refusing to be helpless: how to start writing again after way too long

Late in 2020, finding myself with paid time off to kill, I decided to use it helping the Georgia Democrats in the December special election campaign. That highly rewarding experience (I both canvassed in Atlanta and served as a blue poll watcher on very red territory) is a tale for another time. But in mid-November, three days after I bought my ticket, I set down the opening paragraphs of the first entirely new fiction I’d written in almost 20 years, which eventually became What You Can’t Give Me.

As I was biking to the office that morning—we were still all-remote but I was going in twice a week to use the gym and get out of the frickin house—I was astonished to find myself writing in my head. This hadn’t happened since 1990, when the openings of at least half a dozen of the stories in my first collection, The Light of Home, came to me on my long walks to and from work. I’d never experienced anything like that before and assumed I never would again. But there I was 30 years later, riding along Memorial Drive and thinking “The most unusual thing about her, in some ways, might have been her three-legged dog …”. And so on.

Fortunately, at 62 I’d achieved sufficient basic wisdom to take the astonishing in stride. That first draft, I find, came to about 650 words, which seems like really a lot for a 10 minute bike ride (“oh yes, I bike 65 words per minute”) so I assume most of it was written sitting down. But I’m certain that at least the first paragraph was revealed to me in transit, and it led smoothly to the rest.

By the time I got on the plane a month later I had six pages of a story and absolutely no clue what came next. But I told myself (I guess the wisdom thing again) “I’ll finish it in Georgia” and that’s exactly what happened. The evening after my second day of door knocking in Sandy Springs and before my first shift at the polling place in Rome I set up the final scene, and a couple of evenings later, after several increasingly bizarre extended conversations with my affable Republican counterparts (well the one with the gun on his hip was not so affable), I wrote it to the end—an end I liked very much but could never have anticipated. And sat there thinking oh my god, I’m writing again.

Why did it play out this way? What got me going after publishing three books, having my career suddenly collapse, being humiliated by years of constant rejection into not writing at all for a decade, recovering to the point of revising and self-publishing three of my unpublished novels, and spending the last couple years thinking “oh well, maybe I’ll write another someday”? As 2021 rolled out and I found myself producing story after story, I realized that choosing to help the team in Georgia had been an intuitive attempt to fight my stress and dismay over the many Enormous Problems It’s Impossible To Do Anything About we were all so oppressed by even before the lockdown hit, an outgrowth of what has to be the most important and hardest-won wisdom of my latter years: the recognition that no narrative has ever lived that cannot be changed. Refusing to be helpless is powerful magic indeed. And recently, as I’ve readied the book for publication, I’ve been thinking about the strange and profound sort of helplessness we’ve all felt during the pandemic—many far more severely, for far more serious and painful reasons, than I and my fellow fortunate ones—and our infinitely varied attempts to keep it at bay long enough to reestablish some part of the life we remembered.

I did not set out to create “pandemic stories” or to convey how my protagonists saw the shared crisis; I was just writing what came to me. After I had accumulated a few it occurred to me that maybe they were stories about how these people saw themselves during that crisis. But I now understand that, terrible as the consequences have been for so many and surreal as the experience has been for virtually all of us, it’s ultimately the same old battle against helplessness—the helplessness of being persistently sick or in pain, of not having the rent money, of being mistreated and held back because of the way you look, speak, love, or see yourself, of feeling down or frustrated all the time and not knowing why, of grief and a million other miseries. In other words the unalterable nature of our existence, which is always about how we see ourselves, every minute of every day.

These are simply tales of people’s lives. The pandemic has served me well as a framing device because it slapped the whole world across the face, all at once, with a particularly cold, harsh, and stinking helplessness akin to a large dead fish, bringing into very sharp focus our ongoing disappointment in our inability to change so many of our circumstances. But if it’s not one reason to feel helpless it’s another; we all know that. These tales turn on unanticipated events that reach happy or sad moments just before they stop and are sure to change after, for better and for worse. The pandemic has been like that, yeah, but at the deepest and most meaningful level it isn’t anything new; it’s what we’re all faced with all the time, notwithstanding the illusion that we can know what’s coming, that we have any kind of grip on what happy and sad even mean.

The wonder of fiction is that it can take an often overwhelmingly opaque and unknowable experience, being human, and make it transparent and comprehensible, reassuring us that maybe we can get a leg up on it now and then. I have always loved short stories for the way their limits—believe me, the authors don’t know any more than you do about what happened before the beginning or what comes after the end—can cut life down to size, disarming it and making it, for a little while, easier to get next to and examine. Turns out entering utterly unfamiliar territory during an utterly shocking world-historical event to make a tiny contribution to a collective effort with an utterly unpredictable outcome got me started on them again. Which is a gift I don’t need to understand any better than that; it’s enough to be grateful, which I very much am. There is nothing I could be gladder to have than a fresh opportunity for you to read what I’ve written. And if you do, I hope you too will be glad.

R.C. Binstock
September 2022

a meditation on absence

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” So wrote a Miss Strickland in 1832. Surely this is one of the most widely recognized and understood proverbs in our language. We all know what it’s like to miss someone.

But what about when the absence is permanent? Or deliberate?

Grief is, among other things, the way in which we cope with our evolving awareness that no matter how fond our heart may grow, the absent party is never coming back. Grief, as Vanished front small Oct 5anybody who has experienced it has learned, is inherently contradictory:  if we are to heal, we must continue to cherish that former presence—that face, that gesture, those loving words—while also agreeing that it can never again be. It is the difficulty of finding a solution to this puzzle that often prolongs the painful experience far beyond what appear to be reasonable bounds.

When a loved one chooses to remain apart we experience a different kind of pain, called by a different name—“heartbreak”, perhaps, or “abandonment”—that is related to grief, often feeling quite like it, but distinct, not least in that we know mutual presence remains possible, no matter how firmly, how permanently the absent one has committed themselves to separation. And when it is our choice to stay away, we wrestle with yet another inherent contradiction, between our hope that we are doing what’s best and the attachment we still feel.

The bottom line, of course, is that loss is loss; there is no working around it, no talking around it, no option at all but to accept and, ideally, embrace it. But it is in the journey to that end that the particulars of the absence and the character of the sufferer are manifested in their own unique fashion.

The Vanished is an exploration of absence—absence by death, absence by choice, all the absences that inevitably become part of our lives—and the hoops it makes us jump through, the paces it puts us through, its inescapable demands and ultimately its kindness in providing its own antidote. To say the book’s characters pine, more or less desperately, for lost and absent family members only scratches the surface; much more to the point is that for each, the way forward is defined by the idiosyncratic manner in which they pine, their own special and inimitable approach to grief. Grief is a journey, but it is also a destination and a starting place; grief is an antagonist, a willing companion, a fraud and a promise. Without grief we would not be human, but no human will ever welcome it.

This book began as a personal fantasy, an extended empathetic exercise, at a different time, one in which our appreciation of both the deaths of strangers and the lives of previous generations now seems, from our current perspective, astoundingly naïve. Our world is so beset by shared trouble—trouble that seems always immediate, that we never allow each other to forget—that individual losses, individual lives can begin to seem, if not insignificant, at least not important enough to take the time to describe. But these troubles, global though they may be, are made up entirely of those lives and losses, one by one. Who are we when the impossible to tolerate comes knocking at our door? The answer will do much to assist us, and we can learn a good deal of it from stories fictional and real.

It seems to me that, despite or because of our woes, our collective appreciation of the preciousness of life, of security, of mutual aid has been steadily increasing. I grew up in a society that was rapidly atomizing, and while that trend has not been reversed, we are also knitting together in entirely new ways. What is precious can be lost, and while we can overcome the immediate effects, we will always be diminished by every loss we experience. The better we appreciate the value of what we have before we lose it and our own capacity for healing afterwards, and the more we share these with each other, the more tolerable our lives will be, the greater our capacity for contentment, meaning, accomplishment, and joy.

The only thing harder for us to confront than the loss of others is the loss of ourselves. To watch your own death approach is a special form of grief that none of us can prepare for, but that we all hope to accept with tranquility and dignity.  In The Vanished, Catherine Millet says of her dying husband, “He was happy to greet the people of Barbizon and his special friends from Paris, savoring their pride in him and grateful for their presence. All the rest, he declared, could ‘blow away’.” Surely this is to be envied. Our own end is something we can only hope to live up to. The grace of death, after all, is that it is the last loss we will experience, after which we will grieve no more.

R.C. Binstock
October 2018

a story about family

As with most worthwhile things, it took longer than expected. Like the rest of you, I usually have more going on than I would choose. But it’s finally done.

Fans of Swift RiverTree of Heaven and The Soldier will not be surprised to learn that Native Child is the story of two unusual people brought together by extraordinary circumstances. In this case, however, the meeting takes place in the most prosaic of surroundings, at least in 1922–a small town in the farm country of south central Nebraska. And it leads in the end to nothing more (or less) than a family, one that has lasted 77 years and counting.

final Native Child cover frontNowadays we celebrate, quite rightly, the “nontraditional family” as equal in value to the two-parents-and-their-offspring kind, but there have always been such families: people who are brought near to each other by accident, or by a combination of accident and design, and remain together by choice. In the past, however, those accidents were very often the result of decisions and policies unthinkable by today’s standards.

Many Americans have heard by now of the “orphan trains”, which conveyed over 200,000 children from the east (mostly New York city) to the midwest, southwest and great plains from the late 19th century until the 1930s. What most don’t know is that half of these children had at least one living parent; a quarter of them had two. And what those who have not already thought it through would realize if they did is that an awful lot of these children were “adopted” in Ohio, Texas, Missouri, South Dakota, and other places not as family members but as servants and laborers and yes, for sexual purposes. As with so many American stories, the facts are subordinated to the role of the tale in the overarching American mythos, in this case a role I’d guess we’d call For the Benefit of the Needy. Taking children away from their (poor, immigrant, drunk, immoral, genetically inferior) parents to send them a thousand miles or more from everything they’d ever known to a new home with strangers who might well impose on them an existence that was anything but a childhood was hardly to their benefit. Even for the true orphans, the most bereft, with no family of any kind, it was an enormous, unjustified risk.

This is not to say that this kind of behavior was restricted to the United States; we’ve all read about such programs all over the world, often for native peoples. And for what it’s worth, I do think that the folks at the Children’s Aid Society and other welfare agencies mostly believed, or at any rate hoped, that they were doing the right thing.

Years ago,  well before Christina Baker Kline’s very popular book Orphan Train (yeah, scooped again, my own fault for sitting on the sidelines for so long), having read a brief but fascinating account by a man who was one of the lucky ones–who was a child utterly without his own and found a true family, a new life, a secure future at the end of the line–I was intrigued enough to begin imagining what it might be like to get on that train; what it might be like to actually want to get on that train; what it might be like to find oneself having done so and trying to understand the people who took you in at the other end. And to imagine, as well, the things that might possibly lead someone (someone for whom New York might as well have been Mars) to welcome such a child, if not for despicable reasons. And out of this imagining came the beginnings of the story of Oscar, who was abandoned in a grocery and raised by those dogooders at the agencies, who tried life in a street gang and then threw it all up to request transfer to the west on an orphan train, and Lillian, a Nebraska farm girl rescued from her own orphanhood at 18 by the love of her life, who married her and less than a year later decided on impulse–or maybe out of deep intuition or by divine inspiration, but all of a moment–to bring an eight year old stranger into their home.

My ability to imagine all of this, to understand my own story, is much improved since that day. In the interim I have learned a great deal about making a family by choice, by an act of will, thanks to the arrival of my wife and two of our four children from overseas, and I am pretty sure this had a profound influence on the final shape of Native Child. But all families are made, surely, by choice, even when their existence and growth appear terribly obvious, and we all have our own experience, our own understanding, of the meaning of the word. My fondest hope is that each reader will see something of what she or he knows about family reflected in these pages, and in the sorrows and the joys of Lillian and Oscar.

R.C. Binstock
June 2016


my new novel THE VANISHED is out!

June 2016: Available in paperback and ebook editions!

Read an excerpt!

how I got here

Twenty-three years ago, my dreams came true.

Atheneum accepted my stories–stories that I’d been writing in almost complete secrecy for a couple of years, on the Fridays and Tuesday afternoons I’d freed up by begging my lightofhome_coverboss to let me work a 30-hour week–for publication as a book. Ann Beattie, my mentor and one of the most well-known short story writers in the country, offered a blurb that called them “among the best stories I’ve read in years”. Someone at Atheneum, not sure who, found a wonderful title, The Light of Home, in a line from one of the stories, and the design people came up with a fabulous cover, featuring an Alex Katz painting (I still love looking at that cover, all these years later). And when it came out, in 1992, it got some lovely reviews. Booklist said the collection “expresses the particular tenor of our time”. My stories!  Can you imagine? A one-sentence review in the Anniston, Alabama Star called me “an amazing new writer”. The Boston Public Library bought four copies.

Well, the final sell-through was miniscule–almost 300 people beyond my immediate circle of family and friends (and the BPL) must have bought the book–and when the late Lee Goerner, who was already on the edge of losing patience with me, read the unpublishable first novel I sent him (there was some good stuff in there, but man was it overwritten) he decided I was more trouble than I was worth. And that was that.

treeofheaven_cover_wideBut wait!  There’s more!  I wrote another, better novel, Tree of Heaven. I got an agent. Tree of Heaven won something called the Washington Prize for Fiction. We got a deal with Soho Press–in fact a two-book deal, I was already almost done with my second novel (OK, third, but who’s counting?). Soho’s publicist went to work. When the book was published in 1995 the reviews were tremendous. High praise in Publishers Weekly, the New York Times (weekday and Sunday), the LA Times, the Boston Globe. Maureen Corrigan called it “a triumph of imaginative empathy” on NPR. I was on the radio, I was on the cover of the Boston Sunday Globe Magazine. And sales, while not tremendous, were adequate. It looked like I had made it for sure this time.

It took a bit longer to unravel than it had before, at least. I argued with the folks at Soho soldier_coverabout the second book–the title (The Soldier was, to them, extremely infelicitous), the chapter they wanted me to drop, the hints they wanted broadened or removed, and so on. A couple of the reviews were mixed and sales were poor. And when I sent them the new novel I was working on, Swift River, it was Lee and the first novel all over again. For reasons that still escape me I responded to having been fired by Soho by firing my agent, Nikki Smith, who was always totally on my side. The Career as a Writer was all gone.

I kept trying, really. I revised and re-revised Swift River, I wrote more novels and more stories, I kept sending manuscripts to agents and editors, but to make a long and painful story short, it didn’t work (not even when I tried to write a lowbrow, somewhat violent thriller). Nobody was interested in a guy who’d had his shot and failed. The constant rejection was killing me. My last stand was a nonfiction book about some amazing things that happened to a group of kids from Bialystok, Poland, during and after the second world war. Thanks to a kind friend the proposal went directly to the assistant to a very prominent and notoriously tough publisher. The assistant expressed great interest in the project and gave me to understand that she was waiting for the right time to take it to her boss–for months, until she suddenly stopped returning my calls. This at long last broke me. I was done. I did what all the songs tell you never to do: I said goodbye to my dreams and let them fly away.

And now, nine years later, I’m back. On my own. No publishers to argue with, no agents and editors to be rejected by. Swift River is finally the novel it was meant to be, the novel I might have made it around 1999 if things hadn’t come apart, and thanks to the front scaled 50brave new book world and 84 incredible Kickstarter backers who let me know in an unambiguous way that they wanted it to happen, I can publish it myself, which I will in November. A friend and I created the interior design, my daughter and I are making the cover, I hired a sharp young guy to help me get this web site going. No publicist, true, and we’ll have to see how many prepub reviews I can drum up, but that doesn’t touch the important thing: Swift River will be published and those who want to read it can read it. Maybe no one will, maybe it will be a big success, most likely somewhere in between but I am proud to tell you that I can truthfully say, it doesn’t matter. What matters is finishing the book and publishing the book. That’s it. An ebook version of Tree of Heaven is next, and then I might take up one of the other unpublished novels. Or even write another!

How did it happen?  How did I turn this around?  Honestly, beyond my certainty that I could never have even started without the gentle but persistent support and encouragement of my lovely wife, Maja, who caught those dreams as they tried to fly away and sheltered and nurtured them for me until I was ready to accept custody of them again, I have no idea. Step by step, I guess. Maybe I’m finally too old to be scared, too experienced to be proud. Maybe I learned resilience from my kids. You wouldn’t think it would take nine years–no, an entire lifetime–to figure out what doesn’t matter and what does. But I suppose I’m not the only one who’s taken the long way home.

I hope you will read Swift River, I hope you will love it, I hope you will tell everyone about it. But if not, that’s OK too. As of November it will be possible, and that’s good enough for me.

— rcb

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