by Jenn Stroud Rossmann
How do you find the time, some people ask a person who has a job and a family and has also written a novel. The person who has a job and a family and has also written a novel is bemused by this syntax: as if time is playing hide-and-seek, or has been misplaced and is then happily discovered when one lifts the sofa cushion to vacuum. Sometimes the person detects in the question a kind of suspicion, as if the person might have a Dorian Gray clock in her attic whose hands spin faster than they ought, in order to permit herself to live longer days, with more hours than everyone else.
(You knew the person was going to be a she, didn’t you?)
The person may playfully try an inversion: Well, I make the time. For instance, I rarely vacuum my sofa cushions. I do not frequent a gym. I do not pursue a time-consuming skin- and hair-care regimen. I get up early, I stay up late, I am seldom uncaffeinated. And I admit that the time I have made for fiction writing is not my highest-quality time – it’s the time before, after, and in-between.
But the dark flipside of needing to find time to write is how dreadfully easy I have found it, over the years, to lose time.
Writing time has been lost to the demands of my job, my children, my family members, to various health crises. To Twitter. To Netflix. Recently, to the hours of calling and writing our elected representatives, urging them to govern us with empathy. To travel. Oh, you may be thinking, that’s not lost time, it’s only spent time. It’s living your life. But to the unwritten novel, it’s the same thing: time spent on anything else is lost to it. From another angle, time spent writing—that novel, a short story—is lost to the person’s career ambitions: the story revised is the grant proposal not submitted, the queries to agents the promotion not pursued.
The person with a job and a family who has also written a novel has felt in each of these contexts as if she’s doing less than she should. She can obsessively replay that question about finding the time and hear its passive-aggression, its inherent rebuke. The question she asks herself is, who am I letting down at the moment?
And, probably, this is the time that is truly lost: the time lost to guilt. There was no redeeming value in that time.
I do believe that having a life beyond writing has made my writing richer, has offered more varied stories to tell. Even Proust didn’t sequester himself in his cork-lined room to write until he had, well, lost time to the parties and travels he turned into fiction. The three novels I wrote before I started the one that will be published as my “debut” were part of my apprenticeship: I learned from each hour they consumed.
Look, I’m surprised it took this long. I knew I was a good writer. I thought that would be enough. I sat in my first college fiction workshop thinking my stuff was pretty top-notch. At the time, I wasn’t fazed by the fact that I was a mechanical engineering major. Imposter syndrome would come later. By the time I took my second workshop, when the professor told me “you’ve got chops,” I almost wept with gratitude. Of course even with chops, you still need to practice. I wrote two novels in grad school, revised them, rewrote them. Failed again, failed better. Agents liked but didn’t love them. I kept working. I learned from the novels I read, from poetry, from my life. I took notes. I attended workshops. I switched jobs. I got tenure. I traded manuscripts with other writers, offered critiques, developed a sharper eye and ear. I marked milestone birthdays with a mixture of wistfulness and rage: I’d thought it would have happened by now.
When I started writing my “debut” (fourth!) novel it felt contemporary; now, it’s set long enough ago to be “about” a particular historical moment: Palo Alto just after the first dotcom bubble burst. The Silicon Valley of my novel is chastened, unstable, unsure of itself. It’s a moment before smart phones and Google. When Columbine felt like it might have been a strange anomaly. Over time, I cut down subplots, characters, and sections, including the one excerpted here. When I started writing this novel, motherhood was largely hypothetical; now, my daughters can read it themselves.
I think, too, that my children having seen me try to balance these interests and commitments has been part of being a good parent. I have been modeling the kind of well-rounded life I want my daughters to have, and the kind of hard choices I want them to know how to make. They have seen me work at my writing, practice this craft, challenge myself, and struggle. They have seen me yearn. They’ve seen me take risks, swing big, head back to the dugout. They have seen the joy of achievement—a story acceptance, a prize nomination, a thoughtful rejection that says you were close–and understood that those moments were fleeting, and more challenges were ahead. This is the process I try to get my students comfortable with, as well: the sometimes frustrating but also rewarding cycle of working toward mastery, toward understanding, toward something that feels like “success.” We learn from failed experiments, null results, inadequate prototypes. It is useful for those of us who teach to remember how hard it is to learn.
I don’t know for sure if the reason my debut novel is coming out when I’m 44 is that I also have a job and a family and like to travel. Maybe, under different conditions, there would have been more or different novels, sooner. But I know this novel is richer and better for the extra years it took, and for the other ways I’ve spent my time along the way. I’m grateful to have taken my time.
Following is an excerpt from Jenn Stroud Rossmann’s The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh (7.13 Books, November 14, 2018). This excerpt previously appeared in a different form in The Indianola Review.
This was the place she was supposed to laugh. She was a half beat late; those familiar with the rhythms of Scot’s stories had already turned toward her. It was important that she laugh now. If she didn’t laugh—if she waited even a moment longer—it would mean that her husband was cruel. And surely he was not cruel, not Scot MacAvoy of MacAvoy-dot-com: charming, surgically observant Scot who would not notice your new haircut per se but the uncanny resemblance you now bore to your mother.
In the story Scot was telling, Irene was in the Health/Self-Help section of the Barnes & Noble, looking vainly and with mounting desperation for tonight’s book, Love Medicine. When the clerk arrived to offer assistance, Irene explained what she was looking for. Having misread a book group email, Irene had been under the impression that the author of Love Medicine was a Native American mystic who had written down well-guarded tribal secrets to a rewarding, lasting marriage.
This had all been recreated by Scot as a sort of apology for the fact that neither of them had read Love Medicine for tonight. He performed a wicked impersonation of Irene’s confusion in the bookstore, raising the pitch of his voice to a tremulous whine as she asked to speak to a manager.
His mimicry elicited his biggest laugh yet from the book group. It would have been a very good time for Irene to join in. Instead, she sipped from her wineglass.
“So, honey,” Scot said, “just so you know. The book for next month? Mistress of Spices? It’s not a cookbook, sweetie.”
Mrs. Abdelnour and the other wives were waiting, silent, for Irene’s signal. Clear her throat, move away from Scot toward their cluster near the windows, and they would know: Scot had gone too far. They and their husbands would be pleasant enough for the remainder of the evening, but they would know, and they would tell each other later that they’d always known. That she was a saint for putting up with him so long.
Mercifully, Irene laughed. Her laugh was perhaps too loud and too long, but she was compensating for its lateness. The women were grateful to her for it. Irene described her embarrassment when the clerk in Goth make-up explained that Louise Erdrich was a novelist, and that her books, all eight of them, were shelved over in Fiction. She’s kinda famous, the clerk had said. Irene radiated warmth—even her professed shame was lovely—at the group, though perhaps not exactly at Scot.
A woman in purple assured Irene she understood. She wasn’t sure Irene had missed much, as she hadn’t liked Love Medicine as much as that one about the family in Baltimore. Irene said again that she couldn’t believe the heat this summer.
The group agreed that the first chapter of Love Medicine felt like a fakeout: they’d gotten to know a character, June, who then abruptly died, and the book turned out not to be about her at all. “They should’ve just called it a prologue,” said the woman in purple.
“But no one ever reads the prologue,” said another woman; “I always skip them.”
“I disagree,” said Mrs. Abdelnour, and the group turned toward her. Mrs. Abdelnour spoke so rarely in the book group, and was so much older than the other women, that her contributions were received as koans.
Mrs. Abdelnour was the neighbor who’d lived on their Palo Alto street the longest. The small house she and her husband had bought while it was still being built now the only one retaining its original linoleum and siding. The MacAvoys, Irene and Scot, had finally completed an extended renovation that doubled the size of their own house, converting its L-shaped ranch beginnings into a spacious, flowing “open plan” where—at least from where Mrs. Abdelnour stood—there were no doors at all.
She said now: “I felt June echoing through the whole book.” The women murmured thoughtfully, and reached for the ahi-on-lotus-root-crisps.
Several of them had recognized the chutney-filled mushroom caps from a food-lovers’ magazine; Irene had replicated the layout, placing them on a similar silver tray and drizzling the edges uncannily with a pale pink sauce. Like the house, like Irene herself, like her apricot-colored blouse and flowy black pants, the mushrooms were exquisite.
It must’ve been particularly important to offer the right wine and cheeses, the perfect appetizers, on the night Irene had not read—had not even managed to locate without assistance from a vampiric teenager—the assigned book. But Love Medicine had been a departure for the group. Several recent choices had been memoirs by women and men not unlike the MacAvoys, couples who’d relocated to some western European country, bought a rambling, run-down villa/chateau/weingut, and proceeded to immerse themselves in its restoration, leading to many humorous encounters with local craftsmen (Mais monsieur, nous ont avons le système métrique!), eccentric innkeepers and grocers, and the consequent enrichment of lives. A few group members had complained about the repetitive themes of these memoirs, but Irene had been rather taken with them. Although Scot maintained that such a trip would hardly be conducive to his career, Irene opined that he, like the workaholic husband in Conjugating Etre, would be won over by the sun, the quirky locals, and the pleasures of a well-sanded oak floor.
Mrs. Abdelnour knew Irene did not want pity from the book group. It would be a little obscene, considering her comfort, her husband’s inordinate wealth that had somehow lasted when their own portfolios had shriveled and turned white, like limes abandoned in the fruit drawer after the gin’s run out. Perhaps it was enough for them to bear witness.
When the Abdelnours first moved to the row of small three-bedroom houses, there had been a strong smell of fruit on the air from the nearby orchards. With time, the train whistle deepened and became more frequent; it seemed to Mrs. Abdelnour that it grew louder as the sound-dampening trees were cut down to make room for more houses. The whistle blast now was shrill and harsh. She planted a lemon tree herself in compensation, fueling her sons’ burgeoning capitalism in the form of quarterly lemonade stands. By the time the MacAvoys moved in, Mrs. Abdelnour’s two-car garage was so crowded with boxes full of the children’s artwork, outgrown bicycle helmets, and her husband’s neglected workbench that she parked her car in the driveway.
In other local garages, empires were forged of electrons and silicon. Her husband worked as a footsoldier, rising into middle-management at the corporations grown out of these garages, and they felt relieved to have secured their own dreamlike existence, so very far from Beirut. Their neighbors began to drive better cars, to make subtle changes to their landscaping and decor that differentiated the lookalike homes. New people arrived holding prospecting pans, hoping they too could strike gold. Their quiet orchard village became a boomtown, until the lustrous vein dried up. Now, she noticed the smaller crowds at book group, the lighter traffic on the roads.
“They’ve got a thing now,” someone said, “where the migrant workers, or immigrants anyway, wait on the freeway onramps, and people pick them up for their commutes, and pay them, just so they can use the carpool lane. I think the workers take the bus back, afterwards.”
The wives near the windows shook their heads sadly, as if to say that although this struck them as outrageously deplorable, they weren’t surprised to hear it. It was postulated that the practice had been imported from southern California, from Orange County.
“But,” Irene said in a crystalline voice, “what do they talk about?”
Scot overheard this and joined the circle to begin a stand-up routine about the morning conversation between a wealthy Walnut Creek matron and a heavily-accented worker who said mostly “okey-dokey” and “Si, señora.” The group yielded a modest snicker when he came to the part about them going through a Starbucks drive-through. He rolled the r in Frappuccino extravagantly. Scot’s laugh was now the loudest in the room. He finished up with a short exchange between the same two people, now on their way home: “And how was your day, Juan?” “Okey dokey.” “Same time tomorrow?” “Si, señora.”
Irene performed an elaborate pantomime of a hostess who has just realized her guests’ glasses are empty, and went for the wine in the kitchen.
This was the cleverness for which her husband was celebrated. That he could be so clever, so in tune with both technology’s capabilities and the market’s vagaries, and at the same time retain a youthful sensibility, described in one industry magazine as a “startlingly unforced whimsy,” was something of a marvel. The magazines were titillated by his habit of spending his company’s outsize profits in frivolous ways—the annual employee picnic, the gourmet cafeteria, the free shuttle service for his commuters. “Boy wonder,” they called Scot, and “Young-at-heart mogul.” He wore hoodies and ironic t-shirts, cloaking his ambition and corporate bloodlust. Spent whole afternoons playing video games with the kid who lived next door.
Mrs. Abdelnour had noted that the next-door neighbors were not at book group, despite the son’s friendship with Scot. At one time they’d been regulars, but there was always a hint of something that made their neighbors feel reproached by their presence. With their adopted black son and the wife’s job counseling local teenagers, they were like human NPR tote bags, flaunting their position on moral high ground, breathing its rarified air, and making you feel guilty about wanting another chutney-stuffed mushroom cap for yourself instead of donating it to some worthier cause. Counseling other people’s children as if to say, I have this all figured out. Mrs. Abdelnour couldn’t be sure whether the MacAvoys’ next-door neighbors had chosen to stop attending book group, or whether someone had discreetly removed them from the email list.
Jenn Rossmann’s novel, The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh, is out November 14, 2018, from 7.13 Books. She is a professor of mechanical engineering at Lafayette College, and writes the essay series “An Engineer Reads a Novel” for Public Books. Her fiction has appeared most recently in Hobart, jmww journal, Cheap Pop, and Literary Orphans.
More information at https://jennstroudrossmann.com/