March 4, 2013


You Can’t Go Home Again




     At the age of fifty-one, with ninety-seven representative samples of my work published in what are kindly called literary journals, I sold my first essay to a major magazine.  For cash.  Three thousand smackeroos for a reminiscence of my house and standard-issue family.  Three thousand dollars.  My first impulse was to ask for payment in cash, ideally one-dollar bills neatly stacked and packaged in a black briefcase.  I forbore, but I couldn’t help thinking Ben Jonson knew whereof he spoke: it is a simple-minded thing to write for free.

“The editor says she gets 1500 submissions for every one she buys,” I told strangers in line behind me at the supermarket, pointing to the glossy cover.  “I told you we were on the right track,” I told the mailman who had carted off so many submissions from my house, a neighbor asked me if the post office had begun collecting paper for recycling.

“$3000!” I told my dear friend the famous writer.  “Good for you,” he said.  “I remember when I thought that was a lot of money for a piece.”  I beamed.  “Of course, that was a long time ago.”  He paused for effect.  “A very long time ago.”

(There.  I feel better just sharing his response with a jury of his peers.)

What I was not to feel better about were the reactions of the aforementioned family, who in the golden age of self-exposure, treasure privacy above all else, whose ordinary sins and daily habit must be treated as state secrets, not published in HOUSE BEAUTIFUL.

For years I had been writing all these secrets down.  What else would a fiction writer do?  I had been venting vintage spleen, vilifying the people who choreographed my childhood, the perpetrators of my youth, in nicely-written, if one-sided, prose, sometimes perhaps in the process, getting a bit of my own back. (See paragraph three above.)  But, I have not written to be unkind, or never only that, but rather, to get the story down, to tell my side, to figure out what happened.

And what harm have I done?  Who reads literary magazines?  Do you?  I thought not.  Well, neither does my mother, or my sister.

My problem was, I couldn’t be as confident about their never happening upon a copy of HOUSE BEAUTIFUL.  A magazine established in l896 with a circulation of 973,000 is perhaps not the most obvious repository of family secrets.  Nine hundred and seventy three thousand. That’s one copy for every 87 women in America, including my sister Arlene.  To further enhance her anonymity, I use a pseudonym.  Her real name is Eileen, or Irene, anyway, a person who claims at least 87 women as close friends – unlike her Sister the Writer who is grateful, if slightly overwhelmed, to claim five. So, given my sister’s wide acquaintanceship, it seemed the better part of valor to mention the article to her before she saw the thing in print.  More fool I.

I made my confession on a visit to Ohio. (I won’t name the town, Plainville, again hell-bent on privacy preservation, but I will say that this business of writing to protect the guilty has given me a whole new appreciation for small circulation magazines.)  So, it was in a small town in Ohio—I mean Utah— in a dry spot in a conversation rife with arid patches, that I said, “Oh by the way our family will appear with pictures in the September issue of HOUSE BEAUTIFUL.” There is no room for commas in a sentence of that size.  “I wrote about our house and all the men who left the women there. I think I might have even mentioned your divorce,” I told my sister.  She turned ashen.

“Oh Linda, you didn’t.”  My sister says these words to me at least three times in every conversation we attempt.  I am a renewable source of embarrassment to her.  It didn’t strike me as the moment to mention that I also included a verbatim copy of the note her ex left on the kitchen counter: “Dear Eileen, I just realized I never wanted to be married.  Be out by Sunday evening.  P.S. There’s no one else if that’s what you think.”  (It wasn’t: what she thought.  There was: someone else.)

“Oh, and I might have said you napped every day of my childhood,” I told my mother.  “Fiction,” I said, “You know, made-up,” although I would pretend to no surprise if more than just a handful of the 973,000 readers imagined they detected the tint of truth in the opening line: “My mother suffered from something she called lethargy, which until a tenth grade lesson in vocabulary, I understood to be a formal diagnosis, chronic and very possibly contagious.”

My confessions in that living room occasioned a mordacious silence to be followed by an eight-page letter from my sister, once and for all time, putting me in my place, cementing me there with phrases like: “You always were.” “I say this for your own good.” and “I’m not the only one who thinks so.” A letter destined to find its way into a hundred stories.

It does not escape me that by telling my story, here, I sink yet further into the morass of my family’s great displeasure, a territory I have been working, lo, these fifty years.  But my grandmother, a woman who would have reveled in the fuss, always said if they were going to hang you anyway, you might as well steal the sheep as the goat.  In my experience, they string you up either way.  You can always find someone who won’t like something.  At least you can in my family.

So why do I write these things?  Well, why does a writer. I write them because they are part of the story.  And I write stories to heal wounds and get revenge and make people laugh and manage raging-tiger feelings.  I write to get attention and approval and notice, even if it masquerades as frank outrage.  I write in order to be understood, to understand, to get them all to like me well enough to sit beside me on the sofa in the front room and remember, bring it all back, and laugh and cry together at all the parts that should be laughed and cried about.

But no.  Gertrude Stein knew better: first, leave the country, then scribble for yourself and strangers.

In the end, I have written only what was true, and not so very much of that, just details and snippets, glancing impressions to fill the story out, but, quite sufficient to occasion phone calls and long, unhappy letters from intervening aunts who will choose not to understand.  But, writing down the truth about what happened in your family will make somebody happy – in this case, a grandmother long dead – and it will always, I think, make somebody sad. I know it always does those two things to me.



Guest Blogger and Founding Member, Linda McCullough Moore

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