you, either, Chip,” he said. “Not ever.”

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of Gustav, victim of the Vasa shipwreck, Vasa Museum, Stockholm, Sweden, copyright 2015 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

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Jungian Themes Again

Crow in front of Maximilian sunflowers, Berkeley, California

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

Other excerpts from the memoir have highlighted the fact that for me, story creation is like a guided dream. I usually discover later that my stories have been helping me work through issues that matter to my conscious and unconscious mind, in the way that Carl Jung suggested dreams did. Today’s short excerpt, taken from page 259, provides another example of that “dream” imagery.

On a cool day in November, Joe was away on one of his trips. Once again, my cats lounged beside the big brown armchair while I typed on my laptop, black words against white. But I wasn’t seeing black and white. Martin and Chip, his computerized German shepherd, were standing in a parking lot full of derelict cars.

What does a parking lot look like, I wondered, when it hasn’t been used for fifty years?

Not like a parking lot anymore. The rust-colored cars weren’t on asphalt. Weeds had sprouted and sprung up. No, not weeds, summer wildflowers. The cars were almost buried in big dense groups of yellow Maximilian sunflowers.

I smiled. I remembered playing in Maximilian sunflowers when I was little. I started to type.

Chip cavorted through the yellow flowers, then pounced. Seconds later, he came prancing up with a stick. He sidled into Martin, knocking him off balance, and whipped his bushy tail back and forth. Yellow petals went flying like confetti.

Then Martin looked up and saw the ruined skyscrapers of the abandoned downtown ahead of them. When he saw them, I could see them, too.

About a mile away, a cluster of thin buildings reached improbable heights, as if some giant hand had come down from the sky and pulled them toward the heavens. Some were faced with polished stone, still stylish and dignified. Others were faced with panels of mirrored glass. These had shattered and left dark squares here and there, so that their sides looked like surreal chessboards. Flocks of birds swooped in and out and gave their solid lines the illusion of movement.

I thought about that for a quiet minute—that ruined city.

The phone rang, and my view resolved once again into two unconscious cats and my green backyard. But I didn’t wince as I answered it. My life contained plenty of peace nowadays.

“Hey, Mamacita!” said Valerie’s voice. “I’ve got something to ask you. Do you think Clint and I are too comfortable?”

“Hello, honey,” I said. “I guess I don’t know. What do you mean by ‘too comfortable’? Comfortable sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, but we’ve been dating for almost two years,” Valerie said. “That whole time, we haven’t gone out with anybody else. We don’t even argue. It’s like we’re an old married couple already. Don’t you think we’re too young to be that settled?”

My black sheep daughter, too settled. That idea felt so good that, mentally, I took off my shoes and ran barefoot through it. Valerie, settled and comfortable, like part of an old married couple. Yellow petals whirled into the air around me.

Ruins, yes. The ruins of old structures, old habits and old ways of being. But from the ruins, new flowers were springing up. Life and growth was all around me.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of a crow in front of Maximilian sunflowers, Berkeley, California, copyright 2014 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted in Anorexia nervosa, Jungian archetypes, Story creation, Writing craft | Leave a comment

Too Much Imagination

Rooster with red eyes

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This episode, from page 254, illustrates one of the problems with the way my mind works: it automatically pictures everything that can be pictured. This helps with story creation, but it makes metaphors needlessly distracting, particularly when they don’t create a picture that makes sense.

“Helicopter parents,” the counselor said. “It’s one of our biggest challenges.”

I was sitting in an auditorium-style classroom, in a comfortable padded chair. That was new. College classrooms didn’t have padded chairs in my day. Around me sat people of my same age and situation: the men with thinning hair and the occasional streak of silver; the women with short, discreetly dyed, practical styles.

This group of steady grown-up types had come together for our children’s college orientation weekend. Our youngsters were off somewhere on a campus tour while the counselors sat us oldsters down and talked to us about parenting—

Specifically, about the need to stop.

“Helicopter parents,” the counselor said, “are the moms and dads who pop by campus all the time. They show up at class. They want to know things we’re not allowed to tell them—things about attendance or grades. We call them helicopter parents because they hover. They can’t let go of their children.”

My imagination presented me with the image of a college student. He had longish hair and a bored expression, and he was walking across campus to class. Meanwhile, his two anxious parents hovered along after him. They hung in the air a few feet above and a few feet behind him, their helicopter blades gently humming.

The image caught my fancy, and I smiled. I glanced around at the nearby faces to see if anyone else was smiling, but the other parents looked grave.

As a group, we were soberly dressed, but with a few well-chosen bright touches—chunky silver jewelry, perhaps, or a kelly-green cardigan over a linen shirt. I still know how to have fun! these touches said. I’m not old yet! But in fact, our definition of fun had changed considerably since our own college days, along with many other things about us. The close attention we were all paying to the lecture, for instance: that was something I didn’t remember from the old days.

“It’s important for you to step back now,” the counselor said. “You’ve done your job. You got your children here. And that’s great! But now it’s time for them to take over.” He paused while we all pondered that extraordinary thought. “You’ve given them roots,” he said. “It’s time to give them wings.”

Roots? Wings? My imagination spun for a second or two. Then it coughed up an image of an eagle whose claws had grown into the ground. He was flapping his wings, trying to fly, but the root-claws wouldn’t let him.

Roots and wings? That made for one very unhappy bird!

And once again, I smiled.

But once again, as I glanced around, I found that no one else was smiling. The other parents were nodding solemnly.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of rooster with red eyes copyright 2014 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted in Creativity, Hope and Other Luxuries, Writing craft | Leave a comment

The Creative Toll of Arguing

Screaming Baby by Hendrick de Keyser, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

The excerpt below, from page 252, relates part of an argument Elena and I had over how much she had eaten for dinner. We had arguments like these almost daily that year; by this time, Elena was eating nothing voluntarily. They caused real problems for my writing.

“If you eat a second slice,” I said, “I’ll drive you to Barbara’s tonight. If you don’t, I’m not going anywhere.”

Cue the expected rise in volume.

“This isn’t a party, Mom! This is a study session! Do you want me to do well on this exam or not?”

I am stone. I am solid rock. I will not give an inch.

“You always do this! You always mind my business! You ruin every single meal. Well, if you won’t drive me to Barbara’s, I’ll fail. Is that what you want, Mom—do you want me to fail?”

The waves break over me, but they only push me further into the ground. I am not moving. I will not budge.

At this point, Joe finally intervened.

“Elena, you know it’s important to get enough food in your system,” he said. “You have to think of your heart. Just eat one more piece. Please.”

And Elena did it—not for me, but for her father. She ate standing, glaring at me, taking four or five swift, angry bites, and then dropped the second piece of pizza half eaten beside the first.

“There!” she snapped, and she stormed out of the room.

I don’t care, I thought as I listened to her clatter up the stairs. I don’t care that my heart’s pounding and my dinner’s ruined and I’ve got no help now with the kitchen. All that matters is that Elena has more food in her stomach. That’s the important thing. I made Elena eat. That’s what counts. It doesn’t matter how I did it.

But later, when I tried to write, I was too worn out. Stepping into that fantasy world meant making myself feel sorrow, joy, excitement, fear—all the emotions my characters were feeling. But I couldn’t do that. I was too exhausted to feel. All I could do was worry.

So Martin did nothing. He did absolutely nothing. He simply stood and stared at me while his computerized German shepherd shifted from foot to foot and let out anxious little whimpers.

Do something! I told him. I’m here for you now. I need help. I need a distraction! Distract me!

And perhaps it surprised my editor, but it did not surprise me when Martin embarked on a death-defying quest to rescue his mother.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of Screaming Baby (Cupid and the Bee) by Hendrick de Keyser, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, copyright 2014 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted in Anorexia nervosa, Creativity, Daily life, Elena Vanishing, Writer's block | Leave a comment

I hear about ELENA VANISHING for the first time

Sculptures in Keukenhof, Lisse, The Netherlands

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

In the following excerpt, from page 245, Elena Vanishing comes up in conversation for the first time. This was in 2006, and Elena was a senior in high school.

Right at the beginning, Elena asked me to help her write her memoir. But I hated the very thought of it. At the time, I was having problems of my own, and I was struggling to write anything at all.

“I want to write a memoir,” she said. “About my time in the hospital. An eating disorder memoir for girls like me.”

“I think that’s a great idea!” I said. “You have a special gift for memoir, I think. You see the stories going on all around you.”

“The thing is, I don’t know how to start.”

Several years of visits to writers’ clubs and creative-writing classes had left me with dozens of minilectures stored away in my head. I found the memoir minilecture and started it rolling.

“Well, I wouldn’t worry so much about how to start or where you’re going to end up. I’d start first by capturing vignettes: little scenes, the details you remember, character sketches, the small stories you observed. That way, you won’t lose them. Then worry later about how to string them together. That’s the least of your problems right now.”

Elena was silent for a minute.

“You could help me,” she finally said.

It was a generous offer. Sharing anything with me seemed hard for Elena these days. But—did I hold it against my daughter that my own writing was going so badly? If I did, I disguised it well, even from myself. But I didn’t consider the idea—not even for a second.

“You know I’m not a memoir person,” I pointed out. “That’s your gift, not mine. My writing mind works best when it’s escaping to a world I can make up.” And I thought of what a writer friend of mine said whenever someone hit him up with a book idea at a party: Thanks, but there’s another book I’d rather write.

“This is your book,” I reminded Elena. “I think you’ll do a great job with it.”

“But I don’t have any time,” she pointed out.

I thought of Martin’s Word file, waiting at home. Neither do I! I thought. In spite of what you seem to think, neither do I.

But I didn’t say that out loud.

“I know senior year is crazy,” I said. “That’s another reason to record the little stories. Just fit in those vignettes where you have time so you don’t lose the details.”

“Yeah,” she said. “That’s a good idea.”

That night, as I lay in bed, I thought again about Elena and her memoir. It was touching that she thought of my writing skills with such faith. It had made me happy to be asked. But—write about the Summer from Hell? Me?

There’s another book I’d rather write!

Martin’s sullen face intruded into this reverie. Or maybe not, he pointed out, considering how little writing you’re actually doing.

Poor Martin! I told him in an agony of guilt. Don’t give up on me!

As I lay there, guilty and unhappy, a vision floated up in my memory of a glorious day back from the time when the girls were still at boarding school. Back then, I had a bad cold that had deepened into a sinus infection. I was feverish and thoroughly miserable. But the scene I had been working on the night before was boiling away in my brain.

Eventually, on that glorious day, I couldn’t contain myself any longer. I had to get out of bed. I pulled on my bathrobe, made some tea to soothe my aching throat, and shuffled upstairs to the garret room and my computer.

Marak’s goblins were meeting a traditional band of elves for the very first time—which meant that I, too, was meeting them for the first time. What did they look like? How were they dressed? What did my goblins think of them? What were these newcomers thinking of the goblins?

That day, I was nowhere, and I was everywhere. I hid behind trees, and I looked into the minds of strangers. I didn’t feel aches and pains. I didn’t even exist.

Not a sound or a worry interrupted my concentration. The girls were still happy at school. Joe was working late. Our old dog and cat were sleeping like the dead.

After a while, an annoying little problem began to tug at me. Misspellings were starting to appear on the computer screen. My fingers weren’t finding the right spot on the keyboard. And why couldn’t I see my hands?

I pushed my chair back and looked around. Night had fallen while I’d been working.

I had been with my goblins and elves for ten straight hours!

I didn’t feel like an author that day—not at all. I wasn’t published yet, and I couldn’t have cared less about genres or markets. All that mattered was that I had gone somewhere amazing and had seen things no one else in the world had seen. My house was a mess, and dinner came out of a box, but I was wildly, exuberantly happy.

And that night, the night after that glorious day, as I went shuffling off to find the cough syrup, I couldn’t wait to wake up and do it all over again.

Now, as I lay in bed and agonized over Martin’s stalled story, I recalled that day with wistful disbelief. My house was tidy, but my imagination was a total wreck. I was extremely lucky if I could forget my nagging fears and worries for as long as twenty minutes. And even when I did manage to forget for a little while, I seemed to interrupt myself on purpose. It was as if falling into my other world had become a dangerous pastime. I would get close to it, just close enough to feel the gravitational pull, close enough to find myself start to light up with interest . . .

And then I would jump up and run away from the keyboard to go iron a shirt or defrost a chicken.

Maybe if I were just writing something different.

If I can’t bring myself to care about you, I told Martin sternly, then the reader won’t care about you, either.

You always criticize me! Martin said. Nothing I ever do is good enough for you.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of tangled tree limbs in the National Tropical Botanical Garden, Poipu, Kauai, copyright 2016 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted in Anorexia nervosa, Elena Vanishing, Hope and Other Luxuries, Writing craft | Leave a comment