By Lisa Locascio / Photography by Craig Stocks
Editor’s note: During the fall of 2012, author Lisa Locascio participated in the artist-in-residence program at the Prairie Center of the Arts in Peoria, Illinois. I had the pleasure of meeting Lisa during the artist’s reception at the Vernissage art exhibit in October. Her essay below was written specifically for Playing Peoria.
Writing From the Backseat
by Lisa Locascio
My earliest memory of writing in north central Illinois dates to the summer of 1995. I am sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car, parked in the town of Ottawa, where we generally buy groceries on our way to our summerhouse at Lake Wildwood. I am alone. My parents and sister are somewhere else. I may have demanded to be left alone in the car, with the air-conditioning and the stereo volume turned high. It wouldn’t be the first time.
The soundtrack to Clueless plays. I have very recently seen the movie, I think—or am I about to see it, in a few weeks? The idea of Clueless resonates with me because, like most people who have yet to attend high school, I am certain that it will be a glamorous and exciting experience. This is what I’m writing about with my four-color pen, the thick plastic kind with four distinct colored levers that can be depressed to produce a stylus loaded with matching ink. This is what I’m writing about with my left hand, on the sturdy Big Chief writing tablet my parents bought for me at the hardware store: my dream of my future.
I am ten years old, four years away from ninth grade. I don’t know it then, sitting in the car, but my high school fantasy will soon become incredibly important. In the fall I will start middle school; a year after that, I will become the main target of the blunt cruelty of the other sixth graders. The remaining two years of middle school will be a countdown to high school, a sleepless longing for a bigger place full of people who don’t know me, who won’t want to hurt me. Through it all, writing will remain the one thing I know is mine, the one thing I know I can do well.
As soon as I learned to write, it became my second-favorite thing to do, after reading. I was the kind of kid who read everything and anything: trade magazines I didn’t understand, the instruction manual for a television set, an album’s liner notes. When I ran out of printed material, I scanned menus, warning signs, the nutritional information on the side of a box of cereal. Anything, just to keep reading. In grade school I read the entire upper-level Language Arts textbook, then filched one of the lower-level textbooks and read that, too. Reading led naturally to writing. Given time, pen, and paper—I came to fetishize my tools, even as a child desiring the fancy pen, an unusual pad of paper like the Big Chief with its red cover and its twin promises of “Extra Quality” and “Extra Size”—stories came forcefully, almost unbidden. I have always tried to remember to be grateful; from the beginning, I understood why the words “talent” and “gift” are used interchangeably.
As I would learn over the course of my long education, the self cannot be the beginning and end of a writer’s practice. Invention is only the first stage of writing. It’s a thrilling, troubling time, a lot like falling in love. The real work comes after, in revision, when the writer must dismantle their creation and reassemble it into better sense and greater beauty. All of the elements of literature must be given equal attention: voice, the distillation of the constant, nudging whisper in the writer’s mind; plot, the shaping of emotional nuance and its elevation to meaningful event; and setting, where what John Gardner called the “vivid and continuous dream” of fiction takes place. The home where I grew up, a white lannon stone house built by a school architect as a wedding gift for his daughter, is still the first place I see when I think the words “home” or “childhood.” But it’s not the only place.
My parents bought our summer home on Lake Wildwood (a planned community built around a manmade lake near Varna, Illinois) in September 1994. The previous owners had sold the house with its contents, so my sister and I were gifted a house ripe for exploration, like a choose-your-own-adventure book. Every opened drawer revealed some antiquated household implement or well-preserved board game. The cheerful patterns on the walls and linens had so long ago passed out of style that they had become fashionable again: wildflowers on a yellow background, a clutch of brown-and-white kittens lolling against a bucolic landscape, powder blue thistles. I remember sitting at the counter, watching hamburgers cook in an electric skillet my mother had found in a cabinet, thinking how strange it was that there was a cooking device I had never seen before. Since then, the Peoria area has been a landscape of dreams and mystery for me—a place where my commitment to my work is reinforced by the trees, lakes, and rivers, by the tiny truths and vast secrets that I must crack open in my work. Fiction teaches me that my own experiences had a value greater than their sum—that my daily world is only a fingernail of the universe, and that truths and secrets are everywhere, if I am only patient, if I trust my vision.
As I write this in Los Angeles, the calm of north central Illinois feels very far away. But writing can take me back there, just as it can transport me back to the backseat of the Saab in June 1995. Outside it’s a beautiful day, but I am inside, writing. In the next seventeen years of my life, I will learn that I have to write. It hurts if I don’t. Or, as the great Flannery O’Connor once wrote: “If you don’t hunt it down and kill it, it will hunt you down and kill you.”
Lisa Locascio’s work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Faultline, The Northwest Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and other magazines. She lives in Los Angeles, where she is a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California and Fiction Editor of Gold Line Press. Visit her online at www.lisalocascio.com.