Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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Becky Mandelbaum is the author of “Emotional Morons,” a short story featured in our July 2022 issue. She lives in Bellingham, Washington, where she works in tourism, teaches online courses for Seattle’s Hugo House, and enjoys gazing at her dog. She is the author of The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals and Bad Kansas and is at work on her second novel.
Sun manuscript reader Hank Stephenson had the chance to speak with Mandelbaum about “Emotional Morons,” touching on the story’s distinctive setting at an artificial lake in Kansas, the main character’s profound insecurities, and more.
The title appears when the main character, Stephanie, tries to describe the kind of characters she’s capable of writing: “I’d decided I would only ever be able to write slightly above-average people like myself: confused, dejected girls who searched for self-worth in the least-generous places. Emotional morons.”
I’ve always admired writers who come to their work with big brains or a wealth of knowledge in an esoteric subject. I often wonder what I could write if I were smarter or better versed in some area of science, music, religion, art, history, etc.
As a writer, my main tool has always been my emotions. I don’t know much about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire or Schrödinger’s cat, but I pay attention to the things I think and feel, and I pay attention to the people around me. I think I wrote this story to convince myself that it’s OK to be an emotional writer rather than a cerebral one, that I don’t need to be a genius to write convincing fiction — I just have to feel things and pay attention.
Absolutely. Are there writers who don’t? Sometimes I think about my career — the awards I’ve received, the work I’ve published, the classes I’ve taught — and I can swiftly logic my way out of each of them: I didn’t deserve it, or there was a clerical error, or they only gave it to me because of x, y, or z reason. Despite having published two books, I still don’t introduce myself as a writer. That’s part of why I love the Marge Piercy poem “For the young who want to,” which appears in “Emotional Morons.” My roommate sent me this poem after we had a conversation about imposter syndrome, and those lines still appear in my head when I need them: “The real writer is one / who really writes.”
I think part of the problem is the word writer, which conjures images of fan mail and serious black-and-white author photos. Maybe I don’t think of myself as a writer because that term seems so unrelated to what I actually do, which is sit down each morning and find pleasure in toying around with language.
I grew up in Kansas, where there are few natural lakes but many human-constructed reservoirs. In the summer my college friends and I would go to Clinton Lake, near Lawrence, to drink beer and swim and goof around. Everyone made fun of the lake for being gross, but because I had never spent time at lakes growing up, it seemed like the most magnificent place in the world.
Now that I live in the Pacific Northwest, where you can’t throw a stone without it landing in a picturesque lake situated at the base of a snow-capped volcano, I can see that Clinton Lake was, in fact, pretty gnarly. The water was always warm and murky, the color of beef stew, and your skin would itch if you didn’t shower right away. One time, while floating around, my friend Erin raised her arm to find a dirty diaper clinging to her wrist. And yet I don’t know if I’ve ever been so happy as I was splashing around in that disgusting water with my friends, my bare feet kicking random bits of trash, the smell of hot mud and gasoline in the air.
A lot of people think it matters where you are: that if you live somewhere like Kansas, your life will feel flat and dull. But it’s not true. All that matters is who you’re with and how they make you feel, and whether you’re capable of recognizing beauty in your circumstance. I think Stephanie, in the story, is on the verge of this realization. She thinks the world will only begin for her after she leaves home, not understanding that it’s already started, that everything she’s experienced in Kansas is rich with meaning and import.
That’s an astute observation, because I actually began this story in college and only returned to it last year, during the pandemic, after stumbling across it on my computer. I’d written just the first couple paragraphs — those opening descriptions of the lake and Stephanie’s reaction to being invited there by this literary hotshot at her college. I was drawn to the opening and the period of time in which I wrote it. It felt like stepping back into a memory.
A lot of my writing lately deals with memory, how things that happen to us when we’re young shapeshift as we get older and accumulate context and wisdom. The world has changed so much over the past few years, and I think we’re all looking around with new eyes. I also turned thirty during the pandemic, and that’s caused me to reflect on my twenties and the people and events that shaped me. There’s pleasure in feeling surprised by my younger self, by the things I felt and cared about, noticing the ways I’ve changed and the ways I’ve remained the same.
This has happened a few times, but I remember an exchange with one reader in particular. At an event for my novel The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals a woman came up, a sheen in her eyes, and told me how much one of the main characters, Mona, resonated with her. In the book, Mona is contemplating selling the animal sanctuary that has been her life’s work and passion for more than a decade. The woman at the event was struggling to keep her bookstore afloat and confronting the reality that she might have to sell it. “I couldn’t stop crying,” the woman told me. “I felt exactly what Mona was going through.” The novel is a mother-daughter story about family, home, forgiveness, and animals; I hadn’t imagined, for even a second, that someone might identify with Mona’s struggle as a business owner.
When I think about my writing now, I understand that no matter how hard I focus on a character, storyline, or theme, some reader may blow past all of it and glom on to something I hadn’t thought about. When we write, we never know what a reader will connect with. I think there’s a kind of magical freedom in this, like sending a satellite into deep space: we can feverishly tinker away at a project for years, but in the end we have no control over what it will find once it’s out in the universe.
For more by Becky Mandelbaum, see “Goodbye, Sugar Land” in our October 2019 issue.