Slice of Life: A writer at work

By CHELSEY B. COOMBS

URBANA — Amy Hassinger sits at her built-in desk, completely straight in her chair, between two floor-to-ceiling white bookshelves that hold titles such as The New York Public Library American History Desk Reference, Stephen King's On Writing, Virginia Wolfe's Orlando and many years of The Best American Short Stories anthologies. Early morning light streams through the window that overlooks her Urbana neighborhood and bathes her freckled face and short brown hair. Her chocolate-brown dog, Hachi, nudges her hand, but she ignores him and furrows her brow. Her husband is at work and her kids are off to school, and the only sound in the room is Amy's pen scratching on a legal pad.

She is a writer at work.

"Writing, for me, was always really hard," she says. "I wasn't one of these star writers who just right out of the gate was winning all the prizes and, to me, it was — and still continues to be — a real effort. But it was one of the only things I did that I felt fully, completely engaged in."

At age 41, Amy is the author of two novels, "Nina: Adolescence," which was called "truly penetrating" by Salon.com, and "The Priest's Madonna," which Library Journal said was "marvelously written and researched." She has finished the "umpteenth set of revisions" on her newest novel, a three-year project, and is "letting it sit for a couple weeks" before sending it to her agent. She teaches in the University of Nebraska's low-residency MFA in Writing Program and the University of Illinois' Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and is raising two kids. She's busy.

Yet she never relaxes during her daily eight-to-noon writing time. Today, she's working on a non-fiction story about a cross-country automobile trip she and her then-best friend made from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco after they had graduated from Barnard College in 1994. The first step in her writing process, which she calls an "ever-fascinating thing," is the "thinking/dreaming" stage.

"It is often subconscious; sometimes it happens literally in our dreams," she says, "but it can be made to be more conscious." A few months ago, to help her decide on a story she wanted to tell, Amy drew on paper a winding "river" to represent her life journey and placed events that had shaped her at each river bend. She picked a few events and drew the scenes as she remembered them, like a movie story board. "That can be a way of inviting yourself to dream, remember and allow images to come up as you're doing it," she says. Her river is displayed on six sheets of paper taped together with masking tape.

The events include:

Move to San Francisco.

Met Adam (her husband).

Hannah (her daughter) is born.

Gabe (her son) born.

"The one that seemed to, for whatever reason, just blink at me was this one — my move to San Francisco." So she drew a picture of her Barnard College dorm room on 114th Street in Manhattan, the fire escape where she asked her friend to accompany her on her journey, her apartment in San Francisco. Then she took 15 minutes to jot down everything she could remember about the images.

"Early stabs of generating material," she calls it.

She was compelled by another image — "stepping off the bus in D.C.," where her friend's mother lived and where Amy had arrived from New York to begin their road trip. She did what she calls a "free-write" of everything she could remember about that moment: stepping off the Greyhound, backpack in tow, and seeing Alida, her friend by a made-up name, and Alida's mother. She meticulously described Alida's "thick dark brows, the lifting lip — elegant and full — her peach-shaped face with her dramatic cheekbones" and her mother's "auburn/blond-highlighted hair, probably dyed, her quick eyes, the same nose as Alida — sloping, pointed."

But then, surprising herself, Amy wrote this sentence: "I had the sense then that things were not as fun and carefree for her as I was so concerned with making them be for me. That was always how it was with us." It was then that Amy realized that her story wasn't just about her and a friend making a physical trip to San Francisco: It was a story of the coming end of their friendship.

Although she had originally wanted to use these real-life events as the basis for a short fiction story, Amy instead decided to write it as a short memoir, a personal telling based on real events. Although the events of this story occurred 20 years ago, Amy believes that as long as she doesn't consciously invent things that didn't happen, her memory and the journal entries she wrote at the time will suffice for accuracy. "Memory itself is a story we tell ourselves about who we are, about our identity. In that sense, there's a different treatment of truth in memoir."

In her story, Amy described the physical features of Alida and her mother as she had in her early free-write, but also focused on setting the scene and emphasizing the way Alida and her mom were standing. "She was in front of her mother, there was a separation between them, and I think the reason that I wanted to have that in there was because of what then becomes the separation between me and Alida. I wanted to set up the fact that her mother and I, there was a correspondence there."

When she read her 24-page first draft, Amy decided it was too strictly chronological. So she decided to re-structure it as a series of episodic collages set according to the legs of the trip. She printed her draft, then took scissors to it, deciding what to keep and what to toss. The keep pile was much smaller than the toss pile, which included her story's former beginning about the friendship's background and the moment Amy had asked Alida on the fire escape to go on the journey. Because Amy was by then focusing on the trip itself, the D.C. moment took precedence and became the new beginning.

Now, Amy has gone back to the dreaming stage — or the "re-dreaming stage," as she calls it — continuing to relive the trip, thinking about the most important moments, jotting notes as she thinks. "I'm trying to establish a timeline, trying to mark each day, where we got to and what might have been part of the important things to mention on that leg of the journey, where we stayed and that sort of thing."

For inspiration, she stops and reads passages from John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath — one of the great American road-journey novels. Occasionally, she sips her habitual mid-morning coffee, back still straight in her chair, legs now crossed at the ankles. As she goes through her re-dreaming, she starts to remember her trip more clearly — for instance, a Sony Walkman, which she'll include to set the era, and the big duffel bag her uncle gave her (rather than the backpack she was lugging in her first draft). She's also not sure she wants to keep the distanced past tense voice she has been using in the story so far. No, she decides, and elects to revise it into present tense to keep the reader more in the moment.

"I'm trying to stay very much in scene and in the moment to reveal the meaning or essence of our friendship, or the transformation that was happening as we go."

To those ends, she invents scene and dialogue, approximating what might have been said:

Alida's mother smiles, the wind blowing her dyed auburn hair out of her eyes, while Alida hugs me stiffly. Her mother pats my back. "I envy you two," she beams.

"What an adventure you're about to have!"

Alida glares in the direction of the highway, the road that will lead us southwest toward Tennessee. There we'll pick up Interstate 40, our escape route to California.

"Is that our car?" I ask, gesturing to a two-door sedan waiting nearby.

"That's the one. Rent-a-Wreck special. Our chariot." Alida pops open the trunk and I sling my duffle in next to her bags and the camping equipment. She slams the trunk and turns back to her mother.

"Goodbye," she says, a plea disguised as a command.

"I'm making more choices that have to do with storytelling. I'm trying to compress, really. Me asking, 'Is that our car?' is both keeping the action in-scene and giving some information. So I'm not just having to tell everything. I can kind of reveal it as the story goes on."

At this stage, she's reshaping and refining, considering individual sentences and specific words as she gets closer to her story's final form. She spends "an agonizing amount of time with what might seem like a minor choice," as in the line "a plea disguised as a command." She isn't sure whether that will stay, but she's using it now to add depth to Alida's anger that became more apparent as their trip went on.

"Looking back, I have more of a sense of her. Her anger also came out of a feeling of maybe disconnection, maybe loneliness, wanting to connect, but not sure how."

Amy is hoping she will be done with her story by the fourth draft, which is probably two months away. She isn't sure. The story will take as long as it takes. As a writer, she's "responding to the word" — going where the story takes her, writing the story as it reveals itself to her. "There's so much that comes at us every day that is upsetting, that is inspiring, that is beautiful, that is ugly, all that experience is, and I have this real drive to respond to that in some way. And my way of responding is to try to mix it all together and construct something out of that soup of experience that is meaningful."

She rises from her chair. It is afternoon now, the time she spends preparing for her classes and exercising. Her kids and husband will be home in a few hours. They'll have dinner and hang out together tonight, have fun. But tomorrow, Amy will rise, get the kids off to school and return to her desk.

She is a writer at work.

Head to The News-Gazette's online store to purchase the book "Slices of Life," a series of stories by writers in Professor Walt Harrington's journalism class at the University of Illinois. Each story is a short peek into the lives of East Central Illinois residents.

Slices of Life

This story was written by a journalism student in Professor Walt Harrington's literary feature writing class at the University of Illinois. Funding was provided by the Marajen Stevick Foundation. You can buy the book "Slices of Life," a series of stories by writers in Harrington's class. Each story is a short peek into the lives of East Central Illinois residents.

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