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Autobiography of a Decade

by Diane LeBlanc

 

I am a secretary in St. Paul, Minnesota. I make lists: key, memo, flowers. On Monday, I file catalogs. On Tuesday, I type for bilingual nuns. On Wednesday, Marion mops. On Thursday, Marion waxes. On Friday, Marion tells me she was raped twenty years ago. The locks were weak. I develop tight hips from sitting all day. I have no sick days. So I quit. I say goodbye and leave Marion behind.

My love and I drive East for Christmas. In Pennsylvania, the grape vines grow wild. A man in a raincoat is cutting the vines on Christmas Eve. I meet my love’s family. Days blur like that yellow raincoat in the rearview mirror.

After a cold winter and a late spring, we move further west. Our first house comes with asparagus in the yard, a crumbling shed papered by wasps, a Boston pencil sharpener in the basement, and a black rotary phone. We bring our old stereo and tune the receiver to Wyoming public radio. I buy new banjo strings. A breast hickey means we’re engaged. What is marriage? What is tenure? I sew cotton dresses and hang them to dry on a rope clothesline. My father dies. The shed roof collapses under the weight of snow. I fly east.

I knit my curriculum vitae like a practice scarf. Row 1: A bookstore reading. Such calming poems. Row 2: compositioncompositioncompositioncomposition. Turn and repeat. I write about zone 4 gardening and my mother. I vow never to be alone in bed. I am thirty, always thirsty, and yellowing at the edges like pole beans in a drought. I decide to marry. I feed my heart bone meal dust. The bulbs are more faithful than I am. My life is a list. I pass each review by naming categories in bold letters and never straying from the categories. No place for my body in this text.

My sister dies. I fly east again. I learn to cry into the recess of airplane windows.

I think I will never leave Wyoming. On winter afternoons I drive 30 miles to Centennial to ski alone. Trails disappear into early darkness. On weekends, I ski with friends. We stop for dinner at The Old Corral. The menu includes a side order special: potato, bread, and peas. Hold the steak. I give myself away. I’m not from here. Three different men try to teach me to line dance. Each one tells me to loosen my hips. I add their advice to a list of things I will never do.

 

Diane LeBlanc is a writer, teacher, and book artist with roots in Vermont, Wyoming, and Minnesota. She is the author of four poetry chapbooks and a full-length collection, The Feast Delayed (Terrapin Books, 2021). Poems, essays, and reviews appear in Bellingham Review, Cimarron Review, Green Mountains Review, Mid-American Review, Ruminate, Sweet Lit, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal, among others. Diane is a professor of writing at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Read more at www.dianeleblancwriter.com.

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Autobiography of a Decade”?

As a writer and a teacher, I use and assign writing prompts. “Autobiography of a Decade” began as an uncensored response to a prompt in Abigail Thomas’s Thinking About Memoir. The exercise is to reduce a decade of your life to two pages, written with three-word sentences. She notes that the constraints force writers to choose what to include and what to leave out. Focusing on a transitional time of my life between the ages of 27 and 37, I wrote without stopping to edit. I wanted the piece to be unselfconscious. Then I stuck it in my exercises folder and left it for a while. When I came back to it, the editing seemed obvious. I dropped the three-word sentence constraint, deleted a few cliches about cowboys, and made final edits to maintain the pragmatic voice of the draft. I was most surprised at how clearly the original beginning and ending marked an arc that felt literally and emotionally true.

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