My Art Patrons: A Writer Reflects on Finding a Room of Her Own

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In 2002, at age 33, I’d been waitressing at Julienne, a high-end restaurant in San Marino, Calif., for over eight years. My husband, a painter and graduate of Art Center College of Design, worked at a local private school. Our two sons were toddler-aged. We juggled parenting duties. I squeezed in writing time. Forget about writing at home: laundry, dishes, and chaos. I wrote at coffee shops and libraries, craving solitude and quiet, and never quite managing to get it.

The closest I’d come was a decrepit coffeehouse in Alhambra (long since out of business), the main clientele of which seemed to be ditching teens. The teens made out on the ratty couch near my chosen workspace and mostly left me alone. They had a system: rotating lookouts for the truancy officer who periodically stopped by. A long whistle, and then I’d watch as they scrambled and disappeared. After the truancy officer left, they’d come back one by one, wariness and giddiness in the air.

When I would turn on the light to use the dimly lit, token-operated bathroom, cockroaches would scramble and disappear (one time scurrying over the skin of my flip-flop wearing foot) like a bug reenactment of the ditching teens.

There was occasional drama. Drug deals, homeless people, fights, and yelling. But I could stay and work without pressure to give up my space for other clientele, since there really wasn’t much other clientele, and people mostly left me alone. The coffee was awful, the food bad. The workers behind the counter (they didn’t call themselves baristas) were in their early-20s, respectful and friendly. They shared their newly acquired tattoos with me, told me about their hangovers, and complained about the owner. Often they’d turn the music down for me. I can’t count the number of times the live version of “Free Bird” played while I wrote.

Sometimes workers wouldn’t show up (too hung-over, they’d explain later). I’d wait outside for someone to open the doors, and then finally concede defeat, resorting to the dreaded corner Starbucks, where I’d sit beneath a poster of a man holding a steaming toffee-nut latte while playing with his golden retriever. The poster asked, What Stirs You?

Right around Christmas that year, David Partridge, a wealthy businessman, came into Julienne for lunch. I served him, as I’d been doing for eight years. He—like other preferred regulars—had a personal account, meaning he didn’t pay by cash or credit. He signed for his meals and was billed later. I knew that he worked across the street in a red brick building. He collected art and was on the boards of museums. Like other regulars, he often ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner (taking it home) from Julienne.

After so many years of serving him, a familiarity had grown between us. He was one of my favorite regulars, openly optimistic and kind. He often asked me about my writing. That afternoon while signing he said, “You can work in my office.”

When I didn’t speak, he looked at me and said, “I mean it. I’m serious. Come by tomorrow before your shift, or after. Work. No one will bother you. It’ll be quiet.”

Writers know what it’s like: countless rejections, everything and everyone seemingly an obstacle. Looking back, it wasn’t just that Mr. Partridge offered me a quiet and private space. He believed in me. He—with his booming, confident voice—said, “You can do this! I’ll help.”

I showed up the next morning in my Julienne uniform—dress shirt and dark slacks, my tie in my pocket—and waited in the lobby for someone to open the door. From the lobby window, I could see the servers and customers at my workplace across the street. David (he asked me to call him David and not Mr. Partridge, and though this never came easy, I’ll try again here) shared his workspace — a floor of offices — with lawyers. I’m not sure the arrangement, but I assume that David must have owned the space, since no one ever kicked me out.

A secretary to one of the lawyers arrived and opened the door, giving me a strange look when I entered. She never did warm to me, nor did the other secretaries: over the years, their open hostility turned to indifference. But I grew to appreciate their cold professionalism. They worked, so I worked. How could I not? It seemed wrong to fiddle around on the Internet or stare into space when others diligently worked nearby.

It was a conference room: quiet and private. I fell in love. A long table with chairs around it, reminding me of scenes in movies of important business meetings. A large window overlooked the other offices, the kitchenette, and the bathroom on the floor. A couple of abstract paintings hung on the wall. I scanned the bookshelves: financial records and business books: The Changing World of the Executive, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, Innovation in Marketing, U.S. Competitiveness in the World Economy, The Achieving Society. I began to leave some of my books (William Trevor, Andre Dubus, Richard Yates, and Alice Munro) amongst the business tomes, like wild, beautiful hippies poking through a humorless crowd of overachievers.

Unfortunately I had to share the space with the lawyers when they had arbitration and deposition meetings. David set up a daily planner/calendar on a table by the conference room door for the lawyers to fill out, so that I could see when the room had been signed out and plan my writing time accordingly.

David said I could share his office with him when the conference room was occupied. I tried once. It was just too weird, his booming voice discussing money and such on the phone. He owned and operated Data Devices International, which sounded like a huge company, but was actually run by him and his private secretary, an Indian woman named Patty, who also looked at me with skepticism. He had big crate boxes on the floor, and a Fed Ex man came every now and then to take them away. From what I understand, his business erased data permanently from computers. He did very well, his daughter once told me, during the Bush years.

That first morning, David lightly tapped on the conference room door, poked his head inside and asked, “Can I get you a coffee?”

“This is weird,” I said, and he laughed before shutting the door.

Later as I was leaving, I told him: “When I publish a book, I’ll thank you in my acknowledgments.” It bothered me that I couldn’t reimburse his generosity, and it was the only thing that I could come up with.

“I’d like that,” he said, nodding.

I wanted a key to the floor, since waiting in the lobby was inconvenient, only to find out that the conference room was signed out. But I didn’t dare ask David. Businessmen and lawyers came through on their way to their offices. I’d watch them go up the stairs or take the elevator to the second floor. Some said hello, others ignored me. I waited on most of them across the street.

I hoped not to run into Mr. Galbraith, another regular with a personal account. Sometimes I delivered his breakfast to his office. Two poached eggs and dry toast. For my small effort, he tipped me five bucks. But he made me nervous—an A-type personality. I didn’t want to explain to him why I was there.

One morning Mr. Galbraith (he’s asked me more than once to call him Jim, so from here on, with the usual difficulty, he’s Jim) found me in the lobby, my laptop opened on my lap.

“I like your office,” he said.

“Actually,” I said, “Mr. Partridge lets me use his conference room. I’m just waiting for someone to open the door.”

“Well,” he said, “good for him.”

Soon word spread through the restaurant that I worked at David Partridge’s office. The other waiters and busboys teased me. My bosses didn’t like it. It felt like the boundaries of the conventional San Marino class hierarchy had somehow smeared.

About six months later, Jim told me that I could work in his office instead of waiting in the lobby for the conference room. Tuesdays and Thursdays were best, he said, since his partner didn’t come in on those days, and I could use Andy’s desk. I said I’d think about it.

A few weeks before Christmas of 2003, Jim found me waiting in the lobby yet again. He invited me upstairs to write. I took the elevator with him. I started using Andy’s office.

I could hear Jim on the phone while I worked, which made me want to work more, since Jim’s a no-nonsense kind of guy.

He poked his head through the door at one point, offering me coffee or water. I declined. I couldn’t believe it: Mr. Galbraith offering to serve me!

Phones rang, doors buzzed. Jim got hot because of his Crohn’s disease, and so he kept it very cold. The secretary arrived and answered Andy’s phone from her desk. Andy’s office was a mess, papers everywhere. His wife smiled at me from a photograph on his desk.

At one point, my boss warned me, saying that Jim couldn’t be trusted. He would want something in return, she said. Be careful. He’s a ruthless businessman. (He’s a corporate finance lawyer, I found out later, and he apparently helped pioneer the concept of leveraged buyouts.) But that wasn’t my experience. Sometimes he showed me photographs of his children and grandchildren. We chatted. He tried to be easy going. I appreciated his efforts.

For five years, I alternated between working at David’s conference room and Jim’s partner’s office. David gave me pep talks and encouraged me. Jim’s seriousness rubbed off on me and helped me work.

Drift, my collection of short stories, was published in 2009. In my acknowledgments I wrote:
Thank you, as well, to David Partridge and Jim Galbraith, for serving a waitress by acknowledging her as a writer: they gave me a space to work, away from the countless interruptions and distractions of libraries and coffeehouses.
David told me he bought a box full of my books. He died of complications from pancreatic cancer on March 29, 2014. His daughter emailed me: “My dad adored you.”

“I adored your dad as well,” I wrote back.

Jim and I are still in touch. His eyesight has dwindled due to his Crohn’s disease. He has told me more than once, “I’m your biggest fan.”

Image Credit: Pexels/Pixabay.

Pat’s Journals

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Soon after I started dating my future husband, Chris, I discovered that his deceased father had been a writer. Vernon Patterson had three published books, but what really intrigued me were his unpublished journals, named for his sons and his first grandson: The Book of Timothy, The Book of Christopher, and The Book of Benjamin. Stacked in my future mother-in-law’s closet were the originals (typed and handwritten) and bound copies (transcribed and typed by a hired secretary). The originals came with the added benefit of photographs, similar to very literate scrapbooks, and the bound copies were in blue, red, and pale green cloth hardcover with gold lettering at the spines, each volume at over 300 pages, forty volumes total.

I couldn’t wait to get my hands on them. But I had to play it cool. Chris had resented his father’s invasion of his privacy. At eighteen, he’d asked his father to stop writing The Book of Christopher, and his father never wrote directly about Chris again. Though Chris had not read the journals, he distrusted his father’s version of history, and even after his father stopped writing about him, their relationship was strained. Pat had written the journals about his family, for his family. Yet as far as I could tell, the intended recipients had no desire to read them.

At twenty-three, I was beginning to call myself a writer, but Chris (correctly) assumed that my keen curiosity wasn’t born purely out of literary motivation. I wanted a window into his soul, since I was madly in love.  Imagine: all the useful insight into his childhood, his ex-girlfriends, and his rebellious past.  An operating manual, or a blueprint to his family, and, more importantly, to him.

My future mother-in-law, Teresa, had cracked open her closet door, revealing the goldmine. Although she’d been widowed for many years, one could feel Pat’s presence surrounding her. Over twenty years her senior, Pat had lived through the Great Depression and ridden trains as a hobo. He’d never owned a driver’s license and wouldn’t drive a car, believing himself to be too absent-minded.

After Chris and I had been living together a few years, he agreed to let his mother dole the books out to me, one at a time.  What an uncanny sensation to be reading a detailed accounting of a family’s history, and then to be in the present, with that family, participating and creating more history; watching, noticing, and connecting the past with the present and future, in large ways and small.

In one journal, Pat wrote, “I was fiddling around in the garage when I saw something scrawled on the wall. Next to the pencil sharpener appeared these words: CHRISTOPHER PATTERSON SHARPENED HIS PENCIL HERE.” The next time I went to Teresa’s (she lives in Chris’s childhood home), I looked in the garage and found the scribbling. I told no one, a little secret between Pat and me.

Pat refined and edited his journals. I’d sometimes have trouble matching our unruly lives with the distilled and amenable version that was Pat’s. Or family members would come across as far wiser and wittier.  Yet his descriptions of his family often correlated with mine and enhanced my understanding.

I’d find myself entranced by Pat’s childhood Chris. Pat wrote:  “Chris was sympathetic to all and willing to project himself with such ready and complete sympathy into the role of the unfortunate. He half-ashamedly would turn away to wipe his eyes when in one of his bedtime stories the hero would die or some heroic person would suffer. He hadn’t been taught at home that to cry indicated weakness, but he would try to conceal his tears by burying his head in his pillow or by vigorously blowing his nose.” How could I not fall more deeply in love? And why, Chris would ask while we were watching a sad movie, are you looking at me?

Sometimes I’d read passages aloud to Chris, and he’d smile, but at other times, he was ambivalent and uncomfortable, so I stopped. The written love experience, I concluded, was between Pat and me.

The journals were also an emotional reckoning.  All the particulars, the minutiae of their lives so carefully and loving documented, and yet life was uncontainable, unstoppable. “Parents can wield their power like little gods,” Pat wrote, “and then be surprised when life takes hold and swings them in directions unplanned.”

The journals became even more prescient after Chris and I married (with a two decade age spread similar to Pat and Teresa’s) and had two sons with an age difference analogous to Chris and his brother, Tim. Substitute our kids’ names, and often the journals could be describing them.

Pat’s list of questions that Chris and Tim asked as children could apply to our sons: “What is air? How long did it take the earth to cool? Have you ever seen a real, live bandit? Why do you have dreams? If you stand barefoot on an iceberg, how long would it take for your feet to freeze? Would you rather be dead or would you rather have your legs cut off? Would you rather be a glass of milk or would you rather be dead?”

Pat nicknamed his sons McGillicudy and McDougal, and I started calling our sons by these names, and the nicknames took. We still use them.

I continued to write, partially influenced and encouraged by Pat. For me, his chronicling of his family’s life had created something magical. I wanted to achieve that spark, whether published or not. And I began keeping journals for my boys, hoping to give them (or whomever) something like what Pat had given to me.

My boys’ journals have the distinction of having splotches of breast milk on their dark covers from my trying to breastfeed, write, and care for a baby and a toddler.

Soon, my journals became unedited reflections, quick furtive handwritten entries about the struggles of motherhood: “My son pinches almost every time he breastfeeds,” I wrote. “The skin around my nipple is his favorite area and we’ve had serious battles. I push his hand away. It creeps back. I yell NO! and he looks at me passively. He reminds me of a cat, the way it flexes a paw.”

My journals remain raw and unedited, and although I’m a very different writer than Pat, by ceaselessly commenting on my world, and by taking daily like as fodder, he has influenced me.

Even now, Pat’s description of Chris’s older brother Tim in 7th grade fits my son, currently in middle school: “Tim is moodier and physically clumsy for the first time, more inclined to anger. He seems to need constant action. When he gets home from school, he kicks off his shoes, throws down his books, and heads right for the refrigerator.”

The 1960s and 70s baffled Pat, as did his teenagers, and his journals became more introspective. “What kind of satisfaction,” he wrote, “do young people find in the so-called rock music? Chris has dozens of such phonograph recordings. Now and then he asks me to listen to a favorite recording, and I try to listen sympathetically, but all I ever get is a kinesthetic jolt.”

Chris and I have been together for eighteen years: fifteen married, thirteen with offspring. Like his father, Chris is an artist: a painter. Our history is entwined with his past, and although we don’t actively speak of Pat’s journals, they’re imbedded in our lives.

What Chris remembers and what Pat wrote are separate. The truth, I learned, doesn’t exist in Pat’s version, or in Chris’s. The truth is complicated and nebulous and open to interpretation. It is large and unwieldy and full of love and misunderstandings, similar to a family. Since Chris loves his privacy and I love him, I’ve learned to leave the story between father and son alone. The irony that Chris married a writer is not lost on him, nor would it be lost, I believe, on Pat.

Pat’s journals have a meditative and ruminative quality, and the final journals before his death are especially beautiful. He was an insomniac and wandered his garden, wearing his robe and slippers. “Dawn approaching almost imperceptibly,” he wrote.  “The moon sharp-rimmed, like polished steel, shadows of the trees lying black on the lawn.  The air so still that after turning off the sprinkler, I can hear the water seeping into the soil.”

Rather than that window I’d expected into Chris’s soul, I saw deeply into Pat’s. “Repeatedly,” he wrote, “I ask myself, Does my family know, blood and bone and tissue, that they are cherished and loved?”

I understand my family and my life by writing and through writing, just like my father-in-law, and his journals helped compel me to write. I often go back to them for inspiration. He quotes Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “A place to stand and love in for a day, with darkness and the death-hour rounding it.” He taught me how to love and appreciate and be in a family—his family. At times I feel so much a part of him and he a part of me, I have to remind myself that we’ve never met.

(Image courtesy the author)

That Woman Who Writes

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I’m always seeking places to write.  Never at home—laundry piles, dishes in the sink, MOM emblazoned on my forehead.  Although problematic, coffeehouses and libraries are a mainstay.  Inevitably, I’ll be thick into my work when someone I know will come up behind me, “Hey, hi!  What’cha doin’?”  Depending on a combination of fluctuating circumstances—a scale that includes politeness, how the writing is coming, and how well I know the person—my reaction will be to glare until I’m left alone, drop everything and chat, or, more likely, a response somewhere in between the continuum of these two extremes.

For a while, I used a private conference room at my local library, partitioned like an office.  The conference room’s intended purpose was for gatherings—conferences—and I was politely asked to stop, even when it wasn’t signed out, and just sat there, vacant, begging to be used.  Apparently, the various voices in my head do not constitute a group.

I’m a nervous writer.  I drink coffee and subsequently get thirsty and drink water.  I chew gum—packs and packs, studding the wastebasket with my spit-out wads.  I read my work out loud, again and again (I imagine one might hear a light mumble coming from my direction).  There are frequent trips to the bathroom (coffee and water).  I have to haul my writing materials—computer, notebooks, etc.—with me, so that they won’t get stolen.  Or else I take on the Bathroom Sprint—going as fast as I can, returning in a light sweat.

Also, I attract unusual people.  Possibly they sniff in me some sort of kindred spirit.  I’ve had many a stranger choose—with vacant spaces everywhere—to sit right next to me, and strike up conversations with openers such as, “My aunt who passed away sixteen years ago still speaks to me through my shoe.”  In this case, I looked down, studied his soiled sneaker, laces undone.  Later, the same man (I recognized his shoe) was in a stall of the ladies restroom when I did my Bathroom Sprint, his feet turned toward the toilet, flushing it over and over again.

For a long while, I wrote at a particularly grungy coffeehouse (now out of business) where no one knew me, until I became such a regular that it was impossible for me not to be known.  The place was long and corridor-like, dark, and with a perpetually robust disinfectant stench that did nothing to dissuade the cockroach population, especially in the graffiti-filled, coin-operated bathroom.

In the daytime—school hours—when I wrote, the coffeehouse was pretty much deserted, except for a throng of ditching teenagers, varying in ages from junior high to high school, heartbreakingly young and drugged out.  I wrote at a table near a ratty couch.  A completely ignored placard sat on the coffee table, warning the patrons not to sleep or display affection on that couch, and reminding them of the two-dollar minimum purchase requirement.

There were bursts of excitement, as when the truancy officer made his regular appearances, a thrum vibrating beforehand (I never figured out how the teenagers knew he was coming).  The teens would disappear quickly, much like the cockroaches when I turned on the light in the bathroom (sometimes a cockroach scurrying right across my shoe).  Slowly, the teens would come back, one by one, a bit wary, looking over their shoulders.

One sleepy afternoon, a man entered, walked halfway in, and shouted, “Fuck you!  Fuck you; fuck you; fuck you all!”  And then he left, and no one seemed alarmed, so I went back to my writing.

I became known as “that woman who writes”—the patrons and employees showing me new tattoos, telling me about their breakups and fights and hangovers, and complaining about the “dickhead” who owned the coffeehouse.  One of my favorites, a purple-haired, eyeliner and mascara wearing boy of thirteen, asked me one afternoon if I would name a character after him, and I agreed: thus, the son in my story “Castaways” became Anthony.  Another time, two young women—regulars who had spoken with me a few times before—became enthralled with a sweaty man who entered the coffeehouse in an agitated state; he told them he’d just ran from the cops after stealing a car and leaving it abandoned at the side of the freeway.  He had a neck tattoo and spoke in a hushed tone.  As they began to leave the coffeehouse—the young women following behind him—one of the girls turned and shot me a wistful look, and I couldn’t help calling out, “Be careful!” to which I received a small sad smile from her and a full on glare from the man.

The coffee was awful (yet I developed a taste for it), the bagels and muffins stale, and the music selection limited.  I remember a two-week span where every time I set up my computer to work, an extended live version of Lynyrd Skynard’s “Free Bird” came on.  (I chose to take this as a good sign.)

An elderly street woman named Esther made daily visits, coming in with a shopping cart filled with baby dolls.  She had more wrinkles than any person I’ve ever seen, and she usually wore a baseball cap with Winnie the Pooh on the bill, sticking his paw in a pot of honey.

We developed a ritual: Esther would pretend to sneak up on me, and even though I could hear her cart rattling, I’d pretend to be surprised when she yelled out, “Boo!”  Our conversations were strange, perfunctory, a bit aggressive, and I always gave her a dollar bill.  Large and shuffling, she’d make her way out, but not before yelling at the teenagers (“Don’t you dare look at me, you fucking miserable little pieces of shit!”), whom she hated, although I never witnessed them antagonizing her; afterwards, they’d stare at each other and laugh, but they always seemed a little startled.

The coffeehouse owner’s father, a pink-faced man with thick glasses that made him goggle-eyed, reverentially approached me one morning and asked if I’d read a “biographical novel” written by a woman friend of his.  I read the first chapter, a mess of nostalgia, and I realized his devotion to the work was more a testament to his pining for the woman who wrote it than anything else, and that if given an opportunity, he would talk about her with me for hours and hours.  After that, every time he entered, I tensed, wanting to avoid him.

One of the most dramatic boons to my writing life came when two businessmen offered me private places to work, rent-free—one a conference room used only on occasion by lawyers for arbitration purposes, the other an office in the same building.  I’d been their server for more than 10 years, working as a waitress at a high-end restaurant.  They became art patrons, in a sense.  I told them that I’d thank them in the acknowledgments of my book if I ever got published, and I did.

Both office space and conference room reeked of business and productivity, and the secretaries—who for a long time eyed me skeptically—had to work, so I worked.  No Internet-surfing.  I didn’t have a key, so often I’d arrive early and wait on the couch in the small hallway for one of the secretaries.

A perfect writing day: Conference room or office space open, no one there, meaning I don’t have to say hello or good morning to anyone, and can immediately immerse myself in a writing trance.  I leave without notice, without the explosive shock of small talk, to pick up my boys from school.

Of course, once I got to my kids’ school, the transition from solitary writer to fully engaged member of the human species and Mother was often a rocky transition—with the noise and tumult of children, the swarm of mothers and teachers and life all around me—though most of the conflict took place in the confines of my head.

I’ll never forget when one of my businessmen patrons opened the office door where I was working, poked his head inside, and said, “Can I get you a coffee?”  I declined, uncomfortable with the role reversal, having served him for so many years.  Both insisted I call them by their first names—but I never quite got the hang of that either.

More than anything, the conference room and office space amplified my desire for private quiet writing places, and my next writing space was a friend’s house, while she was away at her nine to five job.  When she moved, an email went out, enlisting the help of friends, and I found another place, which is where I sit writing this.

My current art patron is a successful lawyer.  Her daughters recently left for college, leaving the house empty and quiet.  My one job is to keep her Jack Russell Terrier, Joey, company, because he’s an empty nester dog.

Joey is deathly afraid of lightning, and he has barking tantrums whenever gardeners are near.  But otherwise he’s a peach, and we get along famously.  Sometimes, as a break from an intense bout of writing, or a distressing vacuous pit of non-writing, Joey and I will engage in a strenuous match of tug of war with his favorite towel.

Someday I hope to have a place of my own, like my writer friend—a simple shed-like studio assembled in her backyard, book-laden, and with a small bed for naps.  Until then, I have writer studio lust, and I’ll continue to seek places to work.

Image credit: Dushan Hanuska

The Perils of Fiction

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While writing Drift, my collection of interlinked short stories, I did my best to shut out the ongoing clamor of imagined disapproval and alienation from my family, promising myself to write uncensored. As I got closer to the reality of publication, I realized that the shit was going to hit the fan. So I bolstered myself with the support of writers, many of who had already endured the shit/fan combination.

Autobiographical fiction? How much is true? A woman from a readers’ group I recently attended said, “Bye, Rosie,” when I was leaving, calling me by my main protagonist’s name, even after my earlier explanation:

“Everything I’ve experienced, everything I’ve read, everything I’ve imagined, it’s like it’s all in this blender, and I don’t necessarily control what’s in there or the way it comes out. But once it’s out, I reshape and rearrange things, organize it. Parts are fictionalized versions of what my life could have been or might have been—but it’s not real.”

Yet I’d be lying if I said that Rosie didn’t contain me; that I wasn’t Rosie, Rosie wasn’t me.

Fiction, I’ve explained, over and over. It’s fiction.

I warned my parents, told them that they didn’t have to read the book. In fact, my brother decided not to read Drift, possibly ever, and our relationship has subsequently strengthened.

My parents both thought that I was overreacting, until they read their galleys, months before publication. Silence. A condemning two- to three-month silence, except for rumors and statements via circuitous sources, including the involvement of Satan in the cultivation of my prose, and the pitying assurance that my two young sons would be ashamed of me, once they were old enough to read and understand the horrors that I had committed.

During this time, I leaned heavily on my writer friends, who made statements such as: “Congratulations. Now you’re a real writer because your family hates you.” And at my darkest moments, I morbidly and angrily relished the fact that my family’s rejection would give me not only more to write about, but also the motivation-propeller of needing to write.

My mom spoke up first. Swinging between pride and disappointment, she declared that I had hurt her, whether fictionalized or not, since the stories drew on a shared painful time in our lives, rekindling all sorts of troublesome memories.

Apparently, she read the stories aloud while her husband drove them to and from their two homes and various golf courses, pausing only to shed tears and mutter, “Oh, no; no, no, no, no.”

Despite my apologies (“I never meant to hurt you, that wasn’t my intention; no one wants to hurt their mother!”), and my insistence on the fictionalized nature of the stories, my mom continues to feel deeply wounded, and she vocalizes it, especially after a few glasses of wine—lashing me with guilt. Yet she keeps a file with all my reviews and articles, and has given copies of Drift to her friends.

For our mutual comfort, Drift is already becoming an off-limits topic, relegated to the Siberia of other tender subjects, such as politics.

My dad is a born again Christian who doesn’t see R-rated movies on principle. Despite our differences, we have maintained a loving relationship, and I dreaded its loss. An initial reaching out by me was followed by a blunt email that he was “still processing and not ready to talk”; and then, finally, he contacted me by phone.

His first question—“Are you okay?”—led me to wonder if he imagined that I might be injecting heroin in alleyways or having unsafe sex with multiple partners, both male and female. My parents don’t read literary stories. Drift, to its credit, crawled off the page and lodged itself in life. I scared him.

Reality, for both parents, blurred with non-reality: they read themselves and others in fiction, and the autobiographical portions of the book that I fretted over sailed over their heads.

Dad: “Remember when we had that conversation about the birds and the bees at the park? From your story? I certainly wish it had gone better.”

Me: “Dad, that never happened. It’s fiction. I made it up.”

Dad: “Well, it very well could have happened.”

That first phone conversation with my dad after he read and processed Drift was one of the most harrowing conversations of my life (and I imagine his). But we hashed out our feelings, and the subject of Drift’s content has not been brought up again, immediately and permanently landing itself in Siberia. To my great relief, we continue to have a relationship.

Aside from my parents, the most surprising and disappointing negative reaction came from a close friend, who lectured me on the nature of the creative process for writers, despite the fact that she’s not a writer. Her problem sprouted from two juicy sentences of dialogue in one of the least autobiographical of my stories, taken from a real-life conversation I had had with a mutual friend. (I had run the story by the mutual friend: she did not have a problem with the dialogue, and she loved the story.)

I was told that genuine writing does not draw on autobiographical elements; that the true mark of a gifted writer is that his or her fiction is completely fabricated, purely from the imagination. Despite my protestations, my listing of the endless well-known writers who feed off their lives, my insistence on the fictional nature of the stories (and in particular that story), she would not budge. I gave my friend the blender theory. I explained that the essential emotions and truth did come from a deep core of reality, but that the stories themselves were fictional. She disagreed, and we could not find common ground.

Mourning the change of a deeply important friendship, not once did I question her lack of authority on the subject. I may not like the negative reactions and disapproval, the guessing as to what’s true and what’s not, the labeling and blurring of fiction and nonfiction, but since I wrote Drift, I have to live with the repercussions. I can’t control how people read the stories, nor do I want to. And so far I don’t regret writing what’s important to me, even when it causes trouble.