Writing Prompt: The Freezer

This was written in response to a writing prompt given in an MFA class last year:

“Write from the perspective of a common home appliance.”

I found that if this is read without knowing who or what the “I” is, it’s quite unnerving.  Serial killer, perhaps?  I stumbled across this on my computer today and had forgotten I’d written it, or even what it was about.  Creeped me out.  It brought to mind for me “Psycho” and someone a bit like Norman Bates.

The Freezer
by Debi

Darkness, total and complete.  Bone-chilling cold.  Stacks of frozen carcasses.  Solid ice.  The never-altering, eternally freezing, condition of my life.  Waiting.  Always waiting.  Quietly humming tuneless songs. Wondering when a flash of light and heat will signal the entrance of The Family, disturbing my solitary, frozen existence.

My downstairs neighbor receives frequent visits from The Family throughout the day.  Although my neighbor’s darkness is also complete, the blackness never lasts as long as the darkness I live in.  His cold environment isn’t enough to form ice or frost.  The fluids are chilled but still liquid.  The carcasses are preserved for a time, but not eternally frozen.  The Family worries when the small glass bulb which provides light burns out in my neighbor’s apartment.  My living space has no light source of its own.  Only when the door opens do I see the contents of my own interior.

Poem: The End of the World

This was written in response to a gallery exhibition at the University of Washington Bothell called “Particles on the Wall” which had artwork and poetry created in response to the Handford nuclear site in Washington State.  I wandered back through the gallery a second time and wrote down images and phrases that were either inspired by the work, or seen in the poetry, thus creating a response to the totality of the exhibition.

The End of the World
by Debi

I forgive
I forgive
I must forgive

Shall I show you how we dressed our wounds?
downwater downriver
terminal winds
leaking glowing circling dying

someone launched
someone drove
someone fished
and never knew

easy to bury
in the late afternoon
dragged home
bedded down
the rest of us slept
in the river’s shadow

half a million years til Spring
what fossils will the future find?
we have gone blind
we are blind
the desert eats dust
a rabbit digs its own grave

obsolete history
drafted history
voided history
closed history
engineered history

by dawn’s light

origami made from living flesh

the children unborn
carrying on the family business
cleaning up the waste
from the death beds of their fathers

this is my blood
a chalice of death
the last power
the final cover up

Book Response: Handke’s Horror Story

by Debi

Ghosts and vampires.  Werewolves and torture devices.  These are the standard fare of horror stories.  In a story with no supernatural elements or hidden bloody chambers, Peter Handke’ book A Sorrow Beyond Dreams: A Life Story evokes a true horror story. The terrifying thing about this story is that it could have happened to anyone, anywhere, anytime.  Handke’s horror story is not the frightening walk down a dark haunted passageway, but the realistic—and often nihilistic—look back at the life of a woman, his mother.

Condemned by family members and by circumstance to a life without future, without meaning, and without hope, she finally “finds herself” through literature, but in finding herself, loses her desire to live.  His mother’s final act of individuality, and perhaps her first real act of agency, was to voluntarily choose to take her own life.  Hoping to find relief from the personal horror of his mother’s death, Handke uses writing as a means to examine his mother’s life, and to keep himself active during a time when apathy and passivity could have easily overtaken him.  The desire to tell someone about her life cheered him up momentarily but was ultimately not the path to healing he had hoped.

Handke’s personal mind-boggling horrors consisted of his mother’s death, the relentless mercilessness of nature, and the rotting away moment-by-moment of life eventually leading to death.  He expressed that his horror often manifested as moments of extreme speechlessness when the horror of reality was so deep and so grave, that it was nearly impossible to describe in words.  He referred to these moments as intermittent “states” when “suddenly my day-to-day world … fell apart, and my mind became so empty that it ached.”  But that very speechlessness and need to find expression for those moments, was also the motivating factor in much of his desire to write.  By engaging in literary work he felt alienated from himself and “transformed into an object, a remembering and formulating machine.”

The detached manner that he told of his mother’s life, almost the perspective of an onlooker and not someone personally involved in the narrative, seemed evidence of his machine-like objectification of himself through writing.  Not wanting to extort sympathy from his readers, he wanted to convey the sense of “telling him a rather fantastic story,” so he told his mother’s life story in almost a once-upon-a-time format.  “It began with …”; the starting words of a classic narrative arc.  This happened.  Then this.  Then this.  A story told, not to incite sympathy, but to explain a life that ended in such an apparently tragic (although he would call exemplary) fashion.

Handke uses a variety of words and phrases to describe the horror of his mother’s story and also of his reaction to her death.  If he had stuck with only the word horror to describe what they were experiencing, the full impact of what the horror was and how impactful it was may have been lost to the reader.  It might have almost seemed like an exaggeration for dramatic effect.  He described his own horror as incomprehensible, uncommunicable, impotent rage, tempests of dread, mercilessness of nature, and undirected objective horror.

His mother’s personal horror was described as coming from being the eternal loser, the weaker half, poverty, wretchedness, too miserable to complain, no future, alone with the four walls, no future, strangulation, and that mere existence was torture.  By adding specifics to the general concept of horror, the reader is able to feel and relate to the true horrific nature of what was being described.  If someone read the story and simply felt it was a sad tale, they would have missed the wretched helplessness and incomprehensible grief and horror that became part of their daily lives.

Rather than traditional horror story types, the everyday events of his mother life were used to paint a picture of a woman whose life was trapped and help captive to the powers around her, in just as real a way as if she had been held in a cell of the Beast’s dungeon her entire life.  Being raised in a world where the childhood game of little girls consisted of playing “Tired / Exhausted / Sick / Dying / Dead” with their friends, the hopelessness and lack of a fulfilling future was palpable.  As a child, his mother felt stirrings of individuality during her schooling, but learning was considered nothing more than a child’s game for girls.  After all, women’s adult lives would be spent at home, so they might as well get used to being home constantly with “no room of one’s own.”  There was no worrying about the future because there was no future.  Every day was a monotony.  “Today was yesterday, yesterday was always.”

The hopelessness of his mother’s life was brought through to the reader by the repetition of the humdrum days and months and years.  Even though there were moments of hope when it seemed his mother was about to step into her own individuality and discover her true self, those moments were fleeting and served to only bring greater clarity to the horror that continued on and on throughout her life.  If Handke had given us only the monotony of his mother’s life without the brief moments of hopefulness, it may have lulled the reader into apathy, but by giving hope, the possibility of change was awakened, thus freshly awakening the reader to the sad plight of his mother.

After the introduction of appliances, Handke’s mother had more time each day to purse her own interests now that she was freed from the daily-ness of her daily tasks.  She found time to read and discovered the world of literature.  She felt the stories were giving her youth back to her, but sadly, she found these glimmers of hope served to make her feel even more hopeless and depressed.  The stories were reminders of all the things she would never do and of all the things she would never be.

Handke uses writing as a means to express the inexpressible moments in his life, and his mother evidently did the same thing as she sank deeper into depression.  When life became too unbearable and she was no longer able to converse with other people without it feeling like a form of torture, she resorted to writing letters.  Like mother, like son.  In both cases, their writing also did not bring the healing they had hoped.  His mother’s last letters were farewells, and his book about his mother did not prove to be a distraction for him.  Rather than becoming preoccupied with the process of writing, his act of writing added to his preoccupation with his mother’s death.

It is not true that writing has helped me.  In my weeks of preoccupation with the story, the story has not ceased to preoccupy me.  Writing has not, as I at first supposed, been a remembering of a concluded period in my life, but merely a constant pretense at remembering, in the form of sentences that only lay claim to detachment.

The book ends with short anecdotes, a series of simple flashes of memory and observations of himself and his thoughts following his mother’s death.  The majority of the book was a retelling of his mother’s life, but when he shifts to telling his own tale at the end, the storyline becomes broken and fragmented.  He ends with a statement that he would like to return and write more detail about these snatches from his life.  It feels as though he has processed his mother’s life story and her death, but is still detached from his own life and his own grief and consequently is unable to express his own life experiences with the same candor, openness, and detail as he could with his mother’s life story.

By allowing the reader to see the trudging, monotonous themes of his mother’s life, we come away with the full sense of the horror of her life.  The helplessness.  The hopelessness.  A life awakened too late.  A sorrow beyond nightmares.  More misfortune than anyone could wish for.

An Oppositional Poetics of Class


How can Toni Morrison’s concept of “othering” be applied to how social class is portrayed in literature, and using Erica Hunt’s ideas, what might an “oppositional poetics of class” look like?

Debi‘s Response:

Social narratives are usually told by the educated, dominant classes.  Who then speaks for the poor?   The poor and working-class are often marginalized and voiceless.  The rich and middle class are dominant and well voiced.  The poor lack the means and opportunities for expression of their plight and their reality.  The wealthier classes have the means and opportunities to acquire education and resources for communicating their lives and situations, while they have little—if any—real world contact with the lived realities of people in poverty.

In her essay “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics,” Erica Hunt states, “Oppositional poetics and cultures form a field of related projects which have moved beyond speculation of skepticism to a critically active stance against forms of domination.  By oppositional, I intend, generously, dissident cultures as well as ‘marginalized’ cultures, cutting across class, race and gender.”[1]

While it is true there are scholars who study social class, this is usually done by upper and middle class well-educated individuals who mean well, but view the poor as the “other” and try to ask questions to unearth the truth of living in poverty.  There is a big difference between being a member of a group and studying that same group as an outsider.  In an article on psychotherapy and the poor, the authors state:  “[P]oor and working-class men and women have important ideas … and their voices must be heard if we are to challenge classism and accurately address class issues in our work.”[2]  The we in the previous statement is applied to psychotherapists working with poor clients, but the sentence could also be applied to writers and how the poor are represented in literature, the arts, and the media.  Are we challenging classism and accurately addressing class issues in our work?  Or are we perpetuating stereotypes that continue to “other” the poor and keep them marginalized from society?  Hunt states, “there is nothing inherent in language centered projects that gives them immunity from a partiality that reproduces the controlling ideas of dominant culture.”[3]

Toni Morrison asks in Playing in the Dark, “How does literary utterance arrange itself when it tries to imagine an Africanist other?  What are the signs, the codes, the literary strategies designed to accommodate this encounter?”[4]  I would ask what are the signs, codes, and strategies of “othering” according to social class or economics status that can be seen in today’s literature?  Readers are assumed to be white and middle class, and characters are assumed to be white and middle class unless otherwise specified.  Often the poor are secondary decorative and comedic characters.  Their lives are not normalized.  They are often represented by stereotypes that few readers think to question.  Lazy.  Dirty.  Disorganized.  Welfare and food stamps abusers.  Uneducated.  Religious zealots.  Bad teeth. Immoral.  Crude.  Irresponsible.

According to Appio et al, “The doubly oppressive experience of living with hardship and being stigmatized for it is well documented in qualitative studies that explore the lived experiences of poverty … This convergence of deleterious life conditions, lack of political and social power, and associated stigmatization can be understood as part of a broader experience of classism.”[5]

People are generally believed to be poor due to decisions or actions that are their own fault, and this is often communicated in literature and the entertainment media.  Portraying in our writing the attributes of irresponsibility or lack of motivation in poor characters perpetuates these negative classist stereotypes and fail to take into account the social conditions that may create barriers to following through on appointments or other commitments.  Childcare issues, transportation difficulties, and variable work hours can all come into play in the real world lived experiences of the poor and working-class.

Are we portraying that fuller picture or are we just making our poverty stricken character late for an important appointment once again?  Do we talk down to our characters?  Do we ridicule their religious beliefs as being backward and comedic?  Or do we present their religious communities as the source of strength, motivation, and hope that larger society often fails to offer them?

Morrison says about Nancy, a character from Will Carter’s Saphirra and the Slave Girl, that “Nancy has access to no one to whom she can complain, explain, object, or from who she can seek protection.  We must accept her total lack of initiative, for there are no exits.”[6]  The poor are often in a position where there are no exits from their continual battle with poverty.  Continually fighting a losing battle could easily kill the initiative in anyone.  Do we portray our poor or working class characters as courageously fighting battles they usually never win?  Is it laziness we present?  Or resignation?

How we frame our characters and their motivations matters.  We need to be sure that we are not just resorting to portraying dangerous classist stereotypes out of our own laziness as writers.  As Hunt says at the end of her essay, “writing itself … enhances our capacity to strategically read our condition more critically and creatively in order to interrupt and to join.”[7] We need to work through our writing and our art at restoring the humanity of all marginalized people, whether that marginalization is the result of race, class, gender, or orientation.

[1] Erica Hunt, 198.

[2] Lauren Appio, Debbie-Ann Chambers, Susan Mao, “Listening to the Voices of the Poor and Disrupting the Silence About Class Issues in Psychotherapy,” Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, Vol. 69(2), 152 (2013)

[3] Hunt, 204.

[4] Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark, p. 16.

[5] Appio, 153.

[6] Morrison, 24.

[7] Hunt, 212.

The ABC’s of Harryette Mullen

The ABC’s of Harryettte Mullen
Excerpts from quotes, interviews, articles, and reviews (collected by Debi)

A is for Academic –

“Some people think of me as an ‘academic poet,’ simply because I teach in a university, but of course I was writing poetry and interacting with diverse communities of poets before I went to graduate school. One of my struggles as a graduate student, who had already published one book of poetry, was to keep intact my identity as a creative writer while I was learning to be a literary and cultural critic, a literature teacher, a member of the academic community.”

Continue reading

I saw Anne Lamott speak in Seattle this year

And then I needed to write up a brief response afterward for one of my MFA classes.   So here it is.  🙂

by Debi

“Elliot Bay Book Company Presents Anne Lamott at Seattle First Baptist Church”

On Wednesday, November 12th, 2014, I went to see Anne Lamott.  She was promoting her latest book, Small Victories: Spotting Improbably Moments of Grace, at Seattle First Baptist Church in conjunction with The Elliot Bay Book Company.  Seeing Anne Lamott in person was a Bucket List type of event for me.  Continue reading