"A marriage is built of bones and teeth." Countdown to Muse 20 with Ron MacLean
The Muse and the Marketplace 2020 will soon kick off on April 3rd in Boston! This year’s theme is “Imagination and Reality,” as many presenters are exploring the boundaries between fact and imagination, and how each contributes to great writing. Here, presenting authors have selected a passage from their own work, highlighting in green which elements came roughly from their direct experience, memory, or fact; while highlighting in blue which elements came from their imagination or speculation. Here is presenter Ron Maclean from his story “It Must Be Beautiful in Berlin This Time of Year,” from his short story collection We Might as Well Light Something on Fire (2019).
I got it from her, this habit of clenching my feet into a fist. I may not be the sharpest knife in the jar, but I understand this: a marriage is built of bones and teeth. We take care of ours: we brush, we floss, we see our dentist. Even so, I’m holed up in a Florida hotel writing this eulogy while she’s at a shoot-‘em-up flick.
She doesn’t understand why we’re here. Thinks it’s some self-inflicted wound. Some alligators are always trying to skate uphill, she’d say if she were here now. You practically sawed off a limb to free yourself. Why come back? Her kindness slays me. I’d know enough to not say, It’s my family. For her, the boundaries are clear. She came for me – doesn’t even like crossing the Sunshine State line. Can’t understand why I have to go into the teeth of it. She wants to keep me from pain. Knows that’s not always possible.
The bed is too hard, the pillows too soft, it’s too cold to swim, and we can’t afford room service. Every sentence I scribble I cross out, erase. The persistent hum of HVAC. Low voices in the wall. Scraps of memory – a dish rack with two coffee mugs, a transistor radio playing Percy Faith. The terrifying calm after each tempest. The way, with enough conditioning, a crackle of static can make you flinch. Family, I scratch out, is what hurts you.
[End of excerpt.]
In the above passage, I was interested in the dynamic that can happen when one person in a relationship has a positive family background, and the other has, let’s say, a more fraught background. How even with the best intent, the gulf of understanding that such a difference in upbringing produces can be difficult to cross. I wanted to write a story that embodied this, and watched it play out in a couple who love each other but have trouble understanding each other’s experience of family.
As with many of my stories, it started with the imaginative. Trolling through my journal – which mostly consists of bits and scraps of phrases or sentences that resonate with me – looking for bits that felt they belonged together, there were these two scraps that stood out in this context: I got it from her, this habit of clenching my feet into a fist. And, a marriage is built of bones and teeth. (Each of these appeared in many failed contexts before finding their way here.)
I had in my head a friend’s recent experience of sitting in a motel room alone writing a eulogy for an estranged relative. That made me think of my own family’s brokenness, and my wife’s difficulties in understanding my relationship to that. Then it was a matter of bringing in enough of my own experience to make me confront, in a meaningful way, the vulnerability the narrator feels, the risk he’s taking merely by staying present. And it mattered to me that this took place in the context of a good (reasonably healthy and well-intentioned) relationship.
You can catch Ron’s craft discussion, "When Small Presses Take You Big Places: Maximizing the Impact of Small Press Book" on Friday, April 3rd at 3:30pm and “Narrative Unbound: Experimental Structures in Essays and Stories” on Saturday, April 4th at 10:15am at the Muse. For all the latest Muse news, follow #Muse20.
Ron MacLean is author of the story collections We Might as Well Light Something On Fire and Why the Long Face? and the novels Headlong and Blue Winnetka Skies. MacLean’s fiction has appeared widely in magazines including GQ, Narrative, Fiction International, and elsewhere. He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He holds a Doctor of Arts from the University at Albany, SUNY, and has been a proud member of team Grub since 2004.See other articles by Ron MacLean