Ladies Night at the Dreamland

Ladies Night“…she listens to reports of war in Europe…people lean in to discuss FDR, the Lindbergh baby, Amelia Earhart’s final flight…Audrey stands in line, overhearing news of the McCarthy hearings, Eisenhower, and Nixon…she watches anchormen speak of Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War, start to finish…Satellites, astronauts, and the moon landing. Martin Luther King and Kennedy, their eventual assassinations, until talk is replaced by Three Mile Island. Love Canal, the Exxon Valdez…She’s there for all of it: Iran-Contra and Monica Lewinsky. The invention of the automatic coffeemaker, the atomic bomb, personal computers. The years fall like spent leaves…Audrey remains at the Saint Lawrence State Hospital from 1931 to 1996.”  — Ladies Night at the Dreamland, by Sonja Livingston

I recently wrote about Sonja Livingston’s first essay collection, Queen of the Fall, which was the 2016 choice for If All of Rochester Reads the Same Book, and her memoir, Ghostbread.  

Now she has a new collection just published, a strange and haunting meditation on the lives of women and girls from the past. Some of these women were accomplished and briefly famous, some were trail-blazers and rule-breakers, others were unremarkable on the surface but heroic in their strength and endurance, and some were outright victims.

Sonja is from Rochester, and several of the women she writes about have connections with upstate New York where I live.

It’s difficult to describe these essays, they’re so clever, beautiful, and unusual. Ladies Night at the Dreamland is a great read if you want something very different. Using detailed, thorough research and brilliant conjecture, Sonja sheds light on women who were largely ignored and gives them a dignity they never had in life. Often, Sonja inserts herself in the stories she tells in moving and provocative ways.

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The Carousel at Charlotte Beach in Rochester, NY

The collection of essays is framed by two imaginary scenes in 1920 that take place at the Charlotte Beach carousel on Lake Ontario in Rochester, New York, and at the dance hall that once stood there, known as the Dreamland.  (It burned to the ground in 1923.) My husband and I visit the carousel on hot summer nights when we want to walk by the lake and cool off. Charlotte Beach was once known as the Coney Island of the West.

In the last of the two scenes, Susan B. Anthony, who is buried in Rochester’s Mount Hope Cemetery, which is across the street from the medical center where I used to work, makes an appearance and speaks with Sonja. The author dresses Susan in the flapper get-up of the day, and tells her that the Nineteenth Amendment has passed. Thanks to Susan’s hard work, finally women have the right to vote.

One after the other, the women Sonja has written about gather around Susan B. Anthony to speak with her and thank her.

Sonja Livingston wrote these essays with love. Here are a few of them:

“Some Names and What They Mean” Carmen, Wanda, and Michelle were young girls strangled, raped, and killed in the early 1970s in Rochester by a serial killer known as the Alphabet Murderer.

Carmen managed to escape from the killer, and was seen by drivers running along 490 West, but no one stopped to help, and her abductor caught up with her. Sonja imagines herself back in 1971, driving on 490; she sees Carmen and rescues her. They drive on and encounter Wanda and Michelle, and rescue them, too. Together in the car, Sonja asks them who they’d like to become and helps them choose new names.

“Mad Love: The Ballad of Fred and Allie” In 1892, a society girl from Memphis, Alice Mitchell, murdered her female lover, Freda Ward. Sonja tells their story, imagining what Alice thought and felt.

“Human Curiosity: A Circular Concordance” Krao Farini, known as “The Human Monkey,” was a carnival attraction loved by no one who eventually became the bearded lady at Coney Island.

“The Goddess of Ogdensburg: A Rise and Fall in Seventeen Poses” – Audrey Munson was an artist’s model for the greatest sculptors in the early 1900s. Her naked body is on the Pulitzer Fountain in Central Park and the Manhattan Bridge; in Penn Station; and atop the Municipal Building in Manhattan and other municipal buildings across the country. She died in a state mental institution in Point Airy, New York.

“The Opposite of Fear” Maria Spelterini crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope in 1876.

“Freeze-Frame” Valaida Snow was an African American jazz trumpet player of enormous talent known as “Queen of the Horn” from east Tennessee. She played in Harlem, then Paris, then Germany, where she was imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II.

It’s especially gratifying to read these essays about women as Hillary Clinton runs for president. I imagine Sonja telling Susan B. Anthony all about it.

Do you read creative nonfiction? Any recommendations? Are there books that you love that are extra meaningful because they take place in the region where you live?

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Charlotte Beach on Lake Ontario

Remembering Judith Kitchen

Excavating a Life

Queen of the Fall book coverQueen of the Fall: A Memoir of Girls and Goddesses, is a collection of linked essays by Sonja Livingston and the If All of Rochester Reads the Same Book selection for 2016.

For the next few weeks, Sonja will be here for readings, signings and discussions at Writers & Books, local libraries, schools, colleges and bookstores.

Sonja is from the Rochester area, and divides her time between Rochester and the University of Memphis, where she teaches writing. The daughter of a single mother and one of seven children (with five different fathers), Sonya has also written a memoir, Ghostbread, about growing up in poverty in the Rochester slums and on the Tonawanda Reservation.

When I read the dedication page of Queen of the Fall, I was surprised and delighted to see this: “For my mothers, actual and acquired, and In memory of Judith Kitchen.

I wondered: Does Sonja look upon Judith as a mother figure, a kind of midwife who helped Sonja give birth to her own writing?

Yes, she does. So do I, and so do many in the Rochester community. I know Sonja does because, flipping through her essays, I found “Flight,” about the personal essay writing class taught by Judith that Sonja enrolled in many times.

I took the same class from Judith years ago, when I first began writing memoir and essay. Poet, novelist and essayist Judith Kitchen was a professor at SUNY Brockport at the time. She was married to the poet Stan Rubin, also on the Brockport faculty. Both were master teachers beloved by students and the literary community here.

I’d had to wait a semester to get a spot in Judith’s class. She generously added a slot or two beyond the designated maximum enrollment of twenty to accommodate those of us at the top of the waiting list. Judith didn’t have to let us non-matriculated students in, but she did. I think that she welcomed the diversity of backgrounds and generations, because it made for lively, rich discussion and, ultimately, more learning and better writing.

Our class was made up mostly of young people enrolled in the Creative Writing MA program. There were a few women getting mid-life master’s degrees in the class, too. I was in the small group of moms with kids and/or jobs, taking the course as continuing ed, trying to squeeze in the class time, plus the hours of writing and preparing critiques.

Oddly, I sat next to another mom with young children who also happened to be writing about having a mother with schizophrenia. I wasn’t sure I liked that so much, but on the other hand we “got” each other. We were of the same tribe and found our own experiences validated in each other’s writing.

HouseOnEcclesI remember those three-hour sessions every Tuesday evening, all of us crowded around a large conference table in an undersized room. Usually, two people were in the hot seat: the writer whose essay we were critiquing, and the student moderator leading the critique.

Being the moderator was nearly as stressful as having 20+ people deconstruct and critique your writing. Judith wanted us to practice and learn the art of critical reading and the art of leading a successful writing workshop. She knew the value of writers in community and that the best way to learn how to write is to learn from one other. So, in addition to our writing assignments, we were required to come to class prepared to intelligently discuss our classmates’ essays, having read them thoroughly and marked them with comments.

Judith was strict in her expectations, but she was also kind and nonjudgmental. This is crucial in a writing teacher, especially in a college setting where you have new, young writers grappling with their innermost secrets and shames and confessing them on the page, perhaps for the first time.

We wrote and shared funny essays, of course, and happy ones and contemplative ones. But in Judith’s class, I learned what it was like to be young and beautiful and anorexic in a dorm full of women with anorexia. I learned what it was like to have your dearest, life-long friend, the one who knew you better than anyone else, commit suicide. I learned what it was like to be secretly lesbian and have a Vietnam war veteran with undiagnosed PTSD for a father.

I wrote a couple of essays about my family, my mother, schizophrenia, and the boy I loved. I shared with the class stories I’d never told before and listened to their comments.

One classmate’s essay in particular has stayed with me all these years. He wrote about a long night of partying. Beer after beer, shot after shot. The girl he was madly in love with. (Who he was still madly in love with; it was all over every page and you could see it in his eyes as he listened to our comments.) The girl who didn’t know he was alive. The girl whose long blonde hair he pulled back and held as she vomited into a toilet.

I don’t think he was confident of his own potential and, for sure, he knew before we said anything that he hadn’t nailed it, this unrequited love he was trying to write about. I think this boy and his essay got to me because I had two sons on the young side of their teen years. I realized that I was old enough to be this writer’s mother, old enough to be the mother of all the young writers in the class. I knew that I would never hear about my own sons’ loves in this searing detail, because that is not what sons tell their mothers. I knew this boy’s mother would likely never hear the story her son was trying to tell us.

I wanted to offer him something helpful and constructive, but I was mystified. I, too, was finding that, when it came to writing about my own first love, I was at a loss. How do you write about love in a way that is not sentimental or cliche, but authentic, vivid, new?

In autobiographical writing, you need to learn how to methodically unearth your personal land mines without letting yourself go crazy all over again. Then, with focus, presence of mind, patience, and persistence, you teach yourself the craft of writing. Draft after draft, you learn how to spin your most intense life experiences and emotions into storytelling gold. It becomes not about you anymore. Your exquisitely cut but imperfect gem of a story (it will never be perfect), the only one like it in the world, is ultimately for the reader.

Maternal is the word I think of now to describe Judith Kitchen. The way she created a safe, nurturing, supportive place for new writers to learn how to do this.

In class, my comment to the boy writing about the girl he loved was only to say something that would help him feel some kinship in his struggle. I said I thought writing about love was one of the hardest things and I was trying to figure out how to do it, too. I told him his writing was, for me, authentic and deeply felt, and that I thought if he kept writing but didn’t try to force it, eventually it would become what it was supposed to be.

A few years after I took her class, Judith and her husband moved to Port Townsend, Washington, where they founded the Rainier Writing Workshop. It is a unique, 3-year low-residency program. Its focus is not on achieving heights of literary prowess or publication or prizes, but on helping students find for themselves a sustainable, lifelong writing practice. A worthy goal.

Judith passed away in 2014. Years after Judith left Rochester, there are a handful of writing groups that originated from her classes that are still going strong.

Next week: Sonja Livingston’s Queen of the Fall and Ghostbread.

Have you had a writing teacher or artistic mentor who has influenced you and helped you along on your creative path?

 

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