[marginalia] The Literary Slacker :: Jen Pieroni

Reality Bites

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I knew I was actually going to finish Danceland when I kept drafting it even though I’d already realized that the structure was all wrong. Being of the “slacker generation” (see film: Reality Bites), I don’t believe I had ever before exemplified the stick-to-itiveness to see a failing project through. (See unfinished novel: Fishtival). Why did I bother this time? Because I really, really wanted it.

I was a slacker in other ways. First off, I’d quit my day job. Yes, I was a full-time caregiver to my infant son, but I’ll be honest, he napped a lot. I had a burning ambition, and although it was going cold and gray, I intended to keep blowing at it.

My problem was I’d been too loose (our teachers in the 90s called this “creativity”) from the start. I had not anticipated the shape that the final book would—or should—take. Danceland has two primary characters: a daughter and her father. I began the book writing from the first person point of view of the daughter because, hey, I was a girl once. But I’ve never been a father, and so my intuition (for slackers: intuition = first and easiest answer to arrive at) led me to write those sections from the third person point of view.

I was nearly halfway through when I realized that interspersing these points of view wasn’t working for me, but I just plowed on. It would be like 25 pages in first, 15 pages in third. Ten pages in first, 35 pages in third.

I even tried to float that first draft with a few readers, wondering (like most slackers do) if I could get away with leaving it as it is. No. Of course not. Almost everyone complained that the book was disjointed, and moreso, that the first person point of view was incredibly limiting given what they’d learned about that character. And so, as I thought about my adolescent main character, and considered my writing style, I agreed it was going to be worth the effort to rewrite that character’s sections, transforming the narrative to third person.

What this effort gave me surprised me. Not only did I have psychic distance from my naïve main character, but I also had the opportunity as the speaking narrator to emphasize that naiveté, and to do it using my own language, the language that was natural to me as I came to terms with the problems in the book.

Look, I’m not knocking those of us who came of age in the 90s. I’m just saying, it’s been nice to not slack off, and to finally have completed a book—start to finish.

pieroniJennifer Pieroni grew up in a small, rural town in central Massachusetts, studied writing at Emerson College in Boston, and now lives on the north shore of the state with her husband and son. Her fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including Guernica,Wigleaf, and PANK. She served for more than a decade as the founding editor of Quick Fiction and currently works as a grant writer in the nonprofit sector. Danceland is her first book.

DANCELAND
First Draft

Mother was a dancer. Father was a tree trimmer. Mother, I never knew. Father, yes.

Father’s truck climbed the hill early, while the night sweat still soaked the field. The mail car whizzed by the gate after lunch. The clouds took shape and passed by all day long. Father came back.

My room was up the stairs. Father’s room was down the stairs and down the stairs again. In the middle was the woodstove; the cast iron pans hanging from the brickwork; the sandy rug the cat had its seizures on. Our red house was all that was left of Danceland. We were Danceland’s survivors.

Each day I was to do a number of things. Haul the stumps from the bed of Father’s truck and keep the wood pile shoulder high. Peel and boil the meal. Mend the knees and toes of our garments. Read to Father from the yellow and brittle pages of The New Yorker and other dog-eared arts journals, reviews of Mother’s dances.

Many years slipped away.

#

I lay in bed, the muscles in my lower skipping as if to music, bringing the first day of curse, blood stick on my thighs. Downstairs, Father’s boots thumped from stove to faucet, the kettle became hot and bawled, two drawers opened and closed, the cabinet shuttered, and the front door locked. I knelt by the window and watched him sip his tea in a takeaway mug and pump the truck’s engine before bouncing over the heaves and shallows of the dirt road toward the gate.

I grew too fast, my pant cuffs now hanging mid-calf, the neck of my fisherman’s sweater choking my neck. Instead of asking again for a change of clothes, I descended the steps down and down again. On his bureau Father collected greasy wire and antennae. His room smelled like pennies and very old cold stone. I slid into a pair of his oldest trousers, the knees soft as the cat’s paw. Clothes I could run in, but not bloody, if I intended to return them.

After my breakfast of toast and tea, I opened the porch door to the field. Every morning I followed the first low flying airplane, wading through the grass in the direction of the white trail that appeared and eventually disappeared from the sky. It did not take long for the rush of a plane to fill the atmosphere. I let the porch door creak shut.

Mid-morning snakes whispered through the grass and the early insects zipped from one wheaty tip to the next. The cat followed me to a point, but then she slowed, lagged behind, until I knew she’d given up. Once the vapor trail brought me to the forest, it was often difficult to see past the treetops, so I followed my intuition.

Many days I’d spent walking the forest now. Finding a brook. A standstill pond green with lilypads. An early burying ground. A minor grove of pear trees dropping diseased fruit. I walked for some time, past the sun’s height, before resting in a warm dale.

The previous night, as I read, Father had corrected me. “Revival. Re-vive,” he said.

“Re-vive,” I repeated. “Revive. Sorry.”

“That’s OK,” he said.

I read on, before asking, “Why have you never corrected me before? I must have read this review of Mother’s more than one hundred times. Always pronounced wrong.”

“Never occurred to me,” he said, sipping wine.

“Did you teach me to read?”

“Your mother did.”

“I don’t remember that,” I said.

“And you don’t remember Danceland either.”

“I know. Remind me why.”

“A high fever. Higher than natural. It changed your mind and took away your memory.”

Father was right about my mind. Some days it was so dense, so pressurized, filled up with loud nothing bang banging up in my ears, I wished things would come clear, but I was so lost for what was real, I wouldn’t know it if I saw it.

Mother’s stage name was Doris Brody McKnight. Her legs were made of coils. Her arms were made of sand through an hourglass. Her fingers of dust that floats in the sunbeams. These were things I’d learned about her from reading.

Arabesque. Pirouette. Cambré.

I would have liked to dance, to energetically shake free of the pressure, but my legs wobbled from exertion and blood. No, dancing was not something my mother had taught me before my mind changed. I was as inelegant as the song birds drunk on poison berries, flying into the glass.

Any other day I would have turned back, to peel the vegetables, to change into clothes of my own, to care for the cat quivering on the rug, but the force was strong. I was like air behind a cork. I continued on. Past the burnt-out homes of Danceland, their stone foundations breaking down. Up the climbs and down the trails. Whoever lived here must have loved my mother.

#

Father was a tree trimmer. He worked the odd job. No one in town knew him personally. He bought donuts from the machine in the airport lobby. He trash picked. He had a gentle manner. He came and went.

DANCELAND
Final Draft

Here’s what she knew: Mum was a dancer. Dad was a tree trimmer.

Lettie never knew her mother. Her father, she knew. His truck climbed the hill early, while the night’s sweat still soaked the field. All day the clouds changed shape and passed overhead. Later, a sickle moon poked through the blue sky and he returned. His name was Frank.

He left in the morning, and Lettie stayed home. Her bedroom was up the stairs. Frank’s room was down the stairs and down the stairs again. In the middle was the woodstove, cast-iron pans hanging from the brickwork, a sandy rug that the cat, Nosey, convulsed on. Their rickety cottage, its shingles loose, was all that was left of Danceland. They were Danceland’s survivors.

Every day she was to do a number of things: haul the stumps from the bed of Frank’s truck and keep the woodpile shoulder-high, peel and boil the meal, mend the knees and toes of their garments, and read aloud from the brittle, yellow pages of dog-eared arts journals. Reviews of her mother’s performances, stories, instructions for practical living.

Years slipped away.

#

Until she was twelve, Lettie knew no fear. Then, one day, it came. She lay in bed, the muscles in her abdomen pulsing as if to music, blood from the first day of her curse on the insides of her thighs. Downstairs, Frank’s boots thumped from stove to faucet. The kettle became hot and bawled. Drawers opened and closed. The cabinets shut. Front door locked. Lettie knelt by the window and watched Frank sip his tea from a takeaway mug and rev the truck’s engine before bouncing over the heaves and shallows of the dirt road out toward the gate.

She grew too fast, her pant cuffs hanging mid-calf, the collar of a fisherman’s sweater choking her. Instead of asking again for a change of clothes, she descended the steps, down and down again. On his bureau Frank collected greasy wire and antennae. His room smelled like pennies and aged, cold stone. She slid into a pair of his oldest trousers, the knees soft as her cat’s paw. Clothes to run in.

After her breakfast of toast and tea, Lettie opened the porch door to the field. The night before, she’d decided she would follow the first low-flying airplane, wade through the grass in the direction of its white trail. It did not take long for the rush of a plane to fill the atmosphere. She let the porch door creak shut.

Midmorning snakes whispered through the grass and the early insects zipped from one wheaty tip to another. Following the vapor trail brought Lettie to the woods, where it was difficult to see through the treetops. So Lettie followed her intuition. And Nosey accompanied her to a point, but then slowed, lagged behind, whisking her tail, forgetting.

Lettie had spent her childhood here. She knew the brook, the standstill pond green with lily pads, an early burial ground, and a minor collection of pear trees dropping diseased fruit. Now she walked for some time, past the sun’s height, before resting in a warm dale.

The previous night, as she’d read aloud to him, her father corrected her. “Revival. Re-vive,” he said.

“Re-vive,” Lettie repeated. “Revive. Sorry.”

“That’s okay,” Frank said.

She read on before asking, “Why haven’t you corrected me before? I must have read this more than a hundred times, always pronounced wrong.”

“Never occurred to me,” he said, sipping tea.

“Did you teach me to read?”

“Your mum did.”

“I don’t remember that,” she said.

“And you don’t remember Danceland either.”

“I know. Remind me why.”

“A high fever. Higher than natural. It changed your mind and took away your memory.”

Frank was right about Lettie’s mind. Some days it was so dense, so pressurized, so filled with a loud nothing. She wished things would come clear, but she knew she was lost when it came to what was real. She wouldn’t know real if she saw it.

#

Her mother’s name was Carolyn Brody Taylor. Her legs were made of coils. Her arms of slow-flowing sand. And her fingers of the dust that floats in the afternoon. These were things Lettie learned about her mum from reading.

Arabesque. Pirouette. Cambré.

Lettie would have liked to dance, to energetically shake free, but her legs wobbled on the sandy rug. She was as inelegant as the songbird drunk on poison berries, flying into the time-warped glass. No, dancing was not something her mother had taught her, unless the fever took that too.

Any other day she would have turned back: to peel the vegetables, to change into clothes of her own, to care for Nosey quivering on the rug, but that day the force was strong. Lettie was like air behind a cork, pushing on past the burnt-down homes of Danceland, and over the loose foundations. Up the climbs and down the trails. The people living there must have loved her mum.

Her dad was a tree trimmer. He worked the odd job. No one in town knew him personally. He bought donuts from the machine in the airport lobby. He picked trash. His manner was gentle, remorseful. He came and went.

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