I have a new short story up at Another Chicago Magazine. Called “Sabbatical Dog,” it’s one of those stories that looks super autobiographical given it’s about a creative writing professor with a dog similar to mine and an illness I’ve experienced. But trust me, it’s not about me at all.
It’s hard to explain to people who don’t write fiction that even when writers replicate identifiable details of our lives in our work, we are not necessarily writing autobiographical fiction. “Is that supposed to be me?” my father used to ask about every single father in my work when not a single solitary father I wrote about, at least in my fiction, was about him at all, not even the father who shared his love for certain kinds of Jewish delis.
And I once had an acquaintance ask me how my sister was doing. When I told her I didn’t have a sister, she told me she was certain I did. Later I realized she’d read a story I’d written in first person about two sisters. I suppose I should be pleased that the story was so real to her that she’d remembered it not as words on a page but a day in my life I’d told her about. But it was also one of the odder conversations I’ve ever had. She remained steadfast in her conviction that I had a sister even when I promised her that I honestly knew all the members of my family. Readersplaining, I guess you’d call it.
Anyway, it’s true that most fiction writers, even those writing fantasy or from the point of view of animals or what-have-you, mine their own lives for the kinds of details that give our work specificity and authenticity. And that sometimes–autofiction, for example–we actually are writing about ourselves. And I also know writers who say they’re not writing about themselves when they are. So I do get why people think our work is autobiographical when it isn’t.
But me, my fiction is hardly ever about me. I’m too boring to sustain a short story or novel. I save my boring reflections for my personal essays.
So again, at the risk of being accused of protesting too much, this story is not about me. It’s not about my dog. Still, because I cannot resist any opportunity to share Josie’s perfect face with the world, I’ve included a photo of me and my girl–the two beings this story is NOT about.
My personal essay, “Of Sound Mind and Memory” appears in the fall 2021 issue of The Missouri Review. It’s a reflection on my years as an estate planning paralegal at a large Rhode Island law firm, where the people I worked with became family and the legal documents I wrote reawakened my love of language. If you’d like a copy of the print edition of TMR you can order it by callinTMR’s offices at 573-882-4474 or contacting its associate managing editor, Dedra Earl, at EarlD@missouri.edu.
Here’s a photo from my law firm days of my friend Kate (right), who I write about in the essay, and me out on Cape Cod.
Long time, no publish. Not that I’ve been doing nothing. I’ve been very busy editing work for clients. I’ve been playing around with short stories and a novel. I’ve been Zooming with my writing group and becoming more comfortable with essays. For exercise, I’ve been diving into pits of despair about the state of my country and the pandemic and then pulling myself out.
But this month two essays of mine have made their way into print. The first is “How We Met and What Happened Next” in The Sun Magazine‘s December 2021 issue The essay, which I would describe as a lyrical meditation on love and mortality, appears in both the print journal and their website. The second essay is in The Missouri Review. More on that in the post above this one.
I’ve been mostly homebound these past months of pandemic, unrest, turmoil, and fear. I see friends and family virtually and have been doing a lot of reading and writing. If I ignore the news (which is nearly impossible and feels like a deriliction of civic duty but sometimes I try), I can almost pretend that I’m on a very long writing retreat, but instead of spending the evenings with other writers, I spend them with my husband and dog, who are saving me.
When a writer is stuck at home, a writer may start to write about what’s going on, literally, in her own backyard. That’s what I did in this essay published in Entropy this week. The essay was inspired by a simple prompt by a member of my writing group: Place as Metaphor.
Everything in the piece happened. But everything in the piece–the yard, the crane, the other animals, every interaction, even the discussion of metaphor–is also a metaphor. A story is not a story until it’s two stories, I’ve been known to tell my students, and this is true of the lyric essay as well.
Here’s the link to the essay, which, if you were to click on it, would be nice for me. (Clicks, right? It’s all about the clicks.) But here, also, is the essay.
The photo above, which accompanied the essay, was of the actual crane in question in my actual backyard
We live in the woods and are visited daily by animals. We used to rush to the windows to take pictures, but by now the deer and rodents feel commonplace, just neighbors cutting through our yard on their way from the adjacent forest to the forest down the street near the lake. They stop at the salad bar, which is what we call the hosta garden, lush in spring, nothing but naked stalks by August. They visit the tavern, which is what we call the small pond where the deer kneel, dip their tongues.
We’re no longer proprietary about our land, no longer discouraging. We’ve stopped collecting hair from salons to sprinkle on the broad leafed plants, a natural repellant not only for the deer but, when we looked outside at the hairy garden, for ourselves. Have at it, we say now. This includes the wildflowers, plantains, creeping Charlie. Grass, someone once told me, is just a weed that became popular. It’s also a weed that became needy. Instead of catering to it, we let grow whatever wants to grow, let graze whatever wants to graze.. Our yard is your yard. In fact, you were here first.
This particular spring and summer, while our human neighbors self-isolate, these other neighbors have perhaps begun overstepping. Coyotes come out in the daylight. A fox suns itself on the rock near the house down the road with the chicken coop. Four raccoons, a mother and three kits, toddle out of the woods. The mother is somewhat upright, hunched and flat-footed as she skulks along, but with her front paws held aloft before her. The babies follow, assuming the same comical, human-like posture. It’s, as if the mother said, Walk this way, and the little ones understood the joke.
At our place a woodchuck has taken to slithering under the dog’s wire pen, lazily eating violets and dandelions as if she’s some children’s book character, while Josie, an unusually small but nonetheless feisty Westie, howls in frustration behind the glass door. A year ago the woodchuck would have bolted at Josie’s threats and keening. Now he glances up, gives the woodchuck equivalent of a shrug, and goes back to the purple and yellow weeds.
Something’s changing. It feels like there’s a revolution coming. A cute revolution, but a revolution nonetheless.
Last week two sandhill cranes and their colt came by, strutting into the yard. It was as if they were on vacation from their usual home, the creek a half mile off. It was as if they’d read some brochures and thought, This year—the woods! They toured the area, poking at the bergamot, considering the shed, meandering over to the decimated hostas the way tourists do when encountering ruins.
We’ve always had hordes of wild turkeys here, those gobbling blue dinosaurs, and a few green hummingbirds, but we’ve never had cranes, and, because I was home alone when they showed up, I took a few pictures to show my husband. As I aimed the phone’s camera, the male crane bugled and charged. Like our doors, the walls of our house are, for the most part, glass, large windows uncurtained, unshaded, and the crane headed straight for the window I stood behind.
I took a step back. I apologized. Sorry for taking your picture without permission, I said as though I was a rare bird myself, the polite paparazzo. The crane wasn’t the first animal I’ve tried to converse with. You should hear me with the dog.
But it turned out the crane wasn’t upset with me. It was his own reflection he was coming for. An interloper, a menace, this other male crane. A threat to the female and baby, and he attacked the glass with his blade of a beak, pounding, jackhammering, and the mother took the colt beneath her tremulous wing and she gobbled like a turkey, and Josie came running, barking. It was cacophonous, this war initiated by this crane, and it was impossible not to think of the old Pogo comic strip: We have met the enemy and he is us. Pogo, a possum; we have possums here too.
Later when I tell this story to a friend over FaceTime, because we’re both avoiding the world in an attempt to stay healthy, she’ll say, Oh, you must have been so worried the crane was going to hurt himself. I wish this was true. The fact is I was worried he’d break our window. I was worried about the mess of it, the expense of it, the invitation it would present to the neighbors I’ve yet to make peace with: the divebombing moths, the vicious wasps, the relentless mosquitos.
You’d think the proximity of a gesticulating human being and the earsplitting growls of her ferocious little dog might frighten a crane away, but, while this one obviously didn’t understand the reflective qualities of glass, he did have a firm grasp on its impermeability. It seemed I needed to go outside to shoo him off. The idea frightened me. I’m not much taller than five feet and he wasn’t much shorter. And I had no weapon like that beak. But I braved it, went into the yard, yelling and waving my arms, and he looked at me the way the woodchuck looks at my dog—aware, but who cares—and then he resumed attacking his enemy.
The female and baby did react to me though. They caromed to the right, to the left, then pitched themselves into the bergamot patch where the little one, orange as sunrise, became invisible. The mother’s head stuck up above the foliage. Below it, her wings churned, and there was a flurry of hummingbirds and butterflies and bees, feathered wings and finger-nail wings, chirring and flapping and fleeing.
It was then that I saw my husband rush into the room. He still wore his mask and he had a knife. He also had a huge cardboard box, long, the kind skis come in. He sliced its seams open, leaned the flattened cardboard against the large window.
Then it was done. Reflection obliterated, crane family reunited, vacation resumed. The bees, at least, returned to the bergamot.
There is, I suppose, a metaphor here, but I don’t know what it is, don’t know if it has to do with the foolishness of warfare, the foolishness of self-hatred, or the foolishness of living in the woods without investing in window treatments. I also know that cranes are symbols of long life and good fortune, and I’d like to think one of those things had come knocking on our window—luck or, even better, the end of a pandemic—but I know better than that. The crane wasn’t a symbol. The crane was a crane.
I understood this because of who we are, my husband and me. We’re those people who follow the news closely, perhaps too closely for their own good. Night after night we watch members of our own species on our TV screen behaving in ways that frighten and infuriate us. We shout at our leaders, at the people who’ve enabled them. But sometimes, when the sun has set, before we’ve turned on the lights, we see our reflections in that screen. We, too, have met the enemy. We, too, know who it is.
When we adopted the dog, an unwanted litter runt, her vet told us our most important job was to keep her from being frightened. She’s a stalwart little being and not much scares her, but we do take turns holding her through fireworks and thunderstorms. We rock her and she hides her head against us and pretends, to the extent she’s able, that it will be all right.
We can’t cradle the wildlife. We can only do the smallest things. The cardboard remained in place for several days after the cranes showed up. Then we hung curtains.
Thanks so much to the good people at Ezvid Wiki for including A REUNION OF GHOSTS in their most recent video wiki, Enchanting Books that Alternate Between Past and Present. The video includes apt (and chilling) visual representations of the novel along with a succinct summary of the story. It also suggests other books for those who enjoy historical novels that move through time.
Now that the Book Fest held in beautiful Eau Claire has come to its end, I want to thank Mildred Larsen and the other event coordinators, as well as Nickolas Butler, Alyson Goldin Loomis, and everyone who came to my talk about the way in which historical facts and literary truths intersect in so-called historical novels. It was a truly lovely weekend.
The Taiwanese edition of A Reunion of Ghosts showed up on my doorstep today. Translated editions of one’s books can be very mysterious. As was the case with the Polish edition of AROG, I had zero contact with the press or the translator. Of course I knew it was forthcoming, but I didn’t know when and I didn’t know they’d begun, much less completed, production. And while my Polish publisher did seek my feedback with respect to changing the title (in Poland, the book is called “The Subtle Charm of Suicide”) and my opinion on the jacket art (which I loved–I’ve been very lucky in terms of cover choices), the Taiwan press just handled everything on their own.
Since I can’t read Chinese, I can’t comment at all on the translator’s choices. I do like the cover they came up with–the photograph is by me and accordingly blurry–though I do think the bats and haunted house may give the impression this is a far more typical ghost story than it is. And, speaking of the house, it looks more like a gothic mansion than a typical New York apartment building…but there definitely some NY apartment buildings that, while taller than this one, resemble gothic mansions. But the bare trees speak to a specific scene in the book when the most ghostlike character appears and the three silhouettes of the main characters were borrowed from the original U.S. hardcover and it’s nice to see them again. All in all, I like the cover. I like -the mood it creates and above all the allusion to the haunted house we all dwell in: the home to our memories, many of which are generated by those human and therefore imperfect people who constitute our families.
When I think about how hands-on I was when it came to the US version of the book–concerned about every word, every dot of punctuation, every line on the cover, even the font choice–and how laissez-faire I’ve been with respect to the foreign versions, it makes me think of parents with multiple children, how they fuss and freak out and obsess when it comes to their first child but become increasingly relaxed as the family grows. If the cover of the next foreign translation of AROG is covered with applesauce and chocolate stains, I’ll no doubt shrug and say, “Oh, well. As long as it’s not playing with knives.”
I’m working away on my third novel these days, trying to create a world on the page that, on occasion, strikes me as too small and unimportant to be worth the effort in light of the events taking place on the US political stage (and thus the entire globe) right now. In short, along with the many questions I have about how one is to live one’s life under a leader who doesn’t understand the fundamental principles on which his country is based, I also grapple with questions about my work including why I write about the things I do and whether they are worth exploring during such fraught times.
I’m not the kind of novelist whose work is meant to provide escapism or entertainment so I don’t have that to fall back on. I continue to want my work to provoke thought and even argument. At the same time, I do continue to think that can be accomplished without writing only about what in grade school we called current events. I do continue to see value–extraordinary value–in the small, quotidian things we do, whether as individuals, as friends, as partners, or as members of families. After all, isn’t it a desire to be our true selves (and to grant that same privilege to others) that motivates us to fight for liberty and strive to achieve and perfect our idealistic vision of how life should be?
I came across this blog post today that, interestingly, combines the damaged and cynical outlook expressed by Delph Alter, a character in A Reunion of Ghosts, with the blogger’s much more optimistic outlook about her own life. I found the post’s gentle chiding of Delph’s point of view uplifting and restorative. It’s always important to remember that a novelist does not necessarily share or endorse the world view of her characters, and in real life I, too, love long walks through parks with people who make me laugh. At the same time, I certainly do take comfort in dogs and cats and horses.
In fact, here’s my dog Josie (the little white one) in one of Dane County’s glorious dog parks, trotting along with a friend she made that day:
And here’s the blog post by Andi Diehn, which you can also find here at One Small Sentence. It begins with the quote from Reunion and then comes Andi’s observations:
A REUNION OF GHOSTS BY JUDITH CLAIRE MITCHELL
People are her third favorite species, she says. First cats. Then dogs. Or, no, wait–fourth favorite species. The Central Park horses are number three.
Last Sunday we went on a family hike, or “forced march into the woods,” as I like to call it.
The thing is, I’m probably the happiest person I know, but something about, I don’t know, the entire fucking world was kind of getting me down last weekend, and so when plans to go see a play fell through at the last minute (literally, the last minute. We were at the door but there were no more seats.), I took my friend up on her suggestion for a walk and forced the rest of the family to attend.
And I don’t think I’ve laughed that much since the inauguration. You know, the one attended by millions and millions of people. Yes it was. Was so! WAS SO! NO I’M NOT, YOU ARE!
On our walk I laughed at all of us (well, most of us) shimmying down hills on bellies and bums atop that frozen crust that’s passing for snow this winter. And I laughed at my boys, unable to keep their legs under themselves. I laughed at my dear husband’s expression as he watched this family he’d managed to assemble, all of us limbs akimbo in the forest, the incredulousness that this was how we were behaving.
I even laughed as my youngest slid over the edge of a ravine and barreled toward the rushing river below. Aw, relax, it was a short ravine. The river was more of a stream. He was fine. He survived.
Thing is, I laughed. It felt weird. And good. It’s easy, it’s always easy, to get caught up in how hard life can be. The disagreements, the worry, the bills, the weirdness, and not good weirdness, the bad weirdness. It can be so hard.
And then comes a day. The sky brightish, the woods welcomingish. We say yes to a walk. We find comfort in the cold, the ice, the endless gray and brown that marks a woods in winter.
Fun news: I’m the guest fiction editor of the next issue of The Ilanot Review, an Israeli literary journal publishing stories, essays, and poetry in English. The theme is letters. We’re looking for epistolary work in the broadest sense: not only classic letters, but also emails, texts, chats, posts, tweets, Instagrams, etc. . Click here for the call for submissions. I’m hoping to see a lot of great stories in epistolary form.
If you’d like to read an epistolary story to get the feel for what we have in mind, here is my favorite–“Bright Winter” by Anna Keesey. It originally appeared in Granta and was reprinted in a volume of the Best American Short Stories. frequently teach it in my workshops. Based on a true historical event, it breaks my heart anew every time I read it.