Tag Archives: Creative Nonfiction

The Struggle of Writing About Family

By Jessica Marinaro

When we write something about ourselves we open up the world to our life. While that can be a liberating experience, it is also littered with roadblocks. One such roadblock that many creative nonfiction writers deal with regularly is the struggle to write essays about family that are genuine to your own experience. Writing about family members is never easy, and more than one problem tends to arise when writers consider including their family members into their narratives. Continue reading

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Approaching Creative Nonfiction

Posted by Alison DiCesare, Creative Non-Fiction Head for Issue 10.1

When I began my studies in creative writing, I had a solid grasp on fiction and poetry as genres with specific rules and expectations – I had never heard of creative nonfiction. I had heard of memoirs, of course, and academic essays, but it had never occurred to me that nonfiction could really be creative. Since then, it has become one of my favorite genres to work with, and I understand that it has limitless possibilities. I know many fellow writers, especially students, also aren’t familiar with the genre, so I’m going to attempt here to introduce you to the possibilities of creative nonfiction as well as give you some tips on how to approach writing it yourself. Continue reading

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The Art of the Experience: Considering Daniel Fleischman’s “Metropolis”


Posted by David Beyea, CNF Reader for 8.1

It seems odd to refer to a piece as being a clear love letter to the art of literary form. Isn’t that just a pompous way of saying that it is well-written? Perhaps not. In this issue of Gandy Dancer, Daniel Fleischman’s nonfiction short story “Metropolis” details the experiences of the author as he grew to accept life in New York City.

Certainly others have written of the city before, but there is a magnetism and finesse to Fleischman’s craft that elevates it from mere travelogue erotica. His pen is cast across the page with an unabashed exuberance; he frequently dips into descriptive prose and ruminates on not just the situations he finds himself in, but on the nature of civilization’s anthills. What does a city mean? It’s not really a question I ever considered, nor one that Fleischman explicitly answers. Unlike many authors describing a location, he does not attempt to solve the city, to have each element of it associated with some strong conclusion on the nature of life. Instead, he paints it. Continue reading

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Renee Grasso

Dirty Spoons

My mom tapped on the door and cautiously stuck her head inside my room. The sound was so familiar, so delicate I couldn’t tell if I was dreaming. As she softly crept toward me, I became aware of her yoga pants and V-neck T-shirt and realized I was awake. I wasn’t in my dorm at school, startled by my roommate’s alarm. I was at home.

Mom perched on the side of my bed and touched my back. “How are the sheets?” It was a cool September in Queens, and the Grasso household had already made the leap from regular summer sheets to winter flannel sheets; they were unbelievably comfy.

“Good.” My mouth parted slightly.

“Good.” My mom smiled. “It’s already noon. I was letting you catch up on sleep, but you have to come hang out with your family at some point. You only get four days with us before you go back to school, you know.”

I nodded. “I’ll come down. Is there coffee?”

“I made a pot, but there’s not much left. Come down and get some before Dad and Charlotte drink it all.”

I shook my head into my pillow. “Okay.”

Mom leaned down to pick up a shirt from the floor. She took in my room as she folded it and drifted towards my suitcase.

“Don’t worry about that, Mom, I’ll do it. I just didn’t get a chance to unpack last night.”

“Oh no, it’s fine. Hey, did you see that? I hung up Charlotte’s painting. I put it over that poster you had, but I didn’t think you’d mind.”

I looked at the wall across from my bed to see a Jackson Pollock-style painting that my sister made when she was in high school. I smiled politely.


Mom finally slipped out after one more strict warning to get out of bed. I blankly fixated on the messy streaks of yellow and purple paint and began getting dizzy. I didn’t dislike the painting, and I didn’t even mind it covering my three-year-old Nicki Minaj poster. I just didn’t like that my mom was messing with my room when I was gone. What’s the point? My room had been exactly the same since I was nine years old, and I didn’t mind it. Of course, I’d changed some things: I took down some Jonas Brothers posters, replaced some pictures of old friends with new friends, and vacuumed occasionally. For the most part, I didn’t mind if it didn’t grow with me. God knows I changed too much in the past month for my room to keep up, anyway.

I sat up in bed and thought about the millions of mornings that had come before, some almost exactly alike. Rushing to school mornings, rushing to church mornings, Sunday pancake mornings, Christmas mornings, but no morning had been quite like this one: my first morning home from college.

“Renee! You better not still be sleeping. Spend time with your mother!”

“And your sister!” Charlotte yelled from her room next door.

I rolled my eyes and jumped out of bed.

Perhaps the best way to explain my family is to describe the little spoon shortage phenomenon. Here’s how it would happen: each family member got up in the morning, made a cup of coffee, and grabbed a little spoon to stir their milk and sugar. Finally, they went to set the dirty spoon beside the sink, only to find, to their grave disappointment, that the previous family member had left their coffee spoon in the same spot. By the time I woke up, there would be three lightly used spoons laying in a row, each with a small pool of coffee resting on its neck. My dad would usually patrol the travesty, tensely reminding me, “Kid, you don’t have to use a new spoon.”

In a house that loves coffee and hates waste, the little spoon shortage was no small issue. Our morning and afternoon coffee rituals could wipe out our little spoon supply merely twenty-four hours after running the dishwasher. As soon as my mom began noticing this trend, she nipped it in the bud. “Save the little spoons” became a new mantra for her, not unlike the way that PETA urges us to save the whales. Mom advocated for those spoons as fiercely as she did for any other abused kitchen supplies in her home. As we lounged on the couch in the TV room, Charlotte and I would hear her lamenting from the dining room: “One…two…three…four plastic cups on the table! Rinse them or throw them out. If you were just drinking water, then it’s fine to just rinse them. It’s not as gross as Charlotte thinks.” I’d also hear: “Renee, how many times do I have to tell you? Spatulas, this drawer under the sink. It’s like you haven’t lived here for 18 years.”

Now Mom announces: “Everyone, when you make a cup of coffee, use my spoon. I’m going to leave it by the sink, and I’m always the first one up in the morning, so it’ll always be there. Eight spoons a day for coffee is just… ridiculous.” She said these things again and again, until the kitchen felt like a minefield, with your next potential misstep lurking in every corner.

The only sin worse than forgetting to use Mom’s coffee spoon in the morning was failing to notice that she made a pot of coffee for the family and making your own cup in the Keurig. This heinous, unforgivable crime was exactly what I did on my first morning home from college. In my groggy state, I nodded to Mom, who cheerily said “She’s risen!” without looking up from The New York Times on her iPad. I made a beeline for the Keurig. It wasn’t until she heard the distinctive whirring of the coffee grounds that her head snapped up. “Renee, I told you there’s a pot of coffee.”

“Oh, too late. I’m sorry.” I couldn’t conjure up my usual level of sympathy for committing one of her kitchen offenses. It was the first time in two months that I was sharing a space with someone over the age of eighteen.

She forgave me instantly. “It’s fine. More for me.” She was letting me off easy even though I was up to at least strike three by now—sleeping late, leaving clothes on the floor, and ignoring the pot of coffee. I realized with a pang that she missed me. At the very least, I should’ve gotten a passive-aggressive glare by now. But all she said was, “Hey, since you’re not gonna take the rest, can you pour me another cup?”

She’d only drink coffee out of her favorite mug: tall, ceramic and covered with pink dots. Of course, she’d already put it in the sink right after her first cup. I inspected the mug for any dirty dish residue, ran some warm water over it, and pivoted to grab a dish towel. Suddenly, I paused, overcome with guilt. Mom kept everything in immaculate form. Clothes folded, dishes stacked away, and every spoon used to its full potential. At school, running water could suffice for doing dishes, but at home it felt like I had spit in my mother’s breakfast. I grabbed the dish soap and a sponge. Right as my coffee finished filtering out of the Keurig, my sister came bounding down the stairs.

“Look who’s finally awake. Why’d you make a cup of coffee when there’s a pot? You always do that.” Charlotte wasted no time in making a few cutting but amiable remarks. She skipped across the kitchen with open arms, and I cringed in anticipation. “I’m so glad you’re home! Oh my god, relax, Renee. Do you hate me or something?”

“I just don’t like being squeezed in the morning,” I said, trying to keep my voice light. Still, Charlotte’s joking accusation felt more accurate than my weak protest. What was different? Why was I happy to see her, but couldn’t hug her? Maybe this had something to do with that sinking feeling I had for the entire bus ride home, or maybe my family should just know better than to ask so much of me before my cup of coffee.

“Renee, just because you’re this cool college student now doesn’t mean that you can…” Mom trailed off. “I don’t know where I was going with that.” She shrugged coyly and sipped her coffee.

Charlotte snorted and picked up where Mom left off. “Back when I was a college student, I… oh, never mind.” She mimicked a pompous grad reflecting on her glory days. In reality, she graduated only three months ago, and I suspected that she didn’t miss it at all. Charlotte didn’t like doing her own laundry or eating alone, which I considered simple pleasures. She’d gotten tired of going out by her second semester. “I don’t want to bore you with my stories. Tell us some of yours!”

I laughed as I unwrapped a Thomas English muffin. I was never a huge fan of English muffins, but two months without a toaster in my room had made me crave their simple, familiar crunch. “I call you guys every day. I don’t have any stories to tell you.”

Sure,” Charlotte intoned. Mom’s face had turned cautious. Why was Charlotte pursuing this? She knew that when it came to drinking, smoking, and other foul behaviors, our parents’ policy was “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I realized that I was so preoccupied with my new college persona that I may have overlooked how other family dynamics had changed, too. Since moving back home for law school, Charlotte had transformed into an adult who would be making a steady income soon, no longer my trendy twenty-something sister. She stopped answering my texts once it hit midnight, because she was already asleep. Every morning, even on the weekends, she was up at the crack of dawn studying. When I told her drunk and high antics that I thought she’d find funny, her laugh sounded more nervous than amused.

I looked at Charlotte sitting at the counter now, her dark hair falling in her face as she read The New York Times on her iPad, just like Mom. I wondered if she’d still want to watch stupid Lifetime movies and go on “spy missions” with me when she became a big-shot lawyer. Charlotte had always toed the line between being my friend and my second mother, but one important difference between Mom and Charlotte was that Charlotte watched my Snapchat stories. She’d never snitch on me, however, she could do a mean guilt trip if she was in the right mood.

But what am I even guilty of? I wondered. I thought about how my mom lectured me continuously the summer before I moved out. “Don’t drink hard liquor, Renee. If I get a call that you’re getting your stomach pumped and you’re four hours away from me, I swear.” My mother clearly didn’t know the simple mechanics of a college pregame, of course we drank hard liquor. It’s cheaper than beer and doesn’t make you bloated. Besides, it makes all the guys look a lot cuter. I knew from my aunt’s stories that my mom drank plenty when she was my age, so what’s the deal with the guilt trip?

I felt frustrated that she didn’t trust me, but I also reminded myself to stand in her shoes, watching me walk away to college. Was there really any way for her to know if I’d make all the right decisions? Parenting is like taking a lifelong test that you can’t study for and you never really get your grade on. My sympathy for her and my itch for independence took up two halves of my brain, like the two different people I was at my two different homes.

I brainstormed some PG-13 stories I could tell to satisfy my audience. “Hmm. Well, this is kind of funny. My TA for Business Ethics handed back my paper with literally no criticism. He just wrote ‘Idk what to tell you to improve, I honestly wish I could write like this.’ And, like, this is the person who’s supposed to help me with these papers!”

They both laughed. Charlotte shook her head, “Genius problems! Prep’s English teachers prepared you well.” I missed being able to brag. If I told my friends that story, they’d just call me a smart ass.

Mom was never impressed—meaning, she was never surprised by either of our accomplishments. She was only incredulous, “How much older is he? What qualifies him to grade your papers, when you’re obviously a better writer?”

Whenever I told Mom a story, she always went a little too far and I’d end up defending my antagonist. “He’s a year older and took the class last year. He’s really helpful with other parts of the class, he just doesn’t have much constructive criticism.”

I’d almost forgot about my English muffin. I ran to the toaster oven and twisted the knob until it dinged.

“Did it burn?” Mom asked.

“Nope, I got it.” I looked in and grinned at the golden-brown complexion.

“Does the little baby need help getting it out?” Charlotte mocked.

I used to be too nervous to reach into the toaster because I burned my hand when I was younger. I was so excited to reach in to get my Pop-Tart that my hand clattered against the toaster oven’s red-hot roof. I was fine but began asking Mom or Dad to do it for me whenever they were around. Charlotte eventually teased me enough that I gathered up the courage to retrieve my own English muffins and bagels. In fact, Charlotte’s teasing helped me shed a lot of my childish tendencies. Still, it was annoying.

The bathroom door swung open and my dadwas he in there the whole time?looked genuinely surprised to see me, as if he hadn’t picked me up from the bus station last night, “Oh, hey kid.”

Don’t say anything about the coffee pot, I willed.

He pointed to the fruit bowl behind me, “There’s one banana left, I can share it with you if you want.” Even worse. Mom and Charlotte snickered.

“Stop being such a fruit pusher!” I said on script. “I know where the bananas are, you don’t need to make a public service announcement about them.”

Dad hung his head and hid a smirk while Charlotte dove into the specific issues with banana sharing, “You can never really split it evenly because it’s such a weird shape. Only one person can use the peel, so the other person’s hands get all sticky. And…”

“Yeah James, and why are you always trying to share a banana? It’s not an ideal food for sharing!” Mom’s joking, incredulous tone toward my dad sounded indistinguishable from her angry voice. Sometimes, when I would hear it from my room upstairs, I’d have to press my ear to the door to see if she and Dad were actually fighting or not.

“Alright, alright, enough!” Dad pretended to look insulted and turned accusingly to me. “Renee, I thought you’d finally be on my side when you came home.”

Never one to miss her cue, Mom jumped in, “Why would you think that?” She rolled her eyes towards me. “When we make fun of him while you’re at school, he talks to your graduation picture and says he wishes you were here.”

I laughed at the image of my Dad begging my picture for help and followed his eyes to the frame hanging behind Mom. It’s one of my best pictures, with true, honest eyes and long, flat-ironed hair from before I chopped it all off last summer. My prom and graduation pictures looked great too, but behind those smiles I wasn’t too happy. High school was just uncomfortable. I was always shifting between friend groups, always running to band practice, and always wondering what was wrong with me. I smiled, thinking of my friends at college. We chilled in each other’s rooms, sometimes stressing about homework and guys, but mostly laughing and talking. It felt stable without feeling too high-stakes. It was disorienting that my family preserved the old version of me on this wall, while I grew and lived my new life 200 miles away.

“Yeah, kid, we miss you when you’re gone.” I snapped out of my reminiscing and watched my dad as he walked with the slightest limp across the kitchen. Out of all of my family members, I talked to Dad the least while I was at school. Whenever I did call Dad, his end of the phone call was almost always something like this: “Watch the Yankees lately? No? Oh, okay. You have class today? How are your professors? Awesome. Yes, Nanny and Grandpa are fine. Okay, kid, I’ve gotta go. Talk to you soon.” He never really inquired what I did with my time other than whether I watched Yankees. Maybe he didn’t want to know.

I glanced at my phone. iMessage from Julia: “So bored at home bro.” I thought about what to type back for a moment, then settle on, “yeah it’s weird. Miss you <3.”

“Wow, only home a few hours and she’s already telling her friends how lame her family is,” Mom said. I looked up at her with a start, and her face fell when she realized she may have been right.

“No, I’m happy to be home. I needed a break.” But home didn’t feel like I had expected it to, and I couldn’t pinpoint why. My first month at college had felt like nothing but firsts, and I didn’t mind it. Now that I was home, I wanted to be wrapped up in some comfort and familiarity.

Of course, things had changed without me. I expected that. I didn’t expect that I would feel physically dizzy balancing how I’ve changed with how my home has changed. I sat at the counter, drinking my coffee, and just kept noticing different ways that the house had shifted in my absence; like how our wooden paper towel roll had been replaced with a stainless steel one. Or that we just always kept a tablecloth on the table now, even when it wasn’t a holiday. I didn’t even miss home when I was gone, but it strangely hurt to be excluded from these changes.

I had to come home to feel homesick, I thought. I felt like Charlotte’s Jackson Pollock painting: two distinctly different colors, smeared together on one canvas. I’d told Mom I was happy to take a break, but was that true? Being home was bringing up so many complicated feelings that I didn’t know which life I needed a break from anymore, or which one was honestly mine.

Home was a break from my roommate, whose presence was often a looming, isolated silence. Home was a break from stress, since being on a campus sometimes felt like license to be productive or social 24/7. But, mostly, home felt like a startling break from the new me. Home was a break from hungover breakfasts, when we congregated at the College-in-the-Woods dining hall at about 10 a.m., and would usually still be laughing and recapping the previous night when lunch was served at 12 p.m.

There wasn’t much reason to loiter after breakfast in the Grasso house. Dad gravitated to the living room to watch CNN and Charlotte asked me if I wanted to go to CVS with her to pick up her prescription. Mom began listing things we had to pack before I returned to school on Sunday.

I rose from the counter and walked to the sink. I washed my spoon.

A few months later, I’m home for winter break. I’ve changed my mind about my major ten times, I’ve laid naked below a Pink Floyd poster of six naked women; I’ve had bad trips, great quesadillas, and final exams.

Mom and I are driving to the mall to do some last-minute Christmas shopping. She turns to me and smiles, “Glad you’re home, honey.”

“Me too.” I try to think of a way to phrase the question burning at the back of my throat. I hold back for a moment, and then I just say it, “Do you think I’ve changed?”

Without a moment of hesitation, Mom says, “No.”

“Really?” My insulted tone catches me off guard.

“Yes. Do you think you did?” She’s still watching the road, but I feel her eyes on me.

“I don’t know. I guess not.”

Renee Grasso is a sophomore at Binghamton University majoring in finance. In her free time, she likes to read novels, re-watch Jane the Virgin, and attempt to run on the treadmill for more than ten minutes. She is from Queens, New York.

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Daniel Fleischman


Metro; Mother. Polis; City. From the Greek. Cities have mass. Concrete a thousand feet skyward weighs down on onlookers and inhabitants, stalwart against updrafts and the disbelief in tourists’ crooked necks. The heights of human civilization. Metropolis—a culmination of geography we carry on hunched shoulders.

By all accounts, New York City is crowded. Bridges crowd, buildings crowd, people crowd. I crowd around a stage with strangers. My mother sits to my left, holding my hand with the soft palm of hers. Her hand is warm compared to the cool wood armrest under my five-year-old hand. My eyes bound between a golden yellow dress and a rose in a glass case. Song mixes with the faint perfume my mother always mists for rare occasions. The scent is inseparable from the concentric teardrops of her rose gold necklace she adorns above her maroon blouse. The lighting from the stage draws amber streaks out of the light brown curls that frame her round face. Her smile is slight, content. I smile, too. The Beast dances with Belle, lamenting their plights, and I feel the weight of the city for the first time: below the architecture, below the culture, below the skyline, I catch glimpses of our home thirty miles north. My earliest memory of the city.

“Where’d you get all these stamps, Mom?” This world is quieter, less exaggerated.

“I’ve just collected them over the years.” A few hundred stamps spread across our dining room table, the ones you press into ink to replicate a little design. I love the dragonfly one. The smooth hourglass of the wooden handle contours into my palm. We’re under the warm light of the dining room table chandelier. There are other markers, crayons, and paints scattered around like a technicolor hurricane. I eye the markers with the little shapes instead of tips; a flourish of tiny green dog paws is my signature; its good enough for a seven-year-old. We’re making cards for something, someone. Newspapers underlay the messier activities. I clutch the dragonfly stamp.

“You’ve got to push down really hard, so it gets enough ink,” Mom says, opening the ink pad’s plastic case for me. I do as I’m told. I put as much effort as I can into the stamp. Drops of ink form on either side.

“Like this?” I ask between strained grimaces.

“Maybe a little too hard.” Mom puts her hand on mine and lifts it up off the pad a little. Her hands are soft and clean. My hands are a mess of green marker, blue paint, and a ladybug my mother stamped on earlier. She puts her focus back into her paintbrush, the kind with a little sponge at the end. I want to be like my mother, engaged in the creation of something. I put my hand over a scrap of forest green construction paper and stamp the dragonfly, testing it out a few times. I put one on my card.

There’s innocence here in the suburbs. Expanses of nuclear families holed up in their hollows. There’s no expectation of appearances in a shadow—no real history or culture to behold. But it feels less developed, as if the achievements of mankind suddenly stop where the Hudson meets the Harlem River. All one can do is live. But there are hints, hints brought back by suit-and-tied commuters and family day trips, allowing culture to leach out from population centers—where mothers take sons to see musicals and to dream a bit bigger than their bedroom walls.

For every center, for every polis, there is a periphery eternally in the wings. It’s called Suburbia. To be sub, below, the urban, the city. From the Latin. Like subterranean subway cars. New York City exerts a pressure of wonder in tow behind the smog. We always ride the train into and back out of the city. Metro North goes right through Croton-Harmon station, a two-minute car ride from our home up on the steep eastern slope of the Hudson Valley. I always think the train station looks like a spider with broken legs, zig-zagged and straddling above the railways. Rail lines spread like a spider’s web across the tri-state area, the metropolitan area, radiating out from the center.

They’re habitual: the train rides. My mother doesn’t like to ride backwards for the hour on the train. She gets nauseous, but New York City is there, so we go. I watch the Hudson River fly by between cattails, graffitied tunnels, and rocky shores. The Tappan Zee, the old rusted, steel one since demolished (the new one is futuristic and grand, straightedge), flies over head. It’s the same path I’ve travelled since I was five, the same sticky plastic upholstery of Metro North seats. Mother North, that’s funny, just like my mother who nods off next to me as we rumble toward Grand Central once again.

“I love you, Sweetie,” whispers the wall.

“Oh my gosh! I can hear you!” I say back to the beige tiles. My mother is twenty or so feet away, facing a corner, back turned to me. I’m doing the same, back turned to her. In the dining concourse of Grand Central Terminal, there’s an intersection between the foot ramp up to Forty-Second Street and the entrance to the Oyster Bar. The domed ceiling carries words from corner to opposite corner, privacy from the line of other tourists waiting their turn. The secret of the architecture is a miracle to a ten-year-old.

“They have a table inside. Let’s go eat,” my mother says to the wall, referring to our large group of neighbors taking an excursion into the city.

“But I don’t like seafood.”

“I know. They’ll have something else,” she reassures me. I leave my corner and we walk in together. It’s dimly lit, and the air is heavy, stagnant. I look at the tank full of rubber-banded lobsters and pinch my nose.

“It smells like fish in here.”

“You’ll get used to it,” my mother says, not giving in to my whines as she drags me along by my wrist. I’d rather be outside whispering anonymous messages into the wall, pretending to be a ghost. We sit down at a long table for our party of twelve. My mother directs me to sit next to my sister, despite my protests. She meets my father and the other adults at the far end of the table.

Soon platters of oysters arrive in ice baths on freezing aluminum plates. My scrunched-up nose signals my mother to come over. I smell her perfume again as she reaches down between us to grab an oyster. She teaches me and my sister how to eat them. Pick up a nice juicy one, holding the ugly, bumpy underside with one hand. Use the little fork to detach the meat from the slick, pearly interior. Squeeze some lemon juice on it and drip on some cocktail sauce. Slurp in, chew a little, swallow.

“Go ahead, try it.”

I watch my mother demonstrate the final step. I watch the other adults indulge. I want to be like them, in the city doing fancy, sophisticated things. I need to live up to the genius and aesthetic of the city planted above my head. I am in its roots; I have to act like it. I tilt my head back and try to swallow as fast as I can. I taste acid combined with the salty water of the lower Hudson. It has the consistency of snot and is about to slide down my throat. I think of pearls and Aphrodite, as I’ve been told oysters are an aphrodisiac, though I thought that was just related to the goddess. I think of the famous constellated ceiling a hundred feet above my head, then through the ceiling, through its admirers gazing upward, and I wonder where Venus is on the celestial map. I think of Manhattan like a grimy pearl, rising out of the polluted harbor seafoam along with the skyline, and I want to rise too. I forget to chew, but I manage to keep the oyster down. We find our way back home to our place on the bumpy shell. I get used to my suburban shell. I get used to the smell.

Comfort is slow and all-consuming. At fifteen, I’m growing. My legs grow longer, my arteries stretch, and I ache. “Stand up straight” becomes my mother’s most common refrain. My height becomes a constant shifting with the command of her words. Perspectives shift in puberty, along with posture. At some point, I begin to value space over potential discomfort. And New York City is crowded. The novelty of the LED screens of Time Square gives way to the smell of piss and exhaust. The crystal ball that drops every New Year’s stops being crystal. The thought of people looking at me strangely for looking up at expanses of glass windows becomes more painful than missing out or the strain in my neck. The heights of civilization become a hassle to climb, the view stops mattering when my suburban bed is soft.

My mother pushes me. I try to oblige. I join Model UN, representing Jamaica—the country, not Queens—and spend an April weekend in New York. The hotel is large and in Midtown. We ride the train into Grand Central and I watch the floor tiles go by underfoot, conscious to not look up like all the tourists. I wear baggy jeans and a brown sweatshirt that I wear every day to school. I carry a blue duffle bag of dress shirts and an ill-fitting blazer as naturally as I can, trying to live up to the mystique of the city despite my resentment, my weak attempt to blend in. Architecture, no matter how grand, can only hide people for so long.

We get to the hotel where the convention is being held, and it’s just tall, nothing more. Each meeting I attend has a silent Jamaica. I go to meetings in windowless rooms with other teenagers who are driven to engage. I’m adamant in keeping quiet for two days. I eat gyros from a Zagat rated food stand with a wooden structure and plexiglass door to make it a restaurant, not confident enough to go beyond a hundred feet from the hotel. I’m embarrassed of the fancy suit I’m wearing. The velcro of the wallet I have never used before grates on my ears even more than the car horns. It’s nighttime, but the city refuses to get dark. Streetlights, buildings, everything lights up, exposing, rendering all of me in full color. The buildings are not artistic expressions of modernity anymore; they are slabs of concrete and rebar, blocking out the moon and stars. The wind follows the streets as artificial channels, and it blows around my brown waves of hair.

I find it hard to breathe in a space so disassociated. People walk in their own directions, no eye contact, just existing in the same space. The buildings do not waver like me as they rise. The air itself is forced to be there, to enter my lungs. I’m partaking in it: the burden of the practical, running from expression. The anxiety tastes sour. I take my gyro and go back inside the hotel. I miss my home. I miss my mother.

“How was it, Honey?” my mother asks, embracing me at Croton-Harmon once we get back. I look in her hazel eyes.

“It was great,” I lie. It is functional.

Walking in New York City is always touristic, a voyeuristic sensation from looking into a world that isn’t mine. No matter how logical the gridlines or how enthusiastically I greet the apathy of the city, it seems foreign. The edges are so sharp, the spires ready to pierce the sky. Architecture caught between opulence of Beaux Arts and Art Deco and Modernist all at odds with one another; the first ingrained in the wealth of the past, the second caught up in the industrial aspirations of the Interwar, the third obsessed with form that follows function. A place where the MetLife Building seems to grow out from Grand Central like an opportunistic weed.

I’m used to houses with faux wood siding and rough gray shingles next to a smattering of trees. I’m used to the sugar maple in front of my home that drops leaves to rake, and the beige vinyl that’s shown off to disorganized, calm roads I can navigate like nothing. I get lost on grids. My frame of mind is bound by the extraordinary ordinary, unsettled by places where sculptures grow like trees, the sky is held up by rooftops, and the basements aren’t pitch black subways or oyster bars.

Six years later, I am doing laundry in my basement and I heft overstuffed hampers over the clutter. Boxes of Old Navy snow pants many sizes too small, a couple of tires next to the boiler, crates of my mother’s crafting supplies (needles, multitudes of multi-color threads, cutesy stamps with associated ink, scrapbooks, pieces of wood), a knitted rainbow scarf I haven’t worn since I was eight draped over a wooden rafter, the pantry where we keep cans of baked beans, more and more things.

The riffraff creates an aisle just wide enough to shuffle to the washer and dryer as my bare feet are sanded by concrete. I knock into a picture frame, and it falls forward. I didn’t know there were any paintings down here. Setting the laundry basket down on the dingy blue rug in front of the washing machine, I turn around, eyebrows raised and jaw slack. I never noticed the frame and its contents before. I pick it up.

It is a painting. No, it’s flatter and cleaner than anything that could be created by brush strokes. It is more of a framed poster, but matte without the high gloss. My eyes attach to the only spot of distinct color—a golden orange in a sea of blues and blacks—which runs up the plumage of a woman’s headdress. What appears to be feathers, mostly orange but with accents of purple, are so large they might’ve come from a mythical bird deity. The feathers curve from well below her hip back up to her head as she leans back, well aware of her grace. Her skin is pure white, her eyes more smudged dots of shadow than any realized form, and there’s a little rouge on her lips. Her face, however, pales in the presence of what she wears. Once I follow the headdress up to her face, I see her dress: a patterned black broken up by gray into irregular scales. It is like a robe enveloping her, only the nape of her neck and right shoulder are exposed—sultry. It takes me a second to see the panther’s head. The dress is a hide, the head forming more or less a belt, and the fangs a buckle. My eyes follow the dress down to where paws were dragging behind her obscured frame. White, horizontal lines overlay a perfect blue gradient for the background—indigo on the bottom, powder blue at the top. It doesn’t occur to me until later that the artist’s perspective is behind the woman, as she swaggers up the gradient staircase at some kind of high fashion gala, walking away from me. A vision of the Art Deco.

It’s a serigraph: a type of print that utilizes silk to transfer color. Which is appropriate considering the focus on fashion. Thoughts beyond staring are lost on me, though, all I can do is contemplate. In my nearly twenty years of living in this house, in the dried-out suburbs of New York, New York—of the mother city—at home is the farthest thing from what I feel in my basement now. I feel underdressed as I navel gaze at the visage, naked in my dark blue basketball shorts, white T-shirt, and uncombed hair. My slouch is heavy as I hold the woman up at arm’s length.

It smells like damp wood in the basement. Though I’ve never seen her before, I feel like I have. There’s an aesthetic of unabashed appreciation for the self, the human form, and the balance with function, something I devalued somewhere along my way. It is clear and near and muted. Distant but comforting. I take the woman, in her frame. I walk back over the exposed concrete, through the clutter, up the tarnished cream-colored steps.

“Mom, have you seen this?”

Art Deco is about access. Like the serigraph in my basement, mass-produced. Art Deco arose alongside industrialization, alongside the rise of capitalism. Magazine covers pushed out serigraphs en masse as a means to connect with people, even ones outside or tangential to the art world.

Fashion, in particular, is a vehicle to appeal to people who wanted artistry in a functional medium. Art Deco’s aesthetic is clear, lines and curves, with obvious subject matter. It’s caught between the practical and the aesthetic. A blend of form and function.

But excitement and economies grow stable after world wars. Form, creativity for its own sake, is lost. Art Deco morphs into the modernist movement. Architecture captures the essence best with its axiom: “form follows function.” Buildings like the Twin Towers, hailed as “filing cabinets” unrelenting in their commitment to run-of-the-mill, straight-edge capitalism, no access through beauty. It became the norm for city centers and skyscrapers; no new Chrysler Buildings. But the Chrysler Building’s spire still flares out like a dress from a serigraph. The aesthetic, however ornamental, still exists.

I’m seeing a Broadway show, Wicked, with my sister six months or so after meeting the Art Deco woman. We pass the outer side of Thirty Rockefeller Center, the skyscraper across from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It extends into the sky at right-angle steps forming stairways to the gods flanking a central block. As the sides of the building reach the top, they increase in frequency, mimicking a low-resolution logarithmic curve. From afar or a bird’s eye view, it appears to be carved, curving into a smooth, aerodynamic fin for the island of Manhattan, made up by skinny rectangular prisms—a mixed form between straight lines and sweeping curves. Some office space is sacrificed in the name of sculpture. 1939; Firm Art Deco.

At the base, staring down the Gothic Revival cathedral, stands Atlas—cast in bronze—along Fifth Avenue. I look up at the statue. He holds up the heavens, a stellar globe reduces to four rings wrapping around each other. I think of my mother’s necklace. Entire solar systems rests on the backs of the titan cursed to hold up the sky. Skyscrapers are condemned to the same fate, pushing against gravity, resisting the irresistible. Forward progress in the name of greatness.

What must it be like to struggle with the weight of the world? New York City holds up the excellence of a species in a sphere of intense proximity but is burdened by unfamiliarity. Suburbia—below the city—supports the polis by providing a foundation, as the base of Thirty Rockefeller tapers out behind the statue. Each identical house is a new world held up by families. An oyster presenting a pearl. A mother carrying her child.

Man builds up the geography, the context, and struggles against it. The artificial and the natural conflict in waterways and landscapes, each yearning to take over or reclaim the other. The sky is heavy, heavier than buildings and cities. Function crushes creativity; efficiency overtakes aesthetic. But in art, in Art Deco, the context of a modernizing world in its infancy mixes with realities of engineering. Art Deco, like New York, like Suburbia, like me, comes to be characterized by the tension of contexts. Tension defines art forms, places. Art Deco: a transition between prosperity and ambition for more. New York: a single point of geography turned crossroads of the world made of concrete and dreams. Suburbia: a tourist in the shadow of Atlas. Me: my mother’s son who was overwhelmed by even that. I straighten my back, turn, and run after my sister. Atlas strains against the weight of the globe behind me.

Daniel Fleischman is a senior at SUNY Geneseo. He studies creative writing and biology because he believes salamanders are worth writing about, too. At home in Ossining, New York, he can be found running into spiderwebs as he daydreams in nature preserves or admiring his pet cocker spaniel between budget horror movies.

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Four Lessons Joining the Gandy Dancer Team Will Teach You

Posted by Jennifer Taylor Johnson, GD Fiction Reader for 6.2

Whether your passion is writing and editing or you’re just looking for a class to fit your schedule in the fall, being a member of the Gandy Dancer team is not a decision you will regret. Joining the Gandy Dancer team is more than a grade on your transcript, it dedicating hard work and time into assembling the school’s literary journal and learning important life lessons along the way. Don’t believe me? Here are four lessons you will learn by being a reader for The Gandy Dancer. Continue reading

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Jennifer Galvão


The place where the miracles happened is totally paved over. Everything is clean and painted white – probably for viewing purposes. You couldn’t miss a miracle, standing out against all the white. I try to imagine how it must have been in 1917, but all I have to go on are the pictures from the pamphlets, printed in fifteen different languages – Welcome to Fatima.

As a child, this was always my favorite religious story; the luminous lady who appeared on the thirteenth day of every month in the Cova da Iria fields. I liked that the Virgin Mary had appeared in Portugal, where my dad was from. I liked that she had appeared to children. I liked the smallness and dirtiness of the shepherd children, with their baleful orphan eyes and their musical names – Jacinta, Francisco, Lucia. I used to mouth their names and study their picture, printed on a laminated prayer card – two young girls and a boy in black and white, very young. I guess I thought it would mean more to me than it does.

Towering fifty feet above our heads is a modern, stylized crucifix made of red plastic. Lego Jesus on His Lego Cross (cross sold separately). We stand and look at it for a while. If it’s meant to inspire something in me, it doesn’t succeed.

Cutting through all the white concrete is a path of dark gray tile, very smooth. People travel along it on their knees in scattered, shuffling clumps. Some carry rosary beads. Others wear kneepads. You can follow their slow progress down the concrete slope, around the chapel, and up to the sanctuary. We watch them knee painfully past us, lips moving silently.

My brother doesn’t believe me when I tell him that some of these people have walked here from their homes, hundreds of miles away, but my dad confirms my story.

“They come from all over Portugal,” Dad says. “They walk and then when they reach Fatima, they go on their knees. Your grandmother came once when she was younger.”

“Is that why Vóvó’s knees are so messed up?”

“No,” Dad says. “That’s just because she’s old.”

After we pray in the chapel, we wait on a long line to buy waxy, overpriced candles. There’s a woman begging amid the candles. Dad hands her a couple Euros. It’s a good place to beg, he concedes. Prime real estate.

Another line, then, in front of an enormous pyre of open flame. We wait our turn to step forward, hold our hands above the heat, and touch our wicks to the candles already burning there. Then I find an open slot to wedge my candle in amid the others, leave it to melt stringy and white into the fire.

You are supposed to stop and say a prayer, but I am being crowded and my brother’s candle won’t light, so I have to help him, and then we are moving away from the pyre.

I wonder if they collect the melted wax and use it to make new candles, recycling people’s offerings to the fire. I don’t know if that’s how wax works, and I don’t ask. I like the idea, the circularity of it. It makes me feel filled up in a way the rest of this place doesn’t.


We’ve come to Portugal because my grandparents can’t come home.

Or maybe that’s me being egocentric. Maybe their home is Portugal. My father was born there. When he was a baby, they moved to America without him. He followed later, once they were settled, and Portugal followed them, too. It lingered in the dim, wood-paneled kitchen that always smelled like foreign food. The hanging glass lamp that rattled when low-flying airplanes from LaGuardia passed by overhead. The crinkly, plastic-covered couches. The heavy accents. The tilde over the a in our last name.

Probably, they missed it. That’s something I’ve never thought about before. Once they retired, they started spending the summers in Portugal. Five years ago, they went to spend the summer and found that they couldn’t come back. The doctors said it wasn’t a good idea. My grandpa’s Alzheimers is too heavy to carry across an ocean. So now we are coming to them.

Murtosa is a small town on the coast. The roads are twisty, storybook-narrow. Everything is tiled and patterned and bright. The last time we visited, my grandparents were only there for the summer. I was ten and terrorized by the huge number of stray dogs roaming the little farm town. I was scared to leave the gated yard. Now, I dread having to go inside.

I am afraid to see what’s happened to my grandpa. Even before they left, before he got so bad, I didn’t like to be around him. I felt embarrassed for him. It felt wrong to nod at his senseless, circular stories and feign interest— humoring him like a child. That was five years ago. I think we are all expecting the worst.

Dad calls it our Portuguese pessimism – expect the worst, and at least you’re never disappointed. Mourn when the boats go out, in the event that they don’t come back.

“It’s the kind of trip you have to take sometimes,” Mom tells us in the airport. “It will mean so much to your grandma.”

Mom is always looking for moral lessons to deliver. She tackles the world like a scholar annotating a classic novel, pulling out major themes and underlining significant exchanges. Usually I understand it; I am always trying to make things mean more than they do. This time I quietly wish that she wouldn’t voice her reluctance. I would prefer to pretend that this is a pleasure trip, sixteen days spent in the home my Dad grew up in. It’s fifteen minutes from the beach. That’s what I tell my friends. Not the rest of it.


As we sit on the beach, fifteen minutes from the house, Dad points to a buoy out in the water, near the horizon. If you drew a line straight across the ocean, he says, we’d hit the Jersey Shore. This is an ocean we know. We’re just on the wrong side of it.

We watch an old, brightly-colored fishing boat come back to shore, dragging an enormous net behind it beneath the surf. That’s something I like about Portugal – history is so physically present. We walk along the waterline to watch the boat come ashore because Dad says it’s worth seeing.

The sea starts to sizzle with panicked life, silver bright, as a tractor wearies its way towards the dunes, pulling the boat up the beach. The tractor grumbles and lows like the fleets of oxen that used to pull these nets ashore.

Overhead, a spiraling cumulus of seagulls is forming. My brothers yell and duck and throw stones at them, but they part and come together again, hungry. The tractor pulls the boat and the boat pulls a net, wriggling with life, up the shore.

Dad says that this used to be an incredibly dangerous job. Portuguese wives would stand on the shore in their mourning clothes, weeping and tearing their clothes as they waved their husbands off to sea, a kind of pre-mourning ritual. I imagine they hoped that the tears they shed, the clothes they rent, would stave off death for another day. I imagine their tears as food for a hungry thing, salt water offerings to the sea.

The fish come slithering up the shore, caught.


My grandfather isn’t as bad as I feared. Mostly he sits on a lawn chair in the open garage in his blue-striped pajamas, vacant but content. If you smile at him, he will smile back. It’s probably just instinct, but he likes it if you nod along as he speaks incoherent Portuguese. The only phrase I recognize is esta bien over and over again – it’s good.

I smile and nod and say, “Yeah. Bien.” When a fly lands on his arm, I shoo it away.

We sit for hours, him watching the clothesline sway in the wind, me watching the patch of skin between his socks and his blue pajama pants. I am mourning him before he has gone.

My grandma hangs laundry and picks lemons in the backyard. She limps badly, up and down the stairs, as she takes my grandpa to the bathroom. At night, I sit in the kitchen with her and watch her rub medication onto the swollen rounds of her knees. Their little brown dog runs the length of the driveway, back and forth, yapping furiously as two olive-skinned boys lead a horse down the street.

I like to be here. I am not as sad as I thought I would be. It’s only when I think about leaving that I feel sad, thinking about the two of them sitting side by side in their armchairs. Him talking nonsense as she rubs her knees, her cooking elaborate meals, then cutting the food into little bites for him, watching him eat in silence. He can’t leave the house and she can’t leave him alone, so they stay home now. I think she must be lonely.

My grandma’s English is still very good. She asks questions about college and shows me funny videos on Facebook. She marvels at how tall my brother David has gotten. She protests when my mom tries to do the dishes.

“Susan, you don’t come to do more work. This is your vacation.”

My mom dismisses this and starts soaping up a pan. “You work too hard already, Lucinda,” she says. “Relax for a couple minutes.”

Vóvó doesn’t put up a fight, which shows how much her legs must be hurting her. She peeks into the living room to make sure my grandfather is still in his armchair, watching a soccer game with my brothers. He mostly sits quietly, but when Ronaldo scores a goal and my brothers cheer, he does too. I wonder how much he is understanding, how much is muscle memory.

Mom is trying to convince Vóvó to get some help around the house. A neighbor already comes twice a week to do some cleaning and mind my grandfather while Vóvó runs to the grocery store, but Mom insists that she needs more help.

“What if you fall in the garden and can’t get help?” she asks. “What if Dad falls on the stairs? He’s too heavy for you to catch him. The doctor said you need to rest your knees or they won’t get better. How will you ever get any rest when you’re following him around all day? You can’t even leave the house.”

“I don’t mind work. I like to take care of him,” Vóvó says.

“You’ve got to take care of yourself, too,” Mom protests.

“Is not forever,” Vóvó says. “Then I will come home.”

She says that a lot. It surprised me the first time I heard it, the bluntness of it. She doesn’t say it sadly or hopefully. It’s just a fact. Her Portuguese pessimism. Things are deteriorating quickly. That’s the reason we’re here, after all, after five years of baseball schedules and college orientations and being too swamped at work to take off so much time.

There’s a noise from the living room. My little brother Eddie comes to the door. He’s wearing the Portuguese soccer jersey he bought at the market. He’s worn it every day since he bought it, despite our mockery.

“I think Vôvô needs to go to the bathroom,” he says, only twelve, a little bit embarrassed.

Vóvó gets to her feet, knees bending unwillingly.

“Let me,” Mom protests, but Vóvó shakes her head and limps to the door.

“Is not forever,” she says again.


There’s a little, glass gazebo built on the site where the apparitions are said to have occurred. It houses a small altar and a fleet of benches made of light colored wood. We find a free space to fit our sweaty, American bodies and then we sit. Mom prays. Maybe the rest of my family does, too. I don’t know for sure. To ask would be to betray myself. Surely if I really believed I wouldn’t be asking at all. Is this just muscle memory for you, too?

I put my head down, play-acting at something I don’t understand. I don’t pray, though I wish I could. I think I would find it comforting. But I am distracted – first by my brother’s fidgeting, then by the shhh-shhh sound of kneepads on the tile floor

I crack my eyes and watch an old man round the altar on his knees, back bowed, lips moving above his rosary beads. He moves slowly and with obvious effort. I wonder if these last few meters, the last bit of his crawling pilgrimage, are the easiest or the hardest part. I try to imagine how fervently and wholly you must believe in something to walk so far, to crawl on your knees across the white pavement, but it’s not something I can understand. So instead I think about how sore his knees must be.

When my brothers ask Vóvó about Fatima, her hand moves to her knee with a wince, like she’s remembering.

“I went with my church,” she says. “Your daddy was very sick when he was a baby. I prayed for him. I promised if he got well, I would make the trip to Fatima.”

We all look at Dad, surprised. He didn’t tell us that part. He grimaces.

“It worked,” he jokes.

“It works,” Vóvó agrees.

Jennifer Galvão is a junior at SUNY Geneseo, where she is studying English literature. She is enthusiastic about chocolate milk, dangly earrings, and the book Ella Enchanted. She is a Pisces, which explains a lot.

The Lie>>

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Making Decisions: How We Choose the Pieces We Choose

Posted by Cassidy Brighton, Gandy Dancer CNF Reader for 5.2

Making decisions on what gets published each semester in Gandy Dancer is not an easy task. With so many submissions and limited room within the magazine, the selection process can get intense.

This is my second semester working to create Gandy Dancer, and my second time working to choose the creative nonfiction pieces that will be published. Each time, we have had to make tough choices and have had tough conversations about what few pieces are going to get put into this semester’s journal. Continue reading

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Supporting Developing Artists with Italics Mine

Gandy Dancer's Review of SUNY Purchase's literary journal, Italics MinePosted by Gabi Garcia, GD Poetry Reader for 5.1

This semester as I was editing for the Gandy Dancer I got the opportunity to review the literary magazine from one of our sister schools, SUNY Purchase, the art school of the SUNY system. The phrase Italics Mine refers to using italics in a paper to emphasize a word or phrase in a quote to bring the reader’s attention to your point. I think I’ve overused this tactic a few times when I was a freshman, so I was pretty excited to see there were other folks who share my enthusiasm for emphasis. What I think is wonderful about this title is that it expresses that there are moments, words, images in our lives and environments that are emphasized by artists and are defining for them as artists (emphasis, much like this entire blog post, mine). Continue reading

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Why Don’t People Submit?: The Fear of Rejection

Posted by Cassidy Brighton, GD Creative Nonfiction Reader for 5.1

After intense publicity, and posters tacked to every corkboard on campus, emails sent to every English department across every SUNY, and personal texts, emails, tweets and more to promote the journal, you’d think the submissions would be flowing into Gandy Dancer. This is the first semester that I’ve worked behind the scenes on the creation of Gandy Dancer, but it’s obviously not the first time I’ve heard of the journal. For years now, I’ve been seeing and hearing the promotions for Gandy Dancer, but why haven’t I ever found myself drawn to the Submittable page before? Now that I have a new relationship with the magazine, I wonder what stopped me from submitting my work in the past and if the same thing is stopping other writers. Continue reading

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