Your First Day Locked Up by Steven LaFond
2005 – Bush is President. Iraq and Afghanistan are filled with our troops, and I’m scared to write an essay about my mother or father with any teeth. Any writing that’s supposed to be a true account of my childhood sounds like a well-meaning, dull party guest explaining a riveting movie their boyfriend had seen without them. None of that work will survive the year. Poetry allows me to be playful with words, and I’m reading Denise Duhamel and Kevin Young, because Peter Shippy put them in my hands. Peter Shippy, one of the few people in the world I have ever learned from while being made to feel I have value.
2006 – A teacher has a holiday party and notices a fantasy novel in my book bag and tells me this type of reading is trash. I feel lesser under her watch for an hour before realizing that, had she seen the graphic novels in my bag, I’d have brushed her off with no issue. I read Song of Solomon and my mind is blown. It’s not an assignment; I just like how a friend described it. I devour it at work during my lunch breaks. I start writing fiction again in earnest.
2007 – Roller derby changes the life of my finacée, Jess, and I’m taken for the ride. Working bouts, I read Joe Hurka’s notes on short stories I’ve written and write mountains of feedback for my classmates. In retrospect, I’ll feel bad for bothering to write as much, but I really wanted to see where they were going with their work. I meet Alden Jones. I write the first story I’m ever proud of, “Monster,” in the last two weeks of her class. I read Amy Hempel’s stories for the first time. How is that woman real?
I get advice on writing and life from Alden that makes her go from teacher to personal hero. I’m going to get an MFA.
2008 – Revise “Monster” a dozen times for Pamela Painter’s advanced fiction writing class. Receive a compliment from another teacher on a short story I wrote that’s set in the trailer park of my town: “The dialogue is flawless.” The same teacher also tells me I should focus on writing about people from where I was raised. I’ve forgotten her name and I’m really upset, because it was the last writing class I took before graduation and her advice sticks with me.
2009 – Barack Obama is in the White House now, and I’m out of a job, recently married, and worried about the future. I receive a call, months after receiving rejections and acceptance letters from the MFA programs I’ve applied to, offering me a spot at Bennington. I accept. I let another program know I won’t be going, and I join the largest class the program has ever had. It’s the first time I’ve gone away to school. My first day, I hear about people living in Belgium and spending extended time in Nepal. These are not the type of white people I grew up with at all, and my hick dander starts to show before I invest my time in getting to know my classmates. And I love all of them, for now. I read Faulkner for the first time, and I read Austen and Flaubert. My first semester is about the classics, getting to know people, and writing stories about roller derby.
Askold Melnyczuk shatters the glass wall of my soul’s aquarium by telling me to give my characters permission to transgress on the page rather than catch them in the middle of atoning for unspeakable sins. Suddenly, I can’t stop writing.
2010 – I own every fucking dance floor. Still no full-time job, but I travel the country calling roller derby bouts, gaining surprising recognition as Pelvis Costello. I work for the Shriner’s Circus, doing the lights while trying not to think about how the elephant may not have had the best life. I’m living for my classmates both semesters I’m at Bennington. The second-semester workshops are a kick in the gut—I submit a brand new piece that has nothing to do with my desired thesis because I don’t want to be the roller derby guy. I get great advice from Tom Piazza who, after learning about my childhood, tells me to “approach every first page like it’s your first day locked up. You see and hear everything in those moments.” Another aquarium breaks open. The tentacled beast of my imagination is free.
Enter Bret Anthony Johnston, my second semester. I’m convinced I’m not his best student, but hell if he doesn’t give my work the time and respect it deserves. I make some new friends and begin attending readings without feeling like a phony or a wannabe.
2011 – “Monster” is a finalist for a fiction prize but doesn’t get published. My thesis, Derby Widows, comes into its own under the watchful, supportive eye of Paul Yoon. I meet people in the Boston literary community who will one day become some of my closest friends. My class says its bittersweet goodbye to the campus. We leave in June, and I’m one of two class speakers. My grandfather, tired and annoyed with one of the speeches, mimes jerking off while rolling his eyes. My wife laughs.
2012 – My first fiction publication comes in May. “Difficult Terrain” finds its way into the welcoming arms of apt. Finances are tight, and at the very moment I’m certain Jess and I are headed for ruin, I get a full-time job. And it’s terrible. I escape into online lit mags during my lunch breaks just to keep myself from snapping. Sundog Lit, Little Fiction, apt, and Spaces are godsends. During this year, I miss almost no readings. I find new artists like Krysten Hill, Ilan Mochari, Myfanwy Collins, and Emily O’Neill. I subscribe to print journals, although half the time, it’s because I’m submitting to contests. I send Derby Widows out thirty times. It gets semi-finalist and honorable-mention nods, but nobody picks it up. I’m now beginning to see books of my fellow classmates and alumni on the shelves. I don’t hesitate to pick them up. I don’t feel envy; I feel like a prophet of their work.
2013 – I have three publications all at the tail end of this year. My health begins to fail, brought on by 65-hour workweeks. My kidneys stop processing uric acid, and I follow in my father’s excruciating footsteps toward gout. While bedridden, I finish Ilan Mochari’s Zinsky the Obscure and deliriously scribble notes about how the character is one of the bigger asses I’ve ever wanted to defend and that makes him a great character. I read Birds of a Lesser Paradise and want Megan Mayhew Bergman to publish another book even faster, which she does, and I wonder if I have superpowers. (I don’t.)
My first AWP, and I wind up reading in front of people whose work I respect. I read a story about reformed skinheads and chainsaw accidents. People actually like it. I’m floored.
2014 – I escape from a shitty job. I get familiar with the words of Simeon Berry and Leesa Cross-Smith, and even more friends put out work. The new job allows me to help tell the stories of brain-tumor clinicians, researchers, and patients. At the new job, my health improves, and so does my desire to do more to promote the writers and community that kept me going for the past two years. I start a reading event at a karaoke bar called Belt It Out. I get weird with it. I read Sara Lippmann’s book, Doll Palace, and flip out about her talent. I read a passage in Bob Shaccochis’s The Woman Who Lost Her Soul that triggers a panic attack. It’s not his fault; the book’s incredible.
A trip to write and escape my internal stress leads me to drive for several hours, unsure and too frightened to type out anything resembling a coherent narrative. I become extremely anxious and start questioning everything. I wind up turning to my friends and family for help. I’m overwhelmed by the support. By December, I’m licking my wounds and moving forward. I reread Alden Jones’s two new books, and I make a few promises to myself.
2015 – For the first time in my life, I wake up and comb my hair without thinking critically about the person I see. Hollywood Notebook arrives in my life. Wendy C. Ortiz is the shit. As my mind clears and I commit myself to being not just a better writer but a better human being, I notice that I begin devouring poetry like a stanza-obsessed Galactus. I’ve come full circle. Books I bought during the vulnerability of the past year are stacked next to the couch, daring me to read them. I’m up for it. Belt It Out makes it to its second year. And the cursor on my screen is being chased by words that actually form stories again.
More work by Steven LaFond in apt:
“Difficult Terrain” (May 2012)
Steven LaFond is a writer and social media strategist. He received his MFA in Writing from the Bennington Writing Seminars. His fiction has appeared in apt, Spaces, The Drum, and Little Fiction, among others, and his articles have appeared in The Good Men Project, fiveonfive, WorcesterMag, DerbyLife and AIFV.org. Steven spent several years as a roller derby announcer, traveling the country and evangelizing the sport to anyone he encountered. He also provided broadcast play-by-play for the WFTDA. He currently lives in the Boston area and hosts the Belt It Out Reading Series in Cambridge.