Laura van den Berg’s “Find Me”
Real Pants is psyched (are psyched?) that Laura van den Berg—author of the acclaimed short story collection The Isle of Youth (and I do not use the word “acclaimed” loosely)—agreed to do some “painful” work, namely going through some early drafts of her first novel (due this month from FSG!). Here’s Laura:
. . . . .
These three sections come from my novel, Find Me—different versions of the opening of a chapter that delves into the narrator’s personal history. Have I mentioned that it is physically painful to look closely at these older versions again? But anything for Real Pants.
For most of my life before the Hospital, I believed myself to be an orphan. I was left on the steps of Beth Israel as an infant and grew up in foster care, in the home of a couple in Revere, Massachusetts, who had taken in a dozen kids over the years and seemed indifferent to all of them. When I was small, I watched other children get adopted and imagined for myself a smiling couple that lived in the city and owned a dog, but those people never came and eventually I learned it was better to not imagine at all.
So this was the chapter opening for a while, but the couple who raised the narrator, Joy never felt right—they came up a few other times in the novel and those scenes always felt really forced and unfun to write. Eventually they were cut. And I was trying to capture Joy’s longing for a home but “and imagined for myself a smiling couple that lived in the city and owned a dog” always felt too much like vague, general “sad orphan” stuff. I was too far away from Joy and thus from her history. I was writing it, but I wasn’t really seeing it or feeling it. To quote Truman Capote (on Kerouac): “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”
For most of my life before the Hospital, I was an orphan. I was left on the steps of Beth Israel as an infant. A nurse found me wrapped in a T-white shirt, rolling around in a cardboard supermarket box, the kind of thing you put oranges in.
I grew up bouncing from one place to another; my whole life was temporary. In my first RTC, I watched other children get adopted and imagined for myself a smiling couple who lived in a house and owned a dog, but those people never came and eventually I learned it was better to not imagine at all.
Ugh, I think this version is worse somehow? I was still struggling so much to find the right language for Joy’s history. Maybe if I use official-sounding lingo like RTC! Will that cancel out the super-vagueness of “my whole life was temporary?”
The detail about Joy “rolling around in a cardboard supermarket box, the kind of thing you put oranges in” did, however, carry through to the next version. So perhaps I was getting a tiny bit warmer.
For most of my life before the Hospital, I was an orphan. As a baby, I was left on the steps of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, in the winter. A nurse found me wrapped in a white T-shirt and rolling around in a cardboard supermarket box, the kind of thing you put oranges in. I was in the early stages of frostbite.
From my first group home I remember: sleeping on mattresses with springs that time had turned flat and hard; a hole in the staircase that was a portal for winged roaches; sandwiches made of Wonder Bread and grape jelly; a communal bathroom with snot green walls and a ceiling dotted with mold. In this bathroom, all the sinks dripped. In this bathroom, I found tampons, heavy with water and blood, clogging the shower drain. The light was always flickering off, usually when someone was in the shower. The girls at the home started spreading rumors about a ghost in the bathroom, when we all knew the ghost could be any one of us.
This was in Roxbury. Back then I dreamed of the countryside: fields with mazes of tall grass, graceful rivers, climbing trees. Nearby there was an overgrown lot surrounded by a chain-link fence, and sometimes I would slip past a hole in the fence and walk through the dead grass, ignoring the shattered glass and the shadows of crumbling buildings, pretending I was free.
Once a fire alarm tore open our night. Eighteen girls raced down the staircase, led by our overnight counselor, a woman who wore white knee socks with sandals and her hair in a thick braid. Eighteen girls scattered across the front lawn. Some had thought to pull on shoes and some, like me, had just run. It was September and already there was a sharp chill in the air. I could feel a splitter settling into the arch of my foot. I stood on one leg. The night was dark and still. A grease fire had ignited in the kitchen. We watched smoke blacken the windows as we waited for the howl of the sirens, waited to be saved.
The kitchen was scorched long before a fire truck came, an early lesson in exactly how much the outside world cared about us.
I think there were a few other tries between the first two versions and this last one, but this is where I really felt a serious jump forward. Finally I felt like I was actually writing and not just typing.
I wanted to get as close as possible. Instead of trying to capture Joy’s past in removed generalities, I tried to imagine the minutiae. Aren’t the minutiae so often what we remember, anyway?
Speaking of memory: I started asking myself a very simple question—What does Joy remember? I also tried to reach back into my own memory of what it was like to live among other girls—at camp, at school, at home, with my sister. Bloody tampons clogging shower drain are, I’m afraid, a detail from life. As is the “pretending I was free” part. I pretended that a lot as a kid, even though I’m not sure what I thought “free” was or why I thought I wasn’t free already.
But my biggest breakthrough was realizing that in order to get Joy’s history on the page in the way I wanted to I needed to keep telling stories. Isn’t that how we so often talk about our past, anyway, through stories? I needed the tiny stories about ghosts in the bathroom and fire alarms. The tiny stories that would come together to form a larger one. The stories that were stuck like splinters in her memory.