Saturday, October 20, 2007

My Brush with the Paranormal

Since Halloween is just around the corner, I thought I’d post my true story about the poltergeist that haunted my house back when I was in high school.

It began one night when I was alone in the house. I was upstairs in my bedroom doing homework when I heard a loud knock on my closed bedroom door. “Come in,” I said several times. No one did.

Annoyed, I closed my civics book, got up from the bed, and opened my bedroom door.

The house was dark, and I was alone in it.

It happened twice more that night: a loud, clear, undeniable knock on my bedroom door. Each time, I found myself alone in the house. When the rest of my family came home, I relaxed a bit, but I was rattled. I chose not to tell them.

A few days later my sister, at the breakfast table, told a strange story. She was wakened in the middle of the night by strange music—a violin playing and what sounded like a young girl singing along. The music didn’t sound like a radio or recording; it was too amateurish and old-fashioned. My sister could find no source for the sound. It seemed like it was coming from the hallway directly outside her bedroom, but every time she opened the door, the music abruptly stopped. The music kept going for some time before it stopped. I told her about the knocking on my door.

For the next couple of years, similarly weird things kept happening: footsteps mounting the stairway at night, bumps and thumps upstairs when we were all down in the living room, strange circling footprints that appeared on the rain-drenched back patio one morning.

One evening my mother clearly saw a man standing at the top of the stairs. (See photo above.) When she looked at him, he ducked into the master bedroom. My father and brother searched the bedroom, but, of course, no one was there.

The same week, my family, seated around the dinner table, twice heard a voice, out of thin air, call my brother by name.

After a couple of years the poltergeist activity tapered off and eventually disappeared entirely.

A few years ago, I bought the house from my mother, and my own family moved in. Almost every night for the first few weeks the doorbell would ring when no one was there. Our front door has a lot of glass in it, so it's hard to sneak up on, and the porch light has a motion-sensitive switch that turns it on when anyone comes up the walkway. But the light didn't come on until one of us opened the door to check the empty walkway.

The most recent event happened a few months ago. Our dogs ran to the front door barking, and my daughter, who was alone in the house, went to see who was there. When she got to the door, she heard a baby crying on the doorstep. She ripped the door open, but, yet again, no one was there.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

In Praise of the Pedestrian

I was at a party a few months ago at a friend’s house. Everyone there was a writer of some variety. I ended up in the kitchen trash-talking with a poet. I pointed out to her that so many great novelists—Faulkner, Plath, Hemingway—started out by publishing poetry. I suggested that once she got the hang of writing poetry, she might be ready to move up to fiction.

The poet leaned back against the kitchen counter and sized me up. "I refuse to write fiction," she said, "because I never want to write the sentence: 'He walked into the kitchen and turned on the light.'”

It was a great line, and I had no comeback for it. Even now, the memory of that moment makes my head hurt.

But the truth is, I apparently love to write about people walking into kitchens. I just searched my folder of short stories and novels for the phrase “into the kitchen” and found 102 documents that contain that phrase. One hundred and two. That’s a lot of kitchens being walked into.

I dug around in the files, and here are a few recent samples:

—I floated bonelessly into the kitchen.

—Kirby went into the kitchen and rummaged around in the cupboard for two glasses that matched.

—She switches off the porch light, puts her keys on the entry table and goes into the kitchen—all without looking at him.

—He stumbled frowzily into the bathroom for a luxurious sit-down pee, and then walked squinting into the kitchen rubbing his oily buzz-cut.

—A little after three, Frankie bounded up the back steps and burst into the kitchen, glazed in sweat.

—And then the next morning, Sunday, Alvie had come out of his bedroom and followed a strange autumnal scent into the kitchen, where he found a head of lettuce sweltering in the oven.

—I went into the kitchen, like I always did when I got home, and washed my hands again in scalding water.

Now it’s true that poets get to write opulent sentences like, "And this is why I sojourn here/Alone and palely loitering" or "We have lingered in the chambers of the sea/By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown"—and that must be a great deal of fun.

But those lines don’t get people from one room to another, and that is the stuff of stories. In fiction, good sentences DO things; they don’t just lounge around looking pretty. Our sentences aren’t FabergĂ© eggs; they’re coat hangers and wing nuts and shoelaces and tight-fitting lids on jars of baby food.

A lot of young writers worry that they don't have a style, a kind of fingerprint or DNA that marks their voice or diction as their own. A lot of students tell me they want to find their voice—as if it might show up in the pocket of their winter coat or in that junk drawer next to the refrigerator. But it’s just as important to write all those straight, clear sentences that have no need for poetry—the sentences where people pick up forks, or push the buttons on their car radios, or stir about in their purses for their house keys. Those are the sentences that get the work of storytelling done.

Okay, that’s it. I’ll just post this blog and head into the kitchen for a glass of water and some Tylenol.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

I Can't Help But Feel Partly Responsible

My daughter, Heather, told her friends a story in which I, as driver of the vehicle in the story, was peripherally involved. One of her friends posted it on YouTube.

It may look like my daughter is in a college dorm room. It's actually her cell.