The Sharks Were Circling

When I was young, maybe in fourth grade, I remember sitting down at my desk with the intention of writing my debut novel.  The first scene took place in the Boston aquarium at night. The interior was dark except for the blue glow from the large shark tank that was wrapped with a spiral staircase. Inside the tank, sharks were circling as footsteps rang out. Someone was running for his or her life up the stairs. In the morning a body was discovered floating in the tank, half eaten by the sharks. That was as far as I got with the story.

I pursued my love of art as I got older, going to multiple art schools and growing a career as a sculptor in New York City, where I show my work at galleries and museums. Throughout the years I have kept journals, taken a few writing workshops, scribbled short stories that lie buried in a pile of notebooks. I write late at night, commuting on the bus, on studio breaks while sitting on park benches.

I never sent out any of my writing for publication, I wrote because I loved the process of putting pen to lined notebook paper and seeing where the story led me; it was always surprising the twists and turns I didn’t see coming, even though I was the one moving the pen. Having a story unfold, seeing the words flow out of the pen quicker than I can formulate them in my head is magic, and when I am in the magic I am free of the ticking clock, free of the crowded city, free of my aging body, free of my stack of worries, free of the drudgeries of daily life.

I always thought I’d become a writer later in life. Recently when I got an early cancer diagnosis upon turning fifty, I woke up in the middle of the night anxiously tossing and turning. Maybe I’d crossed some imaginary line separating earlier life from later. I decided the time had come. I wasn’t ever going to be a writer if I didn’t start.

Since my midnight revelation, I sent out my first short story, “Cats vs. Cancer” (about getting a cancer diagnosis the same week as rescuing a kitten and the ensuing hijinks).  It was published in the New England Review in 2019. They didn’t accept it at first: they said it was too long, the timeline was confusing, it was repetitive in parts, but they also said it had spark.  I was thrilled. My story had spark. When they gave me an opportunity to revise the story and resubmit I jumped at the opportunity. They accepted the revision and to my surprise the story won a 2020 PEN Dau debut short story prize.

In the past three years I finished a novel I started in my twenties and have written two more novel length works, a memoir and a magic realist story about an artist grappling with addiction. I continually struggle to revise; it is hard work and not as magical as writing the initial draft.

I am inspired by the inventive narratives and darkly tender prose of Aimee Bender, Helen Oyeyemi, Mona Awad, Jesse Ball, Miranda July, Amy Hempel, Jo Ann Beard, and Lucia Berlin. I am also a big fan of Edgar Allen Poe.

If my style of artwork had an equivalent in literature it would be gothic or magic realist, and aside from memoir, this is the style of writing I am most interested in exploring. Two of my favorite magic realist stories are “My Life with the Wave” by Octavio Paz and Portrait of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Similar to magic realist propositions, my sculptures often present believable yet impossible scenarios: a painted portrait of George Washington melts off the canvas, an early American painting of a watermelon sticks out its tongue, framed still lives of meat and vegetables are attacked by a murder of crows.

My novel excerpt from The Art of Obliteration, is inspired by my own addiction and recovery story.  I wanted to collapse the story of my artistic growth with the progression of my alcoholism with a monster story. I love hero and monster stories, whether from Greek mythology, African folklore, or the Grimm brothers. Within each story is a struggle, a wounding, and a transformation—journeys we can all relate to—encapsulating what it means to be human.

It is a misconception that there is a cure for addiction, our inner monsters are not slain.  Rather we learn to live with our monsters and sometimes it’s torturous and sometimes it’s hilarity. Most of the time, for me, it’s an annoyance, an empathy, an echo of another life, a window into another’s pain. For those same reasons I am motivated to write: that another person may relate to the feelings I express and in turn feel inspired, seen, understood—and most of all—like I feel when I read and write—less alone.