Dobry wieczór, Story366! With most of my grading and finals behind me, I have moved on to more serious issues, namely holiday shopping. Like every good American, I took advantage of a sudden credit increase at a large box store and journeyed out into commercial Springfield to make some purchases. Initially, I wondered if I would rather go back to grading, but really, it was all quite tolerable. Traffic wasn’t particularly heavy and the lines at the stores weren’t particularly long and everything that I was looking for the store had, and on sale. This was late afternoon on a Thursday, ten days to go before go time, so the worst is yet to come—I’m nowhere near finished—but the important thing is, I tore the Band-Aid off, stretched the muscles a bit, and now have a trunk full of things that I have to hide from my immediate family. Between all of this sneaking around, putting up lights, and going further into debt, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
Continuing on with my third Bowling Green alum week of the year, today we have Laura Maylene Walter and her collection Living Arrangements, out from BkMk as a winner of their G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction. Laura just finished at Bowling Green in 2015, meaning she arrived there after I left in 2012, making her the most recent graduate I’m covering in this blog this year. As a matter of fact, Living Arrangements came out in 2011, a couple of years before Walter even entered her program. That’s pretty rare, right, for someone to already have a book out before they start their MFA program? It’s practically unheard of, in my experience, for someone to have a whole lot of publications, if any, beforehand, but in this case, Walter already had an entire book. I’d heard about this case from friends in BG, a new MFA student walking in with a book, and I just thought, Wow. I don’t know Walter—I think I’ve met her once or twice at AWP, maybe when I visited BG last fall—but it got me thinking about the scenario, someone coming in, already having won a major literary award, their career seriously kick-started by this accomplishment. More than anything, I wondered how I, as a professor, would handle a student such as Walter. From everything I’ve heard, she was a model student and colleague, so it’s not like she walked in and said, “Okay, bitches, you’re working for me now.” Certainly, though, there had to be some thinking on her professors parts, wondering what was going to happen, how this success would affect the dynamic of the workshop.
I also think of myself as a student, how intimidated I was back in 1995 by all of my peers, their talent (see this coming Saturday’s post for the best example), and no one had published anything. Had someone already published a book, I think now about how that might have freaked a twenty-two-year-old me out, to have someone across the table from me already so successful. As a mature writer, I know now that no one else’s progress or success has anything to do with me or my writing or my career. Mee as a first-year grad student? It might have spooked me. But I’m weak and anxious, so that’s not an accurate gauge.
Again, I don’t know Laura at all, and everything I’ve heard about her has been ultra-positive, so I’m not laying down any kind of negativity in her direction—of course I’m not, because why would I? I’m just using her as a philosophical point,. If anything, kudos to her, because Kazam! A writer that young, a handful of publications under her belt, and she wins this contest and has this awesome book put out. That’s another feather in Bowling Green’s cap, as far as I’m concerned, to have scored a recruit like that. That’s like some college hoops program signing the MVP of the McDonald’s All-American Game, which might be easy for Kentucky or Duke (or in the creative writing case, Iowa), but for Bowling Green? I think we must have sold a lot of season tickets that year. A lot of Walter jerseys The boosters were surely pleased.
Anyway, on with the story. “The Clarinet,” one of five stories I read from Walter’s book, is about this young girl, middle-school aged, who has a natural talent for playing the clarinet. She gets it from her mother, who was a prodigy herself, who grew up to play with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. In fact, our protagonist is using her mother’s cherished clarinet, using it to snag first chair in the junior high orchestra as a fourth and fifth grader, which of course is a pretty big deal. She practices every night, understands the clarinet like a true musician, and without question, makes her mother very, very proud.
Since this is a short story, there has to be conflict and that conflict comes in the form of Shelly, our hero’s older sister, the one who did not fair well in her attempts at the clarinet, quitting almost as soon as she started, breaking, at the time, her mother’s heart. That was just a taste of what was become, as Shelly continued to disappoint, or as the kids like to call it, rebel. As our protagonist whizzes through lessons, tryouts, and challenging pieces, Shelly gets in trouble at school, runs with the bad crowd, and even smokes, right in front of her mother, to make a point. As my oldest boy transits toward his teenage years, I saw the mom’s frustration when she would call Shelly’s dorm room and Shelly’s roommate tells her to stop calling, that she’s bothering them. It takes our protagonist’s first-chair auditions to keep Mom from driving to Shelly’s dorm and strangling her and her mouthy roommate all the way to death.
That’s the long and the short of the plot of “The Clarinet,” which has more going for it than this tension, the good, ideal little sister making life really hard for the black-sheep first-born. At the heart of this story is a real love for music, from Mom, from our protagonist, as they simply don’t play the clarinet, nor is it an instrument of torturing poor Shelly (yes, that’s a pun)—it’s a part of them. These women love the clarinet, feel it, and in the end, that’s what the story is about, how good they are at this thing that’s almost made especially for them, a passion passed down from one generation to the next.
A lot of the stories in Living Arrangements have a mother-daughter bond as a theme, a healthy dose of coming-of-age thrown in for posterity. Laura Maylene Walter’s debut collection is tight, a collection that is surely just a glimpse of what this young talent is capable of. Go Falcons!