Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Attic As A Metaphor

I'd like to think I'm a writer. I write every day. I've written news stories, shows, short stories. I've happily pounded out magazine articles. I've struggled with three novels and felt the incredible rush of emotion as I wrote those short, huge words, "The End", and meant it. But I never write as well as I'd like to. There's a touch of poetry necessary to truly write the way I'd like to and I fear I lack it.

Jenna Hammerich has it in abundance. I found her work through my work. Scrolling through a public radio website that allows freelancers to post their work, I stumbled on a piece she'd written about growing up as the child of flower children. It was perfect; hilarious, poignant and thought provoking. I not only used it in my show, I wrote her a fan letter.

She was very sweet, happy for the encouragement and immersed in her writing. She hasn't had time to put together any other shorter stories that I could use, despite my pleas. But she asked me to listen to a half hour piece she put together on the women who painted the poisonous radium dials on clocks in a small Illinois town. I did. I was floored.

Jenna has a talent for not only revealing herself, but revealing the story she's telling in a way that unfolds naturally, fully and inevitably. There is no artifice, no sign where she's placed the wires, where she's pulling the strings.

I was so in love with her work that I went looking for more. And I found it. She's written a moving tribute to Michael Jackson for Salon.

But this may be the one I like best of all so far - she wanders off to the attic of her childhood and takes us with her. She made me remember the attic in the house where my children grew up. It had a narrow, low-ceilinged stairway but opened into a high, dark space with a sunny, finished room in the front of the house. That room, with it's ancient sheet of 1930s linoleum, a small table with child-sized chairs and two shelves with doors where a child and several friends could climb in and hide, was the most magical place in a well-loved house, not only for my children but for me. I remember a few times when they were off somewhere else and I would climb those stairs and sit alone in the sunlight high above our tree-lined street, observing the world from a new and far more objective perspective.

I didn't grow up in a house with an attic. But I wandered many times into the cavernous, bat and squirrel-infested attic above my grandmother's bedrooms. There she kept boxes she never opened, the obscenely grinning teeth of piano keys without their case, steamer trunks pushed off into darkened corners that I never dared open.

That attic held a thrillingly spooky fascination for me, a feeling that our own home's unfinished attic area probably inspired in my children. It was an opportunity to test our courage with little real danger.

Ready to explore? Here's Jenna's essay about attics. Prepare to be delighted.

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