English and Creative Writing
Professor Lynna Williams passed away July 29, 2017. We all miss her profoundly.
Lynna Williams is an associate professor English/Creative Writing specializing in fiction and nonfiction. She has an undergraduate degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, and an MFA in fiction from George Mason University. She has taught at Emory since 1990, the year Creative Writing became an undergraduate major. A former political reporter in Texas and Minnesota (and a stand-up comic), she was working as a political speechwriter in Minnesota when she began writing fiction. Her first short story, "Last Shift at the Mine," dealt with unemployment on the Minnesota Iron Range, and won a Loft-McKnight Award and a Loft Mentor Series Prize. Her short fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Lear's, The Oxford American, Crab Orchard Review, and other literary magazines. Her short story, "Sole Custody," was nominated by the Atlantic for the National Magazine Award in Fiction, and she was one of four writers featured in an Atlantic cover story on "New American Voices" in contemporary fiction. Five of her stories have been included in the "100 Other Distinguished Stories" list in the annual anthology, Best American Short Stories. Her collection, Things Not Seen and Other Stories, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. She has won the Dobie-Paisano Fellowship from the University of Texas and the Texas Institute of Letters. Her essays have won prizes from the Chattahoochee Review and the Bellingham Review, and anthologized in Sleeping with One Eye Open: A Survival Guide for Creative Women (UGA Press), From Mothers to Daughters: I've Always Meant to Tell You (Simon and Schuster), and other collections. Her book reviews appear in the Chicago Tribune. She is at work on a story collection, and an essay collection that grew out of a year teaching English to a group of Kurdish women in a small Georgia town.
Things Not Seen and Other Stories
From "Sole Custody," by Lynna Williams, originally published in The Atlantic and subsequently in the short story collection Things Not Seen and Other Stories, Little Brown & Co.
Anna is flying to Chicago to kidnap her ex-husband's Jay's new baby. She didn't know what to pack for this trip -- she does not know how long she will be gone or exactly where she will go when she has the child -- and the hanging bag she is dragging past the boarding gate to the airplane is swollen with too many sweaters and shoes. When she leaves Dallas on business for her law office, she is a no-nonsense "two dresses, one jacket, two blouses, one skirt" packer who takes pleasure in weaving in and out of more heavily burdened travelers. On the plane, Anna has to ask a young man wearing a baseball jersey to help her lift the bag into the overhead compartment before she sits down, feeling relieved that the evidence that she is not herself today has been safely hidden away. Before she fastens her seat belt, Anna stands up to look around the airplane. The flight isn't crowded for a Friday morning, and she sees only three children, little boys in Sunday suits, the oldest about nine. They must be traveling alone, and as she watches, the oldest reaches across the middle seat to wipe cracker crumbs from around the mouth of the smallest boy. The sweetness of it reaches her from a dozen rows back, and she turns her head. She is glad she has seen the boys so early in the trip, though, since she learned that it is the unexpected -- what she does not see coming -- that can pierce her heart.
Since her daughter, Katie, died, Anna has made a routine of this searching-out of the faces of children in public places. She looks directly at them, she registers that they are individual and alive, and she feel protected in some way from the unexpected shocks of recognition that once made it impossible for her to see any child without crying for Katie.
The plane is in the air now, and Anna settles back in her seat. She has not slept more than a few hours since this business with Jay started, four days ago, and she is tempted to let exhaustion take over for the two-hour flight to O'Hare. There will be time later to think about what she is going to do, she decides, and she works her head against the headrest, waiting for sleep to overtake her. She has only a second to prepare herself for the image rising before her. She and Katie are at the kitchen table in the old house on Turtle Creek. It is the summer before Katie got sick so she is five, and she has come home from nursery school so excited about her discovery of dinosaurs that Anna has to hold her against the overpowering joy of it.
"Slow down, squeaky, I can't understand what you're saying," Anna says when Katie is gathered in her lap.
Katie considers her mother's words; she is all eyes and mouth and impatience. "Mommy, I don't have time," she says, scrambling off Anna's lap in a run. She comes back into the kitchen with scissors and glue and every color of construction paper, and she and Anna make blue dinosaurs instead of dinner.
Anna opens her eyes. She is not going to be able to sleep, and she uncovers her mouth, where one hand has gone automatically at the sight of Katie feeding cheese to a grinning construction-paper beast.
Just over two years have passed since Katie' death, and Anna measures the time that way: two baseball seasons, two birthdays, two rounds of fall schoool clothes in Sanger's window downtown. There are times when Anna is deliberate in remembering her daughter, when she shuts out the world with no other purpose than to recall some piece of her past with Katie. At other times, thoughts of her daughter are like Muzak in Anna's mind: low-key and familiar but still capable of sudden melodic riffs, like the replay of Katie's voice calling from her bedroom, "Mommy? What can we use for its eyes? I need you, Mommy!"
Anna shakes her head to clear it, because the memories are too strong today and she does not want to think about Katie here, does not want to be a grieving mother reliving the past in a jet somewhere over Oklahoma. She has other things to think about, and she rights herself in the seat until she is sitting the way she does in court.