Saturday, September 7, 2013

Sarah Gerkensmeyer Learns to Tolerate Messes

In the 20th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Sarah Gerkensmeyer, author of What You Are Now Enjoying (Autumn House Press), discusses the creative value of giving up control.

Today was laundry day at Little School. We call my youngest son’s daycare “Little School.” And on laundry day, his caregiver sets out a few piles of little clothing items (freshly laundered) for parents to sort through and claim.

Most days, my two-year-old son does not come home in the same clothes he was wearing that morning. He might come home swimming in a size 5 T-shirt. Or he might walk through the front door strutting proudly belly-first, those fat folds that he still has squishing out of a onesie that’s just a tad too small. We wash the clothing that isn’t ours and—when we eventually get around to sorting through our own massive pile of clean laundry (that’s an entirely separate essay, which I’m actually trying to write)—we send what doesn’t belong to us back to Little School with our son, to rejoin the communal mish-mash.

I don’t mind when Charlie comes home in someone else’s clothes. How could I mind when I don’t bother to label the tiny tags of his shirts and pants with his name? Why would I want him to come back home in the exact same outfit he was wearing that morning if that would mean no mud puddles? That would mean no creek stomping and no butt-scooting down grassy hills. No flinging paint during art time. No licking the peanut butter and jelly (his sole sustenance, it seems) clean off of a piece of bread. No water fights or pudding.

My son comes home in some other kid’s clothing because my caregiver loves him, no matter what mess he has managed to get himself into that day. The messes are good. They are encouraged. They are the best part.

I’ve been learning about messes in my writing. I’ve been learning to tolerate them and sometimes (when I’m lucky enough) to let them take control. I’ve been learning to let go of my plans, to some degree. This is what I want to learn about: the secret power of confusion and uncertainty and frustration. Sometimes there’s a magic moment when a story refuses to be about what you conceived it to be. It starts breaking rules and dancing weird jigs that you don’t know the moves to. It starts making a big ole mess. And we are lucky indeed when we can tolerate that mess enough to reach our hands in there with our eyes scrunched shut and feel for what there is to feel.

My stories, the ones that I fall in love with, do not come home in the same clothes that I sent them off wearing that morning. They come home wearing incongruous pairings of polygamous marriages and wine-stained teeth. They come home wearing Wonder Woman’s shiny red knee-high boots and the cracked, flaky skin of a childhood monster. They come home wearing homesickness and lust and breastfeeding mishaps and failing indoor waterparks and, quite often, a bit of wonder. So much of this I did not expect from them. Sometimes I have to squint to make sure I know who’s standing there before me, exploding to tell me about their day. But I love them, my stories. I love them no matter what. Not in spite of the messes they’ve gotten themselves into. Because of them.