ONE OF THE BLURBS on the back of Mardi Jo Link’s new book, Bootstrapper, reads “A heroic-comic saga of single motherhood, pure stubbornness, and the loyalty of three young sons. And more than that, an honest account of the working poor, the people who buy day-old bread, patronize libraries, rarely go to the movies, and don’t need your sympathy. Just a break now and then.” The writer of that blurb is Garrison Keillor, a man who knows his stories. Another of the blurbs speaks of the book’s “bounty.” For me, it was the subtitle that led me to invite Mardi Jo to participate in Writing Lessons. That subtitle reads, From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm. Oh yeah, and then there is that hatchet on the cover. I just love that hatchet.
I figured this writer could teach us something about writing. I think you’ll agree. Enjoy.
Enthralling an Audience of One
By Mardi Jo Link
“Good gravy, I can’t say that! What would my mother think??!”
Contrary to what you might believe, that is not the voice of a dutiful but conflicted daughter. Nope, it’s actually the voice of the dreaded sabotaging self-editor. And when writing memoir, you must slap a very large piece of Duct Tape over her big fat mouth. And you must do it every time she dares blurt her bad advice.
That is a metaphor, of course. A sabotaging self-editor lives inside of every writer (Ok, almost every writer. My hero, Joan Didion, just seems too darn tough to have one.) and must be silenced if you are ever going to write the truth of your life. But metaphor schmetaphor, I’m so used to shushing my self-editor, that I actually keep a role of that gray sticky tape on my writing desk, right next to my keyboard, where I can access it in an emergency.
Striving to write a memoir that your mother will like, or a big nameless, faceless readership will buy, or a reviewer for the NYTBR will rave about, or your best friend will hug to her chest with joy, is just asking for trouble. It’s like opening your front door, inviting your self-editor inside, and offering her a glass of ice tea. Do that and she’ll surely criticize your work, your life, you, and probably in the superior-sounding voice of your mother, too. Write to please someone else and its curtains for your writing.
Instead, try writing for an audience of one. You! Can you imagine? Yes, I’m giving you permission to please yourself and only yourself. At least in the first draft. I’m directing you to write the book that you want to read. To put yourself first for a change.
Sit down to write, but before you get started send your mother to her room, the NYTBR to a downhome barbeque, and your best friend to the liquor store (there will be a time to celebrate someday, and she will know what supplies to purchase, right?). Then, write your own real story. Yours. And write it just for you.
When you’ve finished your first draft, sit back and bask for the rest of the day. First thing the next morning, yank off that piece of tape. If your self-editor hollers her head off, that’s how you know my writing lesson worked. With a first draft that belongs only to you, you’ll have the authority and confidence to decide just how much of her questionable advice to actually listen to in your revision.
Bootstrapper, an excerpt
“The thought gradually permeated Mr. Jeremiah Cobb’s slow-moving mind that the bird perched by his side was a bird of very different feather from those to which he was accustomed . . . Rebecca’s eyes were like faith—“the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
—Kate Douglas Wiggin, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
A perfectly bonny summer morning on the farm and I’m just this side of plowed. Nobody likes a drunk farmer. Or rather, farmeress. Nobody likes a drunk farmeress. Nobody likes a drunk, soon-to-be divorced, in-debt, swollen-eyed, single-mother farmeress, because she simply can’t get any work done this way.
It is almost July, the time of year when work piles up like cordwood. I should be weeding, I should be watering, I should be mucking out stalls, I should be turning the compost pile. Last night’s honey moon is a waning moon today; time to sow root crops again. Beets, carrots, radishes, onions. So at the very least, I should be planting.
Instead, I grab another beer.
My physical safety behind the wheel of farm machinery is not in any jeopardy, because I’m too broke to own a tractor. This place, at only six acres, is too small to justify one anyway. A blessing really, because right now I could harrow something. I could harrow something real good.
If I know anything I know this: no two states of being entice the unsuspecting female bystander with more money-for-jampromise than farming and marriage. And I fell for both of them. Fell for them like Scarlett fell for Rhett and Tara, like Isak Dinesen fell for that big-game hunter and a farm in Africa, like Eve fell for the garden snake.
“The serpent beguiled me,” Eve admitted, “and I did eat.”
I hear you, sister. I took a big old bite out of that very same apple and look what it got me: debt, heartbreak, and perpetually ragged cuticles. The only thing growing here today is my livestock-sized thirst.
Through binoculars I watch my new neighbor, Mr. Wonderful, take out his trash. He lugs, jerks, drags, and kicks the floppy bags down his dirt driveway. His slipper tears a hole in one of them and a buffet of stink dribbles out.
My view of his activity is unobstructed for two reasons. One, because my farmhouse has a wraparound front porch, the kind that invites a long pull on a mid-morning beer, and two, because Mr. Wonderful’s driveway is dead ahead.
A week ago this man lived with me; now he lives right across the road from me. In this rural spot on a hill several miles outside of town where drivers are all going somewhere, or coming from somewhere, he’s one of my only neighbors. He’s also the father of our three sons and my husband of more than nineteen years. We won’t make it to twenty. Which is why he’s now in binocular range.
“Wonderful” is not the name on his mailbox, of course, but it is the name my friends have bestowed upon him. A name my high-school English teacher taught us was a “euphemism”: a polite way to express something blunt or offensive. I have a euphemism living directly across the road. Walk to the end of my long driveway, turn right, sashay past a hedge of the now apocalyptically named “Bridal Veil” bushes, face the road, and there you are—staring at his chipped cement doorstep.
Depending upon your viewpoint, it is either good luck or an epic fail that the place was available for rent when I finally found my voice and said the word “divorce.”
Easier for the kids, he said.
Won’t need a moving van, he said.
Okay, I said.
When you live out in the country and find you have arrived, through great fault of your own, at a footing so precarious you can barely communicate without cusswords, is having your soon-to-be-ex-husband and father of your three sons living across the road from you a good thing? I’m still trying to figure that out. The beer may or may not be helping.
“Do you think it’s been easy for me?” he’d shouted, his body ridged and jutting forward in a way that seemed to defy gravity. “Waking up every goddamn morning next to Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm?”
Perpetual good cheer, it turns out, can kill a marriage. And really, who knew?What, I wondered, was there not to be cheerful about?
I’ve wanted to live on a farm ever since I was a little girl and my upwardly mobile parents moved my brother and me from one apartment, duplex, and bi-level to the next, finally settling down for good in a “ranch”-style house in “Country Estates.” But real farms were where you had gardens. Real farms were where you had space. Best of all, real farms, and not subdivisions, were where you had horses.
I am a Sagittarius, of course, the zodiac sign that is half horse, half human, and we want what we want and we want it now. It’s taken some doing, but I finally have an honest-to-God country estate of my own. Six precious acres, a mammoth garden, a red barn, and inside it, custom stalls for my two blessed horses.
We Sagittarians do indeed want what we want, and we do indeed want it now, but we are willing to work hard to get it. And anywhere you look around here, that is exactly what you see: work.
I watch through my binoculars as Mr. Wonderful walks back to his rented garage and loads up with the last of his trash, the unbaggables. A vacuum cleaner—the upright kind, with a houndstooth-patterned bag. A burned-out barbecue grill teetering on rusted legs. Naugahyde kitchen chairs with symmetrical rips in the edges from years of swiveling up against their matching table. So that’s what happened to the dinette set. When he moved out, he must have taken it with him. And here I thought it was still safely stored in our garage. My garage.
His curb soon becomes home to all of the things he took when he moved out but that I imagine his (rumored) Internet girlfriend cannot abide. The same friends who bestowed the “Mr. Wonderful” moniker on him are active online and tell me that he already has a “dating profile.” I don’t even know what that is.
On top of one of the kitchen chairs he stacks a pile of waterlogged magazines (Hustler or Organic Gardening?—he kept both in his workshop) and a brass floor lamp that looks, with my binocular vision, like someone had repurposed it into a giant bong. But that can’t be right. Because if that’s what it is, there is no way he would be getting rid of it. He’s a smoking man, not a drinking man. Even our vices are at odds with each other.
I scan the horizon and get a surprise. This is not necessarily all trash after all. Because a big sign made of lime-green tagboard stapled to a post is pounded into the ground next to his pile. In black marker it reads, “Free!”
Which is a lie. I can tell you for an absolute fact that someone paid handsomely for all that wreckage, and that someone is me.
A self-help book I checked out of the library on how to have a peaceful and Zen-like divorce is spread open on my lap, making a nice flat place to set the binoculars down when they get too heavy. Chapter 1, page 1 gives this advice: Harbor no opinion on Mr. Wonderful. An opinion means being attached, and being attached means suffering, and suffering means, well, more suffering.
In my Miller High Life glaze, this circular spiritual notion feels like real wisdom. So. Right. On. Religiously, I am confused: a familiar state of being I am usually okay with, but one that would be nice to have clarified during this crisis point.
But here’s some good news: I’ve barely cracked open this Zen book and it is already starting to make practical sense to me. Maybe I’ve been a Buddhist all along, trapped inside a Protestant’s body. I was adopted by my parents as a baby, so my spiritual DNA could contain anything. Genetically, maybe I’m a Baptist, a Unitarian, a pagan—or yes, even a Buddhist. Although I have a feeling that pregnant teenage Buddhists were in short supply in Michigan in the early 1960s, when I was born and placed.
From my fenced backyard, our two dogs are howling. Which they sometimes do when Mr. Wonderful is outside. They can’t see him, but they can smell him, they remember him, and I believe they even still love him. I’ve read that canines howl in unison for one of two reasons: either the pack has just been reunited after an absence, or the members remain separated and long for the moment when they will all be together again.
“You two would never make it as Zen dogs!” I slur. Loudly.
This outburst certainly won’t upset my few other neighbors. Hollering at your dogs from one side of your property to the other, first thing in the morning and well lubricated with alcohol, is nothing to get your back up about here in northern Michigan.
I give myself credit for picking a responsible moment to be irresponsible. For once, I do not have to set a good example for anyone. Our sons are with their grandparents at the Link family cottage, ostensibly so their mother can “get some summer cleaning done,” because it’s “summer cleaning time.”
This is what my parents tell my sons. They are country boys, but not dumb. They know this actually means that I need time alone to “simmer my shit down.” I heard the boys say this privately, to each other, when they thought I wasn’t listening.
“Mom needs to simmer her shit down,” I heard the oldest, Owen, fifteen, say to his younger brothers, Luke, twelve, and Will, eight, as they packed their pajamas and swim trunks and Gameboys and jackknives into their backpacks. As if their frothy mother were just a pot of soup carelessly heated to a rolling boil.
Well then, I wouldn’t want to disappoint. The fourth beer goes down real easy and has me thinking about all the things Mr. Wonderful left behind that I should be getting rid of.
Time to purge.
I head for our Quonset-hut garage and climb the ladder into the cobwebbed dark of the storage loft. I peer into boxes, lift the corner of tarps, and open drawers. For two supposedly simple people, both supposedly living simple lives, we’ve sure managed to acquire our fair share of useless crap.
“What is the appropriate behavior for a man or a woman in the midst of this world, where each person is clinging to his piece of debris?” asks my library-book Buddha.
Appropriate? Probably not for me to judge, but I pitch psychedelic concert posters, rusty saw blades, dried-up paintbrushes solid as clubs, a sour-smelling plastic picnic cooler, a woodstove pipe with an abandoned squirrel nest inside, a pair of rusty cross-country ski poles.
According to one Zen master, all phenomena are in motion all of the time. I see his point, because this phenomenon certainly is. I carry Mr. Wonderful’s warped and abandoned jazz albums outside and fling them like Frisbees into the grassy valley behind our house.
“Inner peace,” I grunt with each act of removal. “Inner peace.”
They sail through the air like baby black holes, and three nearby crows take flight. I am pleased to see that I still have one heck of an arm.
I pitch a box of his old business cards and letterhead, a scrapbook, file folders of college term papers, spiral notebooks of hand-written angst, lyrics from summer-camp songs, and his high-school track T-shirts, rotting away in a cardboard box.
My selection of cathartic refuse is growing quickly, and I’m already thinking of my own front curb when something even better than trash day occurs to me, and a burn pile takes shape in my front yard.
Once everything is sorted, there is the gasoline gently siphoned out of the lawn mower. Then a match. Have you ever seen what a really hot bonfire does to wedding photographs?
I paw through a box of old CDs, find one by the dominatrix of disco, Donna Summer, insert it into the CD player in my minivan, open the doors, pull up a lawn chair, then sit back and enjoy. Bad girls, Donna chides. Talkin’ ’bout bad, bad girls. Between songs, I leave the fire smoldering and head to the basement for more fuel.
And that’s when I see it.
My wedding dress.
I tear through the dry-cleaner bag, slip the dress off the hanger, and press it to my body, over my tank top and raggedy jeans. It may smell like mildew, and its princess seams may be decades out of style, but it would still fit. One honeymoon, two apartments, two houses, three breast-fed babies, and an impending divorce later, and it would still fit. There’s so little for me to be proud of at the moment that I try to savor this.
The feeling passes quickly, though, and all I really want to do is burn this thing I once spent hours sewing by hand. It is not a custom-made gown anymore; it’s just faded satin now, with marshmallow sleeves perfect for roasting on a stick.
Conscience takes over—just—before it’s too late. Melting five yards of polyester in my bonfire would probably cause an environmental incident, and so the dress will have to be disposed of properly, off the premises. Some other pie-in-the-sky woman on a budget can probably put a handmade, hand-beaded wedding dress that fastens up the back with antique glass buttons to good use.
I carry the dress upstairs and lay it on the backseat of my minivan, careful not to wrinkle it. I toss an empty juice box out of the drink holder, replace it with my beer, and drive to Goodwill, toasting the Wonderful residence as I pass.
There is a Goodwill helper wearing a bright orange jumpsuit unloading the cars, and as soon as I pull into line, he stares right through my minivan’s windshield at me and smiles—the sort of smile a shark might give to a seal. I hop out and slide my van’s side door open. Shark puts his hands on his hips, and I can feel him watching me bend over.
“Mmm,” he says too loud, sampling the seal meat.
I scoop my wedding dress into my outstretched arms as if I were bringing it out into the light for someone to try on. Time for this dress to face its new destiny.
I will not be attached. I will sever all outward signs of attachment. Like this one.
I look into Shark’s face and hold out my donation, giving him a cheerful Sunnybrook smile. He’s looking me in the eye, ignoring the dress in my arms. On his orange chest is stamped the word “INMATE” in big block letters.
Disco is blasting out of my car door and Shark grins, showing a chipped front tooth, then does a little shimmy to the music.
“You look like you could use this,” I tell him.
I place the dress in his hands, get back into my minivan, and drive for the exit like a woman on fire. Which isn’t too big a stretch, since I still reek of smoke from the smoldering trash pile.
Home from my charitable-donation errand, I return to my post on the porch. Not usually a stalker, a pre-noon boozer, or a drunk driver, I can tell you unequivocally that the way to get your money’s worth from a six-pack is to drink it on an empty stomach. Before ten.
God and Buddha should both just shake on it and agree to give me a pass on this rare lapse in judgment.
Okay, so maybe sitting alone on my front porch and staring across the road at Mr. Wonderful’s trash through a pair of beer goggles is not exactly how I pictured single motherhood. I’m only a week into it, though. Give it time. Because life is sure to get a lot more interesting in the coming days.
I’m claiming my sons, the farm, the debt, the other debt, the horses, the dogs, and the land. I’m claiming our century-old farmhouse, the garden, the woods, the pasture, the barn, and the Quonset-hut garage.
They’re all mine now, and this is how I will raise my boys: on cheerful summer days and well water and BB guns and horseback riding and dirt. Because I’m claiming our whole country life, the one I’ve been dreaming of and planning out and working for since I was a little girl.
Last night the full moon hung low and close, like a glistening teardrop on the earth’s dark eye, threatening to spill. It didn’t, though, and neither did I. A month is a bill cycle, a mortgage cycle, and may become a child-support cycle, but a month is also a moon phase and a growing phase. Our financial lives, our emotional lives, and our cosmic lives are irrevocably intertwined.
If I can follow the moon, if I can remember that both waxing and waning are only temporary, a natural cycle continually renewed and nothing to get too attached to, we’ll make it. I just have to stay solvent for thirty days at a time. And then another thirty. And another.
I may not know which God to believe in, but I know that I can believe in us. In my sons and in me.
Excerpted from Bootstrapper by Mardi Jo Link Copyright © 2013 by Mardi Jo Link. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
About the author
AND THE WINNER IS…
I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each installment of the series will take on one short topic that addresses how to write memoir, and will include a great big book giveaway.
It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.
The contest for this book is now closed. Please see the next installment of Writing Lessons.
The winner of Mardi Jo Link’s fine book is Walker Thornton. Congratulations, Walker! I’ll be in touch to send your book.