E.B. (Barb) Johnson has been a carpenter in New Orleans for over twenty years. Recently, she began work on an MFA in fiction writing, and her stories have been finalists or runners-up in several national competitions. This is her first national first place as well as her first national publication.
Life, Beauty and Art
This is a great time of transition in my life. I initiated some of the change before the hurricane, and some of the change—most of it—the hurricane initiated for me. I have been a carpenter for almost thirty years, and my workshop was in Mid-City. The shop got water all the way up to the ceiling, and every single tool and piece of salvaged architecture I had in that place, all of it was completely ruined. The year before the hurricane, I'd decided that I'd enroll in an MFA program if they'd have me, and luckily, they would and they did. For that whole year before the storm, I went back and forth about whether I should and how I should get out of the carpentry business. The storm made that decision for me.
I was back at zero in my business, and still on the starting blocks with my writing. The University of New Orleans, where I'm in the MFA program—The Creative Writing Workshop—was back at zero, too. It was heavily damaged, and we were all spread out around the country. Then something very amazing began to happen. Even though our cell phones didn't work, even though the university's server was ruined and our university email accounts rendered useless, one person found another, and that one led to another, and pretty soon—a little over a month after the storm—that entire university had risen up and recreated itself online, the first and only university to resume classes that semester. The Creative Writing Workshop at U.N.O. is a very tight-knit group, whose familiarity with the creation loop that begins with necessity and ends with invention turned out to be the key to creating and functioning in that online class.
When the storm hit, I was worried about losing momentum with my writing. After all, what was a cloudy thing like writing next to the exigencies of post-disaster life? If I wasn't sure before, I became sure then: writing is necessary to my sanity. Carpentry was satisfying for all the same reasons that writing is. You start with an idea. In the morning, there's nothing, but by the end of the day: there it is. The thing that was only an idea before is right there in front of you. My carpentry workshop was gone, but my writing workshop came in and took its place. That online workshop provided focus for me in a time when it was very difficult to focus. On anything. The community of it was what we were all after because community mitigates the loneliness of writing. And it certainly mitigated the loneliness of that empty city. Reading my classmates' works, knowing they were as mentally challenged as I was at that time, but still chose to forge ahead, gave me great hope for the whole enterprise. Art is necessary for a happy life. And I wrote and wrote in anticipation of the time when I could begin sending out my work.
I worked on "Killer Heart" mostly at night, outside, under a mosquito net, while wearing a headlamp because there was no electricity, and it was too hot to be inside. There was no one anywhere. The whole neighborhood was dark and empty. Except for the stink and the heat and the mosquitoes, it was beautiful at night. Like being out in the country. The darkness provided a relief from the visual assault that went with life in the daylight. Black hawk helicopters and big fat jets, flying below radar, circled the city day and night. Every evening the National Guard drove by in what they called their "heavily armed golf carts," actual golf carts put in service for patrols. These were young guys still in their teens carrying AK-47's. Every day, they'd say the same thing when they saw me. "Ma'am," they'd say, "you can't be here. This neighborhood has not been OK'd for occupancy." And I'd say, "Yes, I know." Then they'd wave and drive off, and I'd go back to writing. Out on my balcony, my survival hinged on three things: my laptop, that headlamp and a wind-up radio, my only contact with the outside world.
"Killer Heart" is set in a section of town, Uptown, that didn't go under water. I couldn't imagine my own neighborhood, Mid-City, any other way than the way it was at that time: empty, stinking, everything dead. My imagination didn't want to think about that, though, and as sad as "Killer Heart" is, I will always remember it as providing me with a happy picture of the city I love, as it was before the storm, something that was absolutely necessary to my sanity. We are all hungry here for anything normal, and while winning a contest and getting published in a national magazine for the first time is definitely not normal, writing and sending out stories is. Writing allowed me to live in the city of the story, while my body was busy elsewhere, and that, frankly, is pretty normal for me.
I've been building websites lately, and magazines. Here are the URLs for the best writing program in the country and the national literary magazine that the program puts together.
The Creative Writing Workshop at U.N.O. www.cola.uno.edu/cww
Bayou Magazine is http://cola.uno.edu/cww/bayou/
Glimmer Train has been discovering, publishing, and paying emerging writers since 1990.
One of the most respected short-story journals in print, Glimmer Train is represented in recent editions of the Pushcart Prize,
Every story published in Glimmer Train is unsolicited.
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