A Good Writing Day for Gina Ochsner

Two-time Oregon Book Award winner Gina Ochsner is the author of The Necessary Grace to Fall, winner of the H.L. Davis Award for Fiction, and People I Wanted To Be, winner of the H.L. Davis Award for Short Fiction. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. A lifelong Oregon resident, Gina lives in Wilsonville with her family.

Here’s how Gina describes a good writing day:

A perfect writing day starts with a cup of coffee. Which is to say, the day starts early. And if I’m up early, say 5:30 and with a cup of coffee in hand, then I’m not writing. Not yet. I’m not awake. My mind is literally blank, bereft of words, and certainly of ideas. And from this nothing, in that place of silence I simply sit and listen. If I’ve got my bible handy and open and my eyes can actually focus, then I’m reading proverbs or psalms, pure poetry there, and waiting for what the words have to say. If I’m not that awake yet, then I’m just sitting, still.

In that quiet emerges the sure sound of the world waking up: the dog behind the laurel hedge sniffing and chuffing, looking for the sweet spot to pee. The neighbor coughing and the distinct odor of his Swisher Sweets—to me, a wonderful smell that means grandpa. From two eaves away comes the mournful tremolo of a morning dove. By this time, I’m somewhere between the fourth and fifth sips of coffee. The morning is still unwritten, open and utterly free of writerly expectation. And it’s about this time, when it occurs to me that the day is young enough that I can fail miserably again and again—maybe twenty times before the kids get up—that an idea, a phrase, a word, an image, trots along.

For example:

Carried Away

A full day and a half passed before any of the girls in Coventry House even noticed Starla Mckee had gone missing.

Now, I have a confession. I can’t sit still and be meditative and serene for more than about five minutes. Utter inner stillness is contrary to the effects of caffeine. After refilling the coffee mug, puttering in the garden for a few minutes, I get back to thinking about those girls in the Coventry House. Now why did I get to thinking about girls and what are they doing there? What kind of a house is this and how old are they? I don’t have a clue. It might not matter yet. Starla Mckee is missing. I don’t know if she ran away, or what. I have a feeling it could be important to know this.

Starla was a night-time crier and a snuffler—slow in learning how to be quiet, how to be ignored. Always shadowing Lindy Steves and Irla Nobles—always Lindy and Irla—asking questions, asking them to tie her knotted up frayed out shoe laces.

Poor Starla. There was a Starla in our neighborhood. Slow, she was. We tried to be nice. It occurs to me that I was a Starla to at least three older girls who constantly ditched me at bus stops and strip malls. “Is that your mother calling?” They’d ask. I’d turn my head. That’s when they’d vanish.

And then a county surveyor found her body under the train trestle that ran through the woods.

I didn’t see that one coming. I had just been reading A.S Byatt’s beautiful and wonderfully creepy story A Thing in the Forest. I admire how she balances the forboding feel of something terrifying that happened to two girls in a forest and how this event binds and separates them forever against the concurrent reality they accept that says “ well, hey—weird things do happen, but then life must move on.” Now, how are these girls, now grown women going to deal with it?

Lindy and Irla heard about it from Carmen who was the oldest girl in the Coventry Home for Girls and who slept in the bed closest to the windows. Because Carmen was twelve already and still not adopted—Sister Argentina assigned to Carmen the best duties: delivering messages between Sister Argentina on the first floor to Sister Thomas Ann on the second floor. Gathering the newspapers. Sometimes Carmen even got to answer the phone. Except she didn’t do it right. She didn’t hang up when she was supposed to. She usually listened in. That’s how Carmen heard about the body under the trestle.

Now it’s nearing seven o’clock. I’ve rearranged the tomato plants several times. With each configuration I’m chewing on another question: who are these girls, why are they there, who’s in charge of this home, what happened to Starla and what will happen next? The ‘what will happen next question’ is the one that keeps this whole story thing going and it’s the question I’ll save for tomorrow or the next day. My gut tells that because this world has never been a safe one, not for anyone and especially not for girls without parents, things aren’t going to look good for Lindy and Irla, and possibly not for others at the Coventy Home.

But I’ll put that aside for now. Because today was enough. I got up. That in itself was a triumph. I made coffee, drank it. At some point I wrote a sentence. And then another one. And then another one. And now, I have about eight keepers. Tomorrow or the next day I may look at these and decide they’re not so hot. Who knows. But today they’re perfect, because at 5:30 they didn’t exist and now they do.

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