Writing About Your Own Territory

IMAGINE you're a housewife who finds a mouse in her sink, a scientist who finds a mouse in her sink, or a cat who...." Will this idea inspire these sophisticated senior girls, whose teacher, Mrs. McNatt, brought them here to my ramshackle rented farm cottage by the briny Patuxent River "to experience an intensive creative seminar with a live writer"?

"Try writing from the first person viewpoint," I suggest, struggling to feel alive after a fortnight in the city. "Then do the whole thing over in the third. See what works best. Experiment with present tense, past tense, historical present, historical past, historical mouse, mouse as history...."

Reaching the place just before the class, I'd rushed to scrub, sweep, arrange 12 chairs around the table. I'm not a tidy housekeeper; I would be if I didn't have all these half-finished manuscripts to finish, and a number of other excuses, but when one has guests....

I ignored spider webs: They might inspire a poem.

Whoever left this sink dirty...!

I lifted the strainer to dump the contents into the trash. Suddenly whatever it was, furry under my fingertips, moved. A mouse, curled around the steep knob. Pink lettuce ears twitched and his tail wiggled like a section of old rubber band. I rushed the strainer outside. Whisked through the air, as on a ferris wheel, he was too scared to flee. I placed him near the compost heap: at least he'll get a good meal. And stay outdoors.

With autumn, our cats return to the city, mice move indoors. I've brought Telemachus, our big beige/gray/black tabby, for company. Busy revisiting old haunts beyond the garden, Telemachus was unaware of the mouse.

Seldom am I here alone at night: usually family and friends fill every bed, and even the creakiest couches.

The girls arrived, wiped out after their two-hour drive from Baltimore capped by "a terribly long trek on foot along the dirt road" from Mrs. McNatt's house. Barely a mile, all downhill. I'd forgotten how melodramatic (we) girls can be at 16. Now they are famished, so we quickly improvise lunch.

Telemachus smells cheese sandwiches grilling and sashays in.

"Such beautiful yellow-green eyes!"

"I adore his white booties."

The girls slip him corners of provolone.

"You could also write a story," I suggest, "from the viewpoint of the mouse who discovers a cat in her sink."

The girls aren't interested in mice. They live in modern houses. Mrs. McNatt has no mice in her house up the hill.

"This is an old farmhouse," I explain. "The foundations may date from 1600. Full of history, which we can invent since I'm not sure of it, and mice, of which I am certain."

Over grilled cheeses, shared by Telemachus whose presence may be keeping the mice at bay now, we discuss invention versus "reality," plot, dialogue, cliches, excess adverbs. We try improvisations. They ask me how I write. I show them my manuscripts: rewritten 20 times, still changing. Struggling to spark their own ideas, I read two narrative poems, unrhymed so the girls don't feel intimidated by the notion they have to write rhyming poems, or even poems at all.

Mrs. McNatt is chewing her pencil; she looks ready to write, but her students are not.

Matilda, a blonde in white jogging suit and sandals, is worrying her curls. I wonder if she'll be up to a hike through the marshes.

"Of course 201> ," She yawns. "Such a gorgeous day."

"Isn't it," I yawn back. "But when you get down to writing, try to get across the concept of 'gorgeous' without overused adjectives 201> . However, first thing in a new place, I want to explore. To see about the gorgeous...."

All 14 of us set off through the fields toward the dock: We might see crabs, the last ospreys, the first geese. Anytime: gulls.

I want them to observe with the eye of an artist, or photographer, or scientist... Normally I don't think about doing so myself, don't premeditate my own writing, can't say how "creativity" happens 201> . I prefer mucking around old boats and crabpots and tramping meadows to writing....

A FIELD trip, but these girls aren't used to muddy fields. Nor bushwhacking through underbrush, though they've seen it done on television. Nor are some of them dressed for it: Though most wear jeans, some of their shoes are going to be sorely tested even as we follow deer paths through the soybean field. Telemachus trots among us, but when the going gets rough, the girls take turns carrying him.

Then I ask: "Want to take the easy way or the interesting route?"

The wary ones choose the shortcut through the meadow, but the rest join me in slogging through the marsh along the shore. Telemachus accompanies us, but gets stymied by the incoming tide. He meows. We carry him to the cove where a broken oyster boat wallows in waves. Good place to crab.

The girls are enthusiastic about crabbing, but refrain from experiencing bait. I tie it to strings 201> . Their chatter about yesterday's TV spectacular scares off whatever crabs are there.

We change direction to look for the heron who hides by the pond hidden in the grove beyond the cornfield.

"Imagine," Susie says, "getting lost among these rows of identical cornstalks!"

We sort of do, among the maze and walls of stalks turning dry and beige, rattling like skeletons. At the edges, blackberry briars reach out to nab our ankles.

It's evident writing is a rough business.

Finally we emerge on the dirt road and, picking off burrs, head home for cider.

"And some serious writing," Mrs. McNatt admonishes.

"Invent," I suggest. "Something fantastic. Or ostensibly ordinary. Main thing: write. But in your first draft, don't worry about spelling, grammar, penmanship. You aren't writing to please your teacher now. You can share your work, but you don't have to.

For now, forget the banalities of daily life. Or: write what you know 201> . Meanwhile, check out this house, full of creaks and cobwebs, and everyone find a different nook for writing...."

They fan out to all the corners. You need solitude to write, but some girls insist on clumping and chattering. Abigail discovers the attic with a hundred-year-old perambulator. Sandra discovers the trapdoor to the cellar, shines the flashlight on the mud floor and walls of flat stones, flushes a woodchuck. Both are terrified, retreat.

"Where do those stairs go?" Matilda calls from the cellar depths.

"Other stairs?" Puzzled, I hurry down.

Matilda has discovered a second staircase I never knew existed. They lead to the dusty ceiling, then stop. But once upon a time...

Brushing the dust from her white jogging suit, Matilda decides to write on the sun porch.

"I'm at a loss for a subject," complains Jocelyn. "I want to become a biologist, not a poet."

"Here... ," I hand her the last marigold.

An hour later, they read aloud each other's drafts. Television plots or images figure in most stories, though Bettina's memoir describes adventures in Buenos Aires, Matilda's her house in Baltimore. Some are predictable love poems. Jocelyn has described a marigold: precisely, scientifically, unexpectedly poetically.

Surprisingly, neither seascape nor farmhouse have inspired any of the girls. Nor has the hapless mouse.

But they are eager to resume the workshop tomorrow. Now they hike up the long dirt road to Mrs. McNatt's house. They'll spread sleeping bags across her floors, whisper and giggle all night, as I did at summer camp. I wonder if they will also write.

I remain in the chilling farmhouse, a mile from any other. The walls rustle. I shiver. Telemachus sleeps. I light the fire, pile Chaliapin records on the Victrola, pay banal bills, stare at my neglected manuscripts. Chaliapin's basso profundo fills every cranny of the house.

Suddenly Telemachus bounds across the room. A mouse vanishes under baseboards.

All evening mice skitter forth on invisible skates, roll across the floor like walnuts. All evening Telemachus leaps in hot or cold pursuit.

He seizes a mouse in his teeth and I leap to pursue the pursuer. Surprised, he drops the mouse. Unharmed, it dashes away. He catches another, drops it. One mouse ducks under his belly, hides by his left hind paw. Both mouse and cat seem confused by their juxtaposition. Telemachus shifts. The mouse skims under my chair, as if I, Earth Mother, could protect him.

When I can corner them, I catch and carry mice outside into the night, release them outside. Unless the owl is more powerful tonight, they may rediscover their summer burrows. More likely, by morning they'll rediscover the house. This is their territory. We are intruders. Are mice my territory?

Let the girls write about their own territories 201> . I curl up by the fire. Telemachus purrs, accompanying Chaliapin. When the records stop, we hear geese overhead, squeaks within walls, footsteps on the second staircase, my pencil scratching.

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