Listening to Megan Mayhew Bergman read from this story collection at North Carolina State prompted me to call my parents crying and tell them I’m going to write a novel. At that point in my writing life, I was manically writing in my journal (a la Sylvia), but I was in no shape to write a novel. Two sisters have been floating around my head from a swamp area in North Carolina where they have to wear rain slickers and don’t often comb their hair. A lot of baby powder dusts the floor just below their vanity. They have yet to become a novel, or a short story, but they’re there constantly.
My poetry professor in college loved the poet, Ruth Stone. They were friends outside of academia and she told us the story once of how Ruth Stone, as a young girl, in what I imagine is a cotton shift dress, paisley, would hear poems like tornados. She would be peeling the green ear of a corn, or popping grapes into her mouth, the blue drain of them coating her bare feet, and she would hear it, off in the distance like a swift train. From the field, she would have to run into the house, across floor boards, upstairs, to a page of white paper to get the poem before the storm ceased. If she was too late, the poem rested somewhere out of reach. Too early, and the poem jumbled. She had to find the perfect quotient of time in order to get the poem on paper.
Like relationships, I think writing has a timing. Sometimes when people ask me why I haven’t written a book, I answer that I have been unable to read the amount of stories I must have in my metaphorical library to put on paper what I need to say. There is a story in me, it’s just not ready to be shaken out.
This is probably just fear.
With writers like Megan Mayhew Bergman, who is from a relatively small town in my home state of North Carolina, I look to her for inspiration. I sit with my journal open as I read her story collections and write down all the quotes that either shift my soul to a new position, or make me want to write down an image, a smell, a moment on the page. I have highlighted and written in her books, analyzed how she works sentences, when she believes the image is pushed far enough, how she makes the small moments seem like hours, or ones life in a time capsule. Bergman is brilliant, and every time I read her stories, I’m inspired to finally write something down. I don’t know if it’s that I want to be her when I grow up (even though I’m pretty much here and grown) of if it’s that she’s been able to do something with a life that is so similar to mine (other than the adorable husband, and toddlers).
Her newest collection, Almost Famous Women, was the perfect book to study first in 2015. I feel that not reading this story collection would have neglected something from my life. Each woman has her own strength, even if it’s built through various wounds, drugs, historical racism, shell-shock, or grandeur. I began reading this book eating alone in a Bob Evans. I ordered big because that’s all one can do in a breakfast place. I instagrammed the moment (because I too can be a useless millennial at times) and talked about the power I feel sometimes from eating alone in a restaurant. This same power comes to me from reading a collection of stories about women who were on the cusp of greatness and maybe didn’t reach it, but through books, letters and passed down myth have now reached new heights in Bergman’s stories.
This is the kind of book that leads to research. It’s filled with small details that prompt the google machine start up. The power of this story collection is in those details. The fact that Edna St. Vincent Millay is called Vincent in the story, and for a few pages, the reader assumes, because she’s the only one who gets letters from publishers in her family, that she is the male heir. It’s a great twist to the reader’s psyche, even though the true heroine to that story is her sister Norma, who is my second favorite woman brought up and put out wet in this collection. My generation thinks of Millay as this feminist heroine who could give strength to flower petals, but it is her sister that stars in this story:
“Norma knows when they wake up they’ll be alone in the dim kitchen, smearing day-old bread with measured dollops of blueberry jam, warmed on the stove. They’ll do the washing until their fingers are numb with cold, sing songs their mother taught them, tell stories in bed about imaginary lovers–what does a lover do as much as kiss?–while the modest fire becomes nothing but smoldering coals. They’re a houseful of skinny girls, dirt-poor ingenues singing arias from a cabin in the swampy part of town near the mill, a place the shipbuilders have fled. The young forest is beginning to grow again, but lately it’s bare enough to see the lean deer moving through” (Norma Millay’s Film Noir Period, Act 1, Bergman).
Most of the stories in this collection made tiny dents in my ideas about womanhood, femininity and the ideals that are both given to us, and we set upon ourselves. How do the women of war face post traumatic stress disorder in a time when not even men were allowed to feel that quake. In “The Siege at Whale Cay” M.B. “Joe” Carstairs rocks and sobs in the closed rectangle of a closet when she remembers her war experiences. In “Romaine Remains” a famous artist is used and discarded by her own unthinkable past. These women are shipwrecks, but still beautiful in the way that they were on the tip of having it all and either the world was too much, too swollen, or they made a choice to remain just girls in the throw of it.
My favorite story in the collection is “Expression Theory” about Lucia Joyce a dancer in Paris. She was a bit mad, but she was mad in the way that I believe all creative people must be. She was working over her craft, too busy for the normalcies of a world that just didn’t get her and the writing in this story just particularly took hold of me. Possibly my favorite description in the collection is as follows:
“They give nighttime shows, the flicker of oil lamps on their damp skin. Her muscles were firmer then. She spoke three languages. She was on the verge of something. Her thoughts were the color of moss and her head was teeming with them. The ideas were crawling all over her body like the fat worms she used to feed the rouser after a rain, the lonely one who crowed in the city streets at dawn, the one who sought shelter behind a fetid wastebin” (Expression Theory, Bergman).
I think the most powerful, and the most hard to craft aspect of Bergman’s writing is her small details. Reading her work, I know she’s smart because her word choice is so perfect, and so delicate, it causes a reader to want to start at A and read the dictionary, learning the sounds of words as much as their meanings. Her details, her senses, her moments of just beautiful writing made me want to take up a flag to these stories.
I will always be a fan of Bergman and read anything that she feels comfortable paperbacking for the world, however, this story collection should be read by and for women everywhere. These are the things in which we live, these are the ways that we carry ourselves without ever recognizing the bundles on our backs. I carry a picnic knapsack of sadness on a burned stick that I can’t let go of, and someone carries their father’s old socks, and another girl must only carry the lipstick she stole from her mother’s purse at age eleven just before she slipped into the night. These are our stories written down.