by Jane Rosenberg LaForge
No matter where I am, people ask me for directions. I could be in New York, where I have lived for 18 years, or on the streets of Paris, where I have spent six days, and someone will approach me for help. I rarely know, for I am a tourist even in my own city. But I must look as though I have a terrific sense of direction. Or perhaps I always appear to belong, or I’m someone who knows where she’s going and how to get there.
Cub reporters were once told they needed five years of experience to get a decent job. I got mine at the Ocean City, Maryland, bureau of the Baltimore Sun. I was the only employee of said bureau, i.e. a desk I fashioned out of motel-style end tables in my rented living room. Ocean City was laid out like an aircraft carrier: one long strip of cement. The streets were numbered and reached into the hundreds, so no one asked me for directions. You could drive in circles and find your destination. Among my many scoops was the story of a kid who drove very fast and backward in a parking lot one night. He was “doing donuts,” and drove himself into the ocean.
There was a drought that summer; the mainstream media was trafficking in the term “global warming” for the first time. Temperatures at the beach hit the 90s. I had brought my relatively new husband with me, which meant he was unemployed while I was on duty. We argued a lot about how I neglected him to I chase after fires, drunken boating accidents, and an NAACP boycott of the town. Hotels, restaurants, and amusement parks would not hire townies, a.k.a. African-American kids who lived on the mainland. Across the drawbridge, their roads were not always paved, and their access to public sewage systems not guaranteed. It was territory the Industrial Revolution and the Civil Rights movement apparently forgot, which made great copy for me, but a lot of misery for everyone else.
I was crossing a field of corn on a dirt road on an inky night when my car was either attacked or ran into some indeterminate yet vengeful force. It slammed against the windshield and the passenger-side door so fiercely I had to stop driving. When I dared to look through the windshield, I saw it was the only thing preventing me from drowning. Perhaps it was a flash flood, or that global warming business had reached critical mass, and the ocean was cresting into farmland. Or this was some kind of a test, a trial by water with a blindfold that also covered my common sense.
I realized through my disorientation and panic that the field, unlike most, was irrigated. I had hit a bank of water because the system had switched on. My job was a kind of trial too, to see if I worthy enough to transfer permanently to the Metropolitan desk. And right then, I knew the trial was over, and I’d lost. I knew because I would have rather been lost, under water and mud logged, than on my feet and on my way back to whatever I was working on. I wanted to savor this experience and mine it for its potential symbolism. It held more possibility and portent than all that transpired that summer, because I could make it mythic.
Indeed, I was demoted that December, and went onto other nowhere-newspaper jobs. I got divorced and enrolled in an MFA program. In my first year, I built a story around my watery encounter into the tale of a boy who thinks he got his skanky babysitter pregnant (waters of birth, a new beginning, etc.). Though it was not the most coherent story ever written, I had wrestled it out of my own ephemera. I won a fellowship for older women writers, and resolved to learn all of the shortcuts in the rural, suburban, and forested sprawl that surrounded the campus.
Soon enough, I was assigned an instructor convinced I was an insult to the intelligence of all sentient beings. I’m sure others have had this experience, but she amplified the humiliation she doled out during workshop by confiding to others how ardently she disapproved of me. Because one of my thesis committee members had heart surgery scheduled for the day of my defense, I had to include her on my committee. I managed to graduate (re-marry, move, and have a child) but found myself unable to write for many years afterward. When I had any doubts, I had her voice reminding me how I should indulge them.
I have since published a memoir; four volumes of poetry; and am in the midst of working on two others scheduled for publication. But I can barely navigate the grid system of Manhattan, though isn’t that what subways and a New York native for a daughter are for? I recently was relieved of a freelancing gig. The editor disagreed with my interpretation of the myth of Prometheus, whose theft of fire from Zeus – the equivalent of writing – earned him a lifetime of suffering. I can’t find an agent for my new novel, though one agent said in rejecting it: “Your writing is beautiful, and many of your sentences are so gorgeously crafted. You have a lot of writing talent,” and if I kept working on my craft, some day “you’re really going to knock our socks off.” I wonder if she knows I qualify for Social Security.
It’s been my failures that have defined my journey as a writer. The only thing certain is there will be more of them. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know about Samuel Beckett and “failing better.” At this point, it could be mathematically proven that this maxim doesn’t apply to my case. I don’t particularly like Beckett, but I think he’s onto something about how bleak our alternatives become if we do nothing in the face of inevitability. If I don’t know why I subject myself to ever more monstrous failures, I need only look at the settings of his plays to see what awaits me should I quit. I am a lost soul who cannot help but look for meaning in my life. I’m headed where everyone is going, but I hope to take my time, and take notice, before I get there.
For Jane’s memoir, An Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy/AFantastical Memoir
For her website: Jane Rosenberg LaForge
For the new chapbook, In Remembrance of the Life
Facebook author page: Jane Rosenberg LaForge
Jane Rosenberg LaForge is the author of An Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy/A Fantastical Memoir (Jaded Ibis Press 2014) and four volumes of poetry: After Voices (Burning River 2009); Half-Life (Big Table Publishing 2011); With Apologies to Mick Jagger, Other Gods, and All Women (The Aldrich Press 2012) and The Navigation of Loss (Red Ochre Lit 2012). Her newest poetry collection is the chapbook In Remembrance of the Life (Spruce Alley Press 2016) and her full-length collection, Daphne and Her Discontents, is forthcoming from Ravenna Press.