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How a Cemetery Sparked My Career as a Writer

Monday, October 23, 2023

As a teenage mother, I found space to read and write in the most unlikely place

By Garnett Kilberg Cohen

It’s fitting that my fourth collection of short stories, Cravings, is being released on Halloween—not because it is a book of horror stories, or because Halloween plays a significant role in the book—but because Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays. It provides an opportunity to imagine myself as another person; I can invent a new character altogether. After all, isn’t that why we read and write fiction?

As a child, I enjoyed dressing as a fortune teller, perhaps because my favorite babysitter attended my grade-school Halloween party as one and pretended to tell us our futures. I wish I could remember what the babysitter predicted for me. Surely, she couldn’t predict that I would eventually become a writer, or that I would become a teenage mother.

Giving birth to my son a few days after my 18th birthday presented many challenges. I wondered how I’d be able to complete my education with little money and a child on my hip. My desire to write only intensified in the wake of that experience, but I struggled to find the mental and physical space to do it. Finding time was equally difficult, but even with time, where could I go? My cramped one-bedroom apartment wasn’t a viable option.

When my son was a toddler, we started to go on long walks; I’d push his stroller up a steep hill in our tiny village, at the top of which was a cemetery. The place was small, the graves seemed ancient, and it was surrounded with a low wrought iron fence and a gate that latched. I sat on the ground, my back against a tombstone, with either a notepad or a book in my lap while my son crawled over and among the graves, sometimes pulling himself up by a stone marker. We were locked in, so he couldn’t wander off, and there didn’t seem a way for him to hurt himself. Yes, there were headstones, but they were old and smooth, and the ground was springy grass. Despite the spooky overtones, it was someplace that felt safe and quiet—for both of us. I don’t recall exactly how many times I went there—whether four or forty—but the memory is indelibly etched in my brain. The smell and feel of the grass and the twigs, the surprising safety and freedom I felt. I remember the sense that being surrounded by so many ghosts would inspire me in some way.

As my son grew, I still struggled to find the perfect place to read and write. When he was five and I was attending college during the day, waitressing at night, I used the paper cocktail napkins to jot down images and ideas, along with bits of dialogue I overheard from customers. I remember leaning against the bar near the serving station as I wrote, the feel of my pen sinking into pliable material. At the end of the evening, I would fold those napkins into my pockets, along with my dollar tips, hoping to make something of my notes at a later time.

I often stayed up too late reading in my apartment, loving the cocoon of quiet, yet dreading how tired I would be the next day when my son woke early. My literary pursuits provided an escape from the challenges of my life, without actually leaving. When I read Beryl Markham’s West with the Night, there were moments when I felt like I was an airplane pilot in a two-seater, flying through the dark above the plains of Africa. When I wrote “Slow Dance” for Cravings, I enjoyed reliving a costume party (actually a composite of a few I had attended) and making up outfits for some of the characters.

I used the paper cocktail napkins to jot down images and ideas, along with bits of dialogue I overheard from customers. I remember leaning against the bar near the serving station as I wrote, the feel of my pen sinking into pliable material.

When I see young mothers today, I wonder if they still have the same difficulties that I faced, despite all the modern conveniences and additional resources that are now available to them. I also wonder if those who wait to have children at a more mature age will be better equipped to balance their own lives with raising their kids. My guess is that for any mother with young children, creating a space of one’s own will always be a struggle, no matter how advanced our society becomes.

My son is much older now, and, presently, I have more than enough space to read and write and can pretty much do either anywhere. Reading on the couch while my husband watches a football game is not a problem—the noise of the game doesn’t disturb me the way a needy child would. Yet, I am still always on the hunt for the perfect spot. I can’t enter a room without considering what would be the best place for a desk or a comfy chair.

I recently heard Dave Eggers speak, and he said that though he started out writing in a windowless garage, now that he has the means, he writes on a boat. I’ve heard that Alice Munro wrote at her kitchen table. A friend recently asked me what the perfect spot would be for me to read or write. I responded: in a chair next to an open window with a view of the sea and sailboats—like a Matisse painting.

In honor of Halloween this year, and the release of Cravings, I plan to visit my favorite cemetery, called Graceland, not far from my home in Chicago. Covering about 80 acres of park-like splendor, the cemetery is home to obelisks, mausoleums, and statues, marking the graves of both famous Chicagoans and ordinary people. The grave I am most drawn to is topped with a life-sized statue of a little girl encased in glass. She has long wavy hair, a ruffled skirt, and is perched on a chair with a parasol at her side. She seems to be staring off into the distance, with a faint smile on her face, maybe looking toward a future which never came.

On my trip to Graceland next week, I’ll take a book of Edith Wharton ghost stories to read, and I’ll bring a pad and a pencil to see what—or who—will inspire me.

Garnett Cohen is the author of Cravings (October 31, 2023; University of Wisconsin Press) and three previous collections of short stories. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker online, Rumpus, The Gettysburg Review, StoryQuarterly, The Antioch Review, and elsewhere, and she has been the recipient of many awards, including the Crazyhorse National Fiction Prize, and four Illinois Arts Council Awards, as well as two Notable Essay citations from Best American Essays. She taught creative writing at Columbia College Chicago for more than thirty years and now works as an author consultant. You can visit her online at garnettcohenauthor.com.