By Rebecca Meacham for WOMEN = BOOKS
Posted on September 28, 2009
My friend’s book club met in an immaculate white living room. Nine suburban housewives gathered on couches with copies of my book, Let’s Do, a collection of stories. We made small talk as I nibbled carrots. The women had assembled an array of hors d’oeuvres, but I could feel every bite expanding me.
Earlier at my friend’s club pool, as I swam with her three children, I’d been mistaken for her babysitter. I was 35 and dieting. Now, alone in a plush chair, I felt uneasy. Not youthful, just young. Not lean, but lesser.
These women—my readers—walked in charity races organized by my friend. They founded literacy groups. They had multiple children involved in multiple activities. Their lives spread and stretched. I was a writer, a professor in summertime, with no children and a collection of grim little stories.
“It was a good book,” one woman said, “but just when a story got interesting, it ended! I wanted it to go on!”
Others agreed. They wanted to see how things turned out for the pregnant art teacher, the retirees in the Ozarks. They wanted my stories to sprawl into other stories, just as their lives did. They wanted something complex, meaty—something with weight. I didn’t disagree, exactly. I was flattered they liked my characters. But for the younger me still on those pages, fiction was about leaving things out. You didn’t fill stories with countless characters whose relationships you had to explain. You didn’t stick around after the defining crisis; when the battle was over, you left the field. You kept a story taut and focused, just like life. Well, my life. Back then.
That was five years ago. Now I have two daughters, born nineteen months apart. Students come at me from every direction—advising, summer courses, overloads. My husband and I are building an addition for my mother’s move next year. We “friend” through Facebook. Our girls wobble through dance classes and wade into the sea of toys that is our house. Like the women in the book club, my life sprawls beyond old and arbitrary boundaries. So, too, does my body, which aches less from running than from sleeping curled around a toddler.
And yes, my middle has grown soft. The last bathing suit I bought—for pool trips never taken—is postpartum-roomy with openings for nursing.
But to my surprise, I revel in expansiveness—and I look for it in fiction. Unlike the minimalists I once adored, my new favorite writers create lives of interruption, connection, enmeshment. Their stories contain multitudes. In Nothing Right, Antonya Nelson’s collection which I review inWRB 's September/October 2009 issue, there are stepchildren, neighbors, siblings, boyfriends, all secretive and conflicted. Like so many of our lives, Nelson’s fiction is experiencing a middle-age spread. Her early work had an edgy simplicity: a woman’s baby obsession, a man’s measures to keep house. Now, with so many characters in so many stages, her work is bulkier—but her stories fly higher than ever.
As a writer, I, too, want to spread my wings. I want to write a novel—something grand, dense, and soaring. But finding focus isn’t easy. Last fall, my husband and I hired a babysitter for our first date in years. We had no idea what to do with the time. Meandering, we ended up at a field where he once watched sandhill cranes. The place was barren. Left to focus on ourselves, it turns out we were boring. Then we heard geese honking in the distance. A black cloud, big as several football fields, spread across the sky. Hundreds of geese squawked to each other: Follow me. Lead me. Here. They circled above us and turned to land. We wondered what our girls might make of this moment, if they would have laughed, as we did. We’d be home soon enough. For now, we watched the flock touch down on the marshy ground, alone and in clusters, until they formed one massive body.
Rebecca Meacham is the author of Let’s Do, a story collection. She regularly reviews fiction for WRB.
Read Rebecca Meacham's review of Nothing Right by Antonya Nelson in WRB 's September/October 2009 issue.