My father used to tell me bedtime stories when I was a young girl. Those moments were magical. And so, in graduate school, when I had the opportunity to take a class called Storytelling, I registered. As an elementary school teacher, I did not know where that would lead, but I ended up writing my thesis, The Power of Storytelling, based on my experiences in that class.
Then one thing just kind of led to another. I wanted to keep telling stories, so I signed up for a fiction class at Gotham Writers Workshop in NYC. I wrote my first story that semester, and my teacher told me I had talent. She suggested I apply to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, which I’d never heard of. But I got in and went. Soon after, my first short story was published in the South Dakota Review. Thinking that might be just a lucky break, I tried again. When my second story was accepted for publication, I tried writing a third. And it went like that. There was no one big dramatic moment when I decided I wanted to be a writer. In fact, it took some time for me to feel like I wasn’t a fraud. It took years and many publications for me to feel authentic when I called myself a writer.
There was no one big dramatic moment when I decided I wanted to be a writer. In fact, it took some time for me to feel like I wasn’t a fraud.
Over the next few years, I wrote the 12 stories that appear in my short story collection Life and Other Shortcomings. Launched on August 4, 2020, Life and Other Shortcomings is my first book-length publication. Each story was written as a standalone piece, but at some point, I realized these tales should be linked in one book, that the characters would know one another, and that together they fortified my messaging.
As a whole, the stories read as a cautionary tale, emboldening women to fight for a better future—one that makes room for women’s voices and empowerment. The stories are relatable, depicting a variety of relationships, marriage and divorce, and the everyday struggles of women. And since the stories span from 1970 to the present day, readers get a specific view into women’s lives from a historical perspective. Era and culture inform societal expectations—the range of opportunities and available choices—and these are exposed and considered in how women are viewed and treated, and ultimately, how they view and treat themselves. Life and Other Shortcomings addresses body-shaming, ageism, and infidelity. My female characters are faced with patriarchy in their families of origin, in their marriages, in religious circles, and in the medical community.
Women say they see themselves in my characters. Change can be difficult and uncomfortable, and so often, people resist. But through storytelling, readers can slip into the world of a character, inhabit the character’s thoughts and feelings, his or her underlying beliefs, and personal history. The bridge that connects a reader to a character builds empathy, and often as readers come to understand a character’s limitations and personal challenges, judgments just melt away.
While learning about others is a function of literature, what has been surprising and gratifying is that readers have learned about themselves through the perspective of my fictional characters. This has been one of the most rewarding experiences of writing this book. Sometimes it’s difficult to see in our own lives as certain bad behaviors are familiar and even expected. But we can see the “wrongness” from the perspective of another. Take for example this excerpt from my short story Dinner Conversation:
“Hi, Judy,” Dylan flirts. “Nice to meet you. We’ll have two bottles of Pellegrino for the table, and I’ll have a Glenrothes, neat.”
Judy takes our drink order, and Dylan looks at me. “You’re going to eat that?”
I slip the breadstick out of my mouth and scan the table to see who has heard this. I’ve gained weight, and it bothers Dylan that his wife is getting fat. I’m not sure how I feel about it. At first it was a surprise, but now I kind of like the extra weight. It makes me feel stronger, more grounded. But Dylan has no patience for fat. Fat, in his view, is a complete betrayal of a body, and it represents a person without discipline or self-respect. Pregnancy is no exception. And while I felt full and complete, voluptuous, and even beautiful as I carried my three children to term, I knew that Dylan couldn’t look at me.
Women have had a visceral reaction to this scene. It lands like a gut-punch. Seeing something through a different lens or conduit often softens the blow and makes self-analysis and introspection easier. In this way, writing has been a form of therapy for me as well.
I know someone who was upset by the decision one of my characters made. She was unaware that she was making the same choice. By taking herself out of the picture, she could see more clearly. Previously, no amount of talking, or therapy, could help her realize what she discovered and came to learn while reading. Knowing the character was making a mistake, she took a different path and made a life-changing decision.
Sometimes it’s difficult to see in our own lives as certain bad behaviors are familiar and even expected. But we can see the “wrongness” from the perspective of another.
In Drowning Girl, readers experience the anguish and anger of character dealing with aging:
I’m standing in front of the bathroom mirror, using a wet washcloth to scrub at a dark spot the size of a prune near my mouth, but it won’t come off. It’s my own fault. I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t think I had to because the doctor I went to was some kind of hot shot whose office was on the Upper East Side, just off Fifth Avenue. Oblivious, I reclined on her dermatologist chair, under a glaring and, now that I think about it, daunting light, telling her that she couldn’t buy the dress I was wearing because it was old and, anyway, I’d bought it in L.A. That’s when she shot me with Botox in my jaw when it should’ve been in my forehead.
“Hey, what was that?” I said.
“You’re going to love it. Trust me,” she said.
I paid her $1,200 and left.
A few pages later:
I know, I know—I’m supposed to embrace every stage of my life as if I were a magnificent caterpillar. I’m supposed to be grateful that I’m alive at all. But I have this urge to wear a sign, to scream from rooftops—
I WAS ONCE YOUNG AND PRETTY. THIS, WHO YOU SEE NOW, IS NOT ME.
You don’t get empathy for that. In fact, you get shamed for not being appreciative of every blessed stage of your glorious life. But something huge is gone. Lost forever. We should be allowed to grieve.
As empathy and understanding build for a character, a woman may come to accept certain aspects about herself— places buried inside of her where she has pain or has been stuck, feelings she may not have been aware of. In turn, she may be more inclined to change, especially after reading and having the opportunity to see she is most definitely not alone.
And most satisfyingly, the stories have turned out to be springboards for important conversations. Blind Man’s Bluff is a story in the book that deals with domestic violence, and that is a topic I’d like to explore more in the future. Sometimes damage happens in the home, the very place that should be nurturing and safe. It is heartbreaking and awareness, shining a light on the darkness, is the first step before change can occur.
In the late afternoon, we watch The Brady Bunch, our favorite show, and return to the kitchen for a snack. There are warm cookies on a tray and Willow’s mother, tall and blonde, serves them to us at the table. She walks to the other end of the kitchen, and I pay attention to the sound her slip-on heels make as they hit the tile floor. She is wearing skintight black leggings and a short top that ties in the back. Positioned behind the sink on the windowsill there is a radio, and she turns it on. Soft music plays in the background, and she reaches for her pack of cigarettes and her lighter. She lights up, throwing her head back before she exhales. She places the cigarette on the edge of the white Formica counter, and I watch as it burns. She dices onions on a cutting board, stopping every few seconds to lift her cigarette to her mouth, allowing the ash to grow, becoming impossibly long, and hanging, threatening col- lapse. I’m certain the ash will fall when she runs the water and puts the cigarette out in the sink. She moves back to the cutting board and continues to chop. Tears collect in the corners of her eyes, and she uses the back of her hand to wipe them as they cascade down her cheek. She leans and stirs what simmers on the stove.
“Does that hurt?” I ask.
She picks her head up and looks at me.
“Does what hurt?”
She laughs, “I’m not crying.”
Running a finger along the knife, she detaches stuck onions and moves the cutting board away, to the other end of the counter.
“The onions burn my eyes, that’s all.”
Just then, Mr. Johnson, Willow’s father, appears in the kitchen. He shuts off the radio and stands next to his wife. “What’s for dinner?”
“Soup,” Willow’s mother answers.
“I can see it’s soup. What kind of soup?”
Willow’s mother stops stirring and she rests the spoon on the counter. She covers the pot with its lid and relocates herself away from the stove.
“Pea soup,” she answers gently as she glances at us and smiles.
The stories in Life and Other Shortcomings certainly address the struggles and challenges that women have faced over the last four decades, but the stories also celebrate the wins—the moments when women stand up for themselves, create change, and step into their power.
WRITTEN BYCorie Adjmi