When Your Hometown is Crammed With Aspiring Writers
Kathleen Donohoe Returns to Brooklyn and Discovers the Story She Was Meant to Tell
In most family pictures, I am standing with my two sisters, the middle daughter, the dark-haired one between two blondes. But in the Polaroid taken on my eighth birthday, October 27, 1980, I’m alone on the front porch of our house on Avenue J and East 32nd Street in Brooklyn, New York. In the picture, I’m wearing my new striped sweater and corduroy pants and my bangs are in my eyes. A crooked construction paper pumpkin is scotch-taped to the window. It’s the last photo taken of me before I became a writer.
Two weeks later, on a gold and blue November afternoon, I stood in our kitchen reaching for an apple and wondering what I should be when I grew up because my third-grade teacher at Our Lady Help of Christians had recently posed the question. She’d gotten angry when nobody said priest or nun.
Nurse, I’d lied. My mother worked in the ICU of the fortress-like Kings County Hospital, but I could not imagine doing so. Though my father and four uncles were firefighters, I could not have considered this, even if I’d been so inclined. Girls were not allowed in the FDNY (yet).
Then I thought, I’ll be an author. I’d always loved books. I would write them.
For a long time, I’d had a story in my head with a title and characters and a plot in perpetual revision. I could not believe I had never before thought of writing it down.
I dashed upstairs and found the Muppet stationery that I’d gotten for my birthday and had tossed aside as though it were a pair of socks. I took up a fresh pencil and began. A week later, I nearly quit in confusion because I could not translate the images in my head onto the page. But somehow, it did not matter that it had proved difficult. I’d already made up my mind: I would be a writer.
My maternal grandparents lived in Windsor Terrace. Both of them had grown up in Bed-Stuy, though in those days, Catholics titled their neighborhoods by the parish. Theirs was St. Ambrose. My grandfather worked for Brooklyn Union Gas, and my grandmother held a collection of secretarial jobs over the years.
When my sisters and I were very young, the highlight of visiting our grandparents was escaping the tropical heat of their apartment (no matter the season) and running up the block to Prospect Park. Today, that spot is called Vanderbilt Playground. There are two swing sets, sprinklers, and a geometric jungle gym. Then, there were a couple of structures to climb on that looked vaguely like sand-colored igloos. The one swing-less swing set looked like a forlorn archeological ruin.
Later, it was not the park but the chance to visit my grandfather’s typewriter that I looked forward to. The black Remington sat behind the door in their front room. The plastic cover crackled like fire as I removed it so I could place my fingertips in the grooves of each letter. The keys were so widely spaced that each letter seemed to be perched on its own throne. In the days before our first Commodore 64, I understood that the typewriter was to be my instrument.
Typing seemed like a magic trick I had to perfect, as if the stories I wanted to tell were inside and I only had to learn how to draw them out and snap them onto paper.
There was no bridge in Midwood. The way out was through the Junction, the place where Nostrand and Flatbush Avenues meet, where you caught the 2 or the 5 train into the city. “The city”—Manhattan was never called anything else.
Brooklyn College is in the Junction, a block from the subway. I only ever glimpsed it through the black gate: a swath of green lawn, precise concrete paths, a brick building whose frontispiece was a white bell tower capped with a gold dome. It was easy to imagine stepping on campus and the cacophony of voices and car horns and the wheeze of the trundling B44 bus simply ceasing.
When it came time for me to go to college, my high school guidance counselor suggested I apply there. It was an excellent school, and close. I am not, I recall thinking, going to college in the Junction. I’m getting out of here.
I had no idea, though, where I did want to live after college.
In my head, I carried an image of a cabin in the country, a vision of verdancy not based on any reality I’d ever known. Yet, I also imagined a nomadic kind of life, one of travel and adventure, of experience and writing. I had no way of reconciling this paradox of movement and stillness.
Firefighter. Nurse. Cop. Teacher. Sandhog. Construction. Sanitation. Cashier. Stay-at-home-mom. Librarian. Printer. Secretary in a school, a hospital, a law firm. While I was growing up, these were the jobs I knew. A job was held. A job could kill you. A job paid the bills. If a job was lost, another must be found. I did not know any writers. I did not know where writers actually lived, or that they had to do anything more than sell books to earn a living.
The latter was my only plan, as to where I would live, I only knew it would be somewhere else, some town or city I had not yet seen.
When I was 19, my parents moved to Long Island. After college, I lived there too, commuting to stultifying administrative jobs in the city while trying to write my second novel, never sure if I was Sisyphus or the rock. My first novel, finished six months after I graduated college, had not sold.
With no interest in teaching, I did not see the need for an MFA, or more specifically, the debt I would incur. It seemed rather like building your own jail cell and then hopping in, right after tossing the key out of reach. Yet, finally, desperate for time to write and to make connections, I applied to three schools and got into one.
On my first day of graduate school, I got out of bed and went to the window. The sight of pristine sky erased the slight depression I’d felt upon opening my eyes to the custard-colored walls of a dorm room. In a month, I would be 29 years old. In an hour was my first Fiction Workshop in the MFA program of Southampton College, Long Island University.
My time in the MFA program had yielded several short stories that would eventually be published, two best friends, and no degree, as the school went bankrupt before I finished my thesis.
And so, eleven years after I had sworn I would escape it, I moved back to Brooklyn, because that’s what writers did. Years earlier, I’d read an article in a magazine about how authors, unable to afford Manhattan, had begun moving to Park Slope “in droves” for the cheaper rent. As a result, a community had formed.
The image rose in my mind of the traffic circle at Grand Army Plaza, which was less than five minutes from Windsor Terrace and my grandparents’ apartment. Reading this, I felt like I’d given directions to somebody and then watched them take off in the opposite direction.
But I decided that if that’s where writers were going, then I must too. At that point, if I’d heard that writers were moving to Narnia, I would have started knocking on the backs of wardrobes.
I found a five-floor walk-up in Brooklyn Heights, a studio with no oven that was only bigger than a dorm room because of the short hallway and the bathroom. Thomas Wolfe once had an apartment in the building next door to mine (there’s a plaque).
I worked full-time as a receptionist at a staffing firm in the city, writing at night after work and on weekends. I told myself I needed to get out, to network, so that when I did finish the book I would have a community to turn to for advice, and possibly even some connections within the publishing industry. Online, I looked up readings and other literary events and wrote them in on a calendar. There was something I could have gone to nearly every night of the week.
But I did nothing. I told myself that it was because using the time to write was more important.
I finished my second novel and got an agent, but that book also did not sell.
I lived on Montague Terrace for three years, one year longer than Thomas Wolfe. During his time on the block, he wrote Of Time and the River and Only the Dead Know Brooklyn. Yet You Can’t Go Home Again is the title I often thought of when I turned on my tree-dark street, one block removed from the promenade with its view of the city. The phrase didn’t haunt me, though perhaps I haunted it. Because I had done exactly that. I’d returned to live in the epicenter of the literary community intending to become a part of it, but all I’d done was move back home.
So I went where I’d been afraid to go, both as a writer and even more so as a New Yorker and a member of a fire-family who did not lose anybody on September 11. I began writing about the women of a Brooklyn family of firefighters. Very quickly, it became about far more than that one day. The novel moves through time, both forward and backward, long before and long after 2001.
A Brooklyn native writing a novel about Brooklyn is, in most ways, like any writer setting a novel in her hometown, exploring its history and its pathos. But because most people know something of Brooklyn, the task is to approach the borough’s tropes freshly and meaningfully, to mine both its myths and what lies beneath them.
Brooklyn’s portrayals—whether in novels, films, or plays—will always focus predominantly on place, in the purely physical sense. When Brooklynites reminisce, for example, it’s often a recitation of “the neighborhood” as it used to be. Which family lived where. What every single store on the block once was. But Brooklyn is also very much about voice. And I don’t mean the accent, which can be a kind of trap. It’s too easy to make its syntax a stand-in, a shortcut, for blue collar.
I’ve never held strongly to the axiom, “write what you know.” In the context of advice, I think it can be both offered and received far too literally. I can say that as a writer who grew up in Brooklyn, I drew memories, family and neighborhood stories into my imagination, and turned them back as language.
Like the famine immigrants who arrived from Ireland in 1847 and moved to Manhattan’s Five Points, where they raised four children, the youngest of whom would move to Williamsburg in 1900. The great-grandmother who lost her two-year-old son to scarlet fever on St. Patrick’s morning, 1911 and another toddler son a year later to pneumonia. The grandmother who was a secretary in a cloistered convent on Fort Hamilton Parkway. The uncle who worked in Brownsville through the 1970s—known to the FDNY as the War Years—and tried his best to help the people who knocked on the door night and day seeking help for reasons that had nothing to do with fire. The girl I played softball with in grammar school who would grow up to marry a firefighter, only to lose him when she was barely two months pregnant with their daughter. Or the child typing on her grandfather’s Remington, dreaming of becoming a writer.