Lie, Lie, Lie
How I Wrote
The School of
Beauty and Charm

Melanie Summer
(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)
For one year, I sat at a great polished sea of a desk and wrote one sentence, over and over and over again. I had published my first book, Polite Society, and this next sentence had to be perfect. Sometimes I wrote it one way, sometimes another, and often I read it to people and was hurt when they didn't clap. While this was going on, my mother read every Oprah pick, looking for pointers.

Then we headed out west, and I lost the sentence, or sold it, or gave it to the Salvation Army. While we were staying in a shotgun apartment in Butte, Montana, I began to write again. In our neighborhood, guns went off with such regularity that the Fourth of July was anticlimactic. Our upstairs neighbors, a chubby rent-a-cop and his little brother, kept dropping something that sounded like a bowling ball on the floor. When I complained, they confessed that it was a bowling ball. My pink underwear was stolen off the line in the backyard, the chimes were snitched from the front porch, and our dog was raped.

I wrote in Magic Marker, on a roll of wallpaper. I had a good time. I wasn't writing about the famous Copper King or the intricate maze of mines connecting the Chinese restaurant to the whorehouse to the fire station. I didn't even sketch a tall Cheyenne named Frank who walked soundlessly and had a tear-shaped scar on his cheek. "A friend of mine shot me in the head," he told me. Later, when he was sitting on our front porch, where the chairs used to be, he confessed that he had shot himself, behind our house, because he was an Indian.

In that hot noisy shotgun apartment, with a fistful of Magic Markers, I wrote about my own childhood in Rome, Georgia. I didn't know if I was writing a short story or a novel, but I knew I was happier than I had been writing that one perfect sentence in my quiet condo back east. It took three years to write The School of Beauty and Charm. Several times I thought I was finished, and several times I rewrote the whole thing. Our baby became a talking, tottering person, our money ran out, and my thirty-seven-year-old husband was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. People began asking if I was writing the same book. With relief, I sold the thing to Shannon and Algonquin.

So then, of course, I had to let my parents see what I'd written. When my mother read chapter 6, about my heroine's makeover in Atlanta, she cried. She always cries the first time she reads a new piece, and not from joy. She thinks I'm mean. My father knows I'm mean, so he doesn't read anything I write except my name in print --- which he praises up and down.

"What's wrong with it?" I asked Mom.

"Nothing" she said, sniffling. "I didn't know you felt that way about your makeover."

"It's fiction," I said lamely.

"Humph," she said and cried some more.

I felt mean. Writers are jackals, hyenas, asses even. We steal everything but TVs. Then we lie about it. Lie, lie, lie, just to make ourselves look good and make everybody else look horrible. No wonder most of us are so poor. Who wants to pay a snake in the grass? Someone should have shot me the first day I picked up a pen.

"I thought I showed how much I love you," I said. "I was trying to."

"Humph!" she said.

I told her I was sorry. She turned her head so as not to have to look at me.

"Well," I said, "most people don't like to see themselves in stories, but they get really mad if they're left out."

When she didn't ask to be left out, I took heart. After the initial cry, my mother loves my books. She makes sure that they are stocked in every bookstore and library in my hometown, and she's not too shy to call the publisher and see what the holdup is all about.

Since my father doesn't read my work, she tells him the latest fictional name I've given him and then calls him that for a year. My father would be satisfied if I could pay my own rent, but my mother wants me to be famous.

She wanted me to be famous when she took me to that fancy salon in Atlanta in 1984. She wanted me to look good so people would look at me, and maybe even love me. She wanted me to hold my head up, hold it up high and proud, and maybe even love myself. But after the makeover, looking in the mirror and not recognizing myself was terrifying.

Some people who read the title of the book may think it's about hairdressing school. It's not. It's about beauty --- or conforming to a pattern for recognition --- and charm --- or breaking that pattern. Ultimately, this question of visibility twines around until it becomes Who do you want to recognize you? In romantic literature, it's Prince Charming. In my stories, it's God. And my mother. And, okay, Oprah.

--- Reprinted from
The Algonkian
#14, Fall 2001

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